Via Douglas Hofstadter, I've got some soul-shaking news to pass on to you. You're a strange loop.
So am I. As is he. We all are. And it's not a bad thing, once you get used to the strangeness and loopiness of our rarely recognized condition.
Hofstadter has come a long way, both personally and professionally (he's a professor of cognitive science at Indiana University). His wife died suddenly from a brain tumor in 1993. He writes of his love for her, and how he has struggled to relate his understanding of how the mind works with how Carol lives on in his consciousness.
Which, at heart, is a "strange loop." What this means takes a bunch of chapters to explain, some quite dense.
I thought I knew what Gödel's theorem was all about, non-mathematically at least, but it's a lot more involved than my thinking thought. However, the fact that I can think about my thoughts about what Gödel and Hofstadter think about thinking shows that I'm at least in the ballpark of a Gödelian frame of mind.
A plain loop is easy to grasp. It's akin to a thermostat that senses the temperature and turns the furnace on or off to keep the house comfortable. This isn't a strange loop because the thermostat isn't self-aware. There's awareness of the temperature, but not any awareness that the thermostat is aware.
Humans, by contrast, are hugely strange—the strangest loops in existence, so far as we know. We are masters of abstraction and symbols. We observe (generally) friendly furry animals of an astounding variety of shapes and sizes, summing them up as "dogs."
Our ability to conceptualize allows us to jump back and forth between levels of abstraction. Hofstadter observes that we can dream about ourselves dreaming about dreaming. More profoundly, he says, Gödel found that "one of the domains that mathematics can model is the doing of mathematics itself."
This talk about abstractions can easily sound, well, abstract. But when the core message of "I Am a Strange Loop" hits home, as it did to me today, it's anything but abstract. Some of the feel of what I felt is hinted at in Hofstadter's description of a strange loop.
What I mean by "strange loop" is—here goes a first stab, anyway—not a physical circuit but an abstract loop in which, in the first stages that constitute the cycling-around, there is a shift from one level of abstraction (or structure) to another, which feels like an upwards movement in a hierarchy, and yet somehow the successive "upward" shifts turn out to give rise to a closed cycle.
That is, despite one's sense of departing ever further from one's origin, one winds up, to one's shock, where one had started out.
Hofstadter illustrates this by M.C. Escher's lithograph Drawing Hands. But the thoughts that I'm thinking as I write this post about how we think, or the thoughts that you're thinking as you read what I've written, are equally good illustrations. Just shyer. He writes:
Fortunately, there do exist strange loops that are not illusions. I say "fortunately" because the thesis of this book is that we ourselves—not our bodies, but our selves—are strange loops, and so if all strange loops were illusions, then we would all be illusions, and that would be a great shame. So it's fortunate that some strange loops do exist in the real world.
On the other hand, it is not a piece of cake to exhibit one for all to see. Strange loops are shy creatures, and they tend to avoid the light of day.
Here we are, you and I. Except when you say "you and I," I'm the "you" instead of the "I" that holds when I say it. Already that's darn strange. Because it's impossible to point to any sort of "I," whether it is in you or me.
Hofstadter goes so far as to say what he says below. I'll leave his saying alone for now. The hour is late, and while strange loops avoid the light of day, they also avoid the dark of night.
In this strange loop's mind, at least. There will be more to say another day, if the strange loop that is me wants to head that way.
That extremely slight doubt flies in the face of what we all take for granted ever since our earliest childhood, which is that "I"'s do exist—and in most people, the latter belief simply wins out, hands down. The battle is never even engaged, in most people's minds. On the other hand, for a few people the battle starts to rage: physics versus "I."
…My proposal for a truce to end this battle is to see the "I" as a hallucination perceived by a hallucination, which sounds pretty strange, or perhaps even stranger: the "I" as a hallucination hallucinated by a hallucination.