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.”

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