Saturday, June 01, 2013

"I Am a Strange Loop": Douglas Hofstadter explains "I-ness"

Author: Douglas Hofstadter

Title: “I Am a Strange Loop”

Publication: 2007, Basic Books, ISBN 978-0-465-03079-8, 412 pages, indexed, 24 chapters with Prologue and Epilogue
The book has a tagline on the back cover, “What do we mean when we say ‘I’”?
Really, why am I “me”, having lived the specific life that I have lived, with all its twists and ironies?  Why didn’t I experience myself at the time of Christ, or in the Middle Ages, or of the Holocaust?
The author seems to take the position that the open-ended  nature of mathematics makes consciousness necessary.  He spends a lot of space on the ideas of mathematician Kurt Godel, who invented a way of mapping mathematical propositions to “Godel numbers” and then “proved” that there had to be statements which would be true but unprovable.  That certainly brings back all those days of graduate school in mathematics at the University of Kansas back in the 1960s.

This sets up, in nature, a logical “feedback loop” in all things in the cosmos.  The feedback tends to contradict entropy, or the tendency for all systems to become more disordered (according to laws of thermodynamics).  The “feedback loop” sets up “patterns” which tend to organize matter in biological systems (as least as we know them on Earth).  The “pattern” eventually develops a sense of will or purpose which “feeds back” and mediates the component elements.  One could argue that biological life cycles and reproduction counter entropy and help the universe get organized – but only as it develops soul or consciousness. 
Yet, “consciousness” seems to become its own beast. “I-ness” continues even as all the cells in my body are recycled and replaced over the years as I age. 
In fact, “I-ness” roughly belongs to one body, but not exactly.  Empathy or rooting interest ties people to others, with some sense of continuity.  Consider the mediation of “personal identity” when rooting for a professional sports team.  The idea of shared identity (or “eusociality”) has moral consequences, because in most civilizations people have to make sacrifices for the “purposes of others” beyond the scope of their own “axiom of choice”,  Social sustainability depends on this capacity.
Hofstadter argues that sense of identity (or “soul”)  grows during childhood (is very little at birth), is reasonably well defined by early adolescence, but not complete until the early or mid-twenties, the time it takes for the brain to grow to full maturity.  Animals have “identity”, too; those of more developed mammals (carnivore, cetaceans, and primates) can certainly be compared meaningfully to ours. 
After “death”, the soul gradually dissipates, but remnants of it live in loved ones of the individual.  The soul may dissipate before death in some tragic circumstances, such as Alzheimer’s.
It seems to me, though, that, even though physical death is inevitable, it is implausible not to exist at all.  To me, it would seem logical for the soul to exist in some fashion, and the “moral” laws of karma would seem to demand that it does.  Perhaps it joins a “cosmic consciousness”, as Rosicrucians have posted.  Eben Alexander, in “Proof of Heaven” (March 30) reported that, while his cerebral cortex was completely obliterated by meningitis, the felt he was living inside the “Core”.  Perhaps once we have lived, we must live again, but in other worlds, where instead of being initialized (as on this planet), we are “updated”.  What a science fiction scenario: to travel to Gliese 581 G, 30 light years away, tidally locked with a narrow habitable zone, and find that we meet a bizarre civilization of people with recycled souls. 
Another idea could be that a “virus” could move “consciousness” from one body (after death), to a “super body” (an “angel” who could time-share multiple souls. 

Perhaps the only way to conquer space is to get a grip on the "afterlife" and communicate with it.  Perhaps a succeeding generation down the pike a century or so will learn to do that.  One of my first intimate partners ever (in 1976) claimed that he taught "the history of consciousness."

In the YouTube video, the author speaks at Stanford. 

Update: June 2

I don't think the book author would agree with a project by Dmitry Itskov, to record the contents of the human brain on avatars, and offer digital immortality by the year 2045, NYTimes Business story here

1 comment:

Bill Boushka said...

Here's a 2010 Wordpress blog post on the author's ideas, to which I commented.