One response to Searle's Chinese room argument is that the room has a virtual mind.

From Wikipedia's article on the Chinese room: "Minsky argues, a computer may contain a "mind" that is virtual in the same sense as virtual machines, virtual communities and virtual reality."

Searle responds: "No one supposes that computer simulations of a five-alarm fire will burn the neighborhood down or that a computer simulation of a rainstorm will leave us all drenched."

In an interview he also says: "Consciousness is a biological property like digestion or photosynthesis. Now why isn’t that screamingly obvious to anybody who’s had any education?"

Maybe I am missing something but it doesn't seem at all obvious to me. For example: it seems totally plausible that some people on Stack Exchange are p-zombies. (They have all the physical/biological properties of humans but no consciousness) It doesn't seem like we'd be able to tell the difference.

If telling the difference between people and p-zombies is difficult, why does Searle insist that consciousness is "obviously" physical? If consciousness is "obviously" physical, how does Searle propose we can tell the difference between people and p-zombies?

  • You can see Neil Manson, Consciousness, into Barry Smith (editor), John Searle, Cambridge UP (2003), page 128 as well as John Searle's books on mind. Jul 5, 2017 at 8:22
  • As an opinion piece: I feel Searle had already made up his mind that no other possibility could be true, and thus is surprised that anyone else doesn't arrive at the same conclusion. For example, to Searle's first reply, I'd point out that nobody assumes that me daydreaming about doing something nefarious like murdering an old high school bully will result in a homicide investigation, but the daydreaming of several high velocity trading computers can disrupt a market so thoroughly that we have to have "circuit breakers" in place to catch them.
    – Cort Ammon
    Jul 5, 2017 at 22:18
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    It must be perfectly obvious to everybody that consciousness is not physical. Does he mean it has a physical cause? If so that would be very odd, a material cause for an immaterial phenomenon. I feel it's best to just accept that philosophy is our universities is hopeless and not take much notice of it.
    – user20253
    Jul 6, 2017 at 11:07
  • "No one supposes that computer simulations of a five-alarm fire will burn the neighborhood down" -- he's never played SimCity.
    – Dave
    Jul 6, 2017 at 13:11
  • If your comment about p-zombies on Stack Exchange is not just an ad-hominem jibe, perhaps you could justify your claim that it is totally plausible, as that may provide a clue as to what aspects of Searle's statements you feel are paradoxical or mutually contradictory.
    – sdenham
    Apr 3, 2018 at 22:08

3 Answers 3


I think a key difficulty is that different people mean different things by the prefix "virtual." For some people (I think Searle is one of them or close to being one), virtual means simulated -- that is fake, not achieving the real thing. For other people "virtual" means occurring digitally or something like that. And I think there are cases where we would all fall in with Searle but after that lots of cases where people differ.

Consider the argument if we replace the word "virtual" with fake or even with a "special effect" or "picture of"

We would get "fake fires -- even really big fake fires don't burn down buildings" and "special effect made to simulate 5-alarm fires are not five alarm fires by definition."

Moving to the next one, if we take "virtual community" to mean a community that is inadequate to the definition of community -- but simulates some of its features, then obviously we'd think this is not enough. Conversely, if you take "virtual community" to be real community that happens virtually rather than in person, then it seems quite a bit different.

Again, "virtual reality" means a few different things in the same way. Is it DOOM? It it oculus rift? is it deeply immersive? Does it challenge our ideas about what reality it is -- is it/does it feel/appear real to just the same extent (Matrix and thousands of other movies)?

Restructured into the argument in question, I think there's some ships going past each other.

Searle's version:

  1. Minsky: can't the entire room function as a virtual mind.
  2. [Searle: virtual = ersatz, not having the actual function]
  3. Searle: of course not, because ersatz things cannot have real effects.

Minsky's version:

  1. Minsky: can't the entire room function as a virtual mind.
  2. [Minsky: virtual = it's a mind but not the same hardware / setup as human minds]
  3. Searle: Of course not, because ersatz things cannot have real effects
  4. [Minsky: what does that have to do with what I'm claiming? !!! I'm not saying it's not a mind by calling it a virtual mind. I'm saying it minds but not physically]

Maybe to summarize Searle's Chinese Room argument in the most basic form: even if the room produces correct answers, there's no thinking going on there, and thus no mind. The entire room doesn't engage in thinking and there can't really be "virtual thinking" on top of no thinking.

Two Caveats:

  1. I don't work in philosophy of mind, but this is my impression from reading your confusion and my sense of how the Chinese Room objection works.

  2. My point here is not to endorse Searle but to explain where I think a lot of confusion is coming from with respect to this issue. I am not asking you to agree but rather just to recognize that if the terms mean what I'm suggesting they do for Searle, that there's a coherence to Searle's position. Whereas if you don't take the terms to mean that, then Minsky's position looks a lot more attractive.

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    Thank you for taking the time to respond! I've read your answer carefully but I'm not sure I understand. Suppose Searle says "Of course not, because ersatz things cannot have real effects!" and Minsky replies "yes, but what real effects does consciousness produce?" how would Searle respond?
    – clmn
    Jul 6, 2017 at 5:54
  • I think your comment either means you don't understand my answer or don't have a question that's answerable in the SE format. If we assume the former, then the normal understanding is that one of the effects of consciousness is the non-accidental ability to create meaning (like the odd fact that your comment happens to be a grammatical English sentence and the odd fact that mine is as well).
    – virmaior
    Jul 6, 2017 at 6:57
  • wouldn't our sentences each be grammatically correct english even if the world were filled with p-zombies? how does consciousness factor into whether a sentence is grammatical English?
    – clmn
    Jul 6, 2017 at 7:00
  • so then is your question whether searle thinks P-zombies are plausible? Because I would assume from other commitments of his, his answer is no.
    – virmaior
    Jul 6, 2017 at 7:02
  • Or maybe to word it another way, I take it that there's three choices on p-zombies: (1) p-zombies are impossible for other reasons, (2) p-zombies are impossible because being able to do these things just is consciousness, or (3) p-zombies are possible and pose a problem for understanding consciousness. If you are in camp (2), then Chinese room proves nothing, because being able to produce the correct responses is consciousness. (see maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/powerblogsarchive/2005/05/…)
    – virmaior
    Jul 6, 2017 at 7:05

I don't think he claims you can tell the difference

I think his argument is more by definition.

so, photosynthesis is a physical process, we can simulate it exactly, but that simulation still isn't actual photosynthesis. We could even make physical objects that look exactly like plants controlled by computers that simulate photosynthesis in a way we can't tell any difference from other plants. But still ,actual photosynthesis didn't happen.

I think Searle is arguing the same thing for Consciousness.

But I think it's only "obvious" based on a murky understanding of what consciousness is, we don't have a good definition of what it is as a physical process, so I'm not sure if anything is really obvious at all.

  • But if there's no measurable difference between humans and p-zombies, then doesn't that mean that consciousness is not at all measurable? How can something that is not at all measurable be considered physical or biological?
    – clmn
    Jul 6, 2017 at 6:00
  • well, still doesn't alter the truth? red pill or blue pill :) Jul 6, 2017 at 7:29

The Chinese room argument is very fascinating, but it is not remotely decisive, because as close as we get to what's going on in the Chinese room “AI”, something may escape the in(tro)spection of the human interpreter of the “Chinese question answering” program – and exactly what we miss may be the elusive “mental content” (intentionality).

Later, when Searle had thought about the issue more deeply, he came up with far stronger, indeed devastating, – though more “boring” – arguments which can be found in his paper “Is the Brain a Digital Computer?”, mainly section IV.

Now why does Searle think that consciousness is “obviously” physical? He never gave us a satisfying answer to this question!

Searle is, for all the evidence we have, a great influential and original1 philosopher, but still a confused one.

He is able to make interesting and extremely strong arguments, but sometimes his views just lack justification and he doesn't really care! He may even admit the flaws in his argumentation, like that the analogy between solidity and consciousness as physical macro-properties is very questionable (because solidity is, contrary to consciousness, readily 3rd person-observable, exactly like the micro-structure of the body – so no solution to the p-zombie argument or the hard problem of consciousness is in sight here), but for whatever reason still sticks to it.

Searle is a philosopher who readily grants that “[t]he property dualist and I are in agreement that consciousness is ontologically irreducible”, but still doesn't bother to give a good reason – it's probably obvious that his arguments (for example in his essay “Why I Am Not a Property Dualist”) are unpersuasive for anyone with some philosophical maturity (see here) – why the obvious conclusion that some form of dualism is unavoidable, does not follow.

Why Searle sometimes works so sloppily is unanswerable, of course. But he does.

1 I think that we can all grant him that. Many arguments he put forward are novel, not easily refutable and have attracted a lot attention.

PS: I don't have time to put “IMHO” in every sentence, so of course there is personal bias in this post.

  • Many philosophers are at their best when critiquing the arguments of others -- rather than making their own arguments -- we can see this at least as far back as Plato.
    – virmaior
    Jul 7, 2017 at 1:50
  • Can you elaborate on why you think someone who is "sloppy", whose views "lack justification", who "doesn't bother to give good reasons", whose arguments are "unpersuasive" and who nonetheless sticks doggedly to these ideas is a "great philosopher", not just in your personal opinion but apparently by "all the evidence we have"?
    – user22791
    Jul 7, 2017 at 4:46
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    @Isaacson and of course “great philosopher” is subjective – what else? This “for all the evidence we have” was a bit tongue-in-cheek, obviously. Think of “original, influential philosopher”. He probably has a shady character, which alone may disqualify him from being a “great philosopher” for some people (personally I try to distinguish professional achievements from character). And then those people who think that everything he said is deeply wrong (though they struggle to refute him), may agree on “original, influential” but still think he's just massively overrated.
    – viuser
    Jul 7, 2017 at 6:38
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    @Isaacson I didn't write that Searle is always sloppy, his views always lack justification, all his arguments are unpersuasive, etc. But sometimes it's the case and then seriously (that's what most of the commentariat agrees on). Some of Searle's arguments are nevertheless very original and challenging. He opened new vistas of thought instead of just refining old stuff. That's pretty objective if you look at the discussion those arguments spawned.
    – viuser
    Jul 7, 2017 at 6:50
  • I'm afraid I still have no idea what you're talking about, you seem to have just rewritten the general tone of your answer in comments, which is that Searle's not that good but he's had a few original ideas. My Grandma's had a few original ideas, that still leaves the answer sounding weirdly reverent, but if you don't feel it needs any further explanation, that's fine, I'm clearly the only one that's reading it that way.
    – user22791
    Jul 8, 2017 at 6:29

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