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Consciousness In The Cosmos: Perspective of Mind: Douglas Hofstadter

This posting will discuss the views of Douglas Hofstadter who is Professor of Computer Science and Cognitive Science at Indiana University.

Hofstadter approaches the "Mind" from the perspective of the computer sciences, in that there are both hardware and software aspects of human intelligence. He looks at the enactment of intelligence in terms of a formal system. In turn, Hofstadter declares that formal systems are embedded. He infers that in relation to what we perceive as explicit in a formal system, there is also an aspect that is intrinsically implicit.

What about this idea of embedding, this something implicit enfolded into formal systems? Formal systems may range from a football team to the Cosmos; but in primal, natural systems, the idea of an embedded implicitness ultimately suggests a "Within" in the heart of things.

To begin, there is a need for a descriptive presentation of Hofstadter's brain system model. He uses the ant colony as an analogy of the human brain system. This colony analogy permits Hofstadter to illustrate not only the brain's hardware, but to carry through in describing the processes leading from hardwiring to ideas about subsystems, agents, and complexity.

Hofstadter relays that individual ants seem to be able to cooperate as teammates and not randomly wander off. After billions of years of evolution, these ants have passed a critical threshold...reinforcing themselves into a collective behavior that results in an ant colony. Hofstadter likens ant teams to signals; and, basically, "the effect of signals is to transport ants of various specialization to approximate parts of the colony." Ultimately, the fully evolved ant colony takes on a holistic aspect, and emerging molecular mechanisms take form. Douglas R. Hofstadter, GOEDEL, ESCHER, BACH: AN ETERNAL GOLDEN BRAID, Vintage Books, 1979, pp. 315-316, 320.]

The colony's teams, its signals, are low-level active sub-systems of a complex system. These signals trigger other signals. With this, Hofstadter draws a similarity between these team signals and the human brain's neurons and their interconnections and firings. The colony's team signals exist according to a caste distribution; in the brain, there is no caste distribution...but a counterpart can be found in what Hofstadter calls a "brain state." [Ibid, pp. 324-325]

Now Hofstadter leaps into the full system, whether it be the ant colony or the brain. He believes that the full system is the "agent," that "the full system is responsible for how its symbols trigger each other." At this juncture, Hofstadter poses the question that leads to the other side of his analogy. He ponders on the fact that a single ant brain does not "carry any information about nest structure;" and then he asks, "how then does the nest get created...where does the information reside?" The above questions provide Hofstadter the vehicle in which to launch his probe of the human brain; thus, he asks how this brain carries out the processes of thinking, how it spawns intelligence? [Ibid, pp. 327, 359]

Underlying everything in the hardwired brain is the reality of rules. In the elementary constituents of the brain, down to the level of the nerve cells, there is the presence of the rules. At this neural level, at this sub-strate level of the brain, there can be no interpretation. There is no imitation, because the rules in the brain's hardware are basic. Hofstadter succinctly states, the brain "has a formal, hidden hardware level which is a formidably complex mechanism that makes transitions from state to state according to definite rules embodied in it." [Ibid, p. 559]

Intelligence resides in this brain hardware. Yet, it is of a *different quality* so infers Hofstadter. Intelligence, although brain bound, "can be lifted right out of the hardware in which it resides...or in other words, intelligence [can] be a software property." Hofstadter focuses on the pivot that configures intelligence, mainly information and its various expressions: such as words, stories, messages, and interpretations of meaning. [Ibid, p. 358]

These expressions of meaning, in turn, make-up the software property of the brain's intelligence. Some words, whose meaning is fixed, "form a rigid skeleton, giving an underlying structure to the system." Other adjustable words, according to Hofstadter, fill in this skeleton with meaningful material. These words evolve into stories that operate on all levels of reality. Hofstadter observes that these stories can be nested, operating within other stories. They, too, become embedded. [Ibid, pp. 97, 184]

Out of stories come the messages and eventually the interpretation of meaning. Hofstadter believes that information is intrinsically inside the structure of these messages; he puts it thus, "meaning resides in the text, not in the method of decipherment." Meaning, however, is a matter of interpretation. Our brains/minds contain interpreters; these interpreters, according to Hofstadter, are a "pulling-out mechanism of inner meaning." He continues, noting that much of the source of mental images, or eventual intuitive meaning, is "like an iceberg...deep underwater, unseen." [Ibid, pp. 164, 582, 713]

The brain is hardwired according to implicit, basic rules. Hofstadter believes that these embedded rules allow the potential for a flexibility and transitional capability to an almost infinitely complex level. Harkening back, through a long evolutionary journey, the compelling inner codes of DNA have written the rules for the brain as hardware. In turn, the discoveries of modern bioscience suggest an *underlying order* lodged in the DNA.

However--when we reach out beyond the rules that formed our hardwired brain, when we move from hardware to software, we run into rules that can seem to be playfully creative and changing. As Hofstadter puts it, "rules that change themselves, directly or indirectly, are at the core of intelligence." For Hofstadter there must be some kind of "imaginable world, a world where the only restriction is that in it...logic should be the same as in our world." [Ibid, pp. 27, 99, 362]

Hofstadter demands an external consistency from this world behind the rules; and, he believes that this implicit world is truly there! Throughout his treatment of intelligence, of thinking, he harkens back to that sense of a deeply embedded, creative implicitness in the software aspects of intelligence.

Actually, Hofstadter pours forth a gamut of statements suggesting this sense of creative implicitness in the brain system's software. He alludes to the endless potential of creativity, when he observes that "our minds contain interpreters which accept two-dimensional patterns and then pull from them high-dimensional notions which are so complex that we cannot consciously describe them." Commenting on the Strange Loops of hierarchial levels of thinking...that phenomenon of moving up and down through the levels and arriving where we began...Hofstadter intuitively senses at bottom there is "something mathematical involved here." Or to put it another way, there is something logically creative here. [Ibid, pp. 15, 161-162, 582.]

Strange Loops are a kind of iteration, and there is also a correspondence to be found in fractal geometry. Fractals can be generated by iteration. Fractal geometry shows that shapes have self-similarity at descending scales. Is this not like arriving at the same point at different levels? The iterations of Strange Loops could also be compared with those present in the feedback cycle of chaos and order.

Strange Loops, feedback cycles, and iterations are mechanisms of the creative complexity of intelligence; they are, for Hofstadter, the retrieval mechanisms of inner meaning.

But what is this inner meaning behind the mechanics of intelligence, behind the sense of something implicit embedded deeply in the brain system? For the great mathematician Kurt Goedel, from whom Hofstadter draws, it is a universal, nonlocal Mind. [Rudy Rucker, INFINITY AND THE MIND, p. 183.]

Perhaps Hofstadter could not say outright that the brain/Mind is a vessel for the expression of a Cosmic Ground, but he points his finger in that direction. Discussing perception, Hofstadter quietly says that "by gradually widening the scope of the brain/Mind system, one will in the end come to a feeling of being at one with the entire universe." [Hofstadter, GOEDEL, ESCHER, BACH, p. 479]

If it were possible that the brain/mind system might be a vessel for cosmic expression, where might this scenario lead? Hofstadter contends that Strange Loops move us into greater consciousness. While pondering the emerging sense of self, he puts it thus:

"My belief is that the explanation of emergent phenomena in our brains...for instance ideas, hopes, images, analogies, and finally consciousness and free will...are based on a kind of Strange Loop, an interaction between levels in which the top level reaches back towards the bottom level and influences it, while at the same time being itself determined by the bottom level." [Ibid, p. 709]

The above quote likens Strange Loops to a spiral in which at ever expanding higher levels, there exists the capability to suck-up continuing information input from the bottom, more basic level. And, as previously mentioned, these Strange Loops can also be compared to a feedback cycle of continual enfoldment and unfoldment.

Finally, Hofstadter does show a tendency towards the direction of a "Noosphere"...a single brain/Mind system of the human species. After all, the concept of a Noosphere is really not too afar afield from Hofstadter's analogy of the ant colony. If he were ever to outright address the conjectures of a Noosphere, Hofstadter might employ his beautiful thoughts about wholes, of totalities, as exemplified in his marvelous statement on the fugue:

"Fugues have that interesting property, that each of their voices is a piece of music in itself; and thus a fugue might be thought of as a collection of several distinct pieces of music, all based on one single theme, and all played simultaneously...each of these individually meaningful lines fuse with the others in a highly non random way, to make a graceful totality." [Ibid, p. 283]


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