Sunday, April 29, 2007

Consciousness is Not a Power Moonroof

Douglas Hofstadter said I should (could) quote him on that. The Good Book I was reading was Hosftadter's "I Am A Strange Loop", just published. This is a very good and easy (except for some chapters on Godel) read, just under 400 pages. The intro is kind of: one of the main points of his 1980 pulitzer-prize winning classic "Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid"(GEB) was missed by most readers/reviewers because the book was just so cool. That point was, that the human mind/soul/consciousness is a strange loop: self-referential with no limit on the complexity of the symbolic reference heirarchy. This is analogous to Godel's finding that all formal mathematical systems must be incomplete because you cannot stop self-reference from creeping in.

It's kind of refreshing, the simplicity of Hofstadter's arguments -- that we are "mirages that perceive themselves". But, it can't be any other way. The reality of our minds is neurons, neurotransmitters, etc -- but this is not what matters. Just as we can deal with a gas based on pressure, volume and temperature without worrying about individual molecules, so it is the emergent layers of mind that matter -- whether they are illusory or not. It kind of answers the question I posted to this blog May 14, 2003 -- oops was going to put a link, but apparently my archives are down, since switching to the new blogger -- argh, more work!?!?!

I like too that Hofstadter appropriates the word "soul" to mean, the illusory "I" that is what we have, rather than the "elan vital" or "eternal magic stuff" that we don't have. Some of his best arguments in the book are when he assumes that the "magic stuff" exists and then gets reductio-ad-absurdem contradiction after contradiction.

He talks a fair amount about the "narrative I" that over the course of our lives spends all its time telling each of us the story of "me", and convincing itself that it exists. "Narrative I" I believe I first saw in Julian Jaynes "TOOCITBOTBM", but no props in the bibliography.

Also very interesting was his discussion of how much we can put our patterns (minds) into other peoples heads. His wife died abruptly at age 43, when their children were 2 and 5, which must have been a horrible shock. He wonders about his feelings that, particularly given that his wife and he were "of the same mind" about many things, particularly about raising their children, to what extent his wife's mind was running in his brain after her death?

This reminded me a lot of the point I was making at my dad's memorial service. I was talking about how I got the superpower of having an ear for the hook (catchy tunes) from my dad, and apparently had passed it on to some of my children. The subtext was that, there is no life after death, but here is how we really live on: in our descendants who have various genetic pieces of us, and in other people who lives we have influenced who have memetic pieces of us.

No comments: