If you have read this blog much, you know that a topic that interests me greatly is the nature of consciousness. How is it that a three-pound clump of cells, a brain, gives rise to the rich experience of consciousness, our minds? Cognitive scientist David Chalmers termed this “the hard problem” of consciousness, and as it stands we really have no idea what consciousness is (and yet we all experience it all the time).
Back in 1979 cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter wrote Gödel, Escher, Bach, a book that attempts to answer the question. GEB, as it became known, was a large book most took as a random tour of interesting scientific ideas. But GEB did have a theme, so 25 years later Hofstadter wrote another (much shorter) book to re-state his case.
That book is called I Am a Strange Loop, and it has much worth considering!
If you find the phrase, “much worth considering,” somewhat less than glowing, the reason is that I’m not sure how I feel about Hofstadter’s ideas. Obviously my opinion is vastly less informed than his, so you should really take this with a grain of salt
[A “grain of salt” is—I suppose—intended to make an opinion less “sweet.” But doesn’t salt make things more flavorful? I’m reminded of the old tale about the two Princesses. Their father King asks them how much they loved him. The first replies, “Oh, father, you are the apple of my eye!” This pleases the King greatly! The second replies, “Oh father, you are the salt in my food!” That makes the King all WTF? Then second daughter reminds him how, without salt, food is lifeless and tasteless, and then the King is delighted.]
And I don’t really intend to take on Hofstadter’s main idea about consciousness today. I want to read the book again more carefully, before I get into that. I also want to get through David Chalmer’s The Conscious Mind. These two scientists have quite different views of consciousness, and so far I find I lean towards Chalmer’s ideas (although I’m not sure I buy his “philosophical zombies” idea).
His book is a challenge, though. I’ve started it twice and had to put it down both times due to time constraints (as in, “severe lack of”). It’s not the sort of book you can read a chapter at a time when you get a chance. (Now that I’m retired, I can finally sit down and get through it.)
For now I’ll just say that Hofstadter believes consciousness arises from a kind of feedback loop, a “strange loop,” taking place in our brains. He cites, as a very primitive example, the sort of microphone feedback we’ve all seen at live events. The sound from the speakers goes back into the microphone, which sends it back out the speakers amplified. The process repeats until it hits the max limits of the system. The result is a blast of pure over-amplified sound.
The point of his simple example is to illustrate how something (the loud squeal) arises from the process of repeated recycling of a starting sound. Even the softest sound can be enough to start the loop. If you think of the sounds as thoughts, you begin to understand Hofstadter’s point.
There’s more to it, of course. One important aspect is the idea of self-reference, how parts of our mind refer to other parts of our mind. Another is that our minds consist of a “tangled hierarchy” that lacks distinct end points. You can follow some of the links in this post if you’re interested in details now. I’ll return to Hofstadter’s Strange Loops another time.
What I wanted to write about today was an interesting idea that Hofstadter has about our existence as conscious beings.
Think of someone you know very well, a child, a parent, a spouse, someone you’ve known a long time. In particular, someone you know so well you can accurately predict what they might say in a given situation. You know their likes and dislikes; you know their personality; you could have conversations with this person in your head.
Hofstadter’s idea is that our actual existence is “smeared” out across all who know us. We think we exist within the confines of our own body, but in reality we also have some form of existence in all who know us.
In fact, our bodies may die, but we continue to live on in the minds of our loved ones.
And, indeed, if I imagine a long conversation with a dear one departed—given that reality, in some sense, is mainly in our minds—how can we really say that person is “gone”? They’re not gone; I was just talking to them!
I found myself wondering how much more true this might be when it comes to artists or anyone who leaves behind a body of work. Is William Shakespeare actually dead, or does he live on in every production of his plays and every reading of his sonnets?
And what does modern media do to this equation? Is Elvis really gone, or does he live on in his music, movies and recorded interviews? What about in our modern era? Will Justin Bieber and Paris Hilton live forever? [Yoiks!]
Considering the number of photographs and videos made of most people today, do they all maybe live on in their Facebore posts and Twits?
Will I live on in my WordPress blog articles?
It’s a fascinating idea, and as a metaphor or abstraction, I’m totally down with it. But Hofstadter means something more concrete. He really does believe that our consciousness becomes smeared out across all who know us. He really does seem to believe in the reality of a continued existence.
When you realize that he’s mourning his wife, who died young from a brain tumor, you can’t help but wonder how much of his idea is driven by grief and loss. I do wonder if this might be an atheist scientist’s response to death. If “going to heaven” isn’t an option, perhaps living on in other minds is?
And yet, who hasn’t had a conversation in their head with someone they’ve loved but who is no longer physically present for conversation? (In fact, this idea applies even to those who’ve just moved to some other part of the world so we never see them again.) But for me, the missing element of volition and experience are necessary.
The image of a person in your mind has no volition of their own, and—most importantly—they don’t experience anything. The experience is all yours. There is a funny thing with regard to volition, though. If your image of that person is accurate, they may tell you things you don’t want to hear.
Have you ever heard a loved one’s voice in your head telling you not to do something (or that you should do something you don’t want to)? What an interesting thing: you have in your head an “actor” that seemingly acts against your own mind!
Freud would probably attribute that as a function of your super-ego, and I suspect that’s a more accurate view. As lovely as the idea of others living on in my mind is, I find ultimately I believe they’re all me. A large cast of stars, supporting characters, bit parts and walk-ons, but they’re all me.