Friday, June 10, 2011

I Am a Strange Loop -- Commentary on Chapters 5-6

     In chapter 5 Hofstadter relates his experience on what we could refer to as a "holiday with video feedback."   He points a camera at a screen and makes images of images of images etc... and investigates the patterns that can emerge from this exercise.  Some patterns "emerge" out of the systems, and persist, in a way that seems mysterious.

     The infinitely rich video feedback he describes really represents a chaotic dynamical system. The dynamics is thought of as the light bouncing back and forth on patterns formed by previous bounces. In dynamical systems, the state of the system at time t+1 is dependent on its state at time t.  Similarly, when you point a camera at a screen to get a video loop, whether a structure is present in the iteration of the loop at time t+1 is dependent on its placement at time t.  Structures in the intersection of all iterations of the loop survive all iterations and become part of the final image.  Other shapes may arise later on as pieces of the original image are bounced around.  Hofstadter writes:

 "It[a structure] wil not go away because it is forever refreshing itself, feeding on itself, giving rebirth to itself.  Otherwise put, the emergent output pattern is a self-stabilizing structure whose origins, despite the simplicity of the feedback loop itself, are nearly impenetrable because the loop is cycled through so many times" (Hofstadter pp.98-99 Nookbook)

     Sometimes dynamical systems, even though definable  by simple relationships between time t and time t+1, can give rise to infinitely rich, and varied,  structures; this is the basis of chaos theory.  One phenomena that arises is infinite sensitivity to where you are at time t.  That is,  two points can be extremely close at some time t, but wander very far away from each other; one might end up going to the origin of an axis system, and another might blast out to infinity as time moves on.  Now imagine what this means when you don't have infinite precision in measurement -- it means you cant tell which kind of point you've got!

     The structures that emerge can be given names like "corridor" or "galaxy".  His point is going to be that these structures, similar to what he says in chapters 2 and 3, should be regarded as fundamental explanatory units, rather than the individual photons that make up the image.  Presumably, within consciousness one of the persistent structures is the self or "I".

In chapter 6 Hofstadter takes on the notion of the self.  He says:

"Indeed to some people -- perhaps to most, perhaps even to us all -- the ineffable sense of being an "I" or a "first person", the intuitive sense of "being there" or simply "existing", the powerful sense of "having raw senations" (what some philosophers refer to as "qualia"), seem to be the realest things in their lives, and an insistent inner voice bridles furiously at any proposal that all this might be an illusion, or merely the outcome of some kind of physical processes taking place among "third person"(i.e., inanimate) objects.  My goal here is to combat this strident inner voice." (Hofstadter pp. 100-101, Nookbook)

He brings up several ideas in these sentences and I'm going to try to separate them:
1. The sense of being an "I".
2. The Sense of having raw sensations(qualia)
3. That the self might be an illusion.
4.  That the self is an outcome of processes taking place among "third person" objects.

1.  From the wikipedia entry on Fichte:

"Fichte's account proceeds from th
e general principle that the I must set itself up as an individual in order to set itself up at all, and that in order to set itself up as an individual it must recognize itself as it were to a calling or summons (Aufforderung) by other free individual(s) — called, moreover, to limit its own freedom out of respect for the freedom of the other. The same condition applied and applies, of course, to the other(s) in its development. Hence, mutual recognition of rational individuals turns out to be a condition necessary for the individual 'I' in general. This argument for intersubjectivity is central to the conception of selfhood developed in the Doctrine of Science (aka 'Wissenschaftslehre'). In Fichte's view consciousness of the self depends upon resistance or a check by something that is understood as not part of the self yet is not immediately ascribable to a particular sensory perception."

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault says that the self is the internalization of the modes of social control. 

Hofstadter, instead of offering ideas like the above, thinks in terms of a metaphorical camera turned toward the self.  He imagines some organisms that can only point the camera outwards and so have no concept of the self, others, like humans, can twist and turn the camera toward the self and make all kinds of rich patterns in analogy with video feedback.

2.  Hofstadter does not really address this as such, but thinks in terms of the necessity of symbols for having perceptions; that is, perceptions are always perceptions of something., not raw sensations. But he doesn't address the existence of "qualia" in this chapter.

3.  That the self might be an illusion can be understood in a lot of different ways, a Buddhist way, for example.  It can also be understood that since the self is not a "qualia" it doesn't exist, but is rather an inference from experience.

4.  The self is the result of physical processess occuring among third person objects.  He puts his finger here right on the problem.  How does one move from the third person to the first person?  I haven't been convinced so far that he addresses this.


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