The title of this post is a direct steal from Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett. The Mind’s I is the title of a book they published in 1981, a collection of essays by various authors with the subtitle: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul. I’ve added the prefix because subjectivity is a recurring theme, at least in Part I.
After each essay they give a little commentary, but it’s the essays themselves that stimulated me. I’ve already written a post on one: Is God a Taoist? by Raymond M. Smullyan (refer Socrates, Russell, Sartre, God and Taoism in May 09).
So I will provide here my most significant impressions, or resultant thoughts, that just 3 of these essays have provoked. These are just from Part I of the book (there are 6 Parts) so I may well continue this discussion in a later post.
Borges and I by Jorge Luis Borges is an essay where Borges attempts to discriminate between his subjective and objective self in an accessible and entertaining way. It highlights the point made by John Searle in his book, MiND, that what distinguishes consciousness from other phenomena, that we try to investigate and understand, is that it has a distinctly subjective element that can neither be ignored nor isolated - it defies objectification by its nature.
The Dalai Lama makes a similar point in his book on science and religion, The Universe in a Single Atom, where he contends that neurological investigations into consciousness, whilst extremely edifying and illuminating, are really not the whole story without taking subjective experience into account.
The essay also explores, in an indirect way, the difference between the way we perceive ourselves and the way others do. I've always maintained that the most psychologically healthy relationships (work, family or friendship) are where these 2 perceptions closely align.
In the next essay, extracts from D. E. Harding's On Having No Head, Harding starts with an epiphany he had whilst looking at the
‘Past and future dropped away. I forgot who and what I was, my name, my manhood, animalhood, all that could be called mine. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, that present moment and what was clearly given in it.’
This, in itself, is an interesting revelation, coming from a man who makes no claim to mysticism. This epitomises subjective experience in as much as it cannot be shared with another. It's like someone, who viewed the world in colour, trying to explain it to a population of people who only saw shades of grey.
Harding then goes on to describe a world in which his head doesn’t exist for him, though he acknowledges they exist for other people – a form of solipsism. What I find significant is that he is highlighting what I call the inner and outer world that we all have, which is central to my own philosophy. The metaphor of ‘having no head’ which he talks about ‘literally’ (even a mirror image is a hallucination) is the void that exists in one’s mind except one’s thoughts. We have senses, yes, of which sight is the most dominating, but, as he points out, there is no screen that we view, it is simply ‘I’ looking out – the inner world’s most tangible connection to the outer world.
In other posts (specifically, Artificial Intelligence and Consciousness, Feb. 09) I argue that AI will never have this subjective sense that we have. So whilst machines can, and will be built to, ‘sense’ their environments, they won’t ‘experience’ it the way we do, is my contention. Most philosophers and scientists (including Dennett and Hofstadter) disagree with me, but both Borge’s and Harding’s essays merely underline this distinction for me.
Rediscovering the Mind by Harold J. Morowitz takes a different tack altogether. Morowitz, I assume, is a psychologist, and he tackles both the biologist and the physicist, who take a reductionist view of the world, whereby they presume they can explain macro-phenomena via investigation of micro-phenomena. Central to Morowitz’s thesis is an epistemological loop created by the accepted interpretation of quantum mechanics that it requires macro intervention by a conscious mind to produce a measurable result. He quotes Nobel laureate, Eugene Wigner: “It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness.” Because the biological reductionist reduces mind to neurons, thus molecules, thus quantum phenomena, Morowitz argues that we have a quantum mechanical epistemological loop from mind to quantum phenomena to mind.
The best analogy for superposition of states is one of those pictures that have 2 images intertwined, like the famous duck and rabbit combination that Wittgenstein once referred to, and there is even a Dali painting that uses it. The most effective ones are those utilising 2 contrasting tones where the shadow reveals one image and the light reveals another. The point is that your mind can only perceive one image or the other but not both at the same time, and you can even ‘switch’ between them. Well, quantum superposition is a bit like that (especially the famous Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment) but once you make the ‘measurement’ or the ‘observation’ you can’t switch back.
Hofstadter tackles this conundrum in his ‘Reflections’ of Morowitz’s essay by pointing out that the mysteries of consciousness and the mysteries of quantum physics are not the same. On this I would agree, but he hasn’t eliminated the conundrum or the epistemological loop. Hofstadter then explains quantum superposition of states, culminating in a description of Schrodinger’s (simultaneously live and dead cat) thought experiment, and a discussion on Hugh Everett III’s ‘many worlds interpretation’, which he describes as ‘this very bizarre theory’.
In fact, Hofstadter gives the best dismantling of
I find it interesting that Hofstadter evokes ‘subjectivity’ to eliminate, in one stroke,
But getting back to Morowitz, one of the salient points he makes is that the evolution of the universe is a series of discontinuities, starting with the Big Bang itself. A major jump in time, and the emergence of life is another discontinuity, followed by the emergence of consciousness. Morowitz even argues that humanity’s ability for inner reflection is another discontinuity again, though I’m sure many would contest this last hypothesis without necessarily contesting the previous ones.
But, also, one wonders if there is not a discontinuity between the quantum world and the so-called classical world, the organic and the inorganic, the sentient and the non-sentient. I think he has a point, when one looks at it from that perspective, ignoring the context of evolutionary time, that our reductionist philosophy, so prized by science in general, tends to ignore or brush aside.
I expect I will return to this subject in a later post.