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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 3.2 (2020): 78–101;
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Buddhism and Technology, and Epigraphy)

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Buddha in the Chinese Room: Empty Persons, Other Mindstreams, and the Strong AI Debate

Joshua STOLL
University of Hawai‘i West O‘ahu

Abstract: The question of whether we can build machines that can think and feel has been with us since at least the time of Descartes. However, it has taken on a new sense of urgency and significance as our lives have become progressively more integrated with and dependent on artificially intelligent technologies. But what does ‘artificial intelligence’ mean exactly? Is it truly possible to build computers that can think and feel like us, and what would it mean if we could? This paper will explore John Searle’s famous rejection of the possibility of such ‘strong AI’ through his Chinese Room Argument and how he handles several replies to his argument. We will then discuss these replies further in the context of Buddhist considerations with respect to the emptiness of persons (pudgalanairātmya), emptiness (śūnyatā) more generally, and the status of the succession of mental states in others (santānāntara)—especially as this pertains to Buddha’s purported omniscience. Doing so will give us resources to examine the implications of Buddhist considerations for strong AI, thus giving us a sense of what a Buddhist perspective might say about the possibility of developing such technology.

Keywords: Strong AI, emptiness, other minds, Buddha’s omniscience


About the Author: Joshua Stoll received his Ph.D. in Philosophy at University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa in 2018. He currently teaches a diverse array of philosophy courses in the Humanities Division at University of Hawai‘i—West O‘ahu. His research engages in a cross-cultural examination of the intersubjective dimensions of consciousness in order to analyze the nature and possibilities of our relations to the living experiences of others. In particular, he investigates the interconnections and tensions between contemporary philosophy of mind, embodied cognitive science, and Indian philosophy with the aim of clarifying the problem of other minds, exploring how we develop a sense of self and other, and examining what it means to share ourselves with each other.


This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.