Friday, November 02, 2007

I Am a Strange Loop: Preliminary Review

Well, I finished I Am a Strange Loop. It's a sufficiently wide-ranging and deep work (although shallow in its way; more on that shortly) that I can write at length about it. I think I will do this review as a series, starting now and finishing over several days next week, a topic at a time. First, though, the preliminaries.

I Am a Strange Loop is not a work of deep philosophical insight. This is not purely a disadvantage, of course, because by avoiding abstract philosophy, the book manages to ground itself in reality on all its pages. Hofstadter's incessant use of analogy, sometimes clever, sometimes corny, forces the reader to see his point. In case you were confused about anything, Hofstadter will compare that point to some situation with such precision that you can't fail to get what he means.

Getting what he means, of course, does not immediately lead to agreeing with what he says. In particular, though I plan to devote a full day and many more words to this, Hofstadter is obsessed with Kurt Gödel and incompleteness. Certainly Gödel is fascinating, but what, exactly, does his metamathematical insight have to do with consciousness? Hofstadter insists that the "strange loopiness" of the human mind is analogous, in some way, to the "strange loopiness" of Gödel's theorem. Repeating this purported identity does not serve to convince the reader of it, I am afraid. More on that next week.

Critics of Hofstadter's view are dealt with as strawmen in disturbingly many cases. I already mentioned how glibly he deals with Searle; even a former student gets the full brunt of a Hofstadterian attack, in the final chapters of the book. It's not as if these critics are obviously wrong and just not getting why "I" is a strange loop; indeed, in some sense, Hofstadter does not fully appreciate the viewpoint of his detractors and fails to see cracks in his system's edifice. He also made an attempted argumentum ad absurdum that failed in its goal because, at the point of supposed absurdity, none existed. Claiming that the inverted qualia problem, as applied to colors (you see blue, I see red, but we use the same name for it, so we never understand that our experiences are fundamentally different), could be extended beyond color, Hofstadter makes the leap from "red" seeming like "blue" to someone else to an experience like (I'm making up my own example) "there is a black dog in the hallway" seeming like "I am eating a sandwich" to someone else. Just as it seems absurd that two people could ascribe the same name to such radically different subjective experiences as black-dog-in-hallway and sandwich-eating, so it is absurd to believe that what I call "red" you call "red" but see as what I call "blue."

Well, this is what the whole argument is about - the subjective perception of any event may be fundamentally different, and someone who really believes that the inverted qualia problem is a problem would have no objection to saying that even complex experiences like the ones I mentioned above may seem identical to two different people, even if they express those experiences in precisely the same language (thus never having an occasion to suspect that the other views things completely differently). Far from being absurd, it follows. That's the whole problem of inverted qualia; and making a complex extension of the problem and labeling it an absurdity ducks the issue. Bad form, Hofstadter.

Well, this little preliminary went on for far too long. I don't want to waste time now talking about things that could be discussed better next week. I disagree with a lot of what Hofstadter said, but it's nice to have his point of view expressed clearly, and it's something that tends not to get much exposure - a theory of consciousness called "epiphenomenalism." I think that epiphenomenalism is ultimately badly flawed, ascribing both too much and not enough reality to the self. But please, visit next week for the exciting (!) conclusion(s).


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