John Searle's 'Chinese room' argument

The following sample essay on John Searle’s ‘Chinese room’ argument attempts to explain the difference between working machines and the human mind. Let us imagine that an English speaking man who knows no other language has been put in a small room. On the wall is a letter box and on the floor is a book of rules and a note pad. Every so often a piece of paper with Chinese writing is passed through the letterbox. The rulebook explains how to process the writing, it tells the man to copy certain characters onto the note pad.

Thebook gives a code informing the man what should be written according to what is on the paper initially sent through the letter box.

Once he has decoded the message he sends the reply back through the letterbox as an answer to the questions he received, obeying the rules contained in the book. As time goes by the man becomes more and more accomplished at his job.

To a Chinese onlooker it would seem that the person in the room was a fluent Chinese speaker. Searle compares the activity of this man to the activity of a machine or computer. The man did not need to understand the Chinese to be able to give a perfect answer. In this way the computer does not understand or comprehend what it is doing, it only processes information.

Searle said that the man (and hence machine) lacked ‘intentionality’ and possessed only a syntactical ability as opposed to a semantic one.

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This means that the machine is unable to be aware of the meaning of the information it processes even though it uses correct grammar to communicate with. Simply producing output in response to input according to certain rules does not constitute human thought. Searle uses this argument to refute the so-called ‘Strong Artificial Intelligence’ position of some thinkers who believe that computer language does more than just represent human thought (via programming); rather, it really is human thought.

A thought experiment arguing against Searle’s reasoning and supporting Strong AI is the Turing test. Alan Turing, who helped develop the first modern computers, claimed that in future years it could be possible to create a machine that had a mind. Turing imagined the following: There is an interrogator, a machine and a person. The interrogator is positioned in a separate room to the machine and the person. The person and machine are labelled either x or y, the interrogator is unaware which is x and which is y. The interrogator must ask x and y questions, his aim is to guess which is the machine and which is the person.

The aim of the machine is to make the interrogator guess that the person is in fact the machine; the objective for the person is to help cause the interrogator to guess correctly. Turing believed that in the future it would be quite conceivable for a machine to trick the interrogator more than seventy percent of the time. Turing believed that this proved machines were capable of thinking. The problem with this argument is that just because the computer is capable of fooling the interrogator into believing it is human does not directly correspond to the conclusion that the machine is a thinking thing.

It seems more likely that the computer has merely been programmed with the correct answers to use and in reality has no understanding of what his answers actually mean. Professor Jefferson argued, “Not until a machine can write a sonnet or compose a concerto because of thoughts and emotions felt, and not by the chance fall of symbols, could we agree that machine equals brain-that is, not only write it but know that it had written it.

No mechanism could feel (and not merely artificially signal, an easy contrivance) pleasure at its successes, grief when its valves fuse, be warmed by flattery, be made miserable by its mistakes, be charmed by sex, be angry or depressed when it cannot get what it wants. “3 Having awareness and knowledge of the content and meaning of thought is what Searle describes as ‘intentionality’ and is a feature of human thinking which machines could never replicate because of their very nature as fabricated, artificial entities.

In conclusion, I feel that it seems impossible for machines to ever have minds. The mind appears to be a purely metaphysical thing that could not be transplanted into a machine. Furthermore the process that a machine goes through is not thought but programming. Everything the machine knows comes from the maker. To say that machines have minds is like saying that even if an evil daemon controlled and planted every thought in our heads, we would still be free thinking beings with conscious minds.

Personally I find it hard to conceive the monist approach, though some attempts are made to explain the mind from a monist perspective, which nonetheless gives the mind a special position that could not merely be recreated by fabricated, artificial machines. Such an approach is taken by those who see the mind as an ’emergent property’ of the physical composition of the body (specifically brain). A single molecule of water could not be wet or hot or cold; it is only on combining with many millions of molecules in a complex bundle that properties emerge that we associate with water.

So with the mind – our freedom and intentionality emerge from the very complex arrangement of our organic bodies, which are unique to humans and animals and could not be shared by machines. For most people using an argument from common sense it feels that our minds are free and unattached to our physical bodies. I therefore conclude that a purely physical man-made machine can never have a real mind of its own. And thus in reality it would make it impossible for James the Red Engine’s “thought”4 and emotions to actually exist.

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John Searle's 'Chinese room' argument. (2017, Nov 20). Retrieved from

John Searle's 'Chinese room' argument
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