Philosophy for the Short Attention Span

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

I am a Strange Loop

I am a Strange LoopDouglas 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 Gödel, 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. … 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. …

“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”—namely, “aware”—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. …

Such skeptics are in essence kicking the problem upstairs — instead of settling for the idea that symbol-level brain activity … 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. Gödel’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. Gödel’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 (Gödel’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—whether the stimulus originates from outside our bodies or from within, or they be memories of the past or anticipations of the future—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 Gödel? 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.

posted by MWP at 12:32 am  


  1. Human brains evolved to keep the genes that assembled them in circulation in a species gene pool; the brain was not designed to understand such things as “consciousness.” “Qualia” gets the job done, just as spirits did before a rational left brain evolved. Both concepts are illusory, to this reductionist’s way of thinking. To expect that we can go further than Hofstadter in explainning consciousness is like asking my cat to understand F=ma. A scientist is dedicated to reducing everything to F=ma (plus quantum physics), and any request for not delving to this deepest level is un-scientific – nay, it would be a betrayal of the scientific premise. Duality exists to the extent that all illusions exist. To ask for a thing in the brain that experiences the neural network resonances (taking a book off the shelf for a brief reading) invites an infinite regress like the silly notion of a homunculus, or the silliest notion of a God, who was constructed by another entity beigger than God, who…
    I am content to accept the limitations of my brain and adopt reductionism as the only philosophical position that I think can be defended, and leave the matters of qualia, consciousness, free will, etc for others to spin their wheels about. This could be wrong-headed, but that’s how my partially-connected neural network brain works.

    Comment by Bruce L. Gary — May 28, 2007 @ 8:07 am

  2. Descarte’s “problem” of the separation of the spirit from the body is exactly the kind of thinking that Hofstadter appears to condemn. No spirit– just body. He has demonstrated exactly how we might come to believe in an “I”, a fire driving our subjective experience. Our symbol-driven brain spends, well, ALL of its time in our head. While it’s getting used to the concepts of trees, and squirrels, and books (and how they might affect us (e.g. falling, whistling in the wind, biting us, transmitting rabies)), it is also coming to know itself, and how it seems to be able to control its environment. Of course, from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that we would be able to react intelligently to our environment… “free will” would tend to continue existing in a world filled with other beings possessing brains just as flexible as yours, but with limited food to run you both. Being able to choose your course of action after considering the consequences has survival value. So your brain is doing its symbol dance, mirroring the external world, all the while referencing that environment, and how it might affect that all-important self-concept. “How will this change me?” asks your brain, in response to the constant neural dance. There need be no void between subjective and objective reality… subjective experience DEPENDS on objective reality, for the most part… unless one is constantly high on LSD, then subjective experience depends on objective reality plus a bunch of neural noise. In any case, I feel that he has done a great job at explaining why the inexplicably complex “soul”, the seat of consciousness, is actually our enormously flexible brain’s ability to represent the world it exists in, to represent itself, and finally to recognize how that world is capable of changing itself. None of this requires any form of dualism; neural activity that represents the environment(+self) with sufficient resolution is quite enough to produce a strong sense of “first person” experience. The general consistency of this experience with what you might consider objective reality, although not steadfast proof that they are part of the same system, gives good reason to believe they are. The argument goes both ways: not one person can prove the existence of a soul either! But I am writing this, and I believe that it will be posted for others to read… so either this giant hallucinated world is terribly consistent, and I’m the only one that actually exists, or, if you ever do read this, you must believe that I exist in the world as well… that conceivably we could arrange a meeting if we really wanted to. Is it part of a giant (world sized) hallucination, or is there an objective reality? I’m willing to go out on a limb, and say that the latter seems a tad more likely. That is essentially what you’re questioning, no?

    Comment by B — January 7, 2008 @ 8:10 pm

  3. I’m questioning how to synthesize these two perspectives into a unified understanding of the world. Each perspective on its own leaves questions pointing to the other. To say that all that exists is our first-person experience leaves open questions about the regularity and predictability that we find in the seemingly objective world. Especially when it comes to the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences. On the other hand, to say that all that exists is the material world of space, time, matter, and energy, leaves the question of where our first-person experience fits into this third-person model of the world. Reductionists would say, “but that’s all that we are!” And I would say that the furthest modern science can possibly go in its present paradigm is to give correlations between third-person objective neurological phenomena, and first-person subjective experience. Correlations, but no explanations, in the way that deeper principles such as F=ma and the inverse-square law of gravitation can explain elliptical orbits, or that biochemistry can explain all neurological phenomena in principle, even if not in practice. This is not because we don’t know everything about neuroscience. Even if we did, it is not within its scope to explain experience in terms of neurological phenomena. It only explains behavior in terms of neurological phenomena, even if that behavior is a person saying “I see a red rose.” The third-person to first-person leap that many people make here in assuming that “they must experience like I do” is a leap that lies outside the scope of science. This leap is perfectly fine to make for all practical purposes in getting through our lives, but it is a leap that is made here, and no where else in science. It is this gap that keeps first-person experience outside the present paradigm of science to explain, and it maintains this philosophical duality.

    I believe that Hofstadter himself would not disagree with this. Or at least with what I am trying to say, as evidenced by the 4th to last section of the book, in the epilogue: “[The Hard Problem] seems just as far from having an answer today (or, for that matter, at any time in the future) as it was many centuries ago.”

    On a final note, I suspect that this first-person/third-person gap is related to the measurement problem in quantum physics. Conceptually, I feel as if these are similar problems, and that progress in one may provide clues to the other. Pure speculation, of course.

    Comment by MWP — January 7, 2008 @ 11:15 pm

  4. Does Pandeism solve the hard problem of consciousness? See Intriguing Metaphysical Parallels between the Consciousness Debate and Pandeism for a discussion.

    Comment by Arcos Plage — January 11, 2008 @ 7:07 pm

  5. Now everyone is talking about the American economy and eclections, nice to read something different. Eugene

    Comment by Eugene — October 20, 2008 @ 11:35 am

  6. I would like to see the inscription “to be continied”:-D

    Comment by Sabina — November 5, 2008 @ 10:37 pm

  7. Nice post. Thank you for the info. Keep it up.

    Comment by Tim Reynolds — December 7, 2008 @ 12:21 pm

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