Tal Cohen's Bookshelf: A Collection of Personal Opinions about Books

Paul Wolf writes:
Recursion and the soul
I read Godel Escher Bach when I was about 18 years old, and did not realize until recently, more than 20 years later, how much it influenced my idea of what consciousness is. Hofstadter is taking on the question ''why do I feel like I'm me?'' which is the basis for religions. It is more fundamental than, say, how can the world, or all living things, have come into existence? He has identified the core question of religions, one identified neither by David Hume (man believes in God because his brain is wired to demand an explanation for everything) nor Richard Dawkins, who battles the creationists on their own turf. Man resorts to religion to explain consciousness because there is no science that tries to explain consciousness.

I'm sure I got this idea from Dr. Hofstadter, that the feeling of consciousness must result from some mathematical property of a system that is modeling itself. This is why the concepts of recursion and infinity, allusions to fugues and MC Echer, seem so apt. It goes to infinity and this fits into our natural inclination to believe in the divine.

Yet Hofstadter has not really answered the question. Why would a system that models the world, that has at its core a model of itself, one that is continuously updating itself with real time feedback loops, ''feel'' like it has a ''soul''? How could I be one of those? Infinity and recursiveness seem to be pointing in the right direction, but has Hofstadter tried to answer this?

One concept tied up in all this, that I don't believe is given enough weight, is the importance of language and words. Our self-image is intimately tied up with the stream of words always running through our heads, which is the highest level process occurring in our brains. Imagine the kind of consciousness you would have if you had no language and no thoughts of this kind. I am not sure what kind of consciousness I would have if I had no language. And of course, the words and language are not restricted to one brain - just by reading this post, your brain is running a top-level consciousness program written by me.

On of the earliest philosophers was Pythagoras, who believed that mathematical concepts had a kind of mystical and transcendental existence of their own. Could the ultimate nature of our feeling of existence arise from some property of mathematics? This is what Hofstadter appears to be saying. Perhaps it sounds strange, but let anyone try to explain ''why I feel like I'm me'' and sound more rational.

There are many things about this world that my own brain will simply never be capable of imagining. One of them is relativity, another is quantum mechanics. Godel numbers too, although I have not really tried to work through it. Maybe someday someone will solve the consciousness equation, and show how a recursive modeling system is self aware. There would be no prerequisite that it would be comprehensible, on an intuitive level, by a human brain. Even if one could never really visualize a mathematical explanation of consciousness, such that it provided a satisfactory answer to the question ''why do I feel like this?'', it could be a breakthrough no less than quantum mechanics or relativity.

But until someone comes up with that, at least for me, Douglas Hofstadter has done more to explain consciousness than any other philosopher I have ever read. Thanks for your work and I hope that someday, these mystical and religious ideas will lead to a real science of being, much as astrology and alchemy led to the real sciences of astronomy and chemistry.
[388] Posted on Monday, 18 May 2009 at 5:07 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

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