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”?

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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.”

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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?)

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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.

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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”

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…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.

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