A Critique of “The Chinese Room”

4 November, 2010 § Leave a comment

John Searle’s 1980 paper “Minds, Brains, and Programs” (Searle 1980) and subsequent papers by Searle are collectively known as “The Chinese Room Arguments”. They were the first papers to differentiate between strong and weak AI. Searle provided a counter-argument to those seeking artificial intelligence through his reasoning that computers are not demonstrating intelligence because computers rely on a set of formal syntax and finite symbols. In this argument, he argued that weak AI is no different than any other program following instructions.

To formalize, weak AI is defined as “the assertion that machines could act as if they were intelligent”, whereas strong AI is defined as “the assertion that machines could act because they are actually thinking and not simulating” (Russell and Norvig). Using these definitions, if a computer does not understand than it is not a mind, and thus representing weak AI, not strong AI.

Comparing this with A.M. Turing’s 1950 paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, Searle ignores what Turing calls his “polite convention” (Turing). Turing’s “polite convention” is such that one should trust anothers thought process and only verify the conclusions that are reached. An example of this is a student learning a second natural language. They may first learn some rules about the language, and when asked a question in the respective language they may take extra time to formalize those rules and derive a response. It is of the questioner to be polite and trust that the student has not memorized the question and answer pair, nor that the questioner has a problem with the student learning a couple rules to help with the language adoption.

One of the strongest rebuttals is the Systems Reply. In Searle’s initial argument, he states that if the human does not understand and the paper does not understand, no understanding exists. This argument relies on intuition and is not grounded well. The reply states that the view of the entire system from the outside does however represent understanding. A contradiction of Searle’s argument would be as simple as explaining that neither H nor 2O can make an object wet, yet together they have a new ability (Russell and Norvig). Applying the argument in the opposite direction, Russell and Norvig question if the brain is any different than the Chinese room. They state that the brain is just a pile of cells acting blindly according to laws of biochemistry, and so what is different about these cells compared to those of the liver?

I shall finish this critique by mentioning Searle’s four axioms (Searle 1990). Axioms 1 and 2 are provided to draw a clear separation between computers and brains. Axiom 1 states that computers are syntactic, but it is well known that computers are also manipulated by electrical current. It is also well known that the human brain is manipulated through electrical current, thus should not brains be syntactic as well? If brains are syntactic like computers are, then Axiom 3 cannot hold.


Russell, Stuart, and Peter Norvig. “Philosophical Foundations.” Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2010. pp. 1020-1040.
Searle, John. 1980. “Minds, Brains, and Programs”. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3, pp. 417-424.
Searle, John. 1990. “”Is the Brain’s Mind a Computer Program?”. Scientific American. 262: 26-31.
Turing, A.M. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”. Mind, New Series, Vol. 59, No. 236. (Oct., 1950), pp. 446.


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