Monday, April 30, 2007

The patterns of life

I got into Hofstadter after reading his 1997 book Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language, and his new one is apparently finally out, after having been delayed repeatedly from its initial release date of August 2006. Like the rest of his stuff, it certainly looks like a lot to chew on, but worth the effort.

Boden's review is mixed -- like many others in her field, she's very enamoured with Hofstadter's most famed work, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, and therefore views everything that's come since as falling short of that particular benchmark. I honestly can't say whether this is a valid viewpoint or just sloppy criticism; I loved Le Ton beau de Marot, but GEB requires a pretty extensive knowledge of mathematics and cognitive science to fully appreciate, and thus I found it pretty much impenetrable.

Still, I look forward to the challenge -- and the experience of seeing Hofstadter's intimidating intelligence appearing in its full (printed) glory once again.
The core intellectual claim, then, is much the same as that of Gödel, Escher, Bach: namely, that a proper understanding of Gödel's proof helps us to see that life, mind and self are all constituted not by biochemistry but by the higher-level patterns that biochemistry makes possible. In particular, human selves are abstract self-referential (reflexively looping) patterns that arise spontaneously out of the meaningless base of neural activity.

These patterns are real, albeit abstract. And they have real causal power, even though they are epiphenomena generated by the brain. They affect other patterns within the mind-complex, and they loop back into the brain itself. Unlike the complex patterns generated when a video camera is focused on a television screen showing its own output (an analogy repeatedly used to demystify the notion of strange loops), the human-self patterns can determine changes within the system's hardware. But this mind-brain causation is nothing "spooky" or supernatural. It's an emergent consequence of the physical complexity of human brains.

Electrical signals and neurochemicals, or the porridge-like matter inside the skull, seem distinctly unpromising as origins of mind or meaning. Indeed, Hofstadter scorns John Searle's suggestion that neuroprotein constitutes "the right stuff" for intentionality and consciousness, whereas silicon or old beer cans obviously do not. What's important is not the stuff in itself, but the looping patterns of activity that emerge from it—whatever its chemistry happens to be. So whereas many philosophers despair of there being any scientific, naturalistic explanation of meaning, Hofstadter does not. But he doesn't accept the currently popular neuroscientific reductionism either. In his view, neuroscience can never capture the essence of mind. Indeed, the neuroscientific details are in an important sense irrelevant—even though they are, at base, what makes mind possible.

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