On ‘Strange’ Loops and Plant Intelligence

Douglas Hofstadter asks in his recently published book, "I Am a Strange Loop," how anything as amorphous and mysterious as the “I” within each of our brains can exhibit any real power over the physical world.

By Keith Larson

By Keith Larson, VP Content, Putman Media

Okay, so this book might not be everybody’s idea of a beach read, but for me—your average automation geek-turned-wordsmith with a side interest in philosophy—it fairly flew off the shelf and into my hands.

Provocatively titled to appeal to any self-respecting process automation professional, I Am a Strange Loop is Douglas Hofstadter’s recently published meditation on the nature of self. (Some of you may recall his 1979 Pulitzer Prize winner for nonfiction, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which also explores the nature of human consciousness.)

Central to Hofstadter’s wide-ranging treatise is the question of how anything as amorphous and mysterious as the “I” within each of our brains can exhibit any real power over the physical world. Deep down, the human brain is a seething soup of particles; on a higher level it is a jungle of neurons; and on a yet higher level, it is a network of symbolic abstractions—the most central and complex of which is the “I.” How is it that each “I” appears to have the ability to act independently, to tie her shoes or choose to read this magazine rather than another, while each individual of trillions of molecules in the brain is behaving simply and consistently within the law of physics?

“It occurred to me that what we call ‘consciousness’ is a kind of mirage,” Hofstadter writes in the book’s preface. “It had to be a very peculiar kind of mirage to be sure, since it was a mirage that perceived itself….It was almost as if this slippery phenomenon called ‘consciousness’ lifted itself up by its own bootstraps, then disintegrated back into nothing whenever one looked at it more closely.”

For those of you looking for a control angle in all of this, Hofstadter posits that the answer lies in feedback loops. Granted, they’re very special feedback loops, but cousins of our familiar stock-in-trade nonetheless. His “strange,” paradoxical, level-crossing loops consist of feedback between the symbolic and physical levels of our brains. It is this level-crossing between layers of abstraction, he contends, that allows causality to flipped upside down—and allows each “I” to be more than a mere bystander to the laws of physics.

A sense of the level-crossing strangeness of these loops is conveyed by M.C. Escher’s famous lithograph, Drawing Hands, in which a left hand appears to arise from the page and is drawing a right hand, which, in turn, appears to arise from the page and is drawing the left.

“Here, the abstract shift in levels would be the upward leap from drawn to drawer (or equally from image to artist), the latter level being intuitively ‘above’ the former, in more senses than one,” Hofstadter explains. “There is by definition a sharp, clear, upwards jump from any drawn image to its drawer—and yet in Drawing Hands, this rule of upwardness has been sharply and cleanly violated, for each of the hands is hierarchically above the other!” Hofstadter goes on to explain that while the paradox of the drawing hands is essentially an illusion, real strange loops—other than the ones inside our heads—really do exist.

Leading this paradox hunt is much better left to Hofstadter himself, a tour guide far superior to this reviewer. But these feedback loops crossing hierarchical levels of abstraction make me think of one of the great current challenges of our profession: bridging the goals and priorities inherent in running a manufacturing business (the symbolic level) with the reality of controlling the levels and pressures of a manufacturing process (the physical level).

Take our efforts to reconcile the transactional information in business systems with the real-time data in process control systems, or our drive to create software programs (essentially symbols captured in silicon) that recognize and pre-empt hazardous or equipment-damaging combinations of process conditions. These and other of our daily efforts hearken to building more “intelligent” plants and businesses that can respond more quickly to changing physical and business conditions. (As far as plant “consciousness” goes, we’ll leave that for now to the science fiction writers.)

This brief discussion, of course, can’t do full justice to Hofstadter’s fascinating insights and metaphors, ranging from fatal flaws in the development of set theory to “How much of a soul does a mosquito have?”  Too bad that by the time you’re reading this, the kids will be heading back to school, and it will be too late for I Am a Strange Loop to make the beach bag. But if your interest has been piqued, I’d recommend it for the holiday wish list—might even be in paperback by then.

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