Sunday, July 20, 2008

musings on I am a Strange Loop, part 2

The chapter "Killing a couple of sacred cows" argues against the use of or need for "free will". Human behavior is bounded from the outside by a sizable set of unchangeable constraints and motivated from the inside by a sizable set of desires and goals. Then why is a ghostly factor known as "free will" posited to explain decisions? When someone chooses, one desire has simply won out over another. How is human dignity in any way amplified by the notion that people can execute purposeless (essentially random) actions?

Although I see the point of this stance and I follow its line of thought, I must extend from where it ends. I believe that it is too dismissive of the degree of complexity and unpredictability that surrounds uniquely human choices. I'd venture that some human choices involve thought that is strange-loopy complicated, in fact, with categories building on categories (or, say, a categorical imperative?). A moldy-old observation about human nature is that, unlike beasts, a human who is ordered to do something might refuse merely because he or she was ordered. It doesn't matter what the concrete incentive or disincentive is--it's the "principle" of it and the principle is on an outer meta-level of moral meaning. A second observation as old as the first is that humans are the only beasts who kill each other based on differences in abstract beliefs, not just over mates or resources or retaliation for past injuries. In short, the arbitrary complexity of thoughts and categories that strange loops enable also enable choices to be arbitrarily complex. Moreover, the mental flexibility that makes dilemmas thorny concurrently makes highly creative solutions possible. People can compromise and mediate. People can dream up nuanced laws in an attempt to evenly balance competing concerns. The concept of free will may be misleading in saying that people are either free or willful, but free will is an exaggeration of the concept of abstract will. Humans can will ideas. Humans can love love. They can weigh the pros and cons of buying insurance.

A different proposition, just as elusive as free will, is presented in some other chapters: the proposition that a consciousness can be housed at multiple points in space and time. I prefer to use the label "consciousness" whereas the book often uses "soul". In my estimation, "soul" is too heavily loaded with previous associations to be reused without misunderstanding. After all, according to this book an instance of consciousness is a strange loop of symbols, i.e. a pattern, which is a far cry from what most would call a soul. And as politics has proved, terms matter--it's easier to convince people that a pattern, not a soul, can be copied and stored across space and time. On the Internet, data patterns (what did you think a file is?) flow continuously through time and space. Why couldn't the pattern of a consciousness?

In part 1 I agreed that an exact duplicate of the "host" of a consciousness--a person's body--would be an exact duplicate of the "hosted" consciousness too. Thus, I have no qualms about agreeing that an inexact duplicate of a consciousness' pattern, stored in another time and/or place, is an inexact duplicate of the consciousness. However, once again I diverge: I can't accept the application of this corollary to human relationships, no matter how superficially. It's too far-fetched to suppose something as multi-layered as a consciousness can be known by another consciousness, or stored alongside. One person cannot simulate a second person (to be fair, the book doesn't make this claim in so many words, although it does liken brains to Universal Turing Machines). Neither can one person know a single complete thought of a second person. Communication is too imperfect for the task: its bandwidth is too narrow, its encoding too imprecise. Not only that, but each communicator is working on a basis of strange-loop, high-level, guess-work knowledge about his or her own thoughts. The talker can't necessarily state for certain why item A reminded him or her of item B! The most accomplished storyteller can fashion a virtual reality through a story, but the reality experienced by the storyteller is not the reality virtually experienced by the listener. A storyteller who says that "I was devastated by the news", besides violating the show don't tell dictum, can't possibly communicate how he or she felt exactly. But a good listener can imagine an experience that approximates it, though too much imagination will lead to an embellished version. People can "grow close" but ultimately each consciousness only has an indistinct, shallow sketch of any consciousness besides its own. These rough sketches shouldn't be construed as capturing any more than the most rudimentary caricature of a consciousness pattern; the deceased don't "live on in memories" in any sense that merits the terminology, but they are remembered. People say they sympathize, but to authentically know someone else is an incredibly hard (and perpetually unfinished) undertaking that requires a huge trial-and-error effort by the knower and the known. Not everyone can.

The level of empathy in a person's consciousness ("soul") is one of the scales the book tentatively suggests for judging the person's degree of consciousness. If that is so, I don't see how. The book's first tenet is that consciousness is a strange loop originating from thought and perception. A relative lack of aggression toward fellow beings and a talent for intuiting a fellow being's perspective are good qualities, yet the two aren't correlated with the skills of thought and perception. Aggressive geniuses exist. Gentle dunces exist. People who are excellent at analysis and categorization might not be good at relating to people (they might have no more emotional range than a teaspoon). Others who are easily confounded by elementary math might be excellent at appraising people within ten minutes of meeting them. Moreover, an individual who has a natural knack for perceiving a psyche's pleasure and pain points may choose not to be a humanitarian but to be a master manipulator who expertly uses people to achieve selfish goals.

Drat! The cornucopia of food for thought furnished by I am a Strange Loop entices me to ruminate some more to come...

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