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).

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