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Hofstadter’s Strange Loops and Distributed Consciousness

The abstract to Douglas Hofstadter’s contribution to the 2006 Science of Consciousness Conference in Tucson:

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.

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