Minds and Machines

, Volume 16, Issue 2, pp 163–183 | Cite as

The logic of Searle’s Chinese room argument

Original Paper


John Searle’s Chinese room argument (CRA) is a celebrated thought experiment designed to refute the hypothesis, popular among artificial intelligence (AI) scientists and philosophers of mind, that “the appropriately programmed computer really is a mind”. Since its publication in 1980, the CRA has evoked an enormous amount of debate about its implications for machine intelligence, the functionalist philosophy of mind, theories of consciousness, etc. Although the general consensus among commentators is that the CRA is flawed, and not withstanding the popularity of the systems reply in some quarters, there is remarkably little agreement on exactly how and why it is flawed. A newcomer to the controversy could be forgiven for thinking that the bewildering collection of diverse replies to Searle betrays a tendency to unprincipled, ad hoc argumentation and, thereby, a weakness in the opposition’s case. In this paper, treating the CRA as a prototypical example of a ‘destructive’ thought experiment, I attempt to set it in a logical framework (due to Sorensen), which allows us to systematise and classify the various objections. Since thought experiments are always posed in narrative form, formal logic by itself cannot fully capture the controversy. On the contrary, much also hinges on how one translates between the informal everyday language in which the CRA was initially framed and formal logic and, in particular, on the specific conception(s) of possibility that one reads into the logical formalism.


Chinese room argument Modal logic Philosophy of mind Strong AI Thought experiments 


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I am indebted to David Atkinson, Alan Bundy, Martin Bunzl, Jack Copeland, Robert French, Sören Häggqvist, Stevan Harnad, Kieron O’Hara, Jeanne Peijnenburg, Adam Prügel-Bennett, Nigel Shadbolt and Aaron Sloman for critical comments on this paper, which helped me to improve it in clarity and presentation. These acknowledgements should not be taken to imply endorsement of the content.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Electronics & Computer ScienceUniversity of SouthamptonSouthamptonUK

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