Automatic communication

A while back I was pontificating John Searle’s thought experiment, the Chinese Prisoner’s Dilemma. The nature of this thought experiment is detailed here, but since I hate it when people force me to follow links around I will quote the following description.

He proposes that you have a man locked in a Chinese prison cell. The man does not speak or read Chinese. Chinese characters are passed into his cell, and he draws from his own collection of Chinese characters to “answer.” He eventually gets pretty good at responding with the correct Chinese characters. (Theoretically this would take many lifetimes to learn but this is a thought experiment.) The guy is presumably thinking along the lines of, “whenever I get this character or character set, they seem to like it when I reply with this character or character set.” To the Chinese people on the outside, it seems like the guy in the prison cell understands the conversation but in reality he doesn’t. The prisoner recognizes the designs of the symbols, but not their meaning.

Basically Searle argues that real communication is the following process: An intelligent actor passes a communication to a second intelligent actor. That second actor comprehends the message and then develops an intelligent response which it passes to the first party.

That’s real communication (according to Searle.) Fake communication is what he argues computers or Chinese prisoners do. It’s something like: An intelligent actor passes a communication to a second actor. This second actor may or may not be intelligent. That second actor basically randomly passes back something it doesn’t really understand and the first actor has to make sense of it.

The conceit here is that us human—an intelligent lot—do a lot of real communication whereas computers, Chinese prisoners and other various idiots don’t.

But is it true we humans really communicate? I’ve always been a little bothered by this conceit because it seems like a lot of communication I engage in is sort of knee jerk. I don’t really sit and ruminate on what a person is saying to me and my answer appears out of nowhere and is out of my lips before I consider it. I’ll give an example:

Someone: How’s you doing to day, Wil?

Me: Fine, and you?

I say this no matter how I’m feeling, unless it’s obvious that I’m not doing well. (If my entrails are hanging out of my stomach, for example.) I just have a canned response when someone asks me that question. Pretty much as we understand computers do.

How about this dialogue?

Someone: Are you going to work today?

Me: I am.

This might require a bit more comprehension on my part. I need to think about whether I’m working and give a response.

But “going to work” can really mean several things. One is “are you traveling to work?” Another is “are you going to perform the act of work?” Do I always understand what the person is asking when I answer that question? Not really. Sometimes context fills it in; if I’m on a bus I might presume that they mean “are you traveling to work” (though I could be wrong.)

So my point is here’s an example of communication where I don’t fully understand the question. I only have partial comprehension. And that’s not full communication.

Maybe it’s to much to ask that we have fully understood communication with every bit of dialogue. But I’m wondering if the fact that we don’t points to another possibility: that we really communicate in a more automatic way than we think, much as we presume computers do. Maybe we’re all Chinese prisoners.

  1. No Comments