Consciousness & cosmology

"Syntax" by Steve Tobin. Copper, bronze.

“Syntax” by Steve Tobin. Copper, bronze. What can be said about all the things we think make up an “I”?


I’ve completed I Am a Strange Loop and Why Does the World Exist? and found, not entirely to my surprise (but to my delight–braiding and synthesis!), that the existential, metaphysical, and cosmological aspects of both authors connect intriguingly. Thomas Nagel, an important “philosopher of mind,” appears as an influence in both of these writers’ books, and Einstein and Plato and Heidegger. Both authors end up citing Derek Parfit’s work, and Holt even interviews him! It turns out that trying to determine the “reason” the world exists at all is not that different from trying to understand what consciousness is made of and where it resides.

After taking up mathematical proofs and several philosophical arguments, as well as neurological science as a basis for the evolution of “mind,” Hofstadter’s book gradually takes apart the mind-body problem that Descartes made so iconic for Western civilization’s thinkers. He keeps returning–and that’s an appropriate word–to the metaphor of looping. He looks at the strange loops of Escher’s drawings and of string theorists’ rolled-up dimensions and alerts us to how crucial the concept of self-reference is to the theory of consciousness.

The need for self-referentiality in a fully “human” consciousness gets him to the idea of “small-souledness” (among, say, such beings as mosquitoes). What portion of our selves makes us able to think about thinking, for example? Is that identity, or consciousness? What’s the difference? Here is where Parfit comes in. Hofstadter writes that Parfit “staunchly resists the idea that the concept of ‘personal identity’ makes sense. To be sure, it makes sense in the everyday world we inhabit…we all more or less take for granted this notion of ‘Cartesian Ego’ in our daily lives; it is built into our common sense, into our languages, and into our cultural backgrounds.”


If we care at all about what there may be beyond our everyday lives–and certainly people like Hofstadter, Holt, Bachelard, and me, among others, do care–we need to get “meta” in our meditations, which invariably leads to paradoxes and thorny tangles. Hofstadter’s book also engages with his ‘personal life’ (if, indeed, a personal identity or personal life exists). When his wife died, he found himself engaged in the seemingly unanswerable question of “Where did Carol go?” Did “Doug-and-Carol,” the shared dreams and lives and understandings of two people who knew one another intimately, simply vanish when Carol’s body died? Hofstadter cannot fathom that this shared identity “goes poof” when the body stops. He, after all, still feels connected to the Doug-and-Carol shared consciousness.

It feels real to him. So–what is consciousness? From whence does it emanate, or originate? Is it real, or is it an illusion–is there no such thing as the personal identity we hold so dear that we cannot even imagine ourselves any other way than as an “I”? (Are feelings real?)


Jim Holt’s book likewise gets more personal as the chapters progress and as he wrestles with his existential inquiry through texts and interviews. That seems quite appropriate: how can we use language to untangle what language itself makes vague and confusing? (See Tobin’s sculpture “Syntax,” above, for a physical view of loopy entanglement and potential words). Holt’s inquiry initially seems based on the abstract, mathematical, physics of why/how the universe got here; but he ends on the metaphysical and philosophical…whereas Hofstadter entertains the metaphysical from the get-go but employs mathematics, psychology, and brain physiology as well as philosophy. And they encounter similar quandaries, paradoxes, and uncertainties. Both authors essentially come to a similar conclusion about the mystery of existence, though they accept or compromise with their conclusions in slightly different ways. Then again, they are different people who have lived different experiences. Reading both books has been, for me, a valuable experience and one that’s made me examine my own thinking about being.


Apropos of these musings, and thanks again to Popova of Brainpickings, here’s a few more words on some contemporary thinkers who have theorized as Holt has (in particular, Lawrence Kraus) in the debate on Something vs. Nothing: “What is Nothing”


…And, apropos of nothing in this post, but to lighten the mood, here’s an amusing little blog from The New Yorker about pilcrows & pound signs & ampersands.


Ontologies and inquiries

{ ? }


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.