The Chinese room argument reconsidered: Essentialism, indeterminacy, and strong AI

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I argue that John Searle's (1980) influential Chinese room argument (CRA) against computationalism and strong AT survives existing objections, including Block's (1998) internalized systems reply, Fodor's (1991b) deviant causal chain reply, and Hauser's (1997) unconscious content reply. However, a new "essentialist" reply I construct shows that the CRA as presented by Searle is an unsound argument that relies on a question-begging appeal to intuition. My diagnosis of the CRA relies on an interpretation of computationalism as a scientific theory about the essential nature of intentional content; such theories often yield non-intuitive results in non-standard cases, and so cannot be judged by such intuitions. However, I further argue that the CRA can be transformed into a potentially valid argument against computationalism simply by reinterpreting it as an indeterminacy argument that shows that computationalism cannot explain the ordinary distinction between semantic content and sheer syntactic manipulation, and thus cannot be an adequate account of content. This conclusion admittedly rests on the arguable but plausible assumption that thought content is interestingly determinate. I conclude that the viability of computationalism and strong AI depends on their addressing the indeterminacy objection, but that it is currently unclear how this objection can be successfully addressed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)285-319
Number of pages35
JournalMinds and Machines
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2003


  • Artificial intelligence
  • Cognitive science
  • Computation
  • Essentialism
  • Functionalism
  • Indeterminacy
  • Philosophy of mind
  • Searle's Chinese room argument
  • Semantics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • Artificial Intelligence


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