Strange Loops and Distributed Consciousness

The following is the abstract from Douglas Hofstadter’s contribution to this year’s upcoming Science of Consciousness Conference, April 4th to 8th, Tucson 2006. (Followed by some other interesting abstracts.)

(I had been kinda hoping I could be there, but it seems less and less likely as I approach my move to the US ironically.)

Strange Loops,
Downward causation, and
Distributed Consciousness
by Douglas Hofstadter

As everyone knows from hearing microphones screeching in auditoriums, feedback loops give rise to a highly stable type of locking-in phenomenon. A related phenomenon arises in other types of feedback loops — in particular, in video feedback. The patterns that result from such feedback loops exhibit stability and robustness, and therefore take on a seeming reality at their own level.

The brain’s mirroring of the world is far more complex than that of a television camera, since its purpose is to “make sense” of the world, which means the selective activation of small sets of symbolic structures, or as I call them, “symbols”, which reside on a level far higher than that of neurons. The interplay of symbols in the brain constitutes thought, and thought results in behavior, whose consequences are then perceived anew by the selfsame brain. Such a feedback loop exists in any system that has internal symbols, but when the symbolic repertoire is unlimitedly extensible (through the mechanism of chunking) and when it additionally gives rise not only to permanent records of past episodes but also to the possibility of imagining future and counterfactual scenarios (which is the case for human brains but not for, say, dog brains), then the system’s representation of itself becomes an extremely stable, robust, locked-in, epiphenomenal pattern (which I dub a “strange loop”), and the system thus fabricates for itself an “I”, whose reality (to the system itself) seems beyond doubt.

The “I” seems to act on the world purely through high-level phenomena such as desires, hopes, beliefs, and so on — and this lends it an apparent quality of “downward causation” (i.e., thoughts and other emergent phenomena “pushing around” particles, rather than the reverse). To the extent that the “I” is real, so is downward causation and also conversely: to the extent that downward causation is real, so is the “I”.

Each human being, by virtue of being acquainted with (and thus internally mirroring) many other human beings, houses not only one strange loop or “I”, but many such, at extremely different levels of fidelity — metaphorically speaking, mosaics at wildly different grain sizes. Thus each human brain is the locus of not just one consciousness (or “soul”) but of many such, having different levels of intensity or presence. Conversely, a given individual, although it inhabits primarily a particular brain, does not inhabit that brain exclusively, and as a consequence each human “soul” and each human identity is a somewhat distributed entity.

The near-alignment of one brain and one soul is thus misleading: it gives rise to the illusion that consciousness is not distributed, and it is that illusion that is the source of much confusion about what we human beings really are.

This one caught my eye too.

Metaphorical Heterophenomenology:
Vim vs the Anti-Matrix.
by Keith Turausky

To support his “heterophenomenological” view of consciousness, Daniel Dennett has introduced the metaphor of “vim.” Vim describes the intrinsic worth of a currency as imagined by those who use that currency. The metaphor is intended to poke fun at those who posit the existence of qualia—or, to use Dennett’s coinage, those with the “zombic hunch.”

I will argue that, contrary to Dennett’s intentions, the vim metaphor argues for panpsychism better than it discredits qualia. I will also present a more fitting metaphor for heterophenomenology: the “Anti-Matrix.”

In the “classic” Matrix, the extrinsic is an illusion, but in the Anti-Matrix, the intrinsic is an illusion. Dennett’s views suggest that ours is an Anti-Matrix world, wherein massively deluded “zombic hunchers” perpetuate a false metaphysics. The suggestion raises troubling questions. While the Matrix is installed by outside forces to conceal a horrifying reality, Dennett would presumably credit our Anti-Matrix—our zombic hunch—to natural evolutionary forces.

What function, if any, does the illusion of an intrinsic world serve in a wholly extrinsic reality? Does it represent an unfortunate error in the “hardware” or the “software”? Is it no error at all, but rather a necessary illusion? Has an error evolved into a necessity? Dennett argues that the zombic hunch compromises otherwise rational people’s beliefs about reality. It is worth considering whether this is a necessary compromise, even if qualia do not exist.

And this one

Collective Deceptions in Western Science
by Charles Whitehead

Is western science just one more mythological scheme with no more validity than, say, the belief in witchcraft, as some postmodern anthropologists claim? This is surely going too far. The postmodern assertion that there is ‘nothing outside the text’ is worse than theoretical nihilism — it denies the terrible human costs of real-world events and processes.

Science is certainly not a mythological scheme. Science is based on testable hypotheses and repeatable observations, whereas mythology is based on out-of-body experiences or other ritually altered states. But this is not a valid reason to deny that science is embedded in political and economic processes and that anthropological analysis can help scientists to transcend the problems of cultural distortion.

A typical objection to such analysis is: ‘What can anthropologists tell us about natural science? You do an experiment and you get an empirical result. How can anthropology change that?’ This is the wrong question of course. Culture does not affect empirical findings as such. But it does determine the choice of experiment, the interpretation of the result, and the tendency to ask the wrong questions such as the example just given.

Cultural distortions are most pernicious in the field of consciousness studies. Apart from the physicalist paradigm itself, a central problem affecting all the behavioural sciences is the absence of any coherent theory defining human behaviour. This is not the result of simple ignorance or incapacity but of active and ingenious falsification — you could say that it is the ‘job’ of human culture to falsify our perceptions of ourselves and the world we live in. ‘Collective deceptions’ were at one time necessary to coerce our social but selfish ancestors into collaborating in a non-selfish system, and western science has not yet freed itself from them.

In fact, in reacting against a vitalistic worldview, post-Enlightenment science created new deceptions of its own. Those affecting consciousness studies most directly include physicalism, cognocentrism, logocentrism, individualism, and ‘genocentrism’ (the last being in direct conflict with Darwinian principles).

Once you start to ask the right questions, it becomes easy to show that commonly held scientific assumptions are self-contradictory and rooted in vested political and economic interests. Human cultures everywhere maintain fictive schemes which could aptly be described as ‘wholly believed-in make-believe’, and this is itself a widely accepted definition of the hypnotized state.

Suggestibility is in fact a precondition of human culture, but as long as we continue to act out our make-believe fantasies in the real world, we will continue to add to the dangers that we created in the first place. It is high time we all took active steps to stop investing in our own collective dream-worlds.

The latter sounds right up the “Friends of Wisdom” street.
Lots of good stuff there, at Tucson 2006

8 thoughts on “Strange Loops and Distributed Consciousness”

  1. here’s one for you then…. what about… the akasha?… otherwise known as the psychosphere, as a guy from work told me yesterday. 🙂

  2. Hi Carol,

    Akasha – Indian / Buddhist metaphor for the “ether” in which both matter and consciousness co-exist ?

    Most modern “akasha” related stuff seems decidely new-agey, linked to trancy stuff and the name of the first / female vampire. But that’s just the name being hijacked.

    For a more analytical Buddhist view of the inherent emptiness of the real world and apparent causation, try twelvelinks.

  3. Hey, glad you liked my Anti-Matrix abstract. I could send you the whole paper, if you’d like. I also have a copy of the Hofstadter lecture on CD (had to work that day), and wouldn’t mind sharing it.

    Genius name, btw.

  4. Hi Keith

    I would be interested in seeing your paper – I’m keen to understand the Dennett / Chalmers dufferences – I have time for both of them.

    If we can think of some way of sharing the recording of the Hofstadter lecture that would be great too – are we talking about mailing a CD copy to a physical address ?

    (In a couple of weeks time I should be confirming a US address.)


  5. I’ve e-mailed the essay… we can figure out the Hofstadter thing, I’m sure!

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