Monday, July 21, 2008

musings on I am a Strange Loop, part 3

As I was reading I am a Strange Loop, I was surprised that two aspects of consciousness weren't deeply discussed or further emphasized. The omissions may reflect a disagreement between Hofstadter and me, or the admirable goal of keeping the book short and focused. The first aspect is the importance of language. "The Elusive Apple of My 'I'" is the chapter that explores the nature and development of "I" (self-identity). Its descriptions seem plausible, but my inclination is to more explicitly tie consciousness to language. Consciousness, abstract thought, language, and sophisticated interpersonal relations all are among the most distinctive characteristics of humanity (although many species have these qualities in lesser magnitude). Interpersonal interaction is connected to language, language is connected to abstract thought, and self-identity is an abstract thought. Language's first purpose is communication, yet it has other uses. Otherwise, why would people "think out loud" or "talk to themselves"? It's a ready method for analyzing and ordering thoughts. It's commonly used to construct cognitive "feedback loops" of putting a thought into words, then reacting to the words with more words, etc. (Thank your long-suffering counselor or therapist today!) It's a way to expand one's memory with external storage, through reminders, notes, voice recorders, or just repeated muttering that marginally extends the time period of short-term memory. What's most important, it allows for fiction: discussing and inventing the nonexistent. I don't mean to disparage nonverbal abilities such as visualization and intuition, but the superior information encoding of language, predicated on a combination of rules and flexibility, has furnished humanity with the means to construct ever-higher towers of knowledge ("standing on the shoulders of giants" and whatnot).

Language doesn't trap thoughts. Language is a tool. However, language does guide thoughts and train thoughts along well-worn paths. Each time someone forms a valid statement, the same rules of language that enable it to be comprehensible conform the communicator's expressed thought: choices must be made as to subject, adjectives, verb, adverb, prepositions, etc. Thus, merely in order to communicate a headache presumes the existence of "I" (or "my", "me", "Yo", "Je"). At some earlier time, other people said "I have a headache" or asked "Do you have a headache?" or "Does your head hurt?" Consequently, when I feel pain localized in my cabeza, it's simple to swap out the subject slot with "I", and the more adept that people become at such subject-swapping the more they learn what self-identity (consciousness) is all about. "I" ("me"?) is a set of sensations, emotions, and actions appropriated from the rest of society to be able to label the individualized stuff, the subject-ive. When I'm a member of a group, one definition of "I" is "the group member whose face I don't see" (and whose hands I control, whose voice I use). If a member of a group caused a collective project to fail by slacking off on an assignment, and the consensus is that this member is designated by the name "Terry", then it's logical for Terry to make the conceptual leap to "I am a slacker", assuming Terry doesn't deploy a range of coping mechanisms. Like any other human creation, "I" is spread from one person to another, one generation to another, which is why it's curious to question the evolutionary value of consciousness: "I" is a linguistic, social epiphenomenon that was and is discovered and disseminated through joint efforts of human groups. Natural selection bore intelligence and language; consciousness was a by-product. Hypothetically, a completely solitary human wouldn't have or need "I".

Additionally, a tie between language and consciousness supports the notion that "I" could be at least partly an illusion. The illusory effect of language has been noted by philosophers who professed the persuasive axiom that philosophy's prime questions are examples of misapplying words out of meaningful context: absolutes created through questionable manipulations of real statements. For instance, pondering if "purpleness" exists despite "purple" is clearly an adjective. While the level of reality of "I" is closer to that of a theory or generalization than of a literary fabrication, its tenacity on the mind and its seemingly rock-solid existence are similar. Just as Good, Truth, and Reality are simultaneously undeniable to all and nevertheless extremely hard to define satisfactorily in concrete and absolute terms, "I" is evident and ethereal at once.

The second understated aspect of consciousness is the importance of the separate brain areas and functions whose collaboration is the content of consciousness, if not the bedrock. Neuroscience is prone to repeatedly shattering the image of the brain as a single entity. True, it's one organ in one area of the body. But this one organ isn't homogenous. The "wiring" for receiving and interpreting sensory data is both highly significant and not fully understood. Each hemisphere has its specializations. Speech centers play a starring role. The amygdala and hypothalamus are just two of the regions whose activity can dominate consciousness. Then there are the functions that are so commonplace that people tend to notice them only during failures, such as motor control related to the cerebellum.

At those times, "I" abruptly becomes atypically ineffectual, and it's harder to picture "I" as an aloof, absolute dictator of the body. Other kinds of brain damage reduce consciousness in more drastic details like personality changes, memory problems, and speaking difficulties. The book mentions Alzheimer's, which I too have observed up-close in relatives--the gradual erasure of what makes the individual unique. All these afflictions, whether temporary or permanent, present a conundrum for the perspective that consciousness is metaphysical. In my experience, people with that belief respond by alleging either that the consciousness is "trapped" down deep inside a frail body or that the consciousness has partly let go. They may also say the consciousness will be its former "self" in the afterlife. I haven't received an explanation of why or how the consciousness would accomplish its reversion to a previous state, but I'm not heartless enough to demand one.

The point is that regardless of the connection between consciousness and strange loops, the harmonious froth in the brainpan between all the parts is key to what goes on. A theme of this book is the difference between the macroscopic and microscopic ways of examining objects and object interactions; microscopic physical particles and nerve cells underlie the macroscopic items that are more meaningful to us, and consciousness is best analyzed in the macroscopic domain as an epiphenomenon. Brain tissues and regions fit in a middle tier. This middle tier has more than enough to fill its own book, so its absence is understandable.

Leftover musings on I am a Strange Loop, on the other hand, fit in a part 4 tier.

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