27 April 2007

'I Am A Strange Loop' by Douglas Hofstader (2007)

I am a Strange Loop

Self-reference is what this book is all about. Douglas Hostadter, author of Gödel, Escher, Bach (which I never have gotten all the way through), tries in this book to get at what we mean when we say “I”. I found it a pretty good read; some silly parables and stories help illustrate his concepts. Below I’ll try to summarize what I got out of it, and where I think it leads.

1. Hofstadter believes that Gödel’s real breakthrough was creating a mapping system on top of the natural numbers. Once he had done that, he had shown that you can create a kind of ‘universal machine’ for creating new patterns and abstractions (taken to the level of computing by Alan Turing).

2. Hofstadter rejects any notions of dualism, and thus sees physical matter & laws as the bedrock for all we perceive. No mystical notions of elan vital for him!  All must map back down to the physical level of neurons (or atoms, or however far you want to go).

3. He believes that as the brain evolved, it got to a point where it could start to self-reference, and act as a powerful type of ‘universal machine’. He places living things on a scale of consciousness, with humans at the peak, dogs at some low level and mosquitoes at virtually nil.

4. He then posits that as the human brain develops patterns of high-level abstractions and self-references (strange loops), it creates for us an ‘illusion’ or ‘mirage’ that we call “I” (or the soul, or consciousness; he uses the terms to mean a similar thing).

5. Part of what we model in our brains is the patterns of other people; he sees each person’s ’soul’ as existing (in low-res ‘copies’) in a distributed way amongst the people we know.  Thus after we die some low-res version of our ’soul’ is still around as long as someone remembers us.

I’ve obviously simplified a lot, and hopefully not butchered his basic positions.  I plan to comment on a number of these points in later posts.

Given that Hofstadter insists upon the mapping of all brain activity down to neurons, he then wonders about the role of concepts like love, honor, guilt, etc. He asks: “Do such pure abstractions have causal powers?” but I did not sense that he really answered that question. While I agree that one can probably map brain activities down to the pure physical level (with super sophisticated sensing devices), that seems to me to be a not very interesting thing to do. We operate (as Hofstadter acknowledges) at the level of gross abstractions, and I think it’s fair to say that as we consider the abstractions and make decisions, that essentially it is the abstractions that are causal.

I compare this issue to software, where the code is written at a high level of abstraction. Yes, of course this maps all the way down to 0s and 1s, but I’d say it’s the abstract patterns that are manipulating the bits, not the bits manipulating the abstractions. And if the low-level substrate supports abstractions and self-reference, then there’s really little limit to what abstractions can be created (and to the power of those abstractions). At times Hofstadter seems to belittle the abstractions: “I conceived of these “macroscopic forces” as being merely ways of describing complex patterns engendered by basic physical forces” (his italics), but at other points he points out their primacy in our experience.

I find some of the word choice to be deliberately provocative. For instance, he frequently calls the “I” an ‘illusion’ or ‘mirage’. While I get his point that there may not be a physical thing we can point at that is the “I”, I think it makes more sense to refer to it as an ‘emergent property’.

This all reminds me of Robert Laughlin’s book A Different Universe, where he argued that a pure reductionist approach was not nearly enough to find all the interesting properties of matter (see my earlier post on A Different Universe).

25 April 2007

'A Brief History of Everything' by Ken Wilber

A Brief History of 
I found this book while poking around the Amsterdam airport, looking for something interesting; A Brief History of Everything fit the bill. I’d browsed Wilber before, but never read anything; this mass market edition looked inviting enough, with its Q&A format and promise of an overview of his thinking.

While some of the book gets into some pretty abstruse philosophical territory, I’ll try to highlight what I found to be the main points (obviously greatly simplifying). Wilber is trying to integrate a lot of ideas, looking for the overarching patterns and lessons from philosophy and science. An overriding idea is that the interior/subjective is just as important as the exterior/objective (aka Science), and that by concentrating too heavily on one or the other you wind up with a very unbalanced approach. He applies this concept at all levels, so if we think of ourselves, the interior is mind/consciousness, while the exterior is the brain/body. The exterior can be measured and monitored from the outside, while the interior can only be approached through dialog and interpretation.
Wilber's quadrants
Wilber also makes a critical distinction between the individual and the collective; acknowledging that we are social beings, there is interior and exterior to the group as well; the interior may be labeled as the cultural. The cultural is also about values and is subject to interpretation. The diagram above is a simple visual representing what Wilber refers to as the ‘quadrants’. Each quadrant has its own levels and forms of truth.

The third big idea is that evolution occurs in each quadrant, and that evolution creates greater depth with less span, or in other words smaller numbers of more complex things; humans, societies, science, levels of understanding. As evolution proceeds on individuals and groups, interior and exterior, there is greater depth.
This summary may make it all seem a bit trivial, but I’m obviously just scratching the surface. I like the fact that he does not throw out science while insisting on the importance of the interior. At the same time, he feels that the modern condition of denying transcendence leads to a ‘flatland’ that is impoverished and unbalanced.

07 April 2007

Revolutionary Thoughts

While riding the trains in the Netherlands, I read Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, which was well worthwhile. Maybe it’s just a sign of how influential the book has been, but I found his arguments well founded and still very interesting. His notion of scientific paradigms tries to examine what science is about as a collective enterprise, and how it is that new ideas become accepted by a community (not a fully objective, rational process by any means, though rational judgments are made by the participants). Getting inside this subjectivity earned Kuhn some enmity, but I find it a very rewarding approach.

A provocative quote: “In the sciences there need not be progress of another sort. We may, to be more precise, have to relinquish the notion, explicit or implicit, that changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth.”

Kuhn stresses that no paradigm is a complete model – there are always facts and observations that don’t fit. It seems to me that the paradigm, or context, in which we perceive the world is both a magnifying glass and a set of blinders. As Kuhn puts it, “Though science surely grows in depth, it may not grow in breadth as well.”
In the airport at Amsterdam, I searched the stores for more reading on the way home, and while most shops had virtually the same selection of English titles, in one I found a new paperback re-issue of Ken Wilber’s “A Brief History of Everything” (which synchronicitiously makes direct reference to Kuhn), which attempts to integrate many philosophical approaches. I’ll have more to say about that when I finish it.