My admiration for Douglas Hofstadter's "I Am a Strange Loop," the subject of my previous post, is evidenced by the fact that I just carted the 410 pages to Maui—adding the weight of this hardcover book to my 50 pound suitcase limit, every ounce of which I'm going to need on our return trip after our usual rampaging through Lahaina t-shirt shops.
But I wanted to ponder my strange loopiness some more while on vacation. At the moment I'm listening to Napili Bay waves, rather than Oregon rain, but the same "I" seemingly is doing the listening though its body has traveled far today.
Or so I've always thought.
Hofstadter calls this the "caged bird" metaphor. The cage is the body, or cranium, and the bird is the soul. There's one bird to one cage. And if you're spiritually inclined, supposedly the bird can be freed from the cage.
Satori! Enlightenment! Salvation!
But this presumes that the bird is real. There's an "I" separate and distinct from the physical matter that comprises the brain and the rest of the body. What if there isn't? What if instead of a caged bird, we're actually…
Even Hofstadter has trouble finishing the sentence.
It is not easy to find a strong, vivid metaphor to put up against the caged-bird metaphor. I have entertained quite a few possibilities, involving such diverse entities as bees, tornadoes, flowers, stars, and embassies. The image of a swarm of bees or of a nebula clearly conveys the idea of diffuseness, but there is no clear counterpart to the cage (or rather, to the head or brain or cranium). (A hive is not what I mean, because a flying swarm is not at all inside its hive).
The basic problem is that when you go looking for the "I," it's impossible to pin down. That's what leads Hofstadter to say that the "I" is a hallucination hallucinated by a hallucination.
Sounds a lot like Buddhism and quite a few other maya-embracing philosophies. The difference, though, is that Hofstadter apparently doesn't offer a way out of the illusion (I've got a few more chapters to read). He strikes me as a Buddhist who doesn't believe in enlightenment, just the emptiness of individuality.
Hofstadter's favorite image concerning the sense of "I" comes from his experience of squeezing his hand around a pack of about a hundred envelopes that were in a box. When he did this, he felt a marble in the midst of them. Strange.
He tried to shake the marble out from the envelopes. No luck. Then he went through them one by one and found that each envelope was empty. Even stranger. Upon closer inspection, he realized that at the vertex of each envelope's flap there was a triple layer of paper and a thin layer of glue.
This area couldn't be compressed as much as the rest of the envelope. So when a hundred of them were aligned precisely and pressed together, voila, a marble. Or rather, an epiphenomenon that felt uncannily like a marble.
An epiphenomenon…is a collective and unitary-seeming outcome of many small, often invisible or unperceived, quite possibly utterly unexpected, events. In other words, an epiphenomenon could be said to be a large-scale illusion created by the collusion of many small and indisputably non-illusory events.
Just like the "I." According to Hofstadter my sense that I'm indisputably me (which for you, obviously, is that you're you—not me) arises from countless experiences from birth until now. Each of us is way more than a hundred experience-envelopes stacked up together.
That me-bump we feel in the center of us, it's as real as the marble.
The problem is that in a sense, an "I" is something created out of nothing. And since making something out of nothing is never possible, the alleged something turns out to be an illusion, in the end, but a very powerful one, like the marble among the envelopes.
However, the "I" is an illusion far more entrenched and recalcitrant than the marble illusion, because in the case of "I," there is no simple revelatory act corresponding to turning the box upside down and shaking it, then peering in between the envelopes and finding nothing solid and spherical in there.
We don't have access to the inner workings of our brains. And so the only perspective we have on our "I"-ness comes from the counterpart to squeezing all the envelopes at once, and that perspective says it's real!
I love it. And I hate it.
For me, pondering Hofstadter's book has been like getting on the best ride in the Existential Theme Park. It started off with some exciting ups and downs, which I enjoyed. But then I hit the part where you feel like everything has been pulled out from under you.
Whoa, momma! Stop the ride! No, wait, I want more! Changed my mind again, stop the freaking ride, NOW!
On the whole, I like the feeling of free-falling. Except when I don't. "I"s are like that—fickle. More on this later, after the jet lag wears off and the warm water wears on.