Tuesday, February 19, 2008

I Am A Strange Loop

For a while I've been reading "I am a Strange Loop" by Douglas Hofstadter. In this book the author sets out to define what a human soul is without just saying, "It is the part of you that lives on after you die." Why would anyone want to do this? Good question. I think it is a question that he is drawn to for any number of reasons but I suspect it has a lot to do with what seems to be a recurring theme in my thoughts. It is probably no surprise to many/most of you that I am an Atheist/Agnostic/Humanist/etc. From what I can gather Hofstadter falls in this same category. For me not having someone tell me that I have a soul and I that it is on loan from God leaves a big gap in explaining what the hell I am doing here and what I should do next. Hofstadter doesn't really go into the what I should do next, but he does take an interesting swing at trying to figure out what the hell we are doing here.

What is fascinating is how he eventually comes to the point of saying that we don't really have a soul and our concept of identity (our "I" itself) is merely an illusion or at best a convenient shorthand for the collection of chaos that we perceive as ourselves. That we are in effect just a very fascinating pattern of atoms that has become organized enough to perceive the pattern in itself. I find that idea to be both awesome and scary. Awesome to think about the amazingly complex collection of patterns that must go into making the "I" that we speak of when we make the statement "cogito ergo sum". Do I really need to need to go into why it is scary? Hey if the thought that you are a figment of your own imagination doesn't scare you, then you've got bigger existential balls that I do. Rather than ramble on and on, let me leave you with one of the passage with which he finishes the book.

You and I are mirages who perceive themselves, and the sole magical machinery behind the scenes is perception -- the triggering, by huge flows of raw data, of a tiny set of symbols that stand for abstract regularities in the world. When perception at arbitrarily high levels of abstraction enters the world of physics and when feedback loops galore come into play, then "which" eventually turns into "who". What would once have been brusquely labeled "mechanical" and reflexively discarded as a candidate for consciousness has to be reconsidered.

We human beings are macroscopic structures in a universe whose laws reside at the microscopic level. As survival-seeking beings, we are driven to seek efficient explanations that make reference only to entities at our own level. We therefore draw conceptual boundaries around entities that we easily perceive, and in so doing we carve out what seems to us to be reality. The "I" we create for each of us is a quintessential example of such a perceived or invented reality, and it does such a good job of explaining our behavior that it becomes the hub around which the rest of the world seems to rotate. But this "I" notion is just a shorthand for a vast mass of seething and churning of which we are necessarily unaware.

Sometimes, when my leg goes to sleep (as we put it in English) and I feel a thousand pins and needles tingling inside it, I say to myself, "Aha! So this is what being alive really is! I'm getting a rare glimpse of how complex I truly am!" (In French, on says that one has "ants in one's leg", and the cartoon character Dennis the Menace once remarked that he had "ginger ale in his leg" -- two unforgettable metaphors for this odd yet universal sensation.) Of course we can never com close to experiencing the full tingling complexity of what we truly are, since we have, to take just one typical example, six billion trillion (that is, six thousand million million million) copies of the hemoglobin molecule rushing about helter-skelter through our veins at all moments, and in each second of our lives, 400 trillion of them are destroyed while another 400 trillion are created. Numbers like these are way beyond human comprehension.

But our own unfathomability is a lucky thing for us! Just as we might shrivel up and die if we could truly grasp how minuscule we are in comparison to the vast universe we live in, so we might also explode in fear and shock if we were privy to the unimaginably frantic goings-on inside our bodies. We live in a state of blessed ignorance, but it is also a state of marvelous enlightenment, for it involves floating in a universe of mid-level categories of our won creation -- categories that function incredibly well as survival enhancers.

Have you ever heard nihilism expressed in such gentle and human terms? If you get a chance I'd recomend this book. Even if you know you will never agree with his viewpoint, there are some very striking and poignant moments to be found inside.

1 comment:

Erin said...

as soon as I finish the other two books I'm currently working my way through I think I would like to take a stab at this one. it sort of makes my brain hurt reading that exerpt, but in a good way.