Searle, Syntax, and Observer Relativity

Canadian Journal of Philosophy 26 (1):101-22 (1996)
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I critically examine some provocative arguments that John Searle presents in his book The Rediscovery of Mind to support the claim that the syntactic states of a classical computational system are "observer relative" or "mind dependent" or otherwise less than fully and objectively real. I begin by explaining how this claim differs from Searle's earlier and more well-known claim that the physical states of a machine, including the syntactic states, are insufficient to determine its semantics. In contrast, his more recent claim concerns the syntax, in particular, whether a machine actually has symbols to underlie its semantics. I then present and respond to a number of arguments that Searle offers to support this claim, including whether machine symbols are observer relative because the assignment of syntax is arbitrary, or linked to universal realizability, or linked to the sub-personal interpretive acts of a homunculus, or linked to a person's consciousness. I conclude that a realist about the computational model need not be troubled by such arguments. Their key premises need further support.
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