The Careenium

I am a big fan of Douglas Hofstadter, the author of the classic Godel, Escher, Bach and more recently, I Am A Strange Loop. Hofstadter is a master of metaphors and today I would like discuss one metaphor in particular, The Careenium.

Hofstadter asks you to imagine a frictionless billiards table with lots and lots of tiny, magnetic marbles, or “simms”(small interacting magnetic marble), bouncing around, careening endlessly. Because these simms are slightly magnetic, they are apt to stick together into clusters called “simmballs”(see where this is going yet?). These simmballs are more or less stable with simms transferring in and out endlessly. Furthermore, imagine that the walls of the billiard table are sensitive to the outside environment and for every force, the walls flex inwardly slightly. Naturally, this flexibility is reflected in the careening simms and ultimately in the large simmballs.

Thus the simmballs be be said to encode for the events in the environment and in principle, if someone was well-versed in Careenium mechanics, they could interpret the simmballs as being symbolic. In case you haven’t figured out the mappings of the metaphor yet, let me lay it out explicitly. The simms map onto neurons(small events) and the simmballs map onto patterns of neurons(larger events) and by virtue of encoding for the environment, the simmballs(symbols) have representational qualities.

The point of Hofstadter’s metaphor is relatively simple. He wants you to imagine a scenario where the brain(Careenium) could be seen in two different perspectives. One perspective, which comes naturally to scientists, is reductionist. That is, one could in principle view all the activities of the Careenium in terms of the tiny simms bouncing around, acting in accordance with well-known laws of physics. On the other hand, one could take could the high-road, and view the system in terms of the larger simmballs and their macroscopic, representational properties.

In order to help you visualize the implications of the metaphor, Hofstadter asks you to imagine two perceptual shifts of the Careenium. The first shift is to speed everything up, so that the fast-moving simms become too fast to be seen by the naked eye and the larger, slower moving simmball clusters become more active, bouncing around in a lively fashion, interacting with each other. The second perceptual shift involves zooming out so that the the simmballs become the only thing one can attend to. With these two perceptual shifts in mind, Hofstadter asks the following question: who shoves whom around inside the Careenium?

On one hand, there is the view that the tiny, meaningless simms are the primary “shovers” and the simmballs are merely along for the ride. On the other perspective, zoomed out and sped up, the simmballs are the only interesting feature of the system, with a rich symbolic “logic” that corresponds to the environment being represented. Which perspective is the “truth”? Well, as Hofstadter says, it “all seems topsy-turvy.” I’ll leave you with a quote from the book:

From our higher-level macroscopic vantage point as we hover above the table, we can see ideas giving rise to other ideas, we can see one symbolic event reminding the system of another symbolic event, we can see elaborate patterns of simmballs coming together and forming even larger patterns that constitute analogies-in short, we can visually eavesdrop on the logic of a thinking mind taking place in the patterned dance of the simmballs. And in this latter view, it is the simmballs that shove each other about, at their own isolated symbolic level.

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Filed under Philosophy, Psychology

6 responses to “The Careenium

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on Representation « Minds and Brains

  2. Ron Wolf

    Thanks for the summary. To me this clear statement regarding the importance of looking at systems at the appropriate metaphoric level was by far the most valuable part of the book.

    For instance, this has helped me to get to the bottom of what has bothered me about the line of thinking that intentionality has actual physical action at the quantum level as expressed in the movie “What the Bleep is Going On” and in Natalie Reid’s “Creating Quantum Change” which confound action at one level with effect at another. Pretty simple and now I have the language, and metaphor, to explain it.

    It also helps me to sort out thoughts & concerns regarding determinism. A system that is predictable at one level, may lead to far less easily predictable (or not at all predictable) behavior at a higher level.

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  5. Thanks for the summary, helped me when I was trying to remember the terminology Hofstadter used in that chapter of the book, and saved me the effort of having to reread.

    A minor comment: you write “The simms map onto neurons(small events) and the simmballs map onto patterns of neurons(larger events)”. I think the more appropriate metaphor would be the simms mapping onto neuronal firing, and the simmballs as patterns of neuronal firing. In that case the neurons would be more like the substrate or the billiard ball table.

    Unfortunately this is where the analogy breaks down since the physical substrate of neurons changes as the agent learns, while the table remains static. Maybe if the table had some slowly self-repairing felt that could be worn out by the tracks of simms. In light of this, maybe the collisions are more appropriate as analogs of action potentials… but still I don’t think simmballs correspond to patterns of neurons (which I interpret as the physical structure), because the physical structure of the neurons does not by itself carry any symbolic meaning, as opposed to the distributed pattern of activation across the structure of neurons.

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