In his Chinese room argument, Searle dismisses the possibility that a system of separate agents can possess collective knowledge even if the individuals don't have it.

Yet, it's possible that ant colonies know things that individual ants (See this article on collective knowledge attributed to ant colonies. https://aeon.co/ideas/an-ant-colony-has-memories-that-its-individual-members-dont-have )

Does the latter article undermine Searle's dismissal of the claim that "The System knows Chinese"?

EDIT: I repeated a link by mistake and, prompted by a comment below, removed the repetition.

  • You've included the same link twice. Jan 11, 2019 at 3:08
  • I added the specific details of the link. You may roll this back or continue editing. Jan 11, 2019 at 5:43

2 Answers 2


John Searle's Chinese Room Argument (CRA) does not object to using computers as tools to simulate human understanding but to the claim that the simulating machines and the programs actually understand language and that this explains how humans understand language:

Partisans of strong AI claim that in this question and answer sequence the machine is not only simulating a human ability but also (1) that the machine can literally be said to understand the story and provide the answers to questions, and (2) that what the machine and its programs do explains the human ability to understand the story and answer questions about it.

Searle's CRA is a thought experiment showing that this is not likely the case by imagining the human simulating what the computer does by tracing through the code in the program.

Searle doesn't object to the analogical reasoning in what he calls "weak AI", only that in "strong AI". In weak AI, computers enable "us to formulate and test hypotheses in a more rigorous and precise fashion." He objects to the analogical reasoning in strong AI where "the computer is not merely a tool in the study of the mind; rather, the appropriately programmed computer really ls a mind".

Analogical reasoning is also used in the similarities of the collective memory of ant colonies that the OP references. Deborah Gordon presents the following analogy between individual ants and the individual neurons in our brains and uses analogy to compare the similarities of brains and computers:

Like a brain, an ant colony operates without central control. Each is a set of interacting individuals, either neurons or ants, using simple chemical interactions that in the aggregate generate their behaviour. People use their brains to remember. Can ant colonies do that? This question leads to another question: what is memory? For people, memory is the capacity to recall something that happened in the past. We also ask computers to reproduce past actions – the blending of the idea of the computer as brain and brain as computer has led us to take ‘memory’ to mean something like the information stored on a hard drive.

While analogical reasoning is important it can also be the source of fallacious reasoning when the analogy is "weak". Here is how Bo Bennett describes a "weak analogy":

When an analogy is used to prove or disprove an argument, but the analogy is too dissimilar to be effective, that is, it is unlike the argument more than it is like the argument.

Searle would likely complain that the analogies Gordon is making between the collective memory of ants, human neurons and computer memories is at some point weak. His CRA would focus the weakness on the analogical reasoning between neurons and computer memories to the extent that such analogies were used to support strong AI.

Bo Bennett, "Weak Analogy, Logically Fallacious https://www.logicallyfallacious.com/tools/lp/Bo/LogicalFallacies/181/Weak-Analogy

Deborah M. Gordon, "An ant colony has memories that its individual members don’t have" Aeon December 11, 2018 https://aeon.co/ideas/an-ant-colony-has-memories-that-its-individual-members-dont-have

Searle, J. R. (1980). Minds, brains, and programs. Behavioral and brain sciences, 3(3), 417-424.

"Analogy" Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Analogy

  • Fundamentally, Searle is completely ignoring the idea of emergent properties (although he does insist that thermostats don't have intentionality and people do, despite both being made of quarks and leptons), and begging the question in considering the objections. If there's any intelligence in an ant colony that isn't from the ants, that's also an emergent phenomenon. Jan 11, 2019 at 18:54
  • @DavidThornley Searle is a physicalist so I suspect he has no problem with emergent properties. He writes in Mind, Brains and Programs the following: "But could something think, understand, and so on solely by virtue of being a computer with the right sort of program? ... the answer to it is no." Page 353. If one could understand solely by having the right program one could have out-of-body experiences--just move the program to a computer and not a human body It would disprove physicalism and any claim of consciousness emerging from our bodies. Jan 12, 2019 at 5:15
  • @DavidThornley I thought I would ask the question more explicitly in case I am misunderstanding your position or emergent properties: philosophy.stackexchange.com/q/59488/29944 Jan 12, 2019 at 5:42
  • " Searle would likely complain that the analogies Gordon is making between the collective memory of ants, human neurons and computer memories is at some point weak. His CRA would focus the weakness on the analogical reasoning between neurons and computer memories to the extent that such analogies were used to support strong AI." Focusing only on the analogy between neurons and ants, what would Searle likely find to be weak about it? Mar 26, 2020 at 22:37

The collective memory of ants is not relevant to the CRA. The point of the CRA is to clarify the difference between functionalism and awareness, and the referenced article is just one more example of the function/mind equivocation that the CRA is designed to refute. Understanding and knowledge involve a component of awareness. The CR is able to do functions, but does not have awareness, hence does not have understanding or knowledge.

The referenced article makes the same error that the CRA is designed to clarify. It starts by describing memory as an experience, then moves on to treating memory as a function, which ant colonies are able to accomplish. This is the very equivocation of function with mind that the CRA refutes. The CR has a memory function that it accomplishes, just as ant colonies do, but that does not give it experiential memory, or a mind.

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