Web edition: April 6, 2012
Print edition: April 21, 2012; Vol.181 #8 (p. 31)
Consciousness series pondered
Hofstadter’s “strange loop” and other ideas presented in the article “Self as symbol” (SN: 2/11/12, p. 28) suggest, but never say, that the notion of “I” exists in the dimension of time, not space. Obviously then, consciousness is not a tangible object — not any part of the brain. Rather, the “I” phenomenon is a process, a happening, always actualized with verbs like think, remember and exist. This idea is evident when one considers that self-awareness is always “now,” carried along the arrow of time. Just as movie cels projected in sequence can create a story, brain activity, regulated by biology, generates an evolving self-perception, a “strange loop” called human awareness.
James Wegryn, Dimondale, Mich.
“You and I are mirages that perceive themselves,” a statement by Douglas Hofstadter, is presented as a puzzle of “loopiness” in “Self as symbol.” It seems to the simple layman that the answer is clear. Mirages don’t perceive.
Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow talk about the problem in their book The Grand Design and discuss “awake” brain surgery. Stimulating a particular area of the brain creates the experience of the self wanting to move the foot or open the mouth and talk. It does not cause the foot to move; it creates the experience of “I wanting to” and “I thinking about” moving the foot. The self is part of the experience created by the brain as if the brain were the owner of the motivation and the creator of the thought, but it isn’t. That was done with an electrical impulse.
All “self-awareness” means is that the human brain creates an experience of self as part of the process of responding to physical reality. It’s just a pattern of neurons firing among many patterns of neurons firing. There is no actual self-referential mystery going on, unless you can’t give up for a moment the illusion of the free-willed agent in your head.
Gregg Wilson, Oberlin, Ohio
“Consciousness emerges” (SN: 2/25/12, p. 18) describes the concept of the “remembered present,” meaning that what we experience consciously is mostly a dynamic orchestration of memory, guided by much thinner slivers of perception. Such an arrangement can also speed reaction time and increase efficiency, since a sufficiently predictive simulation can grasp and respond to critical slivers of input by framing them in terms of what is most likely to happen next. This is in sharp contrast to most robotic systems, where the majority of energy and processing resources are put into interpreting massive sensory inputs, only to find that 99 percent were meaningless.
Terry Bollinger, Ashburn, Va.
All this brouhaha regarding “the awareness of self-awareness” that is of immense concern to the major minds present and past is akin to clapping with one hand. Professor E.O. Wilson, the father of and author of Sociobiology, probably hit closest to the mark in the infamous chapter where he characterized humans as intensely social beings who exist only in terms of their relationships (think Facebook, et cetera). This is probably why solitary confinement is a punishment worse than death (or reading another such article).
William Thompson, Edwards, Colo.
“Enriched with information” (SN: 3/10/12, p. 22) reports that scientific theories of consciousness as information have caught up to C.S. Peirce’s 19th century proposal that “rather than saying the thought is in me, better to say that I am in thought.” In philosophy there has been an over 70-years-long demolition of the idea that the mind is “in the head,” beginning with the analysis of Ludwig Wittgenstein, through those of Hilary Putnam, Fred Dretske and others, to the current information theories of Luciano Floridi. There is a treasury of subtle and suggestive argument in that development. I propose that the stability and coherence of consciousness is to be found in publicly accessible social structures (institutions) cashed out as networks of relations. The “stuff” of consciousness is gone.
Ken W. Gatzke, New Haven, Conn.
The articles on consciousness in the February 11 and 25 issues are an extreme example of scientific reductionism. Hofstadter observed that consciousness is an example of a feedback loop that, like Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, can never be solved. Perhaps another way to view the entire matter is that “the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts.” That appears simpler to me and doesn’t get bogged down in such things as information theory, brain chemistry or interpretation of fMRI scans.
Victor Arnold, Sugar Land, Texas
Just read “Self as symbol” and loved it! I have been a subscriber for many years and this was one of the clearest and, yes, most “inspiring” articles I have ever read. My work as a psychotherapist (with an early background in physics and engineering) has been notably enhanced by the point of view that you have so elegantly contributed.
Paul Solari, Broomfield, Colo.
Tom Siegfried’s article “Self as symbol,” while quite interesting and insightful, assumes that consciousness and sense of self are purely human phenomena. Many nonhumans with complex brains clearly possess consciousness too, of which we as yet have little understanding. And there are good arguments for ascribing self-awareness of some kind to at least the great apes and probably cetaceans. The article also treats human consciousness as the pinnacle of evolution, but surely evolution either has no goal or it has many. The idea of evolutionary progress is in any case a value judgment, not a scientific one.
Michael Allen Fox, Armidale, Australia