Monday, July 09, 2007

Consciousness: I think, therefore I hallucinate?

In recent years, many books have attempted to explain the "hard problem" of consciousness. There is an interesting review of Douglas Hofstadter's recent I am a Strange Loop (Basic Books, 2007) by David Deutsch, in Physics Today. Hofstadter tries to understand consciousness as somehow generated by feedback loops in the brain.
I Am a Strange Loop is supposed to restate and explain his solution: in short, that a mind is a near-infinitely extendable, self-referential loop of symbols that suffers – or rather, benefits – from the hallucination of being an "I". Furthermore (Hofstadter says paradoxically), that hallucination is itself an "I". Hofstadter's "strange loop" is a bit like an ordinary feedback loop, such as the images in a pair of parallel mirrors facing each other, but instead of merely depicting itself physically, it symbolically refers to itself. And unlike ordinary self-referential statements, like this one, the symbol inside a brain that refers to itself as "I" is not used by anyone else: it is someone.

Deutsch finds the book unconvincing in part:
Strangely, Hofstadter's half of this theory of consciousness (the loopy half), is quite convincing. The unconvincing half is essentially philosopher Daniel Dennett's theory from his book Consciousness Explained (which critics have justly renamed Consciousness Denied) – namely that our opinion that we are conscious is simply mistaken. Hofstadter calls it the "I myth". We can, of course, be mistaken about anything, so here Dennett laid down a valuable marker: the true explanation of consciousness will have to refute his position.

Personally, I don't agree. The idea that consciousness is an illusion (in Dennett's sense) is a new one and the burden is on him to establish, not on others to disprove.

I suspect, and time will tell, that the computer analogy will fail in the long run to provide much insight into consciousness. Consciousness is precisely what computers do not have or evolve, or even need, it seems. Perhaps the attraction of the computer analogy lies in the possibility it offers of finding a mechanism of consciousness.

Materialists must always search for blind mechanisms and must always believe that they exist. Beyond that, in their view, there is only hallucination.

Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary ( is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), anoverview of the intelligent design controversy, and of Faith@Science. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, detailing events of interest in the intelligent design controversy.

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