Category Archives: science

I am a Strange Loop

by Douglas Hofstadter

I hadn’t read any Hofstadter since The Mind’s I. That title may also have been my introduction to Dan Dennett… I’m not sure if I read it or Consciousness Explained first. But anyway, in the ensuing 20 years, I have read nearly all of Dennett’s output, and the present book makes a (not so) strange loop back to Hofstadter. I suppose, based on my knowledge of their work together, that I should not have been surprised to realize at a point somewhere short of halfway through this book that Hofstadter’s theory of mind reminded me of nothing so much as Dennett’s “Multiple Drafts” model.

Hofstadter describes the definition of a self, an “I,” a soul if you must, as the core issue of his book. The reader must bear with him as he takes a few tangents into such things as video feedback, mathematics, self-driving vehicles…

“[My aim here is] to point out how widespread is the tacit assumption that the level of the most primordial physical components of a brain must also be the level at which the brain’s most complex and elusive mental properties reside. Just as many aspects of a mineral (its density, its color, its magnetism or lack thereof, its optical reflectivity, its thermal and electrical conductivity, its elasticity, its heat capacity, how fast sound spreads though it, and on and on) are properties that come from how its billions of atomic constituents interact and form high-level patterns, so mental properties of the brain reside not on the level of a single tiny constituent but on the level of vast abstract patterns involving those constituents.”

A fundamental problem for us, in grasping the I within, is the dichotomy between the macro world we live in and the micro level at which everything is actually operating. So we perceive things at the visual level as “real” while in fact what is real is what physicists would insist upon – the interactions of elementary particles. Those particles make up your brain. Which ultimately makes up your consciousness. Your I. Yourself. But Hofstadter reminds us of the impossible complexity of the world if we do not look at the world at the macroscopic level where our senses reside. We need these larger groupings, else the world becomes a buzzing hive of microscopic particles without boundaries.

Hofstadter also expresses an annoyed dissatisfaction with philosophers of mind such as John Searle, who insist that computers can only simulate “real life” but not exhibit or experience it themselves. Hofstadter believes that “real life” is but another complex system that we will ultimately decipher:

“…today’s technological achievements are bringing us ever closer to understanding what dos on in living systems that survive in complex environments… If an automaton can drive itself a distance of two hundred miles across a tremendously fording desert terrain, how can this feat be called merely a “simulation”? It is certainly as genuine an act of survival in a hostile environment as that of a mosquito flying about a room and avoiding being swatted.”

The reader is presented with many vivid examples of loops, but not all of them are strange. Hofstadter sets the stage with such phenomena as a hall of mirrors, or a video feedback loop, in order to present us with the strange one:

“In any strange loop that gives rise to human selfhood, by contrast, the level-shifting acts of perception, abstraction, and categorization are xxxxxentrap, indispensable elements. It is the upward leap from raw stimuli to symbols that imbues the loop with “strangeness”. The overall gestalt “shape” of one’s self – the “stable whaler”, so to speak, of the strange loop constituting ones’ “I” – is not picked up by a disinterested, neutral camera, but is perceived in a highly subjective manner through the active processes of categorizing, mental replaying, reflecting, comparing, counterfactualizing, and judging.”

Again, it is the place between the micro and the macro, or the place where they intermingle, that we need to keep in mind:

“On the one hand, “I” is an expression denoting a set of very high abstractions: a life story, a set of tastes, a bundle of hopes and fears, some talents and lacunas, a certain degree of wittiness, some other degree of absent-mindedness, and on and on. And yet on the other hand, “I” is an expression denoting a physical object made of trillions of cells, each of which is doing its own thing without the slightest regard for the supposed whole” of which it is but an infinitesimal part. Put another way, “I” refers at one and the same time to a highly tangible and palpable biological substrate and also to a highly intangible and abstract psychological pattern. When you say “I am hungry”, which one of these levels are you referring to? And to which one are you referring when you declare, “I am happy”? And when you confess, “I can’t remember our old phone number”? And when you exult, “I love skiing”? And when you yawn, “I am sleepy”?

And still later:

“…one of the leitmotifs of this book has been that the presence or absence of animacy depends on the level at which one views a structure. Seen at its highest, most collective level, a brain is quintessentially animate and conscious. But as one gradually descends, structure by structure, from cerebrum to cortex to column to cell to cytoplasm to protein to peptide to particle, one loses the sense of animacy more and more until, at the lowest levels, it has surely vanished entirely. In one’s mind, one can move back and forth between the highest and lowest levels, and in this fashion oscillate at will between seeing the brain as animate and as inanimate.

A non dualistic view of the world can thus include animate entities perfectly easily, as long as different  levels of description are recognized as valid. Animate entities are those that, at some level of description,manifest a certain type of loopy pattern, which inevitably starts to take from if a system with the inherent capacity of perceptually filtering the world into discrete categories vigorously expands its repertoire of categories ever more towards the abstract. This pattern reaches full bloom when there comes to be a deeply entrenched self-representation – a story told by the entity to itself – in which the entity’s “I” plays the starring role, as a unitary causal agent driven by a set of desires. More precisely, an entity is animate to the degree that such a loopy “I” pattern comes into existence, since this pattern’s presence is by no means an all-or-nothing affair. Thsu to the extent that there is an “I” pattern in a given substrate, there is animacy, and where there is no such pattern the entity is inanimate.”

Category: mind, philosophy, science | Tags: ,

Inside of a Dog – What Dogs See, Smell, and Know

by Alexandra Horowitz

It’s commonly accepted that the dog was the first animal to be domesticated by man. We’ve had thousands of years together, and there is no stronger bond between humans and other animals. And yet, what do we know about them? I mean, about their inner thoughts, motivations, feelings? Many a dog owner will tell you that s/he understands his or her dog, knows what they are thinking, and vice-versa. But do we really?

As Horowitz points out, in all these thousands of years, the dog has not really been studied in a scientific manner. The conventional wisdom in animal science is that the interesting things to be learned about animal minds will be found among the primates. But that is changing, as scientists realize that over the course of our long history together, dogs, “through the artificial selection of domestication, [ ] have evolved to be sensitive to just those things that importantly make up our cognition, including, critically, attention to others.”

Horowitz would seem to be qualified to talk about this stuff: she is a dog owner and lover, of course, and a scientist by training:

“I study animal behavior. Professionally, I am wary of anthropomorphizing animals, attributing to them the feelings, thoughts, and desires that we use to describe ourselves. In learning how to study the behavior of animals, I was taught and adhered to the scientist’s code for describing actions: be objective; do not explain a behavior by appeal to a mental process when explanation by simpler processes will do; a phenomenon that is not publicly observable and confirmable is not the stuff of science.”

So, the scientist observes dogs. And in doing so, Horowitz spends considerable and repeated time describing how dogs are also sensitive observers of humans. Dogs don’t know, for instance, that they should not stare at a handicapped person, and they don’t tire of repeated observation, but retain a childlike ability to be fascinated:

“What makes dogs good anthropologists is that they are so attuned to humans: they notice what is typical, and what is different. And, just as crucially, they don’t become inured to us, as we do–nor do they grow up to be us.”

And of course dogs have other highly acute senses, most notably smell. They can detect things about us by means of their noses that we humans would need special instruments to measure. Many of these things have bearing on our behavior. An example is testosterone level – not only can a dog sense when this is heightened in a human, but the cortisol level in the dog will rise or fall in correlation.

The book is full of many such observations, drawn from a multitude of studies –  animal behavior studies, human behavior studies, child-psychology studies,  comparisons of dogs and other animals, or of dogs and humans, etc. None of it is dry or tedious, and much of it is personal. Interspersed throughout are vignettes concerning the author’s own dog, Pump.

“Every dog owner would agree with me, I suspect, about the specialness of her own dog. Reason argues that everyone must be wrong: by definition, not every dog can be the special dog – else special becomes ordinary. But it is reason that is wrong: what is special is the life story that each dog owner creates with and knows about his own dog. I am not exempt from feeling that, even from a scientific vantage. Behavioral scientific approaches to dogs, far from displacing this story, simply build on the singular understanding of the dog owner – on the expertise that each dog owner has about her dog.”

Ever aware of the dangers of anthropomorphism, Horowitz introduces us early on to the concept of umwelt, or “self-world.” “Umwelt captures what life is like as the animal.” In other words, we have to think like dogs in order to understand them: “it will be our tool for resolving the tension between what we think we know about dogs, and what they are actually doing.” While it may be an imperfect tool, Horowitz provides a plethora of examples as she shares what she has learned about dogs which make vivid the gaps, and allows us to enter that much more deeply into the canine mind. While we might note that a dog has urinated on a fire hydrant, our dog, by taking a few whiffs of that urine, can know the sex and age of the peeing dog, what it last ate, and its general health…

Such are the things we learn about what dogs see, smell, and know.

Category: dog, science | Tags: ,