Strange Loop – Comments 1

Escher's Drawing Hands

Now for some comments on “I am a Strange Loop“. Given that Hofstadter insists upon the mapping of all brain activity down to neurons, he then wonders about the role of concepts like love, honor, guilt, etc. He asks: “Do such pure abstractions have causal powers?” but I did not sense that he really answered that question. While I agree that one can probably map brain activities down to the pure physical level (with super sophisticated sensing devices), that seems to me to be a not very interesting thing to do. We operate (as Hofstadter acknowledges) at the level of gross abstractions, and I think it’s fair to say that as we consider the abstractions and make decisions, that essentially it is the abstractions that are causal.

I compare this issue to software, where the code is written at a high level of abstraction. Yes, of course this maps all the way down to 0s and 1s, but I’d say it’s the abstract patterns that are manipulating the bits, not the bits manipulating the abstractions. And if the low-level substrate supports abstractions and self-reference, then there’s really little limit to what abstractions can be created (and to the power of those abstractions). At times Hofstadter seems to belittle the abstractions: “I conceived of these “macroscopic forces” as being merely ways of describing complex patterns engendered by basic physical forces” (his italics), but at other points he points out their primacy in our experience.

I find some of the word choice to be deliberately provocative. For instance, he frequently calls the “I” an ‘illusion’ or ‘mirage’. While I get his point that there may not be a physical thing we can point at that is the “I”, I think it makes more sense to refer to it as an ’emergent property’.

This all reminds me of Robert Laughlin’s book A Different Universe, where he argued that a pure reductionist approach was not nearly enough to find all the interesting properties of matter (see my earlier post on A Different Universe).

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