Tuesday, July 22, 2008

musings on I am a Strange Loop, part 4

I am a Strange Loop is a book about consciousness that displays unashamedly the imprint of the author. Its examples come from his life. It's far from emotionally sterile, since it includes his reactions and opinions. It offers glimpses of where his ideas originated. It includes excerpts from his letters. It shows his sincerity.

It advocates vegetarianism. To his credit, the author honestly relates how his attitude has developed and also when he has and hasn't eaten accordingly. He justifies it better than most vegetarians I have met, who focus either on the notable health benefits or on reminding everyone around them that meat does, in fact, come out of slaughtered creatures, as if the embedded blood and bones weren't sufficient clues. Belief in consciousness as a strange loop is intriguingly novel fodder for the vegetarian assertion that greater similarity in form between a human and a creature implies greater similarity in the experience of existence, pain, and death. The more that a creature's capability of awareness approaches a strange loop, the closer the creature is to being conscious, i.e. closer to being like us mentally. Monkey brain is therefore even less palatable than before.

My stance, to the extent I have one on the topic, is that consciousness and strange loops aren't pertinent to the decision of vegetarianism. Pain shouldn't be inflicted recklessly, regardless of the victim's intelligence, and power to take an action doesn't excuse it. Nevertheless, consuming other creatures ("ingesting flesh", as a vegetarian might say) doesn't have to violate those maxims, in my evaluation. Killing or torturing a creature in brutal fashion would be unethical. Killing a creature for no purpose than fun or sport would be unethical, too. Excessiveness to the point of eliminating a species, no matter the "mildness" of the individual deaths, would be unethical. A person participating in the food chain, without malice, is merely natural. Color me a concerned omnivore...an omnivore who doesn't eat a lot of meat due to the nutritional hazards, which are aggregately dire.

Besides vegetarianism, the book advocates something else: Bach. A writer can extol any composer he or she wants; that's a prerogative of writing. I won't object to the suggestion that musical preference is often symptomatic of someone's sense of identity, because music is perhaps the most vivid expression of a culture and cultural identity can be instrumental (pun intended) in self-identity. I'm agreeable to the still-stronger hypothesis that the deep "shape" of someone's consciousness interlocks more firmly with some individual musical pieces than others, depending on the piece's use or abuse of rhythm, melody, tempo, tone, harmony. However, I don't accept that the amount of attraction toward particular music is reliable for gauging a consciousness on any scale of measurement. The relationship between consciousness and musical appreciation is too nuanced, too dependent on other factors--multivariate. Having said all this, I don't care much for Bach, though I enjoy isolated compositions. That's a low measure of praise, considering I enjoy isolated compositions in almost every genre I've heard.

Finally, fittingly enough, is the epilogue, "The Quandary". It's a good summation of the book's major points, but what I like (the strange loop remarked as it contemplated its past contemplations) is the admission that the concept of consciousness as a strange loop isn't immune to the perceptual gap separating inner and outer life. A consciousness convinced that it has no independent existence remains a consciousness that assumes it has independent existence! Moreover, one of the ingredients of a coherent whole of consciousness is the inability to perceive its parts. (Of course, it's rather circular, anatomically speaking, to picture the brain having a meta-nervous system devoted to sensing the activity of its neurons.) Without the unconscious and the subconscious, consciousness would be too distracted by itself to react to its surroundings, a situation which mental illness abundantly demonstrates.

Thus, all theoretical derivations of consciousness are doomed to failure in presenting a model that convincingly matches human experience, i.e. "common-sense". Scientific theories for epiphenomena and illusions tend "to ring hollow" anyway, no matter how much support the theories have. Counterintuitive theories are like complex numbers and transcendental numbers. Simple questions can have correct answers that defy expectations. Whether to respond to these answers with dismayed doubt or energized awe is the choice of the learner. Hofstadter has undoubtedly made his.

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