The Economist has a surprising article on how people communicate. A cognitive scientist at Yale, Bruno Galantucci, developed an experiment which has two participants attempt to find each other in a virtual bungalow. They could only interact via a couple of networked computers using a device that allowed them to scrawl out symbols but not words.
Most of the groups were able to successfully communicate enough information to solve the game, some doing so in a manner of minutes. What caught my interest was the following excerpt:
One strength of Dr Galantucci’s experiment that does not exist in the real world, however, is that he is able to interview his subjects afterwards. What is striking, he says, is that a pair can be successful even if a symbol represents something quite different in the virtual world to each player—as long as they agree on what they should do when confronted by it. In other words, people only need to convey a small amount of information to communicate effectively, and they can do so while holding fundamentally different ideas about how their language describes the world.
When I read this, I immediately though of Searle’s Chinese Room argument which emphasizes semantics over syntax. In the Yale experiment, semantics did not seem as important as syntax judging from the quoted passage. The participants could have at least a rudimentary understanding of their messages without agreeing on the semantics of the particular symbols. I’m not sure that this has any important implications for Searle’s argument, but I found it interesting nonetheless.
Update: Added clever-ish title.