By Douglas R. Hofstadter, Basic Books, March 26, 2007, 978-0465030781

This is my first Douglas Hofstadter book. I enjoyed his writing, and I certainly learned a lot about brains and human thought processes. As a programmer, I think about the brain as a computer processor. Since I write a lot of Perl (and other dynamic languages), I relate to a symbolic processing system with no separation between the code and data. It’s just one big network of information which is sometimes data and sometimes code.

Not being a mathematician, it was interesting to read about Goedel, Schweitzer, etc.

Hofstadter’s conjecture that are brain’s software is systems of loops rings true to me.

Chapter 20 was a bit boring to me. It is a Socratic dialogue discussing the idea of strange loops.

[p35] This is why it is much more natural for us to say that a war was triggered for religious or economic reasons than to try to imagine a war as a vast pattern of interacting elementary particles and to think of what triggered it in similar terms - even though physicists may insist that that is the only “true” level of explanation for it, in the sense that no information would be thrown away if we were to speak at that level. But having such phenomenal accuracy is, alas (or rather, “Thank God!”), not our fate.

We mortals are condemned not to speak at that level of no information loss. We necessarily simplify, and indeed, vastly so. But that sacrifice is also our glory. Drastic simplification is what allows us to reduce situations to their bare bones, to discover abstract essences, to put our fingers on what matters, to understand phenomena at amazingly high levels, to survive reliably in this world, and to formulate literature, art, music, and science.

[p340] What, then, is all the fuss about “free will” about? Why do so many people insist on the grandiose adjective, often even finding in it humanity’s crowning glory? What does it gain us, or rather, what would it gain us, if the word “free” were accurate? I honestly do not know. I don’t see any room in this complex world for my will to be “free”.

I am pleased to have a will, or at least I’m pleased to have one when it is not too terribly frustrated by the hedge maze I am constrained by, but I don’t know what it would feel like if my will were Jree. What on earth would that mean? That I didn’t follow my will sometimes? Well, why would I do that? In order to frustrate myself? I guess that if I wanted to frustrate myself, I might make such a choice

  • but then it would be because I wanted to frustrate myself, and because my meta-level desire was stronger than my plain-old desire. Thus I might choose not to take a second helping of noodles even though I - or rather, part of me - would still like some, because there’s another part of me that wants me not to gain weight, and the weight-watching part happens (this evening) to have more votes than the gluttonous part does. If it didn’t, then it would lose and my inner glutton would win, and that would be fine - but in either case, my non-free will would win out and I’d follow the dominant desire in my brain.

Yes, certainly, I’ll make a decision, and I’ll do so by conducting a kind of inner vote. The count of votes will yield a result, and by George, one side will come out the winner. But where’s any “freeness” in all this?

Speaking of George, the analogy to our electoral process is such a blatant elephant in the room that I should spell it out. It’s not as if, in a brain, there is some kind of “neural suffrage” (“one neuron, one vote”); however, on a higher level of organization, there is some kind of “desirelevel suffrage” in the brain. Since our understanding of brains is not at the state where I can pinpoint this suffrage physically, I’ll just say that it’s essentially “one desire, n votes”, where n is some weight associated with the given desire. Not all values of n are identical, which is to say, not all desires are born equal; the brain is not an egalitarian society!

[p347] Looking back at this turning point in his life from the perspective of many decades later, Schweitzer recalls:

This was an abhorrent proposal, but I dared not refuse out of fear that he would mock me. Soon we found ourselves standing near a leafless tree whose branches were filled with birds singing out gaily in the morning, without any fear of us. My companion, crouching low like an Indian on a hunt, placed a pebble in the leather pouch of his slingshot and stretched it tightly. Obeying the imperious glance he threw at me, I did the same, while fighting sharp pangs of conscience and at the same time vowing firmly to myself that I would shoot when he did.

Just at that moment, church bells began to ring out, mingling with the song of the birds in the sunshine. These were the early bells that preceded the main bells by half an hour. For me, though, they were a voice from Heaven. I threw my slingshot down, startling the birds so that they flew off to a spot safe from my companion’s slingshot, and I fled home.

Ever since that day, whenever the bells of Holy Week ring out amidst the leafless trees of spring, I have remembered with deep gratitude how on that fateful day they rang into my heart the commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.” From that day on, I swore that I would liberate myself from the fear of other people. Whenever my inner convictions were at stake, I gave less weight to the opinions of other people than I once had. And I did my best to overcome the fear of being mocked by my peers.

Here we have a classic conflict between peer pressure and one’s own inner voices, or as we usually phrase it (and as Schweitzer himself put it), one’s conscience. In this case, fortunately, conscience was the clear winner. And indeed, this was a decision that lasted a lifetime.

[p354] One day, as I was trying to figure out where I personally draw the line for applying the word “conscious” (even though of course there’s no sharp cutoff), it occurred to me that the most crucial factor was whether or not the entity in question could be said to have some notion, perhaps only very primitive, of “friend”, a friend being someone you care about and who cares about you. It seems clear that human babies acquire the rudiments of this notion pretty early on, and it also seems clear that some kinds of animals - mostly but not only mammals - have a pretty well-developed sense of the “friend” concept.

It’s clear that dogs feel that certain humans and dogs are their friends, and possibly also a few other animals. I won’t try to enumerate which types of animals seem capable of acquiring the “friend” notion because it’s blurry and because you can run down a mental list just as easily I can. But the more I think about this, the righter it feels to me. And so I find myself led to the unexpected conclusion that what seems to be the epitome of selfhood - a sense of “I” - is in reality brought into being if and only if along with that self there is a sense of other selves with whom one has bonds of affection. In short, only when generosity is born is an ego born.