This question is motivated by a comment to an answer I provided to another question about John Searle and the Chinese Room Argument: What relevance, if any, does collective memory in ants have to John Searle's Chinese Room argument?

I based my answer to this question on Searle's Minds, Brains and Programs. Searle writes:

"But could something think, understand, and so on solely by virtue of being a computer with the right sort of program? Could instantiating a program, the right program of course, by itself be a sufficient condition of understanding?" This I think is the right question to ask, though it is usually confused with one or more of the earlier questions, and the answer to it is no.

I think Searle is objecting to strong artificial intelligence (AI) because it would disprove physicalism, but I might be misunderstanding him which is why I am asking the question.

With physicalism our consciousness (including understanding of language) would emerge from our bodies in some currently unknown way. Strong AI would be a way to not have consciousness emerge from our bodies, but be solely the result of a computer program.

Is Searle objecting to strong AI because if strong AI were true then that would disprove physicalism? Or is something else going on that I am missing?

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

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    I do not see how strong AI would disprove physicalism, the possibility is usually taken as its consequence. But no, Searle's aim is not physicalism but functionalism, the idea that consciousness/qualia are syntactic, functional, i.e.realization independent. To him, they are a side effect of the biological, organic "stuff" we are made of, and can not be reproduced in metal and silicon, even if they are made input/output identical to us, see Functionalism on IEP and Searle's biological naturalism.
    – Conifold
    Jan 12, 2019 at 6:44
  • Well, computer program is more an abstraction than a physical body. Behind any program there is a physical process in hardware. Our bodies in some sense are hardware. So, I don't see how it disproves physicalism.
    – rus9384
    Jan 12, 2019 at 8:30
  • @rus9384 Some people might claim that the universe is a simulation and thus a physical object is only data.
    – Bob
    Jan 12, 2019 at 19:55

1 Answer 1


You are correct that Searle is a physicalist. Here, from "Why I am not a property dualist", Searle makes this very explicit:

I want also to say that consciousness is nothing but a neurobiological process, and by that I mean that precisely because consciousness is qualitative, subjective, irreducibly phenomenological (airy fairy, touchy feely, etc.) it has to be a neurobiological process; because, so far, we have not found any system that can cause and realize conscious states except brain systems. Maybe someday we will be able to create conscious artifacts, in which case subjective states of consciousness will be “physical” features of those artifacts.

Searle's objection to strong AI is not because of any challenge to physicalism that it might have, but because it uses an incorrect, functional, definition of consciousness. Searle accepts our empirical data, that "consciousness is qualitative, subjective, irreducibly phenomenological (airy fairy, touchy feely, etc.)". Hence, functionalism is not about consciousness, but about intelligence.

Here is a link to Searle's essay: http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/~paller/dialogue/propertydualism.pdf

  • Searle is what is called non-reductive physicalist, which is something between physicalism and property dualism. As the essay makes clear, he rejects the mental/physical vocabulary in which the difference is formulated, and "consciousness has a first person ontology; that is, it only exists as experienced by some human or animal, and therefore, it cannot be reduced to something that has a third person ontology, something that exists independently of experiences" means that he is no more a traditional physicalist than he is a property dualist.
    – Conifold
    Jan 13, 2019 at 9:47
  • I have found Searle to be a much better critic of other efforts to characterize philosophy of mind, than a clear articulator of his own views.
    – Dcleve
    Jan 13, 2019 at 18:34
  • In the linked essay, he asserts continuous upward causation, and that upper tiers of emergent structure cannot be independently causal. His assertions here on causal traceability are consistent with reductive physicalism, and the Identity Theory. In the essay, he misidentifies the Identity Theory as dismissive of actual subjective conscious experience. The dismissal is only in eliminative reductionism. Per this essay, Searle appears to me to be a pretty standard Identity Theorist.
    – Dcleve
    Jan 13, 2019 at 18:39
  • In other selections I have read from him, he does not come across as a standard Identity Theorist -- I think his views are not well formed.
    – Dcleve
    Jan 13, 2019 at 18:41
  • I am guessing that you mean token identity theory, a.k.a. token physicalism, which is another name for non-reductive physicalism. To talk about identity one needs it to be an identity of somethings, as in the distinction between mental and physical properties/predicates, which Searle rejects. We might as well count him as a neutral monist. It is not so much unformed as he finds the traditional framing of the mind-body debates unproductive, and deliberately eschews it.
    – Conifold
    Jan 13, 2019 at 19:24

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