Freethinking in a Chinese Room



(The FreeThinking Theist)


July 19, 2016

The Freethinking Argument deductively proves that the human soul exists and that we possess libertarian free will. Many seem determined to oppose these deductive conclusions as they possess a revulsion against the idea that humans are actually responsible freethinkers. Given this revulsion, these determinists desperately try to find a way to refute one of the four premises of the syllogism.

Often, those opposed to free thinking will offer computers as things that are completely determined, yet rational. I demonstrated the first problem with this approach in my article, “Robots & Rationality,” but there are other issues to consider as well. This article focuses on another problem with this idea; something philosophers refer to as “intentionality.”

Intentionality Defined

Intentionality is the property of being of or about something. For example, “We think about theories, chemical compounds, and more. We have beliefs about our scientific findings, God, and other things. When making observations, we have experiences of whatever we are observing.”[1]

Regarding the necessity of intentionality to make rational decisions, it seems a rational entity needs to be able to think about competing arguments, think of the premises, and compare them to the laws of logic (they are thinking about). Without the property of intentionality, how could anyone ever think about anything that leads to logical conclusions? Without intentionality, no one would have knowledge of or about anything. Angus Menuge makes this point: “The understanding of a theory consists of beliefs about what the world would be like if the theory were true. Understanding therefore requires intentionality…”[2]

The Chinese Room

To clarify exactly what a computer actually does, consider the naturalistic philosopher (and atheist), John Searle, and his “Chinese Room” analogy.[3] Searle invites us to conduct a thought experiment and imagine an English-only-speaking person employed at a booth in China. Let’s call him, Daryl. Daryl has access to an instruction book written entirely in Chinese with an exhaustive list of all possible questions and their corresponding answers. Daryl does not understand any of the questions or the answers written in Chinese; all he can do is compare the shape of the Chinese characters, even though he has no idea what the symbols mean.

Daryl’s boss, who understands Chinese, has given him some specific instructions. When a Chinese-speaking person writes a question in Chinese and passes it to Daryl in the booth, he is commanded to look at his list of Chinese questions, match the symbol he was given to the same one in the book and then follow the arrow to the corresponding answer in his instruction book. Daryl will then copy the Chinese answer (although he has no idea what it means) and return it to the Chinese person who asked the question.

To the uninformed Chinese person asking the question, they would obviously think Daryl was extremely intelligent (not to mention fluent in Chinese), but that would be due to ignorance of what is really happening. All Daryl is engaged in is an algorithmic matching of input to output (i.e., computation). The “program” – the list of all possible Chinese questions and answers – was written by a “programmer” who not only speaks Chinese, but also understands what the questions and answers are about. Daryl understands none of it; all he is doing is matching input to output with absolutely no understanding or knowledge of what anything is of or about. Daryl has no “Chinese intelligence” whatsoever. Be that as it may, it sure seems as though Daryl is highly intelligent to those who are ignorant of the actual situation.

It is important to realize that the “computer” (Daryl) would seemingly appear to be “thinking” to the Chinese people who are asking this “computer” questions and waiting for its answers. This “computer” would really seem to have the property of intentionality and the ability to engage in rational deliberation to infer the best explanation; however, Daryl has no Chinese intentionality, understanding, or intelligence whatsoever because he has no idea what the questions written in Chinese are of or about. There is no intentionality here. All that is really going on in this scenario is that Daryl is simply matching symbols to other symbols based on a set of instructions and programming according to an algorithm. This is exactly what a computer does (as well as your alleged “smart” phone).

Searle concludes:

“Computation has no intrinsic intentionality, but only secondary intentionality imparted by the programmers. Computation is not thinking. Computation is a mechanical process and nothing more.”[4]

According to Searle’s thinking, it seems that a computer only appears rational only if rational agents designed it and programmed it to work according to basic rules according to a design plan. If the computer is functioning properly, ignorant humans can be deceived. As one computer scientist once told me, “A computer is just as rational as a power drill!”

“About Clumps of Matter”

The atheistic philosopher from Duke University, Dr. Alex Rosenberg, agrees and explains that it is only thoughts that have the property of aboutness to them. In his book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, Rosenberg states:

Physics and neuroscience both tell us, for different reasons, that one clump of matter can’t be about another clump of matter. Computer science combined both to show that human brain states can’t really be about stuff for exactly the same reason that the internal working of your laptop can’t really be about anything at all.[5]

Rosenberg is consistent as a naturalist and admits that matter (including brains) cannot be of or about anything at all. It follows from his conclusion that intentionality is nothing but an illusion. But there is a big problem here as this is where Rosenberg’s “consistency” comes to an end and refutes his own beliefs. This is the case because illusions are intentional states! So if one has an illusion of intentionality, then they legitimately possess intentionality because illusions are always of or about something. “So the view that intentionality is merely an illusion is literally self-refuting and incoherent.”[6]


Rationality seems to require both intentionality and libertarian free will. In fact, without intentionality, one could never possess the volitional ability to choose between competing hypotheses as to which one ought to be preferred. Why? Because if one cannot think of or about these different options, one cannot freely choose between these options. Here’s the point: if rationality is impossible without intentionality, and intentionality is impossible on physicalism (as Rosenberg claims), and a computer is a purely physical thing, then it logically follows that a computer is not rational, nor does it possess knowledge of or about anything (even if humans are fooled).

If nature is all that exists, then humans do not have a genuine ability to think otherwise. Moreover, many naturalists believe we do not really think about anything, let alone competing hypotheses. Therefore, if naturalism is true — and if these naturalists are correct — then there is no such thing as libertarian free will or intentionality. If there is no intentionality or free will, then there is no freethinking about anything!

Bottom line: Humans can freely think about things; therefore, the soul exists![7]

Stay reasonable (Philippians 4:5),

Tim Stratton


[1] R. Scott Smith, Could We Know Reality, Given Physicalism? Nancey Murphy’s Views as a Test Case, Article in Perspectives of Science and Christian Faith, Volume 64, Number 3, September 2012

[2] Angus Menuge, Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science,” (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, July 1, 2004) (Preface xv)

[3] Searle, J., 1980, ‘Minds, Brains and Programs’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3: 417–57 [Preprint available online]

[4] Michael Egnor, Can a Computer Think, March 31, 2011, Found at:

[5] Alex Rosenberg, The Atheists Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, NY, 2011)

[6] William Lane Craig, Doctrine of Man (Part 8), Transcripts found at:

[7] It is important to note that intentionality is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition of libertarian free will (LFW). That is to say, libertarian free will is impossible without intentionality, but one could possess intentionality without possessing LFW (i.e., theological determinism). A committed naturalist who hopes to affirm rationality must explain exactly how both intentionality and LFW exist if nature is all that exists.

  • Here is an interesting article called, “The Empty Brain,” written by Robert Epstein who is a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in California. He is the author of 15 books, and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today. Epstein explains the fundamental differences between human brains and computers.

  • Thank you, Jorge Gil Calderon for the awesome artwork!

About the Author



(The FreeThinking Theist)

Tim pursued his undergraduate studies at the University of Nebraska-Kearney (B.A. 1997) and after working in full-time ministry for several years went on to attain his graduate degree from Biola University (M.A. 2014). Tim was recently accepted at North West University to pursue his Ph.D. in systematic theology with a focus on metaphysics.

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