The Mind’s I

by Douglas R. Hofstadter, Ph.D.

& Daniel C. Dennett, Ph.D.


Capsule Review: A fascinating tour of fundamental issues too often ignored or finessed.



Douglas HofstadterPhilosopher scientists Hofstadtler and Dennett offer an anthology of probing essays along with their own running commentary on the topics of identity, consciousness, and reductionism vs. holism. More compelling and less of a challenge to read than Hofstadtler’s more famous book, Goëdel, Escher and Bach, it nonetheless guides the reader to reconsider many of his assumptions about what he is and where he fits in the world.

Daniel Dennett

The book, unfortunately, was written just as complexity theory was maturing and Maturana’s autopoietic version of consciousness was appearing in English. [See my post on Capra’s Web of Life] Its confidence in the creation of programmed Artificial Intelligence might also not withstand the arguments presented by Winograd and Flores in Understanding Computers and Cognition. I would very much like to know what these authors think of those approaches to the problem, paradigms I find more plausible and useful than anything presented here.

Still, I highly recommend the book to two classes of readers. First, those interested in a slightly incomplete survey of modern thinking about consciousness and, second, those fascinated by mental gymnastics, cerebral cleverness, and the ultimate puzzles of existence. Happily, I am firmly in both classes.



Excerpts. Items enclosed in brackets are paraphrases or commentary by Tony Mayo. Page references are to the softcover edition.


p.39-40 (Reprinted from “Rediscovering the Mind,” by Harold J. Morowitz in Psychology Today, August 1980)

The views of a large number of contemporary physical scientists are summed up in the essay “Remarks on the Mind-Body Question” written by Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner. Wigner begins by pointing out that most physical scientists have returned to the recognition that thought–meaning the mind–is primary. He goes on to state: “It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness.” And he concludes by noting how remarkable it is that the scientific study of the world led to the content of consciousness as an ultimate reality.

A further development in yet another field of physics reinforces Wigner’s viewpoint. The introduction of information theory and its application to thermodynamics has led to the conclusion that entropy, a basic concept of that science, is a measure of the observer’s ignorance of the atomic details of the system. When we measure the pressure, volume, and temperature of an object, we have a residual lack of knowledge of the exact position and velocity of the component atoms and molecules. The numerical value of the amount of information we are missing is proportional to the entropy. In earlier thermodynamics, entropy had represented, in an engineering sense, the energy of the system unavailable to perform external work. In the modern view, the human mind enters once again, and entropy relates not just to the state of the system but to our knowledge of that state.

The founders of modern atomic theory did not start out to impose a “mentalist” picture on the world. Rather, they began with the opposite point of view and were forced to the present-day position in order to explain experimental results.

We are now in a position to integrate the perspectives of three large fields: psychology, biology, and physics. By combining the positions of Sagan, Crick, and Wigner as spokesmen for various outlooks, we get a picture of the whole that is quite unexpected.

First, the human mind, including consciousness and reflective thought, can be explained by activities of the central nervous system, which, in turn, can be reduced to the biological structure and function of that physiological system. Second, biological phenomena at all levels can be totally understood in terms of atomic physics, that is, through the action and interaction of the component atoms of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and so forth. Third and last, atomic physics, which is now understood most fully by means of quantum mechanics, must be formulated with the mind as a primitive component of the system.

We have thus, in separate steps, gone around an epistemological circle–from the mind back to the mind. The results of this chain of reasoning will probably lend more aid and comfort to Eastern mystics than to neurophysiologists and molecular biologists; nevertheless, the closed loop follows from a straightforward combination of the explanatory processes of recognized experts in the three separate sciences. Since individuals seldom work with more than one of these paradigms, the general problem has received little attention.

If we reject this epistemological circularity, we are left with two opposing camps: a physics with a claim to completeness because it describes all of nature, and a psychology that is all-embracing because it deals with the mind, our only source of knowledge of the world. Given the problems in both of these views, it is perhaps well to return to the circle and give it more sympathetic consideration. If it deprives us of firm absolutes, at least it encompasses the mind-body problem and provides a framework within which individual disciplines can communicate. The closing of the circle provides the best possible approach for psychological theorists.

p. 122 Allen: Wheelis on Spirit

Spirit is the voyager, man is the vessel.

p. 124 Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ is really a special case of a more general law of survival of the stable. The universe is populated by stable things.

p. 129 Evolution is something that happens, willy-nilly, in spite of all the efforts of the replicators (and nowadays of the genes) to prevent it happening.

p. 132 The combination of genes that is any one individual may be short-lived, but the genes themselves are potentially very long-lived. Their paths constantly cross and recross down the generations. One gene may still be regarded as a unit which survives through a large number of individual bodies.

p. 135 The classic example is the Watt steam governor.

The fundamental principle involved is called negative feedback, of which there are various different forms. In general what happens is this. The “purpose machine,” the machine or thing that behaves as if it had a conscious purpose, is equipped with some kind of measuring device which measures the discrepancy between the current state of things and the “desired” state. It is built in such a way that the larger this discrepancy is, the harder the machine works. In this way the machine will automatically tend to reduce the discrepancy–this is why it is called negative feedback–and it may actually come to rest if the “desired” state is reached. The Watt governor consists of a pair of balls which are whirled round by a steam engine. Each ball is on the end of a hinged arm. The faster the balls fly round, the more does centrifugal force push the arms toward a horizontal position, this tendency being resisted by gravity. The arms are connected to the steam valve feeding the engine, in such a way that the steam tends to be shut off when the arms approach the horizontal position. So, if the engine goes too fast, some of its steam will be shut off, and it will tend to slow down. If it slows down too much, more steam will automatically be fed to it by the valve, and it will speed up again. Such purpose machines often oscillate due to overshooting and time-lags, and it is part of the engineer’s art to build in supplementary devices to reduce the oscillations.

The “desired” state of the Watt governor is a particular speed of rotation. Obviously it does not consciously desire it. The “goal” of a machine is simply defined as that state to which it tends to return. Modern purpose machines use extensions of basic principles like negative feedback to achieve much more complex “lifelike” behavior. Guided missiles, for example, appear to search actively for their target, and when they have it in range they seem to pursue it, taking account of its evasive twists and turns, and sometimes even “predicting” or “anticipating” them. The details of how this is done are not worth going into. They involve negative feedback of various kinds, “feed-forward,” and other principles well understood by engineers and now known to be extensively involved in the working of living bodies.

Nothing remotely approaching consciousness needs to be postulated, even though a layman, watching its apparently deliberate and purposeful behavior, finds it hard to believe that the missile is not under the direct control of a human pilot.


p.143 As my colleague N. K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter: “. . . memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind, you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking–the meme for, say, ‘belief in life after death’ is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.”

p. 192 Hofstadtler The component individuals of organizations–secretaries, workers, bus drivers, executives, and so on–have their own goals in life, which, one might expect, would come into conflict with any higher-level entity of which they formed a part, but there is an effect (which many students of political science would regard as insidious and sinister) whereby the organization co-opts and exploits these very goals, taking advantage of the individuals’ pride, need for self-esteem, and so on, and turning them back to its own profits. There emerges from all the many low-level goals a kind of higher-level momentum that subsumes all of them, that sweeps them along and thereby perpetuates itself.

p. 339 Zen poet Seng-Ts’an

If you want to get the plain truth,

Be not concerned with right and wrong.

The conflict between right and wrong

Is the sickness of the mind.


P. 340 Lao-tse chiding Confucius for his moralizing:

All this talk of goodness and duty, these perpetual pin-pricks unnerve and irritate the hearer–You had best study how it is that Heaven and Earth maintain their eternal course, that the sun and moon maintain their light, the stars their seried ranks, the birds and beasts their flocks, the trees and shrubs their station. This you too should learn to guide your steps by Inward Power, to follow the course that the Way of Nature sets; and soon you will no longer need to go round laboriously advertising goodness and duty.

The swan does not need a daily bath in order to remain white.

P. 414 Hofstadtler

In a sense, Goëdel’s Theorem is a mathematical analogue of the fact that I cannot understand what it is like not to like chocolate, or to be a bat, except by an infinite sequence of ever-more-accurate simulation processes that converge toward, but never reach, emulation. I am trapped inside myself and therefore can’t see how other systems are. Goëdel’s Theorem follows from a consequence of that general fact: I am trapped inside myself and therefore can’t see how other systems see me.

ACHILLES: By now, I hardly know what is meant by “mind”-except, of course, as a sort of poetic expression for the brain, or its activities. The term reminds me of “beauty.” It is not something that one can locate in space–yet it is not hovering in an ethereal otherworld, either. It is more like a structural feature of a complex entity. …

TORTOISE: I would go further, Achilles: I would surmise that this is a property of many words–especially words like “beauty,” “truth,” “mind,” and “self.” Each word is but a sound which we are caused to utter, at various times, by our swooping, careening neural flash. [And Quality, op cit Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance]

And to each sound, we can hardly help but believe that there corresponds an Entity–a “Real Thing.” Well, I will say that the benefit that one derives from using a sound imbues it with a proportionate amount of what we call “meaning.” But as to whether that sound denotes any Thing . . . how would we ever know that?

ACHILLES: Though my own first reflex is to affirm, “I know I exist; I feel it,” maybe all these “feelings” are just an illusion; maybe the “real I” is all an illusion; maybe, just like “beauty,” the sound “I” denotes no Thing at all, but is just a useful sound that we on occasion feel compelled to pronounce because our neural structures are set up that way.

p. 456 Hofstadtler



The Mind’s I

by Douglas R. Hofstadter, Ph.D.

& Daniel C. Dennett, Ph.D.


Also worth reading:

Goëdel, Escher and Bach:
An Eternal Golden Braid

by Douglas R. Hofstadtler, Ph.D.

GEBach book

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