Sunday, June 5, 2011

I Am A Strange Loop -- Chapters 2 and 3

     In Chapter 2, Hofstadter begins his assault on pure reductionism, and also on John Searle(I also recommend the wikipedia page on John Searle).  Hofstadter emphasizes that reductionism as he defines it, reducing all explanation to the microphysical, is not the best way to go about understanding consciousness.  He believes that consciousness is the result of many, many, neurons firing in just the right way. He gives a lot of examples of how it is better in some contexts to explain things in terms of collections rather than in terms of the individual particles that make up a system. 

    While discussing the explanatory superiority of collectives over individuals, he states further that abstractions, like "dog"(i.e.,concepts within consciousness), are the proper objects of study for really understanding the brain, which he describes as a thinking organ.  But I think sometimes he gets collections and conscious ideas tangled up a bit.  Yes, I can see how patterns of neural activity may be associated with the thought "dog", and that it is better to think in terms of "dog" sometimes than the associated neural pattern, but sometimes I get the feeling that he slips between collections and conscious abstractions without keeping track of the distinction properly. 

     There is a lack of appreciation of the explanatory gap between physical things, like collections of neurons, and conscious entities, like the idea "dog", that Levine talks about in the article I mention in a previous post.  By the way, telling me the whole is more than the sum of its parts doesn't cut it; I need more than that.  There is, simply put, a qualitative difference between mental abstractions and physical collectives that Hofstadter doesn't satisfy me about here.    As Levine says:

"When I conceive of the mental, it seems utterly unlike the physical. Antimaterialists insist that from this intuitive difference we can infer a genuine metaphysical difference. Materialists retort that the nature of reality, including the ultimate natures of its constituents, is a matter for discovery; an objective fact that cannot be discerned a priori."

This passage is much more probative regarding the difference between the mental and physical than anything Hofstadter says here(vividly though he puts it).  Levine concludes:

"The explanatory gap argument doesn't demonstrate a gap in nature, but a gap in our understanding of nature. Of course a plausible explanation for there being a gap in our understanding of nature is that there is a genuine gap in nature. But so long as we have countervailing reasons for doubting the latter, we have to look elsewhere for an explanation of the former. "

Thus, while there is an explanatory gap, a point with which I completely agree, one can't actually conclude a non-physical cause from it. 

Then Hofstadter takes on John Searle -- I gather from the tone this is not their first run-in.   Searle emphasizes that consciousness is not just the result of patterns, but depends also on the causal properties of the materials out of which the consciousness is constructed: a replica of a human being made out of yarn or beer cans would not have consciousness because yarn and beer cans do not have the right causal properties.  Hofstadter just goes off!

"...because John Searle has a gift for catchy imagery, his specious ideas have, over the years, had a great deal of impact on many professional colleagues, graduate students, and lay people."

Interesting that Hofstadter is also known for his vivid writing style.  He also uses vivid imagery in chapters 2  and  3 to describe his primary idea.  He asserts that John Searle defeats a straw argument that Hofstadter et al assert that a single neuron has consciousness.  Hofstadter goes to great lengths to explain that consciousness does not reside in a single neuron but in the collective.   I frankly do not find that this move accomplishes anything.  I am no more convinced that consciouness somehow pops out of the collective than out of the individual.  The gap is just too big. 


P.S. -- For fun, check out the wikipedia page on supervenience.

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