Here's "Complete argument" from Wikipedia:

(A1) "Programs are formal (syntactic)." A program uses syntax to manipulate symbols and pays no attention to the semantics of the symbols. It knows where to put the symbols and how to move them around, but it doesn't know what they stand for or what they mean. For the program, the symbols are just physical objects like any others.

(A2) "Minds have mental contents (semantics)." Unlike the symbols used by a program, our thoughts have meaning: they represent things and we know what it is they represent.

(A3) "Syntax by itself is neither constitutive of nor sufficient for semantics." This is what the Chinese room thought experiment is intended to prove: the Chinese room has syntax (because there is a man in there moving symbols around). The Chinese room has no semantics (because, according to Searle, there is no one or nothing in the room that understands what the symbols mean). Therefore, having syntax is not enough to generate semantics. Searle posits that these lead directly to this conclusion:

(C1) Programs are neither constitutive of nor sufficient for minds. This should follow without controversy from the first three: Programs don't have semantics. Programs have only syntax, and syntax is insufficient for semantics. Every mind has semantics. Therefore no programs are minds.

Substituting programs with human bodies and symbols with fundamental particles doesn't seem to change the argument. Therefore no humans have minds.

If you find it too extreme, let's recall what Chinese Room Argument does:

  1. Here's a room that impersonates itself as a Chinese fluent speaker.
  2. The room consists of parts (A, B, C, D, E, ...), one of which is capable of repeated conditional actions.
  3. Look at the part A. It doesn't (even try to) understand Chinese.
  4. Repeat for all the remaining parts and conclude that there's no understanding happening.

My question is why not apply the same for the actual Chinese human speaker? Imagine the human dissected into small enough parts and then notice that none of the pieces understands anything — mindless electro-chemical reactions only.

Does Wikipedia misrepresent what Searle actually mean? I gather that Searle's stance is that human-like mind requires some uncomputable process, but I don't understand how it follows from his argument.


Thanks for the comments, but I feel that I wasn't clear enough that I'm not going to argue around the topic. What I'm looking for is a definitive reference that shows what Searle has publicly said or written about applying the argument to humans.

The reason is I read that Searle rejects virtual world -style explanations, which only makes sense if you require uncomputable mind. The argument for uncomputable mind must somehow follow from Searle's arguments, but from what I read I can't see how to come to the same conclusion (unless you implicitly include the conclusion into premises, as @causative said).

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    Yes, you are right. I suspect that the Chinese Room argument only appeals to people who already believe the mind has some irreducible part to do the understanding - i.e. a soul. They observe the Chinese Room lacks an irreducible part that understands, so they say it cannot understand at all. But they're just assuming the conclusion they wish to prove (i.e. that understanding requires an irreducible part).
    – causative
    Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 17:55
  • You're right about Searle. He does not go far enough. If the Chinese room argument is valid, it applies to any 3rd person mechanistic system, whether it's a .computer or the laws of physics. I personally think the CR argument is a valid argument, and therefore demonstrates that attempts to reduce understanding to 3rd person mechanistic systems will always fail. For the reasons you describe, imo, a conscious being cannot be purely described by 3rd person physical law. It's not that surprising to me... why should mental events be reducible to physical events? Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 18:29
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    To address your questions: 1) It seems to me the wikipedia passage accurately reflects Searle's argument. 2) You say "Substituting programs with human bodies and symbols with fundamental particles doesn't seem to change the argument", this is wrong. Substituting humans does change things drastically, in fact Searle wants to argue humans can have mind because we have semantics (meaning to our thoughts). 3) You couldn't apply the CR argument to a Chinese human speaker because (Searle would argue) the person does have semantics, whereas the room doesn't. (1/2)
    – Fox Mulder
    Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 18:36
  • The distinction you are referring to, that the individual constituent pieces don't have semantics, but that they are found at a higher level (or that the parts of the CR don't understand Chinese, but that the whole system does) sometimes goes by the name "emergent property", and there's lots of literature there. At the end of the day, it seems Searle doesn't believe semantic is an emergent property, but that it requires another component which he argues can simply not come from syntax only. As far as I know, he doesn't specify the nature of this component, or who can have it, etc. (2/2)
    – Fox Mulder
    Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 18:40
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    @Frog ironically, the question about what Searle has said publicly is purely syntactical. Questions about his opinion will follow, but having just a formal reference will settle this SE question. Commented Jul 7, 2021 at 7:38

4 Answers 4


You cannot substitute programs with the human body. A program is a set of rules to be executed parallel or in series on a set of parallel or in series presented data. Both are implemented on physical matter. The process of the program acting on the data (whatever kind of computer iis used) is inherently different from the processes finding place in the brain. There is no splitting up between a program and data. It's all included in a non -separable process. The program and the data in a computer can ba separated a million miles from each other but this will drastically reduce its computing speed.

So what does this mean. It means that meaning can't exist for a computer. Only in the brain there is no separation between program and data, which is necessary for true understanding. Why dies true understanding arise only if these are not separated? Because they are not separated in the real world too. Understanding the real world requires similarity. Thinking about a falling stone shows similarity with a real falling stone. One can in fact see a falling stone when looking at working neurons representing the falling stone.

You write:

My question is why not apply the same for the actual Chinese human speaker? Imagine the human dissected into small enough parts and then notice that none of the pieces understands anything — mindless electro-chemical reactions only.

It is here that you make a basic failure. Brain processes can't be dissected in smaller units like it can be done in a computer. The massive, parallel, and oordinated neural firings are not directed by an outside program, as in a computer. The program lies in the pathways of information themselves. The connection strengths between neurons determine this flow and not a set of instructions somewhere in the brain separated from the information. There are as many different patterns possible for the same neurons. To represent all physical patterns in the real world. Of course do single neurons not know anything but when they are part of a bigger process they contribute to understanding. A computer will never be able to understand in this way. By the very fact that they compute and not represent externals in a faithfull way. Zeros and ones flowing ìn a circuit controlled by an external program is just not the way real physical processes unfold. Real physical processes unfold due to internal programs (lawas of Nature) just as processes in the brain unfold.

  • I'm pretty sure that by program that Wikipedia article means a running process, not a static thing (which can't do anything). As such, a process is not necessarily restricted by a predefined set of rules (other than the requirement of being computable) because it can evolve interactively. But just as a computer process is governed by some rules, so are the processes inside human bodies — by the laws of the universe. The distinction between program, data, process and running computer is also artificial and exists purely for engineering convenience. Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 13:42
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    So, what's the inherent difference between programs and fundamental laws of nature? Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 13:46
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    @DmitryUrbanowicz A program is written in the stuff of Nature. The laws of Nature are not written anywhere (except in the physics books or in our minds that is). Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 14:07
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    As I said, there are other ways to bootstrap a computation process which do not require a program to be written. The important thing is that the laws are fixed, not that we have written them down. And that they don't care about human meaning. Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 14:22
  • @DmitryUrbanowicz If the computation process doesnt need a program then there is nothing computed. Every computation requires a physical implementation. Can you give an example of non programmed computation? I dont mean,say, a falling stone that calculates its path. Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 15:05

I think you make an excellent point. We have an internal experience of semantics, but judging other humans from outside, aren't they 'Chinese rooms'? That is exactly the Philosophical Zombies issue. So it's absurd to deny it can be dismissed as an issue, you 'just can't' compare the human body from outside, because we know somehow that we don't follow rules. The rules may be complex, even have elements of randomness, but they are there.

How do we 'know' other humans really have experiences like ourselves, and aren't just simulating them? Because linguistic intelligence arises from mirror neurons: if I do this action I mean thus, so when you do this action, mind-to-mind transfer of intentionality happens. We know from the Dunbar number that the human neocortex didn't evolve for problem-solving, but to navigate our social landscape. Language is the product of that heightened intersubjectivity. And with it, we have built a distributed collaborative intelligence, as we inherit mental tools, and pass them on working better. Salience landscapes that order experience in useful ways are structured by language, and embody knowledge.

There's a great Feynman lecture on computer heurustics. He frames what computers do as all processes of sorting. One perspective is that minds explore topological transformations, to explore possibility or phase space - this is how I interpret Universal Constructor theory.

  • "Linguistic intelligence arises from mirror neurons"? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_neuron "To date, no widely accepted neural or computational models have been put forward to describe how mirror neuron activity supports cognitive functions."
    – causative
    Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 20:16
  • @causative: Wikipedia is being excessively cautious there, as it is on many science topics. Working from the connectome of c elegans, self-other distinction and proprioception we can see how this works. The point anyway regardless, is that we extend the minds of individual humans, through treating others as like us. Intersubjectivity is how we participate in the experiences of others, and invite them into our minds.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 21:22
  • Well, it is true that we communicate that way, but I'd caution against ascribing too much importance to linguistic intelligence as opposed to other kinds. A person can be conscious - in fact more conscious - when meditating and clearing away verbal thoughts.
    – causative
    Commented Jul 7, 2021 at 6:39
  • @causative: Absolutely. And when discussing this I am careful to point to solitary intelligences like cephalopods, and relatively solitary like bears & corvids. But the neocortex seeming to be focused on reading the intentions of others, suggests the leap in human intelligence is a social one. Plus a single human is not dramatically more capable than other animals, it is the memesphere, rapid sharing of learning, that does that.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jul 7, 2021 at 7:14
  • I might add that people are not chinese rooms. That is the only reason I downvote this question. The very assumption is wrong. Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 13:04

Quick Summary

No, humans are not obviously just a neuro-mechanical structure (or algorithmic structure, both have been proposed). That is explicitly the assumption of reductionism.

But yes, Searle's argument is as effective against neural reductionism as it is against the algorithmic reductionism it was originally aimed at.


Note this is a common realization. Searle's thought problem, along with Mary the Color Scientist, What is it Like to Be a Bat, and the Inverted Rainbow, etc, have convinced the majority of physicalist philosophers to abandon reductive physicalism relative to consciousness, and instead adopt a non-reductive physicalism.

And this has not just happened in philosophy of mind -- science has mostly abandoned wholesale reductionism as a programme (reduction is still highly useful, but it must be coupled with holism and emergence, as they are also useful strategies for characterizing the world). See section 5 of this SEP article https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-reduction


It only applies if you assume brains are mechanical and their operations can be reduced to a syntactical program.

If you make no such assumption, then the argument forces you to admit one of two things:

  • The brain is not what gives rise to consciousness or intelligence
  • The brain gives rise to consciousness and intelligence using non-mechanical physical principles.

The latter is John Searle's interpretation (I'm a bit fuzzy on if he thinks intelligence is mechanical or not, he seems to think it's only consciousness itself that isn't mechanical).

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