Wednesday, June 1, 2011

I Am a Strange Loop commentary Chapter 1 -- part 1

"A Mote it is to trouble the mind's eye" -- Hamlet
Here's another one:
"Thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls" -- Hamlet

     One of my favorite parts of "Men In Black" is when the alien is talking about human beings and he calls us "barely conscious pond scum".   The alien clearly believes he has no reason to respect life forms that possess comparatively impoverished levels of consciousness.  Ironically, this alien is actually a bug, a form of life humans think of as barely conscious -- unless you're in a Kafka story. Later, Tommy Lee Jones says that human thought is considered a form of disease by the rest of the galaxy.

     In Chapter 1 of I am a Strange Loop, the most controversial, and to some troubling,  thing Hofstadter does is arrange sentient beings on a scale of consciousness, what's more, he ranks normal adults higher than retarded people, children, people with Alzheimer's disease etc...  This has caused one blogger to wonder whether there is something, well, politically dangerous, about doing so(http://newskeptic.blogspot.com/2007/11/i-am-strange-loop-consciousness.html).

     On the other hand, Hofstadter recounts how he fainted at the prospect of taking a guinea pig up to be killed for physiological research during his student days.  If he faints for gunea pigs, I'm not too worried he'll be insensitive to humans lower on the consciousness scale.  This is not necessarily a valid inference: Hemingway believed that folks who were very concerned about animals were often not very sensitive to people. For the record, I think Hofstadter is probably a nice guy who goes out of his way not to hurt any sentient being, human or not.  Recall that, I think it was Bentham who said this, that our obligation toward a living thing is in proportion to its ability to SUFFER.  You know, they say men have a lower threshold of pain than women, so my wife should be especially nice to me.

     Such ideas are, as you know, no where near being new.  From the Gold, Silver, and Bronze souls of Plato's Republic, to The Great Chain of Being of the Elizabethan World Picture, to Hegel's theory, to social constructionist epistemologies, people are always qualifying or even ordering consciousnesses.  Hofstadter invents a scale named for a commentator, Huneker, on Chopin who mentioned that not everyone has a big enough soul to understand and play Chopin. 

     Well, what is consciousness anyway, and how do we know how much of it we have?  Is it how many chunks we can hold in conscious memory at one time, it's supposed to be somewhere between 5 and 7?
 Or is it a matter of the quality of things that can pass into consciousness, for example, a mental picture somehow of the rich layers of a passage of Chopin?  Or perhaps it's an area computed between both quantity and quality -- OK, now I'm being silly.   One way of putting this is: how many varieties of qualia can a given sentient being have at a time and from how big a list of possible qualia can this being choose?  We'll get into this a little in the next post.

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