Sea of Reads

Peripatetic, itinerant, eclectic musings about books, politics, history, language, culture, and anything else that interests me.

Speaking of Consciousness….

I recently finished reading Doug Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop. I had wanted to read it for a long time, and now that I have, I can say that, to the extent I even understand it, I am depressed. I just can’t find comfort or inspiration in the idea that consciousness is just the brain perceiving itself, and the afterlife is just the remnants of other people’s consciousness that we absorb into our own.

Or something like that. Maybe I’m missing something. Wouldn’t surprise me, since most of the technical stuff just flew right over my head. So in the interest of making this post more, um, interesting, and maybe learning a thing or two myself, here is a collection of links about I Am a Strange Loop and Doug Hofstadter.

The book  is intended to further develop a theme begun in Hofstadter’s previous book Godel, Escher, Bach:

Hofstadter had previously expressed disappointment with how Gödel, Escher, Bach, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for general nonfiction, was received. In the preface to the twentieth-anniversary edition, Hofstadter laments that his book has been misperceived as a hodge-podge of neat things with no central theme. He states: “GEB is a very personal attempt to say how it is that animate beings can come out of inanimate matter. What is a self, and how can a self come out of stuff that is as selfless as a stone or a puddle?”

He sought to remedy this problem in I Am a Strange Loop, by focusing on and expounding upon the central message of Gödel, Escher, Bach. He seeks to demonstrate how the properties of self-referential systems, demonstrated most famously in Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, can be used to describe the unique properties of minds.

As an exploration of the concept of “self”, Hofstadter explores his own life, and those he has been close to.

Here’s an interview with Doug Hofstadter in which he describes his notion of a soul surviving its original owner’s body (emphasis in original):

One of the most surprising arguments in the book (it has in fact appeared in his previous book, Le Ton beau de Marot) is the idea that the soul outlives the body by having its copies, or “soul-shards”, exist in many brains — the brains of other people, who have known the deceased; perhaps a stronger variation of the idea that a person lives so long as others remember him.

You present a compelling argument for the notion of a soul surviving its physical body by being spread across multiple brains; the more a person is familiar to others, the better his soul is “present” in their brain, too. How will you respond to the claim that the “presence” of one soul in another soul’s brain is merely a simulation mechanism, developed by the evolution process as a means to improve survival? (Being able to predict what members of your clan are about to do can certainly be a powerful survival tool.)

My argument in I Am a Strange Loop is spelled out clearly. If a person’s soul is truly a pattern, then it can be realized in different media. Wherever that pattern exists in a sufficiently fine-grained way, then it is, by my definition, the soul itself and not some kind of “mere simulation” of it.

Testing out the loop:

To get into a properly loopy mind-set for Douglas R. Hofstadter’s new book on consciousness, I plugged a Webcam into my desktop computer and pointed it at the screen. In the first instant, an image of the screen appeared on the screen and then the screen inside the screen. Cycling round and round, the video signal rapidly gave rise to a long corridor leading toward a patch of shimmering blue, beckoning like the light at the end of death’s tunnel.

Giving the camera a twist, I watched as the regress of rectangles took on a spiraling shape spinning fibonaccily deeper into nowhere. Somewhere along the way a spot of red–a glint of sunlight, I later realized–became caught in the swirl, which slowly congealed into a planet of red continents and blue seas. Zooming in closer, I explored a surface that was erupting with yellow, orange and green volcanoes. Like Homer Simpson putting a fork inside the microwave, I feared for a moment that I had ruptured the very fabric of space and time.

Left flat and underwhelmed“:

Here’s the issue: Hofstadter is not, to me, a good writer. He goes to great pains to be accessible, taking a page from Stephen Hawking’s book and speaking in clear English, with plenty of visual language, examples, and metaphor. But (and isn’t there always a but), Hofstadter takes so long to actually make a point that by the time he does so, it’s underwhelming and foregone. The first half of the book, literally, is spent in short, digestible little sections which are generally little ramblings tangents about whatever ill-chosen metaphor Hofstadter to illustrate his point. …
Let me profess at this point that Douglas Hofstadter is a Pulitzer-prize-winning author and I am a schmuck with a blog. It is entirely possible—nay, likely—that I Am a Strange Loop is a brilliant book, full of both technical insight and philosophical comfort, but I confessed to being left flat and underwhelmed by the whole book. It seemed to me a long and arduous (not to say semantically-tricky) way of talking about memes, the psychosocial behaviors which are passed onto progeny, and first proposed (using such a word) by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. Granted, there are differences between a multi-generational look at common behaviors and a more invasive exposition on the idea of “I”-ness or the sense of self, and how it self-creates and propagates, but it seems to me as though Hofstadter’s point actually proposed very little about the human brain except that its capacity of self-reference currently escapes our ability to describe mathematically with any kind of philosophical comfort.


One comment on “Speaking of Consciousness….

  1. Chief
    May 4, 2009

    First, you are not a schmuck with a blog. I found two definitions of ‘schmuck’ and I will repeat only the nicest one. From Wiki “Schmuck (pejorative), an insulting term for a stupid person or dimwitted fool or an unwanted guest.”

    You are neither stupid nor dimwitted. And you are always a welcome guest.

    On the book. I am not going to even attempt to read it. If a person lives in the memories of those that knew the person, then there is no one alive right now that knew (actually met and talked to) my paternal grandparents or my mother’s Mom, who died in 1924.

    We live, we die and the best that I can hope for is to instill some liberal values and compassion in my progeny.

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This entry was posted on April 11, 2009 by in Book Reviews.
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