by Douglas Hofstadter
Hofstadter explores the brain and the idea of consciousness. What makes us believe ourselves to be conscious? Why do we believe ourselves to be conscious and not other beings? Why do we generally think of consciousness as a clearly demarcated space: this thing has consciousness, this thing doesn’t. He approaches these questions through a number of analogies, building one on the next quite skillfully. The book’s a bit of a slog (even with my voracious reading pace it took me almost three weeks, with a couple breaks for other books in the meantime), and best read one chapter at a time (there are 25), with a little settling time in between. A couple thoughts:
- My favorite analogy from the book has to do with Hofstadter’s suggestion that consciousness functions as a convenient myth we tell ourselves, something that appears to be there but isn’t. His analogy goes to a box of envelopes. If you reach your hand into a box of standard, letter-size envelopes, you can feel a hard object in the middle, as if a marble has been stuck in the box. But when you pull out the envelopes, that marble is gone. It turns out that because the center point of the envelope is several layers of paper overlapping, the accumulated mass of all those center points feels like a marble, though none is there. He suggests consciousness works the same way.
- The end of the book faces the difficult reality head on. Either you’re a dualist, who believes there is a nonphysical “consciousness” entity that’s not part of this physical universe yet influences it, or you believe that consciousness is a physical process, in which case you are a strange loop.
- A strange loop is a feedback loop that can see and alter its own behavior. A being aware of itself and able to be aware of others. DH argues that our brain generates such a complicated and recursive feedback loop that one of its side effects is consciousness, or the feeling thereof. He also sees no reason why such a loop must be limited to humans or people.
- A small quibble: in Chapter 24, he writes:
…in our culture there is a dogma that states, roughly, that all human lives are worth exactly the same amount. And yet we violate that dogma regularly. [ Examples include war, etc.] Another clear violation of our dogma is capital punishment, where society collectively chooses to terminate a human life. Basically, society has judged that a certain soul merits no respect at all.
While I’m not in favor of capital punishment, I feel like this over-simplifies the issue. If a society has many processes in place designed to insure guilt, that society is providing that soul some respect. I disagree that the decision to end a life means no respect was there to begin with.
- One more: On 352, Hofstadter quotes Albert Schweitzer in complaining about modern renditions of Bach, suggesting, in a sense, that these performers just don’t “get” the music. He’s glad to find Schweitzer an ally in his criticism of “superficiality taking itself for depth.” I can’t believe the depth of thought that shows itself elsewhere in this book can stand side-by-side with such a shallow lament about the loss of taste in our culture.
- There’s a section in the middle that suddenly turns personal and very grim. I can see why he included it, but it was a big turn-off for me. I wouldn’t blame you if you skimmed it.
- And, of course, he explores the zombie question. I felt like I understood it before, but he really tackles the meat of the issue. No pun intended.
It’s an interesting book all around. I expected to have a bit more neurobiology in it, but as it is it works nicely. Worth a read, but be ready for a long haul.