Wednesday, August 01, 2007

A strange loop

Martin Gardner reviews Douglas Hofstadter's recent book, I Am a Strange Loop, in Notices of the AMS, and makes some rather odd claims towards the end. He asserts that:

1) "No philosopher or scientist living today has the foggiest notion of how consciousness, and its inseparable companion free will, emerge, as they surely do, from a material brain."

2) "No computer of the sort we know how to build—that is, one made with wires and switches—will ever cross a threshold to become aware of what it is doing. No chess program, however advanced, will know it is playing chess anymore than a washing machine knows it is washing clothes. Today’s most powerful computers differ from an abacus only in their power to obey more complicated algorithms, to twiddle ones and zeroes at incredible speeds."

3) "It is the height of hubris to suppose that evolution has stopped improving brains."

These sorts of claims are extremely popular, but quite irrational. The mind is related to the brain in the same way that software is related to hardware. The mind-brain relationship is no more lacking an explanation than the relationship between software and hardware. It may be difficult to imagine how a computer program can emerge from the voltage levels of the electronic components and circuitry in a computer, but that doesn't mean that there isn't an explanation.

It might be argued that the software-hardware analogy is not relevantly similar, because software cannot be conscious or self-conscious, but that is simply question-begging. To argue that a computer, "made with wires and switches", cannot be conscious like a brain made of dendrites and nerve cells, is, in effect, to suggest that there is something bizarrely unique about the carbon-based dendrites and nerve cells of the brain, which makes it the only type of cognitive system capable of being conscious.

Consciousness of the external world is simply the representation by one physical system of its environment; self-consciousness is merely reflexive representation; and so-called 'free will' is nothing but a special type of deterministic process, a decision-making process, running upon the hardware of the brain. Of course evolution hasn't stopped improving brains, but that is irrelevant to the issue at hand. Hubris is, however, a most appropriate concept here: the notion that our species of mammal wields a unique type of causative power, called free will, is the ultimate in deluded hubris.


elberry said...

surely the difference between brains & machines is that brains are encased in skulls which then sprout hair? Hair, then, is the thing, hair is consciousness.

"This is why bald men are so uptight" (Withnail & I)

i'm no scientist but that doesn't stop me solving scientific problems.

Gordon McCabe said...

Superb Mr Berry. Black holes also have no hair, which explains why they insist on bringing time to an end.