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Middle Way Philosophy, Philosophy, Psychology

The New Chinese Room

I have just returned from a writing retreat in Ireland in which I was thinking long and hard about meaning, working on the first half of volume 3 of my ‘Middle Way Philosophy’ series. A lot of what I was doing involved synthesising various sources: the linguistic philosophy of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Jung’s theory of archetypes, and McGilchrist’s work on the brain hemispheres. One of the ideas that struck me was the following update of a famous thought experiment by philosopher John Searle, the Chinese Room.

In the original version of the thought experiment by Searle,ChineseRoom an English speaker who does not understand Chinese is confined to a room with a lot of coding books, which she uses to translate one incomprehensible Chinese symbol into another. A Chinese person outside the room then passes Chinese symbols through a slot, and the English speaker then turns them into other symbols by following the instructions. The Chinese person outside thus experiences a conversation in which meaningful symbols are exchanged, but the person inside the room has no comprehension of the meaning of the conversation she is apparently engaged in.

In Searle’s version of the thought experiment, the person in the Chinese room represents a computer, and the thought experiment demonstrates the distinction between syntax and semantics: that symbols can be manipulated without understanding through a mechanical process so as to give the appearance of meaning, without meaning being present. Searle wanted to prove that only biological organisms, not machines, experience meaning.

However, I think that in the light of Iain McGilchrist’s work on the hemispheres, and the theory of meaning processed in the right hemisphere offered by Lakoff and Johnson, we need to revise this thought experiment. It’s not computers that are the issue, because we have constructed computers: it’s the human brain.

Let’s slightly revise the thought experiment. Let’s say that the person inside the Chinese Room is not wholly ignorant of Chinese. She’s done a beginner’s course in Mandarin a long time ago. With an enormous effort she could start to work out and dimly grasp the meaning of the characters. However, this would run entirely against her habits. She really doesn’t want to make that effort, and what’s more she finds it deeply boring to have to do so. It’s much easier just to look up the codes and do an automatic processing job: so that’s what she does most of the time, in a zombie-like state. She just wants to finish the job and get it over with. For the person on the outside, however, the Chinese characters are highly meaningful, full of freshly minted interest.

Here the person in the Chinese room represents not a computer, but the left hemisphere of the brain. The left hemisphere may not be totally incapable of meaningful understanding, but its habits run otherwise, and those habits are deeply grooved by long specialisation. Instead, it processes the meaning fed into it by the right hemisphere. For the right hemisphere, it is extremely significant. Lakoff and Johnson explain the basis of that significance: gestalt physical experiences of the body or of basic perception, extended by metaphor and metonymy. Basically, if we accept their explanation, all meaning is meaning for a person and is understood within a physical, biological context, processed by a right brain that makes fresh links between abstractions and physical experience through metaphor. The left hemisphere processes that meaning within certain cognitive models that it contributes to setting up, but it does not by itself appreciate meaning – at least as a matter of habit, perhaps not as a matter of capacity.

Then lets extend the analogy a little more. Image that the person in the Chinese Room started to construct a theory of meaning. Obviously the symbols she was processing would have their own kind of “meaning” for her, but this meaning would be based solely on the feedback given from outside the room. So perhaps she might misapply the instructions and put together symbols that did not lead to satisfactory replies, and she would start to call these ways of using symbols “meaningless”. Other ways of following the instructions that led to codes that did get satisfactory replies would be understood as “meaningful”. All the time, however, she would not really have any understanding of what the person outside the room meant by “meaningful” or “meaningless” in relation to experience. This represents the theories of meaning in analytic philosophy and linguistics, which rely only on the left hemisphere to explain meaning.

The distinction between the person outside the room and the person inside the room here is no longer that between syntax and semantics, but between two aspects of semantics: the ‘live’ and the ‘dead’: let’s call them person-semantics and zombie-semantics. Person-semantics has an immediate impact on experience, and can engage appreciatively in the arts. Zombie-semantics only deals with dead metaphors that continue to be purposefully used but are helpful only for their exchange value, not their relationship to experience.

I believe this account of meaning poses a profound challenge to the left brain dominance we are so used to: the dualism, the inability to account for objectivity without dogma, the confusion about ethics and aesthetics, the managerialism and bureaucracy. It is time the person in the Chinese Room broke out of it and started recognising the person outside, rather than pretending that her narrow confines are the whole of reality.

Picture: Dionne Dawson from the film of ‘The Chinese Room’ (Wikimedia Commons: Creative Commons licence for picture only).


About Robert M Ellis

I am an independent philosopher, with a Ph.D. in Philosophy, and a distance tutor in Critical Thinking, Philosophy and Politics. I also have experience of Buddhist practice. I developed Middle Way Philosophy to apply what I see as the central insights of Buddhism in an entirely Western context.


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