Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Who watches the watcher?

I recommend reading Adami's review (PDF here) of Douglas Hofstadter's recent book on consciousness "I am a Strange Loop," Basic Books, New York, 2007. A few excerpts:
Hofstadter's explanation of human consciousness is disarmingly simple...the main idea is simply that our feeling of a conscious "I" is but an illusion created by our neuronal circuitry: an illusion that is only apparent at the level of symbols and thoughts, in much the same way as the concepts of pressure and temperature are only apparent at the level of 10^23 molecules but not the level of single molecules. In other words, Hofstadter denies consciousness an element of ontological reality, without denying that our thoughts and feelings, pains and longings have an "inner reality" when we have them.

Hofstadter's book and Koch's recent "The Quest for Consciousness" make for an interesting juxtaposition. Each addresses the same problem but entirely on different levels. Yet both authors reach some of the same conclusions, sometimes using precisely the same metaphor (as when they compare the activity of "making up one's mind" in terms of a voting process). In the end, both authors could have profited from peeking at each other's arsenal: Hofstadter would probably be delighted to see some of the putative neural underpinnings of consciousness, to peer underneath the strange loop as it were, at the inordinately complex firework and the neuroanatomy that supports it. For his part, Koch would no doubt appreciate the computational trick that Gödel incompleteness plays on us, as well as the developmental aspect of consciousness that Hofstadter advocates.

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