Hofstadter – The Material Brain and Meaning in the Mind

Individual ants behave as individuals, oblivious to their role In the ant colony. An ant colony must have certain attributes in order for the colony to thrive. In the analogy of Aunt Hillary and Anteater individual ants are sacrificed for the health of the colony. Hofstadter frames the interaction between Aunt Hillary and Anteater as a conversation, as if the ant colony is an intelligent being with a brain. Rather than framing the loss of individual ants as “for the health of the colony,” he says they are eaten by Anteater for the sake of the conversation, for the sake of meaning. In order to link the concepts of “health” and “meaning” we must accept that although the colony is not communicating with words, we find meaning in the life-sustaining behavior of the ant colony.
The ingredients in a brain are many, but legitimate isomorphisms (comparisons) can be made between them and ant colonies. Small groupings of ants performing a task is like a grouping of firing neurons. And as multiple groups of ants perform high level functions, complex thoughts are formed from coordinated efforts of many, many neurons. The meaning at the high level is lost when understood that the level of the individual. Meaning emerges when a sufficient level of complexity exists.

Taking this line of argumentation a step further, Hoftstadter argues consciousness and “the self” emerge from ad hoc structures, meaningless from the reductionist perspective (like neurons and brain matter), but meaningful when sufficiently complex. Realistically, an ant colony may not be sufficiently complex to become conscious, let alone self-conscious, but that does not mean it is inherently impossible. The speed and “nature” of a neuron is much faster than an ant, and consequently makes possible the possibility of far more complexity in a brain than in an ant colony. Since Hofstadter is searching for a path to artificial intelligence, he is implying that (the) I will be found through sufficiently complex systems.


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