Empty Rooms and Strange Loops. Models of Mind from Calasso to Hofstadter (part II)

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

In the previous article, I presented Rorty’s viewpoint on the relationship between reality and language. In particular, the author’s thesis is based upon the contingency and variety of language and vocabulary and how it can change according to the context.
In this second and final section, instead, I will examine various and relevant models of cognitions.

Functionalism and the philosophy of mind

Computational functionalism is the model by which the human mind is similar to a software that runs on hardware given by the nervous system. Functionalism, although juxtaposed by other models, is popular, vital, and constitutes a still fruitful line of investigation especially in the study of abstract cognitive processes such as logical chains of deductions or language.

A classic example of the computational approach is in Newell and Simon’s work from the 1970’s, in which thought processes are depicted as formal manipulations of symbols. These symbols can be concatenated into complex symbolic expressions, in turn the concatenations of “expressions” give rise to “processes”.
If it is accepted that mental processes are computations, the meaning of the symbols they use in their calculations remains to be clarified, as well as their ontological status. Are these symbols actual modifications of the material states of the brain, like Newell and Simon imply, or are they something more abstract?

In this way of depicting the mind, for an intelligent behavior these conditions are sufficient: a high cognitive power, or an ability in the symbolic manipulation. We can put aside any interest in the support on which these processes are processed, which is the power and sometimes the limit of the computational approach. It frees the exploration of the human mind from the limits of a strictly neuro-physiological study, but it can fall victim of its own level of abstraction, for example proving to be a very weak description when it comes to emotional rather than logical or simply deductive processes, and even more when the focus moves to the way cognition and embodiment relate to each other.

Pieter Janssens Elinga (1668-72), Room in a Dutch House, Saint Petersburg, Hermitage Museum.

L-Oopsy Doopsy

Now, let’s fast-forward, completely ignore names such as Turing, Putnam, and Chomsky and let’s focus on the model of cognition proposed by Douglas Hofstadter in classics such as Godel, Escher, Bach and I am a strange loop.

What is life, consciousness, in whom and what do we recognize a form of consciousness, is it perhaps a matter of scale? In his book titled I am a strange loop (2007), Hofstadter begins by asking similar questions to introduce his own way of looking at the mind, and especially to consciousness. He claims that we do not recognize complex thought and self awareness to larger animals because of their size, but because of a specific type of complexity that denotes self awareness in certain living beings.

This characteristic is a structure of cognition which he calls a strange loop.
Not a simple form of reflexivity, a loop is strange when the initial data is the beginning and the end of the circle, through different levels of conceptual abstraction. An example is sensory data, which is at the beginning and at the end of the conscious process of perception, but which gets a different description at every point of the circle based on a different mode of conceptualisation. In this way, being aware of every single character on a screen and reading this article are the same thing, but also different things altogether.
While perception can also exist without concepts, their coexistence with perception are an example of a strange loop in action. A feedback loop, something that can be created by taking a picture of a picture of a picture and so on is not a strange loop, as it lacks especially that added layer of conceptual abstraction that makes the end and the beginning of the loop exactly the same thing, but not quite.

A room with no one in it

To conclude, a final model of the mind that I found especially significant in the last weeks is the idea of consciousness that we find in an essay by Roberto Calasso, his 2000 Weidenfeld lecture then turned essay with the title of An Abandoned Room (or Una stanza con nessuno dentro in the italian edition).

A few weeks ago I was reading an email from a friend and in there I found a similar image, if a bit simpler and slightly more unsettling. She wrote “my mind is like an echoing room with a lone man playing trombone in it.” She was unwittingly quoting Calasso, with the exception of the trombone player.

In the essay I’m summarizing, Calasso makes reference to an image from Mallarmé’s Sonnet en -yx, one of the most difficult and rare rhymes of the French language. This baroque composition exercise was not only an experimentation in style, but also led Mallarmé to create an image that, to Calasso, describes the innermost space of human consciousness.
This sonnet, other than Sonnet in X, is also titled Sonnet allégorique de lui-même, a sonnet which is the allegory of itself. This is the reason why the sonnet is such an apt and almost explicit description of consciousness, because not only it involves reflexivity, but also something more, an added layer.

Unlike Hofstadter’s concepts that mark the difference between a loop and a strange loop, here the key role is played by allegory, metaphor, something akin to what Calasso calls “the analogic” in his other writings.

To quote the paraphrase of the sonnet, “here is the empty space, the inner place of the mind“.

For example, an open window at night, the two shutters secured; a room with no one in it, despite the stable atmosphere produced by the secured shutters, and in a night made of absence and questioning, no furniture, except perhaps some plausible hint of vague consoles, a frame, combative, with death throes, around a mirror hung in the background, with its reflection, starry and incomprehensible, of the Ursa Major, the Great Bear, that connects this abandoned lodging of the world to the sky alone.

Manet, Edouard (1876), “L’après-midi d’un faune“, The Art Institute of Chicago.

Francesco Pigato


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