Saturday, July 19, 2008

musings on I am a Strange Loop, part 1

I am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter isn't GEB II, as the author ably explains in the preface. While GEB touched on many topics that apply to Hofstadter's perspective on intelligence and illustrated those topics with Dialogues, this book has tighter focus on consciousness and strange loops. It has a couple Dialogues, much fewer visuals, and mostly photographs in place of artwork (with some great color pictures in the middle). Escher and Bach have fewer appearances. But Gödel and his Theorem are still prominent, which is fitting given the applicability to strange loops. The writing tone remains frank and conversational and it brims with extended analogies, in my opinion too many. I particularly dislike the analogies whose length is excessive, or whose connection to reality is threadbare, or whose wordplay is nauseatingly cute (Hofstadter is remarkably bold here and in GEB--I wouldn't have the chutzpah to mention the coincidental similarity between "Gödel" and "God"). It also felt repetitive to me in its insistence on restating the same conclusion in several ways, but I respect the effort to thoroughly explain rich yet abstract notions. For intangibles, especially directed at a general audience, too verbose is probably better than too terse. At any rate, I believe that I understood what I read, which counts as praise to any nonfiction author. Also praiseworthy is the undeniable pleasure I experienced through the reading. I hope it's not gratuitous to express my gratitude for the gratification, and I hope that it gratifies the one responsible for the gracious gratuity of an additional book beyond GEB.

But like my other "reviews" I'm less interested in critiquing style than musing on ideas. The book's title is apt, since the topic is the big questions about consciousness and the primary answer is strange loops. A strange loop occurs when multiple "levels" exist but the levels mutually intertwine such that repeatedly jumping "outwards" from level to level results in a return to the starting level. All the "level-jumping" in a strange loop appears to be paradoxical until viewed in a larger context, where the strange loop is clearly seen to in actuality be a circular entity (a loop) dependent on outside support for its creation and/or maintenance. An unofficial strange loop that I thought of is the (childish) economic question "where does a factory worker's money come from?". Well, the worker receives money from the level of a manufacturer, the manufacturer receives money from the level of a distributor, the distributor receives money from the level of a retailer, the retailer receives money from the level of a customer such as a plumber, and perhaps the plumber received payment from the level of the factory worker...

Gödel-like self-reference is a more subtle example because it consists of jumping between levels of meaning. To not be patently meaningless, a "self-referential" statement must jump to a new level of meaning. That is, self-referential statements must be considered as meta-statements. Assuming I comprehend him correctly, Hofstadter asserts that consciousness is a similar instance of a self-reference. Consciousness happens when the capability to think and perceive is sufficiently powerful to have its object be thinking and perceiving. The strange loop of consciousness is a thinker who thinks about his or her thinking, thereby "jumping out" to an enclosing level of context/meaning, and then possibly thinks about thinking about his or her thinking, and then possibly thinks about thinking about thinking about his or her thinking (as an aside, I wonder precisely how many meta-levels a book about consciousness has?). One of Hofstadter's objectives is to show that the strange loop of consciousness isn't really infinite, paradoxical, or otherworldly, but it is a natural epi-phenomenon which is a consequence of the symbolic, abstractive power of the human brain attempting to "wrap around" onto itself like how a Gödel theorem wraps a symbolic logic system around onto itself.

This means that consciousness is a highly convincing illusion. I like the comparison of consciousness' reality to the reality of a rainbow. A rainbow appears to be definitely located and as colorfully vivid as a flower, but if the viewer or the light moves or the water stops then the rainbow vanishes. I was a bit relieved to read someone else writing that consciousness is illusory because I've thought the same thing numerous times. Consider how little consciousness/attention a learned or practiced behavior requires. Consider that in split-hemisphere experiments the verbal hemisphere claims to have performed an action that the nonverbal hemisphere just did by itself. Consider the many, many cases when people "unintentionally" express or "betray" their "true" beliefs/feelings. Consider the many, many "gaps" in consciousness that a typical person experiences: sleep, intoxication/sedation, hypnosis (I remember going through a childhood stage of not wanting to fall asleep due to anxiety about the accompanying lack of consciousness). Consider how many of consciousness' conclusions are post-hoc--"I snapped at someone, therefore I must be cranky". Finally, consider the often-abysmal accuracy of people about themselves, the pleasant fiction they cling to--if you doubt whether someone is innocent, just ask him or her, they'll tell you.

To categorize consciousness as illusory is to conflict with dualist perspectives on consciousness. Some of my favorite parts of the book contain patiently logical dismantling of dualism. Its words again mirrored some of the deductions I have reached independently. Belief in objective and physical causality (is there another kind?) implies that a consciousness, a soul, is an unavoidable and convenient mental/social concept rather than a "known unknown" that in some magical way exists separately from reality yet simultaneously impacts it. Before reading this book I've pondered the question about whether unique self-identity is preserved after a perfect clone emerges from a vat or a traveler from a teleporter, and I reasoned that an exact duplicate must exhibit the "same" soul/identity as the original. If no practical method exists to make the distinction between x and y, x and y are for all purposes as identical as 3 and 2.999999999... The same proof applies to distinguishing a machine's or zombie's thoughts from a human's thoughts, which is another question that I encountered before reading this book--if the machine or zombie shows every indication of being as conscious and capable as a human, then it's reasonable to say that the machine or zombie has a claim to a consciousness/soul every bit as much as a human does.

I have more musings to be covered in subsequent parts.

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