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The Chinese Room Argument, by John Searle, is one of the most important thought experiments in 20th century philosophy of mind.  The point of the argument is to refute the idea that computers (now or in the future) can literally think. In short, executing an algorithm cannot be sufficient for thinking.  The method is to focus on the semantics of our thoughts.  The thought experiment proceeds by getting you to imagine yourself in the role of the central processor of a computer, running an arbitrary computer program for processing Chinese language.  Assume you speak no Chinese language at all.  Imagine yourself locked in a room with a program (a set of instructions written in, say, English) for manipulating strings of Chinese characters which are slid under the door on pieces of paper.  If a note with string S1 (in Mandarin, say) is put under the door, you use the program to produce the string S2 (also in Mandarin), which you then slide back out under the door. Outside the room, there is a robust conversation going on Chinese history.  Everyone outside the room thinks that whoever is inside the room understands Chinese. But that is false. By assumption, you have no idea what S1 and S2 mean (S2 is unbeknownst to you, an insightful reply to a complicated question, S1, about the Ming dynasty).  But you are running a computer program.  Hence, there is no computer program such that running that program suffices for understanding Chinese.  This suggests that computer processing does not suffice for thought.

Key works The paper that got all of this started is John Searle's famous Searle 1980. See also the initial replies to his paper in the same journal issue.  Since its appearance, a large literature has been produced trying to answer Searle's challenge.   Leibniz, in his Monadology (1714), Leibniz 1902, suggested something similar by asking his readers to consider stepping into a mill.  One of the best replies to the argument is Churchland & Churchland 1990. One theory of computational processes that attemtps to avoid the argument by construing semantics as an explanatory construct is given in Dietrich 1990.

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  1. David Anderson (1987). Is the Chinese Room the Real Thing? Philosophy 62 (July):389-93.
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  2. Jay David Atlas, What is It Like to Be a Chinese Room?
    When philosophers think about mental phenomena, they focus on several features of human experience: (1) the existence of consciousness, (2) the intentionality of mental states, that property by which beliefs, desires, anger, etc. are directed at, are about, or refer to objects and states of affairs, (3) subjectivity, characterized by my feeling my pains but not yours, by my experiencing the world and myself from my point of view and not yours, (4) mental causation, that thoughts and feelings have physical (...)
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  3. Hanoch Ben-Yami (1993). A Note on the Chinese Room. Synthese 95 (2):169-72.
    Searle's Chinese Room was supposed to prove that computers can't understand: the man in the room, following, like a computer, syntactical rules alone, though indistinguishable from a genuine Chinese speaker, doesn't understand a word. But such a room is impossible: the man won't be able to respond correctly to questions like What is the time?, even though such an ability is indispensable for a genuine Chinese speaker. Several ways to provide the room with the required ability are considered, and it (...)
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  4. John Mark Bishop (2003). Dancing with Pixies: Strong Artificial Intelligence and Panpsychism. In John M. Preston & Michael A. Bishop (eds.), Views Into the Chinese Room: New Essays on Searle and Artificial Intelligence. Oxford University Press.
  5. M. Bishop & J. Preston (eds.) (2001). Essays on Searle's Chinese Room Argument. Oxford University Press.
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  6. Colin Blakemore & Susan A. Greenfield (1987). Mindwaves: Thoughts on Intelligence, Identity, and Consciousness. Blackwell.
  7. Ned Block (2003). Searle's Arguments Against Cognitive Science. In John M. Preston & Michael A. Bishop (eds.), Views Into the Chinese Room: New Essays on Searle and Artificial Intelligence. Oxford University Press. 70--79.
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  8. Margaret A. Boden (1988). Computer Models On Mind: Computational Approaches In Theoretical Psychology. Cambridge University Press.
    What is the mind? How does it work? How does it influence behavior? Some psychologists hope to answer such questions in terms of concepts drawn from computer science and artificial intelligence. They test their theories by modeling mental processes in computers. This book shows how computer models are used to study many psychological phenomena--including vision, language, reasoning, and learning. It also shows that computer modeling involves differing theoretical approaches. Computational psychologists disagree about some basic questions. For instance, should the mind (...)
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  9. Margaret A. Boden (1988). Escaping From the Chinese Room. In John Heil (ed.), Computer Models of Mind. Cambridge University Press.
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  10. Peter J. Boettke & J. Robert Subrick (2002). From the Philosophy of Mind to the Philosophy of the Market. Journal of Economic Methodology 9 (1):53-64.
    John Searle has argued against the viability of strong versions of artificial intelligence. His most well-known counter-example is the Chinese Room thought experiment where he stressed that syntax is not semantics. We reason by analogy to highlight previously unnoticed similarities between Searle and F.A. Hayek's critique of socialist planning. We extend their insights to explain the failure of many reforms in Eastern Europe in the 1990's.
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  11. Selmer Bringsjord & Ron Noel (2003). Real Robots and the Missing Thought-Experiment in the Chinese Room Dialectic. In John Preston & John Mark Bishop (eds.), Views Into the Chinese Room: New Essays on Searle and Artificial Intelligence. Oxford University Press. 144--166.
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  12. Steven Ravett Brown (2000). Peirce and Formalization of Thought: The Chinese Room Argument. Journal of Mind and Behavior.
    Whether human thinking can be formalized and whether machines can think in a human sense are questions that have been addressed by both Peirce and Searle. Peirce came to roughly the same conclusion as Searle, that the digital computer would not be able to perform human thinking or possess human understanding. However, his rationale and Searle's differ on several important points. Searle approaches the problem from the standpoint of traditional analytic philosophy, where the strict separation of syntax and semantics renders (...)
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  13. Graham Button, Jeff Coutler & John R. E. Lee (2000). Re-Entering the Chinese Room. Minds and Machines 10 (1):149-152.
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  14. Terrell Ward Bynum (1985). Artificial Intelligence, Biology, and Intentional States. Metaphilosophy 16 (October):355-77.
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  15. Philip Cam (1990). Searle on Strong AI. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 68 (1):103-8.
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  16. Lawrence Richard Carleton (1984). Programs, Language Understanding, and Searle. Synthese 59 (May):219-30.
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  17. David J. Chalmers (1992). Subsymbolic Computation and the Chinese Room. In J. Dinsmore (ed.), The Symbolic and Connectionist Paradigms: Closing the Gap. Lawrence Erlbaum. 25--48.
    More than a decade ago, philosopher John Searle started a long-running controversy with his paper “Minds, Brains, and Programs” (Searle, 1980a), an attack on the ambitious claims of artificial intelligence (AI). With his now famous _Chinese Room_ argument, Searle claimed to show that despite the best efforts of AI researchers, a computer could never recreate such vital properties of human mentality as intentionality, subjectivity, and understanding. The AI research program is based on the underlying assumption that all important aspects of (...)
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  18. Ronald L. Chrisley, Weak Strong AI: An Elaboration of the English Reply to the Chinese Room.
    Searle (1980) constructed the Chinese Room (CR) to argue against what he called \Strong AI": the claim that a computer can understand by virtue of running a program of the right sort. Margaret Boden (1990), in giving the English Reply to the Chinese Room argument, has pointed out that there isunderstanding in the Chinese Room: the understanding required to recognize the symbols, the understanding of English required to read the rulebook, etc. I elaborate on and defend this response to Searle. (...)
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  19. Paul M. Churchland & Patricia S. Churchland (1990). Could a Machine Think? Scientific American 262 (1):32-37.
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  20. Jon Cogburn & Jason Megill (2010). Are Turing Machines Platonists? Inferentialism and the Computational Theory of Mind. Minds and Machines 20 (3):423-439.
    We first discuss Michael Dummett’s philosophy of mathematics and Robert Brandom’s philosophy of language to demonstrate that inferentialism entails the falsity of Church’s Thesis and, as a consequence, the Computational Theory of Mind. This amounts to an entirely novel critique of mechanism in the philosophy of mind, one we show to have tremendous advantages over the traditional Lucas-Penrose argument.
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  21. L. Jonathan Cohen (1986). What Sorts of Machines Can Understand the Symbols They Use? Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 60:81-96.
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  22. David Cole, The Chinese Room Argument. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
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  23. David J. Cole (1994). The Causal Powers of CPUs. In Eric Dietrich (ed.), Thinking Computers and Virtual Persons. Academic Press.
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  24. David J. Cole (1991). Artificial Intelligence and Personal Identity. Synthese 88 (September):399-417.
    Considerations of personal identity bear on John Searle's Chinese Room argument, and on the opposed position that a computer itself could really understand a natural language. In this paper I develop the notion of a virtual person, modelled on the concept of virtual machines familiar in computer science. I show how Searle's argument, and J. Maloney's attempt to defend it, fail. I conclude that Searle is correct in holding that no digital machine could understand language, but wrong in holding that (...)
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  25. David J. Cole (1991). Artificial Minds: Cam on Searle. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 69 (September):329-33.
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  26. David J. Cole (1984). Thought and Thought Experiments. Philosophical Studies 45 (May):431-44.
    Thought experiments have been used by philosophers for centuries, especially in the study of personal identity where they appear to have been used extensively and indiscriminately. Despite their prevalence, the use of thought experiments in this area of philosophy has been criticized in recent times. Bernard Williams criticizes the conclusions that are drawn from some experiments, and retells one of these experiments from a different perspective, a retelling which leads to a seemingly opposing result. Wilkes criticizes the method of thought (...)
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  27. B. Jack Copeland (2003). The Chinese Room From a Logical Point of View. In John M. Preston & Michael A. Bishop (eds.), Views Into the Chinese Room: New Essays on Searle and Artificial Intelligence. Oxford University Press.
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  28. B. Jack Copeland (1993). The Curious Case of the Chinese Gym. Synthese 95 (2):173-86.
    Searle has recently used two adaptations of his Chinese room argument in an attack on connectionism. I show that these new forms of the argument are fallacious. First I give an exposition of and rebuttal to the original Chinese room argument, and then a brief introduction to the essentials of connectionism.
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  29. Jeff Coulter & S. Sharrock (2003). The Hinterland of the Chinese Room. In John M. Preston & Michael A. Bishop (eds.), Views Into the Chinese Room: New Essays on Searle and Artificial Intelligence. Oxford University Press.
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  30. Robert I. Damper (2006). The Logic of Searle's Chinese Room Argument. Minds and Machines 16 (2):163-183.
    John Searle’s Chinese room argument (CRA) is a celebrated thought experiment designed to refute the hypothesis, popular among artificial intelligence (AI) scientists and philosophers of mind, that “the appropriately programmed computer really is a mind”. Since its publication in 1980, the CRA has evoked an enormous amount of debate about its implications for machine intelligence, the functionalist philosophy of mind, theories of consciousness, etc. Although the general consensus among commentators is that the CRA is flawed, and not withstanding the popularity (...)
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  31. Robert I. Damper (2004). The Chinese Room Argument--Dead but Not yet Buried. Journal of Consciousness Studies 11 (5-6):159-169.
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  32. Daniel C. Dennett (1987). Fast Thinking. In The Intentional Stance. Mit Press.
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  33. Eric Dietrich (1995). AI and the Mechanistic Forces of Darkness. J. Of Experimental and Theoretical AI 7 (2):155-161.
    Under the Superstition Mountains in central Arizona toil those who would rob humankind o f its humanity. These gray, soulless monsters methodically tear away at our meaning, our subjectivity, our essence as transcendent beings. With each advance, they steal our freedom and dignity. Who are these denizens of darkness, these usurpers of all that is good and holy? None other than humanity’s arch-foe: The Cognitive Scientists -- AI researchers, fallen philosophers, psychologists, and other benighted lovers of computers. Unless they are (...)
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  34. Eric Dietrich (ed.) (1994). Thinking Computers and Virtual Persons. Academic Press.
  35. J. Dinsmore (ed.) (1992). The Symbolic and Connectionist Paradigms: Closing the Gap. Lawrence Erlbaum.
    This book records the thoughts of researchers -- from both computer science and philosophy -- on resolving the debate between the symbolic and connectionist...
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  36. Richard Double (1984). Reply to C.A. Field's Double on Searle's Chinese Room. Nature and System 6 (March):55-58.
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  37. Richard Double (1983). Searle, Programs and Functionalism. Nature and System 5 (March-June):107-14.
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  38. Michael G. Dyer (1990). Finding Lost Minds. Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Artificial Intelligence 2:329-39.
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  39. Michael G. Dyer (1990). Intentionality and Computationalism: Minds, Machines, Searle and Harnad. Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Artificial Intelligence 2:303-19.
  40. James H. Fetzer (ed.) (1988). Aspects of AI. D.
  41. Christopher A. Fields (1984). Double on Searle's Chinese Room. Nature and System 6 (March):51-54.
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  42. Justin C. Fisher (1988). The Wrong Stuff: Chinese Rooms and the Nature of Understanding. Philosophical Investigations 11 (October):279-99.
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  43. Jerry A. Fodor (1991). Yin and Yang in the Chinese Room. In D. Rosenthal (ed.), The Nature of Mind. Oxford University Press.
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  44. Jason Ford (2011). Helen Keller Was Never in a Chinese Room. Minds and Machines 21 (1):57-72.
    William Rapaport, in “How Helen Keller used syntactic semantics to escape from a Chinese Room,” (Rapaport 2006), argues that Helen Keller was in a sort of Chinese Room, and that her subsequent development of natural language fluency illustrates the flaws in Searle’s famous Chinese Room Argument and provides a method for developing computers that have genuine semantics (and intentionality). I contend that his argument fails. In setting the problem, Rapaport uses his own preferred definitions of semantics and syntax, but he (...)
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  45. Joseph S. Fulda (2006). A Plea for Automated Language-to-Logical-Form Converters. RASK 24:87-102.
    This has been made available gratis by the publisher. -/- This piece gives the raison d'etre for the development of the converters mentioned in the title. Three reasons are given, one linguistic, one philosophical, and one practical. It is suggested that at least /two/ independent converters are needed. -/- This piece ties together the extended paper "Abstracts from Logical Form I/II," and the short piece providing the comprehensive theory alluded to in the abstract of that extended paper in "Pragmatics, Montague, (...)
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  46. Matjaz Gams (ed.) (1997). Mind Versus Computer: Were Dreyfus and Winograd Right? Amsterdam: IOS Press.
    M. Gams et al. (Eds.) IOS Press, "Strong AI": an Adolescent Disorder Donald Michie Professor Emeritus, University of Edinburgh, UK Associate ...
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  47. Gordon G. Globus (1991). Deconstructing the Chinese Room. Journal of Mind and Behavior 12 (3):377-91.
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  48. Simone Gozzano (1997). The Chinese Room Argument: Consciousness and Understanding. In Matjaz Gams, M. Paprzycki & X. Wu (eds.), Mind Versus Computer: Were Dreyfus and Winograd Right? Amsterdam: IOS Press. 43--231.
    In this paper I submit that the “Chinese room” argument rests on the assumption that understanding a sentence necessarily implies being conscious of its content. However, this assumption can be challenged by showing that two notions of consciousness come into play, one to be found in AI, the other in Searle’s argument, and that the former is an essential condition for the notion used by Searle. If Searle discards the first, he not only has trouble explaining how we can learn (...)
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  49. Simone Gozzano (1995). Consciousness and Understanding in the Chinese Room. Informatica 19:653-56.
    In this paper I submit that the “Chinese room” argument rests on the assumption that understanding a sentence necessarily implies being conscious of its content. However, this assumption can be challenged by showing that two notions of consciousness come into play, one to be found in AI, the other in Searle’s argument, and that the former is an essential condition for the notion used by Searle. If Searle discards the first, he not only has trouble explaining how we can learn (...)
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  50. Patricia Hanna (1985). Causal Powers and Cognition. Mind 94 (373):53-63.
    Argues that Searle is confused, and underestimates computers. Weak.
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