Ontologies and inquiries

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This week, amidst the whirl of returning students, I have accidentally paired my reading of Douglas Hofstadter’s book I Am a Strange Loop with Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?

How did all of this get started? In the most concrete and specific scenario, I had been slowly savoring Hofstadter–and, let’s face it, trying to “get” the math he occasionally employs–and happened across a copy of Holt’s book, which is a faster read, when I didn’t have Strange Loop to hand. Next thing I know, I’m deep into both texts which, naturally, overlap in several ways. Now, I find myself pondering the beginnings of abstract things like consciousness, which may not be abstract if you think along the lines of E. O. Wilson but which Hofstadter suggests exists as both a top-level abstract “thing” that pushes around its foundational, physical “things” such as synapses, neurons, molecules. And I think about Descartes and the mind-body problem and, oh, while I’m at it, the Big Bang theory and the “what was there before the big bang?” question.

Holt’s book turns to the metaphysical inquiry, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” It’s a question I asked myself when I was about 6 years old. Hofstadter deals mostly with the (perhaps metaphysical) concern: “What is consciousness?” That’s a question I asked a bit later in life, though certainly I asked it before I was in my twenties.

Both authors employ philosophy and math in the service of trying to make sense of these inquiries; and while Holt’s investigation is a bit more physical-cosmological in nature, it may not be necessarily so–lots of the theories floating around out there sound pretty metaphysical to me! Hofstadter employs many analogies, as is his wont (see, in particular, his 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach). Hofstadter also gets a bit more into neurology, of course–we are talking about consciousness, after all, and it may reside in our brains–and slightly into the arena of psychology. Holt takes a more journalistic approach, using interviews and readings to cite past and current thinking on the topic of existence. The subtitle of his book is “An Existential Detective Story.”

So far, I enjoy both books, though they differ in significant respects.

Meanwhile, at work I am mainly dealing with adjusting-to-updated-software issues and helping-students-with-advising questions and explaining drop-add and pass-fail and comp-rhet and the difference between Elementary Spanish I and II. Keeps my brain flexible and gets those neurons firing. {Right??}

I haven’t finished reading either book yet. I may have more to say about the synthesis of these two books after I’ve let my brain settle down.

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