Douglas Hofstadter’s newest book, I am a Strange Loop, is a satisfying reading experience with one of the world’s foremost philosophers and researchers on human consciousness. Readers of his 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning GÃ¶del, Escher, Bach will find a familiar friend back to explore the deepest problems of the philosophy of mind and shed new light on the inner workings of human cognition. While most authors in this arena cast their kites into the sky and get pulled up into the clouds of philosophical semantics, Hofstadter keeps both feet firmly on the ground, repeatedly tying down ideas with very real, personal experiences that are familiar reminders of why many of us are driven to ponder these ideas to begin with.
This blog entry, however, is not a book review. There are a number of new ideas and perspectives from this work that I agree with and will contribute to the edifice of my understanding of human consciousness. For example, the ideas that
- consciousness is “spread out” among multiple brains,
- the notion of “I” is a “hallucination hallucinated by a hallucination”,
- a strange loop gives rise to the thing we call an “I”,
- and multiple levels of a cognitive system (e.g. neurons and symbols) must exist in order to give rise to a conscious being that internally senses symbols which are “sealed off” from the more fundamental particles or neurons of which they are composed;
I can see his points here and these are consistent with, illuminate, and build upon my present understanding of consciousness.
Where I diverge with Hofstadter is the resolution of what is called The Hard Problem of consciousness. Hofstadter proceeds by first setting the context:
[Skeptics] will skeptically ask me, “What, then, is experience in terms of your strange loops? How do strange loops in the brain tell us anything about what it feels like to be alive, to smell honeysuckle, to see a sunset, or to listen to raindrops patter on a tin roof? That is what consciousness is all about! How does that have anything to do with your strange, loopy idea?”
It is in this context that I interpret Hofstadter as attempting to address The Hard Problem of consciousness, to which his reply is:
Consciousness is the dance of symbols inside the cranium. â€¦ Most of the time, any given symbol in our brain is dormant, like a book sitting inertly in the remote stacks of a huge library. Every so often, some event will trigger the retrieval of this book from the stacks, and it will be opened and its pages will come alive for some reader. In an analogous way, inside a human brain, perceived external events are continually triggering the highly selective retrieval of symbols from dormancy, and causing them to come alive in all sorts of unanticipated, unprecedented configurations. This dance of symbols in the brain is what consciousness is. (It is also what thinking is.) Note that I say “symbols” and not “neurons”. The dance has to be perceived at that level for it to constitute consciousness. â€¦
“But who reads these symbols and their configurations?”, some skeptics will ask. “Who feels these symbols ‘come alive’? Where is the counterpart to the reader of the retrieved book?”
I suspect that these skeptics would argue that the symbols’ dance on its own is merely motion of material stuff, unfelt by anyone, so that despite my claim, this dance cannot constitute consciousness. The skeptics would like me to name or point to some special locus of subjective awareness that we all have of our thoughts and perceptions. I feel, though, that such a hope is confused, because it uses what I consider to be just another synonym for “conscious” â€” namely, “aware” â€” in posing the same question once more, but at a different level. In other words, people seeking the “reader” for configurations of activated symbols may accept the idea of symbols galore being triggered in the brain, but they refuse to call that kind of internal churning “consciousness” because now they want the symbols themselves to be perceived. â€¦
Such skeptics are in essence kicking the problem upstairs â€” instead of settling for the idea that symbol-level brain activity â€¦ that mirrors external events is consciousness, they now insist that the internal events of brain activity must in turn be perceived if consciousness is to arise. This runs the risk of setting up an infinite regress and thus moving further and further away from an answer to the riddle of consciousness rather than homing in on an answer to it.
What Hofstadter has done here is state the identification of consciousness with the inner workings of a physical brain, and refute (successfully) a straw-man argument of one form of Cartesian dualism. He has not explained how symbol-level brain activity is consciousness; how physical symbol-level brain activity is subjective experience. This is reminiscent of Russell and Whitehead making the identification of the formal manipulation of symbols in Principia Mathematica with mathematical truth. In both of these cases, the identification has been stated without proof.
Just because two worlds are highly synchronized, e.g. the world of mathematical truth, and the world of formally proved statements, we should not assume that they are one in the same. GÃ¶del’s self-referential formula has in fact demonstrated that these two worlds necessarily differ. Similarly, just because subjective experience seems to be highly synchronized with objective reality in terms of mind/brain phenomena, we should not assume that they are one in the same without proof. GÃ¶del’s Theorem has taught us that there may be subtle differences between two synchronized worlds, and to exercise caution especially when a self-referential entity (GÃ¶del’s formula, or an “I”) lies along the boundary between them.
My own view of the hard problem of consciousness is that of a unification problem between subjective experience and objective reality. First and foremost, it is subjective experience that is most real to us, more than anything at all. It is the ever-present now, in which the words of this very sentence are written by me but read and experienced by you, and thought about. And now that sentence is a memory, but the memory is none-the-less experienced now. It is the subjective experience of the now that never escapes us, and all sensations â€” whether the stimulus originates from outside our bodies or from within, or they be memories of the past or anticipations of the future â€” take place in. For those who don’t know what I am talking about, this is a Zen koan, and for those who do, they understand what I mean by subjective experience being more obvious than words can say. (Though I would guess that some reductionists would say that I am simply confused.)
The second world is objective reality. Though we don’t sense it directly (because only qualia are sensed directly), we believe it is there because when we put our socks away in our sock drawer yesterday, they are still there again today. Our experience of the world isn’t one big random collage of colors, textures, and sounds. There are patterns we find, and regularity and reliability in certain experiences. Those who pursue patterns found in the world sometimes become scientists, and the pursuit of documenting, hypothesizing, and testing these patterns is what science basically is. Given the success and rapid development of science in the past few hundred years, our notion of an objective reality has grown considerably. It has grown so large that many people have come to believe that objective reality is all that there is, and, especially those who have had a large overlap in their developmental years with some area of science, abandon subjective experience as being some kind of an illusion. This is the view of reductionism, and is the position held by Hofstadter and Dennett, as far as I can understand from their writings.
The main point I am making here is that at face value, we find ourselves in a dual existence: a world of subjective directly-experienced qualia, and a belief in an objective reality that we have mentally constructed since birth. Can these two worlds be unified as Newton did with the heavenly and earthly motions of bodies under the universal law of gravity, or are these fundamentally different, like mathematical truth and formalism as shown by GÃ¶del? What Hofstadter has done in I am a Strange Loop is shed light on how human consciousness works at the level of abstract symbols in the brain, but the mind/body problem as posed by Descartes in the 17th century is still alive and well.