Monday, November 12, 2007

I Am a Strange Loop: Nagging Dualism

It's time to finish up my review of I Am a Strange Loop. Hofstadter rejects dualism, harshly, but does his epiphenomenalism stand up to criticism? Does epiphenomenalism make sense at all?

Epiphenomenalism, (very) roughly speaking, is a view of consciousness that ascribes the status of an "emergent" phenomenon to the mind. That is, in some sufficiently complex brains, the large-scale activities of those brains cannot adequately be explained by reduction to the material components and processes at work. To say that thinking consists in the firing of neurons is not only misleading, to the epiphenomenalist, it is wrong because such an explanation gives no account of the mind. The brain and the mind, then, are two different things. Epiphenomenalism manages to make that assertion without falling into dualism by recognizing the ontological contingency of the mind. The mind cannot exist without a brain; the material processes of a brain have independent significance as objects of physics without the mind.

Epiphenomenalism thus attempts to sidestep the principal difficulties of dualism (positing mental substance, interaction) while avoiding going whole-hog in for reductionism. The whole idea is still a bit distasteful, and those who find application of Ockham's razor a compelling reason to accept reductionism will easily see the problem. An epiphenomenal mind, being the aggregate outcome of a large number of complex physical and biological processes, has no independent existence. Is not the mind just a name assigned to a large number of fundamentally mechanistic processes indistinguishable from "non-mental" physical events? Just as "tree" is a convenient shorthand for a more-or-less coherent body of many, many atoms behaving in incredibly complex ways, "mind" is a name for many, many atoms behaving in incredibly complex (but different) ways. Assigning a name to the thing artificially imposes order where no essential order exists; and having once assigned a name to the thing, in order that we can communicate about it, we assign independent significance to it. This is an error, not a sign of any metaphysical significance.

Epiphenomenalism is convenient when trying to refute those like John Searle who claim that machines cannot possibly ever think. Because computer-thought is composed of nothing but ones and zeroes, goes the argument, nothing like thought could ever arise amid those binary processes. Epiphenomenalism has the answer: chemicals in the brain, considered discretely, could not bring about thought, but the effect of all those chemicals' working together in the way they manage creates a mind from the matter. In the same way, machine minds could arise from electronic processes, at least in theory. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Hofstadter is unfair to Searle - perhaps it's not absurd after all to think that computers can't think. If epiphenomenalism is supposed to prove that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon, it seems like wishful thinking.

In fact, dualism wants very much to insert itself in the discussion and solve all the problems of materialism by rejecting it. Chemicals can't think; but humans do think; therefore, what thinks in humans must not be reducible to matter. It takes a little faith to accept dualism, obviously; however, I don't think Hofstadter has provided a sufficient refutation of it, though he does try. In a dialogue between "Strange Loop #641" and "Strange Loop #642," Hofstadter addresses and rejects dualism, with SL #642 being the skeptic who doubts Hofstadter's view of consciousness. Thus:
SL #642 : It's just that there has to be something extremely special that accounts for the existence of spiritual, mental, feeling, perceiving beings in this physical world - something that explains our inner light, our awareness, our consciousness.
He objects that SL #641, who is Hofstadter's voice in the dialogue, leaves no room for an independent "I" in his theory:
SL #642 : But that isn't the whole story, because I am nowhere in this story. There is no room for an I.
Recall the Cartesian "cogito ergo sum." SL #642 asks, "What is it that thinks?" As far as I can interpret Hofstadter, his answer would be, "'I think' is the thing that thinks. The act of thinking itself is what consciousness is, and nothing more mysterious than that." So far, that seems like a reasonable answer. Consciousness itself, considered as an object, is just the activity of thought itself. But something is missing, and Hofstadter does not seem to realize it, because he has his skeptic saying the following:
And my experience is the primary data on which everything else that I say is based, so you cannot deny my claim.
But this is not quite what the skeptic should be looking for in trying to locate an independent "I" at the heart of consciousness. Self-reflection is one thing, but the thing common to all experience that unites that experience in a coherent whole is what we are looking for. Thinking about thinking is making the "I" an object of experience, making the "I" into "data." But the phrase "primary data" is utterly incoherent. The "I" in the statement "I think" is not a datum at all, but a presumed entity that exists as subject of "I think" and of "I am hungry" and any other thought or feeling in the mind. More abstractly, "I" is implicit even when a person thinks, "That blog entry is awfully pretentious," because that is merely another way of expressing "I am experiencing sense-data that I am organizing in such a way that the phenomenon of a pretentious blog entry stands out amid the chaos." Consciousness, being the thing in which thought and experience occur as modifications of that substrate, is implicit in every single thing that happens to us. And something (Kant called it the "transcendental unity of apperception" [really]) must give coherence to different parts of experience at different times, so that our experiences are connected as experiences of a single "I" and not of multiple, independent selves. "I" am the same "I" who wrote the other entries in this review of I Am a Strange Loop. This unity is not a datum at all; it is not perceived, ever, but must exist for consciousness to function.

The physical layer of the mind, the brain, does not appear capable of creating concepts like the unity of experience on its own. That "I" is something metaphysically distinct from the brain thus provides a convenient solution to the puzzle about consciousness. Of course, reductionism protests that, having no experience of anything other than physical events, we have no legitimate basis for assuming a non-physical mind.

What gives experience coherence? What makes it possible for experience to exist in the first place? That last question, ultimately, is where philosophy of mind needs to start. Ultimately, Hofstadter's book hovers at a level ontologically posterior to that question, and seeks the mind in phenomena. That those phenomena are themselves contingent on the bases of human cognition seems not to have bothered him too much. I wonder if it should.

In other words, far from believing myself to be a strange loop, I still have no idea what I am.


At 4:49 PM, September 10, 2009 , Blogger Auskunft said...

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At 6:29 PM, February 05, 2011 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

big words small brain


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