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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sorry Hofstadter, they're just pretty pictures

Douglas Hofstadter's new book I Am a Strange Loop places him firmly in the Daniel Dennett camp of philosophers on the mystery of consciousness: the camp that believes that "consciousness is an illusion" is enough of an explanation to settle the matter.

I think this dodges the question. Of course consciousness is an illusion; but since we don't understand how that illusion itself is experienced, we're back at square one. Whether or not thinking is a variation on talking to ourselves (Dennett's theory) or the result of our ability to reference ourselves and our own thinking (Hofstadter's theory), the question of feeling remains. How do some chemical processes feel, while other chemical processes--which may, like ours, be incredibly complex and recursive--just happen?

But at least Hofstadter is consistent: he thinks there is a continuum of complexity, from ants up to humans and beyond. From his recent Wired interview:
You have a great line: “I am a mirage that perceives itself.” If our fundamental sense of what is real — our own existence — is merely a self-reinforcing mirage, does that call into question the reality of the universe itself?

I don’t think so. Even though subatomic particles engage in a deeply recursive process called renormalization, they don’t contain a self-model, and everything I talk about in this book — consciousness — derives from a self-model.

Strange Loop describes the soul as a self-model that is very weak in insects and stronger in mammals. What happens when machines have very large souls?

It’s a continuum, and a strange loop can arise in any substrate.
This is the direction Hofstadter started out in with his classic stumper Godel, Escher, Bach, where he failed--though brilliantly--to demonstrate that these thinkers and artists hold the key to understanding consciousness and the soul.

His idea is that consciousness grows from being able to examine your own mental workings. This is a fun mental exercise, but it doesn't hold up. It relies on ex post facto reasoning: because minds are better and better equipped to do this as you move up the latter from amoebas to humans, this must be the engine that drives consciousness. But self-awareness is just a small element of awareness, and it doesn't seem to correlate highly in our varied mental states and between variously self-aware people. What of brain-damaged people whose understanding of their existence as a human being is fundamentally impaired? What of lower animals, which we imagine feel intense hunger, lust and pain without having a self-examining mind in any sense like ours?

Presumably, when a shark floods itself with hormones at the start of a feeding frenzy, or a mouse releases adrenaline on seeing a cat, it feels something like a rush we can feel. Do sharks and mice thus have a self-model in their brains? Must all such animals that feel fear and urges? Would a mouse that mutated so that its primative self-model was broken no longer have the spark of awareness? And if so, why couldn't that mouse evolve into a human that similarly functioned like we do, but without the spark of awareness? How could we tell the difference between us and him? Are we sure he's not us?