The Strange Loop of Consciousness

The fact that we humans are conscious beings aware of our own existence is intimately related to our religious beliefs. Our consciousness of our own existence is a highly complex phenomenon, but one which has been examined by many scientists including some physicists.

As examples I have found: Tononi, Consciousness as Integrated Information: A Provisional Manifesto, Biol.Bull. 215: 216 – 242 ( Dec. 2008) and: Max Tegmark, Consciousness as a State of Matter, arXiv: 1401.1219

I am interested in reviewing these papers and related ideas as a starting point on the subject of human consciousness. But to start I will look at two other more popular level books by Dr. Douglas Hofstadter. His book, Godel, Escher, Bach: An eternal golden braid, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, is one of the most interesting and thought provoking books I have read. He also wrote a later book on the same subject, I am a Strange Loop, which I also can recommend.

On finishing reading the latter, I wrote a letter to him which I include here to summarize some of the content in that book as well as my own personal reaction to it.

Dear Dr. Hofstadter,

I recently finished reading “I Am a Strange Loop” and thoroughly enjoyed it. Quite a few years ago I had read “Godel, Escher, Bach” and commented to a number of friends at that time that it was the best book I had ever read.

Your insights, and particularly, analogies into the nature of our being are thought provoking and credible.

On reading many of your ideas I was excited to see intimations of ideas revealed thousands of years ago in Judaeo-Christian thought (not to mention possibly, other religions). I was struck, however, by the hopeless tone of your approach to consciousness throughout the book and in particular in your conclusion.

To begin with, in Chapter 17, “How We Live in Each Other”, I was reminded of Jesus’s words – “I live in you and you live in me” and even more robust – “unless you eat of the body of the Son of Man you have no life in you.”

When you spoke of your wife, Carol, living (in some way) in you, this is true, not only for us and loved ones, but as the way Jesus lives within and among us. Not only “symbolically” through the Eucharist in us but “realistically” in the person of others who we are to perceive as Christ-like: “In as much as you do this (good works) to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me.” This notion is also an extension of “I”ness – not only as you discuss in “I am a Strange Loop,” but also as it is “discussed” in Exodus, where Moses is confronted by the “burning bush” and asks , “Who shall I say sent me?” and the reply is, “I am who I am. This is what you must say to them: ‘The one who is called I AM has sent me to you’”. (Exodus 3-2)

This statement of who God is can be open to various interpretations – but note the loop! Among other interpretations are “I am what is,” “I am existence,” or “I am being.” But the emphasis on “I”ness and its relationship to the totality of existence (i.e. God) I find striking and also resonating with the ideas in “I am a Strange Loop.”

I also find it really interesting to relate the commandments, as stated by Jesus, to the ideas you bring out in your book. When asked what the greatest law was, Jesus’s reply was, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second most important commandment is this: Love your neighbour as you love yourself.”

Bearing in mind that the Lord God’s name is I AM (Yahweh in Hebrew as I understand ) the above laws for our existence call on us to regard our “being” or perhaps our “awareness of being” more important than anything else – with the equally interesting proviso that we are to love our fellow human beings and their awareness of being as much as our own.

The second law of existence or life is thus very similar to the ideas in “I am a Strange Loop” of living out, however faintly, the consciousness of others. For example, your attempt to live, however faintly, the remnant life of Carol.

In your conclusion (p.246) you write that you consider empathy ”…as the most admirable quality of humanity.” I would interpret this empathy to be the kind of love Jesus is speaking of – empathic love, love for the other. This kind of love is given even more emphasis by Jesus in his third (but still equal commandment to the first two): “A new commandment I give to you – that you love one another as I have loved you.” That is, love to the complete point of self-sacrifice.

In Chapter 17 “How We Live in Each Other” you state “even if evolution never had any grand plan “ suggesting that you are satisfied that our existence and even more profoundly, our awareness of our existence is accidental and, presumably, ultimately of no great moment to the rest of the universe – whatever that is!

When I read that line I was reminded of a line from one of Jesus’ parables: “The kingdom of Heaven is like a man who found a treasure in a field – he sold all that he had to buy that field and so to have that treasure.” What if in the rest of the universe we are all that exists that is aware of the universe or ourselves. How valuable does that make us to the rest of the universe?

There may well be “universal beings” on other planets, around other stars, but we have no evidence of that. And even if there are, it simply means that those universal beings are equally valuable. We can be sure that we ourselves exist – we may not be sure of anything else. What if the rest of the universe – including ourselves – wants us to be aware of how important our awareness is. Important enough to yearn for this awareness of being forever.

What miracle could the universe perform to bring that to our awareness?

There is much more that I could write. Thank you for your stimulating ideas in your books. I find the idea that our awareness of self and our universe is a temporary accidental flash-in-the pan profoundly sad, and rejoice in the hope that through truly understanding what Jesus means, (as well as what Doug Hofstadter means) we may come to share an eternal being.

Greg MacNevin

At the end of “I am Strange Loop” Hofstadter states: “…so the strange loop characterization of our essences gives us a deeper and subtler vision of what it is to be human.”

I can agree with Hofstadter on that point, but to my mind such explorations invite us to reinterpret and rediscover what all human beings have been yearning to find – what is the nature and meaning of our existence and can it include “impossible” ideas like resurrection and timeless existence?

One thought on “The Strange Loop of Consciousness

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s