...I'm referring to https://www.closertotruth.com/episodes/can-brain-alone-explain-consciousness where Searle (who's basically a "raving materialist":) makes the following (paraphrased here) remark, which uncharacteristically moderates his materialist position: Even if a computer could be "perfectly programmed" to simulate the brain, it wouldn't actually possess consciousness; no more than a simulation of the weather can actually get you wet.

Okay, so that sounds really reasonable, at least in some formal argument way. But I (also a materialist) just don't quite buy it. What I instead buy is another analogy, whose source I don't recall, to the effect that: the brain is like a lightbulb, whereas mind/consciousness is like the light. In this case, any "lightbulb" -- either wetware brain or "perfectly programmed" hardware computer -- would generate equivalent "visible light".

So both arguments/analogies seem pretty reasonable to me, at least as far as reason can take you in these kinds of discussions. But each seems to invalidate the other. So what's wrong with which? Or how do you reconcile them? (And what, if any, conclusions can you draw?, although I assume those would be pretty tenuous, at best.)

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    This is not uncharacteristic at all, this has been Searle's position since 1960-s, and the Chinese Room was supposed to back it up. Searle believes that organic matter has special properties which when it is arranged in a brain-like way generate consciousness, this is a variety of property dualism. Your position is closer to functionalism: conditions for consciousness are independent of material implementation.
    – Conifold
    Jul 27, 2017 at 5:47
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    The difference is that Searle makes a sound logical point while the idea that the brain is like a lightbulb is an assumption with no evidence to justify it.
    – user20253
    Jul 27, 2017 at 12:54
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    Searle may be raving, but to describe him as a materialist or a property dualist is to demonstrate a mis-read of his work, e.g. faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/~paller/dialogue/…
    – MmmHmm
    May 25, 2018 at 10:56
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    @JohnForkosh "Let's get rid of this terminology of materialism and mentalism and so on, and just describe the facts." youtu.be/6oYk7fMmfIw Is this the interview segment you watched: closertotruth.com/interviews/4070 ?
    – MmmHmm
    May 26, 2018 at 19:35
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    @JohnForkosh yr wlcm. I think you may be confusing Searle's critique of the notion that computation is causally sufficient to produce consciousness with the notion that biological mechanisms which we do not fully understand are. As for analogies in general (limited in their heuristic merit and value) and angels dancing, hermeneutics is not philosophy, respect for obtaining knowledge is.
    – MmmHmm
    May 27, 2018 at 0:23

8 Answers 8


Searle's argument fails because there's nothing specific to consciousness in it. As such, if you replace "possesses consciousness" with "plays chess" then his argument still stands but is patently wrong.

The reason why the weather simulation won't make you wet is that the computer that Searle is implicitly assuming doesn't have the actuation ability of producing water. It is perfectly plausible to have a simulation that does have that ability and so his assertion would be moot.

It may well be that consciousness requires some property that current digital computers do not possess so that they cannot become conscious. However, external actuation does appear to be necessary. Moreover, it does appear that it is an emergent property that can be contained in a relative small space i.e. our brains.

As such, Searle may end up being correct but not from this line of argument.


Nothing is wrong with either, the problem is in the interpretation and it is the same thing as is wrong with the Chinese Room argument in the first place, or any of the (rather ridiculous) thought experiments used in philosophy. Since Searle has entirely made up this "computer simulation", he can entirely make up whether it can get you wet or not, thus any conclusions he draws from that are only those which he already held. He invented a thought experiment with parameters designed from the outset to "prove" what he already believed to be the case. There is of course no reason why we might not presume the computer-based weather simulation is attached to a hose with a small relay to control the tap and so actually does get you wet when it "rains". Searle has simply left out that component from his imagined system so that it reflects what he already believes. Same with the Chinese Room, as there is no Chinese Room he is free to make up what would and would not happen in it. This is not a criticism of Searle alone, this is a common problem with the interpretation of thought experiments, they do not prove anything, they explain how a particular belief might work, might be internally consistent. Thus Searle can have his computer simulation that doesn't get you wet, that's his belief about how the brain and conciousness are divided, and your materialist (Nick Rugai, possibly?) can have his lightbulb simulation reflect his belief about conciousness. Neither simulation can prove anything because neither exist and if they did we would still not know which best represented the brain.

How do you reconcile them? You construct increasingly accurate experiments within neuroscience which, bit-by-bit will get us closer to a usefully predictive theory about conciousness, until then you just pick one, knowing that a neat justification for whichever belief you chose to hold is available.

  • Although (as per original post) I don't buy Searle's argument, I don't think "attached to a hose with a relay" is an appropriate way to refute it. That's just not a computer; it's a computer-controlled hose, and hoses can indeed get you wet. A computer is a Turing machine, or any such thing that evaluates computable functions, emits the elements of recursively enumerable sets, etc. If you go beyond that, you're no longer talking about canonical "computers". Heck, my brain can't get you wet, either (although several brain-controlled bodily functions can:).
    – user19423
    Jul 28, 2017 at 5:07
  • @JohnForkosh That's the point. Searle has chosen to liken the brain to a computer in order to demonstrate his belief, whether my analogy is actually a computer or not is irrelevant because we're really talking about the brain. Why should our brain not be likened to a computer-controlled hose, a library, a small city?
    – user22791
    Jul 28, 2017 at 6:33
  • All Searle is saying is that a simulation of a thing lacks some of the properties of the thing itself (which is blindingly obvious, otherwise it would be a replica, not a simulation) he then goes on to conclude (without any justification) that in a computer simulation of the brain one of the things that would be missing would be conciousness, just as in a computer simulation of the weather the thing that would be missing is wetness.
    – user22791
    Jul 28, 2017 at 6:36
  • The point I'm making is that wetness would only be missing from a computer simulation because we already know that computers cannot produce wetness, we've not designed them to do that, we do not know that computers cannot produce conciousness, so the analogy does not prove anything, it simply describes Searle's belief.
    – user22791
    Jul 28, 2017 at 6:36

This is actually a problem that I'm working on in my PhD on Machine Awareness so I'll try to give as simple and concise answer to this as I can.

Searle's argument in this case is valid; humans INFER liveness and consciousness on things as a result of our anthropological evolution. This is why children play with dolls and we give our cars (and especially our GPS units) names when they talk to us. It's also why we buy our meat in plastic wrap and get so upset if we visit an abattoir. This is an important point; the sense of liveness is our inference, not a direct implication made by the AI or similar system.

The problem with the Chinese Rooms thought experiment is that language does tend to follow some formal rules. What the Chinese Rooms thought experiment doesn't address is how would you get such a system to answer the question 'What's your opinion on X?' In other words, it's great when the response is canned, but it wouldn't let you express yourself in the Chinese language.

The lightbulb analogy. Hmmm. Let me start by saying that what makes this argument flawed is the idea that intelligence is judged by the output rather than by the thought processes that led to it.

Here's a thought experiment for you; Man walks into a cafe and urinates on the sandwiches. He's arrested and asked to explain himself.

Explanation 1 - 'Well, bread can absorb moisture so it would result in less splashing and I really needed to go'

Explanation 2 - 'Well, I'm trying to make a political statement about the futility of applying a common framework of rules over the top of a society when it stifles true innovation and lateral thinking'

Both generate the same output, but for very different reasons. Which one is more intelligent? Person 1 hasn't factored in consequence, Person 2 has. Person 2 (on the other hand) had no thought of the needs of others, whereas it could be argued that Person 1 did. There's no simple answer to this by the way; what I'm trying to point out is that considering the answer is completely the wrong way to evaluate intelligence because this is largely a factor of the context taken into consideration by the actor.

Another way of thinking about this; in computer science, I can write a really efficient program to get result B from input A, whatever that may be. It might so happen that this really complicated AI also gets result B from input A, but the difference is that I wrote the first program to process data. The second program was written to 'solve a problem'. The only difference between the two programs is the intent of the programmer. That's really important because again (and this part is probably a topic for another time), it is not the computer that implies any meaning to its output. We infer it.

Consequently, the lightbulb analogy doesn't look at the right aspect of the problem. Just because two devices both produce light it doesn't mean they are the same in any way.

  • I didn't interpret the lightbulb analogy your way (but don't know its intended interpretation since I don't recall the source). Rather, the "light" indeed represents the process of consciousness, which I agree must be a dynamic process rather than a static state (aka "output"). But, materialistically, it doesn't matter whether wetware or hardware is the physical basis of machinery whose operation embodies that process.
    – user19423
    Nov 18, 2017 at 7:05
  • The Chinese Room example is mostly dealing with canned responses but it doesn't have to. Like the person inside could make mind maps of words and their connection and derive a complicated action plan that enables it to "write actual Chinese" and even answer open questions. The problem is just that he still wouldn't know what any of that means. But the person in the blackbox might actually have "ideas" and "preferences" or at least would be able to express something that one could infer is an opinion. And it's not self-evident whether it actually is or isn't.
    – haxor789
    Sep 1, 2022 at 9:35
  • Is it really the intent of the programmer that is different? It sounds more like one is calculating it by themselves and the other is relegating it to another agency explaining them how to do it. Which prompts the question what part of the AI is doing the job and which part is making it do the job and is there a demarcation line. Kind of a digital mind body problem.
    – haxor789
    Sep 1, 2022 at 9:39

Both the lightbulb analogy and the weather analogy demonstrate the same concept i.e. A simulation cannot cause the same effects as the real thing. In the case of the weather simulation, the properties of water are built into the model yet no water and wetness are created. In the case of a lightbulb simulation, the physics of electrical resistance>heat>light is built into the model yet no actual light is created.

  • 1
    If you have a reference to someone who also shares this view it would strengthen your answer. I would be interested in reading such a reference. +1 May 23, 2018 at 18:44
  • First, reminding you, neither analogy was mine; I was kind of asking for "compare and contrast". My own compare (which may be wrong) was that Searle's indeed distinguishing simulation from "the real thing". But >>not<< so the lightbulb. That (as I interpreted it) was saying consciousness emerges from brain behavior somewhat like light emerges from lightbulb behavior. But you can get light many ways -- lightbulb, campfire, etc, etc. Likewise, although brain behavior is currently the only known way to get consciousness, that doesn't preclude computer "simulation" once we understand how to do it.
    – user19423
    May 25, 2018 at 7:46

The computer would generate light, but it would be infra-red, heat, right? Hmmm, but our working brain also gives off heat but it gives off more than just that. The nub of our human problem seems to be how does this "more" arise. How does it physically, materially arise? In other words our consciousness seems to have volition and all the other things that go along with it. Many characteristics. We still can't explain the link between our brain heat, if you will, and the "light" it gives off in the way of consciousness. With the computer I still just see heat; feel I mean, I don't own any I.R. goggles. It's thinking, at bottom, originates in code installed by us; or at least something got in there from us that the computer develops further.

Now if the hardware had arms and I found it trying to slip my wallet out of my back pocket, then I might get suspicious and investigate further, especially if the computer made a derogatory remark about my D.L. photograph! I don't think the analogy works, but I've had little physics(h.s.) and less i.e. no cognitive science. P.s. I think I could have saved a lot of words and just said the "light" we each give off is just not equivalent. Not equivalent is what Searle is saying too.


The problem that I see with both analogies is that "the problem of other minds" is not acknowledged.

Searle, as far as I understand, does not provide a method by which it can be determined if a computer has attained consciousness. And such a method is indeed what is necessary to refute solipsism, which is basically a statement of the inability to know the existence of other minds.

Similarly, the light-bulb analogy requires there to be evidence of visible light, which is phenomenal and therefore strictly limited to the first-person who cannot (yet) determine if other instances of such phenomena can occur elsewhere.


I think a better way to get at this problem (at least from a materialist perspective) is to blend the metaphors: think of the brain as being something akin to a weather system (a non-linear dynamic process). Weather systems can be modeled and simulated in computers, but we cannot create a full 'virtual' weather system because non-linear dynamic processes are sensitive to initial conditions, and the initial conditions of a weather system are broadly incalculable. Not just a butterfly flapping its wings in China (as the old saying goes) but a hundred million billion butterflies flapping their wings everywhere.

setting aside the subjective experience of consciousness for a moment, the objective view of consciousness is a patterned unpredictability that produces a unique, active identity. We can talk about the weather in London and the weather in Los Angeles, for instance, and we know the following:

  • They have both consistent weather patterns
  • They are completely distinct and unique patterns from each other
  • They can both surprise us with unexpected weather events

Minds are like that too: they display other-similarity and self-similarity, but also display uniqueness and a capacity for unexpected behavior. The open question here is whether digital computers (or the classic Turing machine) can operate as a true chaotic system. Of course it can model one to a limited extent, but it's not clear if it can be one and thus achieve an objective appearance of consciousness. I might have higher hopes for analog or quantum systems that break the digital 'switch' model, but that's for the future.


I think the main problem with Searle's analogy is that it is backward.

The execution of a program is a sequence of states, i.e. a mapping from an index sequence into the set of possible states. A program might retain, within each state, a memory of previous states in order to work out what the rules for the transitions are. An AI could thus try to work out the physics of its virtual world. So this is very much akin to a scientific model of the objective world.

This sequence of states in the execution of the program corresponds to something like McTaggart's B-series. It reflects an ordering relationship between states, but there is nothing within the states to distinguish a changing "current" state. Each state "thinks" it is the current state. Again, this mirrors our objective knowledge of events in time, where the objective notion of "now" is merely a perspective on the sequence of moments.

But if the program is running on some hardware, there will actually be a current state, a state that actually exists in the physical implementation. This is the situation we find ourselves in with respect to our conscious awareness of the present moment. We experience it, although that experience leaves no objective trace. It is entirely subjective.

The idea that the hardware (or consciousness) instantiates the "current" state creates a McTaggart A-series interpretation of the sequence of states, in which only the current state actually exists. But, of course, the state itself stands in the same relationship to its predecessor and successor states whether the software is being executed on a machine (A-series/subjective view) or simply considered as a static mapping from a sequence into the set of possible states (B-series/objective view).

So the better analogy is between consciousness and hardware and between the physical world and software.

Note that software cannot directly "know" about the hardware it is running on. This is clear since one machine can be programmed to emulate another well enough that the software cannot detect this. The software can only know about its own logical model of the hardware. This might correspond to religion.

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