on 30 May 2011
I remember "Godel, Escher, Bach" . A very insightful piece of work, full of intellectual energy, powerful ideas and wit. Now this is one really dissapointing work which really offers nothing new or groundbreaking in the complex field of philosophy of mind and the cogntitive sciences. I mean seriously. How many times are you going to state and re-state that the "I" is a "strange loop". An illusion created when one has awareness of one's self. Well, this is the basic idea and it can be described in one page the most. What this book does, is take and repeat this idea over and over again, to the point that gets a reader (like me!) tired, with no scientific support and no new/further developments on this view.
There is no evidence, actual experiments or newer insights fron psychology, cognitive science , neuroscience or whatsoever in support of this view (despite the fact that there is now a substantial scientific literature in relevance to the self and consciousness. Now for example we have "mirror neurons" etc.). The only thing we get is that same 70s "Godel, Escher, Bach" idea ("pseudo-") supported" by a few thought experiments, some creative-art musings with a camera in front of a mirror, philosopher's parfit's ideas with a fair amount of Godel and principia mathematica, although the last one is still of ambiquous and questionable relevance to the studies of consciousness and the mind. This vortex of perplexed (confused?) thoughts, ideas and musings somehow have led the author to the conclusion that the "I" is a "hallucination, hallucinated by a hallucinator" (!) (a circular fallacy? This cannot be said for the "camera-mirror experiment", There is an ACTUAL camera and an ACTUAL mirror that produce the camera-within-a camera effect) and that you can LITERALLY live in other peoples minds, in the same way that you "live" in your own mind-body.
In "support" (ehm cough, cough) of this view, he gives examples of thought experiments describing what would happen if you ended-up wearing goggles that transmitted other people's visual perceptions. Or the other way round, that when you have "impressions" of other people's behaviour you literally have a bit of them inside "you" (albeit in lower "resolutions"), in the same way that when you "play" a film in your computer, you get a bit of marilyn monroe "living" in your monitor (lucky you!). I think the author has really confused first person perceptions with first person simulations. When you watch a film with Marilyn Monroe, it doesn't mean that marilyn monroe literally lives in your computer for a while. The specific program re-produces the film, which is a series of video-taped pictures that visually captured marilyn monroe's behavior (acting)at a very specific time, not marilyn monroe herself! When i wear the hypothetical goggles (that trasmit the visual infromation from another person's view) i am not "transmitted" in that other person. I could never know what the other person's visual perception of the same scene is.
In the same way, i don't literally have my mum, my dad, my girlfriend and all my friends living inside me (in lower or higher resolutions), i just have some impressions (sensory perceptions accompanied by some affective evaluations) of their behavior, leading my brain to produce some subjective personal simulations of themselves, not themselves in a literal way. In a matter of fact, i can literally never know how my girlfriend/wife feels and whether she feels and thinks in the same way i think and feel (or I think and feel of Her) no matter how long i lived with her or know her. I can think i have an accurate perception that she loves me very much, but this could be nothing more than my personal distorted impression of her (and for sure not her actual HER ,HER- as her collections of her private sensations and feelings.) Hofstadter deceased wife (which seems to made the author to get a bit carried away by his own ideas...) could literally feel and think different things from what she used to look/act like (neuroscience/psychology literatule between "thinking" and "acting" anyone?) and to the type of impressions/simulations that hofstadter had of her (sorry professor doug).
I also think that the author got consciousness, autobiographical self and meta-cognition mixed-up. Consiousness (the "raw" sensations and feelings- vision, audition, pain, pleasure, sadness etc.) is not the same with self-consiousness or self-awareness. The last one (self-cosniousness or metacognition or insight) could have some illusory dynamics the type that hofstadter speaks about through-out his book,but i can't see how it relates to the raw data of pain, vision or pleasure. You mean that you need some autobiographical self in order to see and feel? So lower animals see/hear/feel nothing, a senile person in the last stage of alzheimer's wouldn't feel pain, during extreme sensory moments like severe pain or orgasm you sustain a vivid sense of autobiographical self and the same goes for vividless R.E.M sleep...i mean seriously. Try not to get carried away by your own musings. I can ask you what's your name when you experience extreme pain (migraine) or pleasure (sex) and your response would be much slower (if it is made at all!) in comparison to when you are in neutral sensory/emotional circumstances. Studies have shown that mood provides a context for mood-congruent recall. Depressed people have a tendency/bias to recall negative-life events (Bower's network theory etc.).The sensations and emotions dominate your brain and interact with/influence the higher cognitive functions of autobiographical/memory recall.
If autobiographical memories or personality reflexes or whatever were a pre-requisite to the experience of raw sensations, then autobiographical memory recall would be much faster and readily available in all extreme sensory and emotional circumstances. This is not the case. Memory and emotions interact in complex ways, but one doesn't seem to be a pre-requisite for the other. It seems that the demented senile person can still feel the pain from muscular immobility and doesn't just pretend to be so. People with frontal traumatic brain injury, fronto-temporal dementia, psychosis or severe mania who have sometimes lost self-awareness/metacognition, still get vivid experiences, feelings, hallucinations and emotions. Similarly, i can still have vivid sensory perceptions and emotions during a dream, despite the fact that i don't have the slightest idea of who, where or what (!) am i. And yes, that mosquito-which according to the author of the book is like a simplistic linear "toilet-flush" system-could demonstrate astonishingly complex behavior. Have you seen the chaotic flying behavior of a mosquito when it feels "threatened" by a shoe? This is far from the linear closed-toilet-flush-system-loop, since the chaos in the mosquito's flying MUST be supported by some kind of non-linear "decision-making" neuronal dynamics. If the system was linear like a simple toilet-flush, the I could easily learn and predict where the mosquito would next land (in the same way I can predict when the toilet-flush would be ready to flush). This is not the case!
To be fair, there are some interesting ideas, like people who have bigger "selfs"- meaning that they are more altruistic and empathic to others- are more conscious. There is some evidence (that hofstadter doesn't explicitly state) that individuals with sociopathy have higher pain thresholds. Again, correlation doesn't mean causation but it is an interesting idea.
All in all, the book seemed to be the creation of a once-brilliant mind, that probably due to his loss and grief, got entrapped within his own strange loops. Interesting, but not up to par with its' creator.