You are on page 1of 2

This essay discusses what Searle’s ‘Chinese Room’ argument is meant to illustrate and

shows how it succeeds in its aim. It does so by providing the historical perspective that
led up to Searle’s argument, describing the argument, and allaying its criticisms.
From 1600 to 1900 the prevailing view of the mind was that of Cartesian dualism [1].
According to Cartesian dualism, the essence of mind is immaterial consisting of the
various modes of thinking, while the essence of physical states is that they enjoy
extension. Cartesian dualism creates a problem of causality; namely, how can
something that is not physical, like a mental state, cause changes in the body which is
physical [2].
Identity Theory addresses causality by holding that mental states are exactly identical to
physical states. Touching a hot stove causes C-fibers to fire and the firing of C-fibers is
identical to the mental state of pain. However, Putman argued that mental states are
multiply realizable and different neuronal events, not all C-fiber firing, can correspond to
the mental state of pain [2].
Functionalism holds that physical states that are not identical equal to mental states, but
instead mental states are theoretical or functional states. If you touch a hot stove and
withdraw your hand, the mental state of pain is an internal theoretical state that is
causally implicated in the withdrawal of your hand. The input of environmental stimulus
causes the output of a behavior. What we call a mental state is the theory used to
explain the behavior. Accordingly, a Turing machine computer program [2] could be said
to have mental states, provided its behavior is indistinguishable from that of a person.
To illustrate a problem with Functionalism, Searle proposed the Chinese Room (CR)
thought experiment [2]. Imagine you are sealed in a room that has a slot. Occasionally
through the slot comes a piece of paper with symbols on it. You have a code-book and a
set of rules that tell you what symbol pattern you should copy onto that piece of paper
and post back through the slot. Unknown to you, outside of the room is a native speaker
of Chinese. This person is posting questions to you in Chinese and you are giving
coherent replies in Chinese, even though you do not know any Chinese.
Searle is pointing out that symbols have the physical property of shape (syntax) and the
semantic property of meaning. Computers operate on the syntactic property of symbols.
Like the person in the CR, computers do not know that the symbols also have meaning.
Because syntax is not sufficient for semantics, computer programs cannot produce
minds [3].
To the Functionalist, as long as a “thing” has something inside that is able to play the
functional role of a mental state, that “thing” is enjoying that mental state [1]. However,
in the CR, we have something that functions the way a mental state supposedly
functions, but that is not sufficient for it to enjoy that mental state. We have something
that functions as if it knows Chinese, but in fact does not know Chinese.
Criticisms of the CR often follow one of these three lines [3]. Firstly, it’s conceded that
the operator doesn’t understand Chinese, but; nevertheless, there could be
understanding from a different, larger entity. For example, a neuron may not understand
Chinese, but a network of neurons may.

The criticisms argue that the CR enjoys the mental state of knowing Chinese. the running of the CR creates something that does understand Chinese. http://www. some have argued that if it is not reasonable to attribute understanding on the basis of the behavior exhibited by the CR. Week 3 handout. http://plato.S. Finally. the taste of wine. In order to accept Functionalism we would have to eliminate qualia from our ontology [1].stanford. without having the conscious experience of knowing Chinese. but by running the program creates something that does. [3] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Marianne Talbot. then it would not be reasonable to attribute understanding to humans on the basis of similar behavioral evidence [3]. or the perceived redness of an evening sky [4]. Lavelle. for [2] Introduction to the Philosophy of the Mind. the property of qualia. http://en. and In conclusion. University of Edinburgh. These criticisms argue that the CR actually enjoys the mental state of knowing Chinese while lacking a property usually believed to be essential to a mental state. J.Secondly. The Chinese Room Argument. Searle’s thought experiment succeeds in its aim of uncovering a problem with Functionalism as a philosophy of the mind. The operator himself doesn’t understand Chinese. Minds. [1] A Romp through the Philosophy of the Mind. November 2011. April 2014. the pain of a .wikipedia. University of Oxford. Brains. Qualia is an instance of conscious experience. January [4] Wikipedia.