I Am a Normal Loop

There is nothing here about linkers! OK, there is one thing: at some point, I hope soon, I will pull the linker postings together into an essay posted with my other essays (which I wrote before starting this blog). I’ll mention it here when I do that.

Now back to my previously scheduled blog, which focuses, like a laser, on whatever I happen to be thinking about.

I recently finished Douglas Hofstadter’s book “I Am a Strange Loop.” I enjoyed the book, although in many ways it was a less interesting, more personal, rework of “Godel, Escher, Bach.” Since that book came out more than twenty years ago, it is striking that he is still sounding the same themes.

The main new idea in this book was an emphasis on strange loops. Hofstadter tries to use strange loops as a way that syntax turns into semantics (here syntax means simple rules, semantics means meaning; physical chemistry is syntax, human emotion is semantics). The canonical example of a strange loop is (of course) Godel’s proof that Principia Mathematica (PM) is incomplete. The loop is that Godel discovered a way to model the rules of PM within PM itself. This is in a sense precisely what PM was designed to prevent, with its heirarchies of set classifications. When Godel was able to represent PM within itself, all those heirarchies fell apart.

Hofstadter would like to say that this loop turns the pure syntax of PM into semantics: simple symbol manipulation turns into the rules of PM. He argues that each of us has a strange loop of some sort within ourselves, which is what gives us our semantics.

I don’t personally find this sort of argument to be convincing. While in general I certainly agree with Hofstadter’s world-view, I find Godelian loops to be interesting exercises in formal logic, but I don’t think they tell us very much about our selves. It’s interesting to note that in this argument Hofstadter is in some ways not that far from Roger Penrose, although of course they reach completely opposite conclusions.

I think our semantics come from our adaptation to the physical world in which we live. This is the lesson of Daniel Dennett’s notion of the intentional stance. Some entities in our world are best explained by assuming that they have personal interests. Entities as complex as humans can not be usefully explained in any other way. That is semantics. Strange loops are an interesting game, not the root of who we are. (The degree to which semantics ties to morality is an interesting question I think I’ve discussed before; Hofstadter does not tackle it in his book.)

It follows from this that Hofstadter would argue that a computer program detached from the physical world can be fully conscious–it just has to have a strange loop somehow embedded within it. As I’ve noted before, I’m skeptical about the claim, although I’m willing to consider it.

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