We are all strange loops

Strange Loop -- book cover
In “I am a strange loop” (2007) Douglas Hofstadter proposes that the self -- personal consciousness -- is a pattern. Hofstadter notes that patterns exist at different levels of resolution, ie at different points on a spectrum of granularity, from coarse-grained to fine-grained.

Here’s an example: Jack and Jill are persons who know each other. Per Hofstadter’s idea, the knowledge of Jill in Jack’s mind is as much a valid part of Jill as Jill's physical body is part of Jill. But the knowledge of Jill in Jack’s mind is “low res.” compared with the knowledge of Jill in her own mind. Jill’s actual body and mind are at the highest res available.

Extending the idea: A photograph of Jill is part of Jill. And so too are letters written by Jill, letters written about Jill, clothes worn by Jill, memories of Jill in the minds of her friends: these are all parts of Jill. Every part and aspect of reality touched by Jill in any way, is part of Jill — the “Greater Jill”, the total, aggregated footprint of Jill upon Reality.

Perhaps the most significant difference between the various parts or aspects of Jill is the extent to which each is subject to change. Everything is subject to change, but some things change less than others. A digitized photograph of Jill uploaded to the internet is less subject to change than Jill’s physical body.

Does that mean the uploaded photograph is somehow a “truer” aspect of Jill than her physical body? No. Because change is an intrinsic part of Jill, and the photograph fails to capture that aspect of her being. But change itself complicates the question about who or what is the one true Jill. Perhaps there isn’t one, but rather a multitude. After all, there are all those “new age” claims floating around that humans are multi-dimensional beings, and we’re not talking “normal” dimensions either, i.e. space, time and spacetime. Perhaps we multi-dimensional beings extend even into the compactified dimensions and calabi-yau manifolds beloved of string theorists!

This image shows a local 2D cross-section of the real 6D manifold known in string theory as the Calabi-Yau quintic. This is an Einstein manifold and a popular candidate for the wrapped-up 6 hidden dimensions of 10-dimensional string theory at the scale of the Planck length. Attribution: Andrew J. Hanson, Indiana University.This image shows a local 2D cross-section of the real 6D manifold known in string theory as the Calabi-Yau quintic. This is an Einstein manifold and a popular candidate for the wrapped-up 6 hidden dimensions of 10-dimensional string theory at the scale of the Planck length. Attribution: Andrew J. Hanson, Indiana University.

A useful way to think about it is in terms of process vs pattern. What’s the difference between a pattern and a process? Answer: change/movement. A process is a dynamic pattern. A pattern is a frozen process, a static process. In life, personal consciousness is a process, and in death it’s a pattern, a frozen process, just as a photograph is a frozen representation of a dynamic subject. After Jill’s death, the dynamic process “Jill” is frozen and what remains is the static pattern “Jill”, which resides in the minds of people who remember her and in photographs and other records.

According to Hofstader, "...we are self-perceiving, self-inventing, locked-in mirages that are little miracles of self-reference", (Douglas Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop). Self-reference frequently leads to paradox, which is why a person has such difficulty identifying let alone knowing herself. Godelian incompleteness refers to the idea that the propositions of a formal system such as geometry can only be proven to be true/consistent outside of the system. Similarly, you have to step outside of yourself in order to identify yourself, let alone know yourself. Godelian incompleteness applies as much to personhood/identity as to any formal system.

Every process needs a substrate on which to “run”, on which to deploy itself. Computer software runs on a substrate of computer hardware. The process of delivering energy into the homes of people (currently!) runs on a substrate of metal wires. The process of removing personal waste from the homes of people runs on a substrate of pipes in the ground. The process of being a person runs on the substrate of a flesh-and-blood body. Consciousness/mind is a process that runs on the substrate of the brain.

Consciousness is a verb, not a noun.

A person is a composite monad comprising “software”, “hardware” and “data”. Mental content, the software, is deployed on a flesh-and-blood hardware substrate, the brain. The person’s experiences and interactions with the world are data.

When the substrate ends or is destroyed or vanishes into the mist, the process stops and can run no more. In the case of the process of being a person, when the body dies there’s no substrate on which the person can run, so the person runs no more. When the brain dies, consciousness/mind stops and can run no more unless and until another appropriate substrate takes the place of the brain.

But there’s nothing in principle preventing a process from running on multiple substrates, serially or in parallel. The death of the body does not necessarily mean the final and irreversible death of the personhood associated with that body. In principle, if and when another suitable substrate becomes available, the process of being that person could run again (as long as it had been appropriately stored in the interim!). Reincarnation is what happens when a new substrate becomes available on which the process of being a particular person can run again.

OK, but what happens to the process while it’s waiting for a new substrate to turn up? I don’t know. Perhaps it runs on the fundamental substrate on which the whole of reality runs. Could a process run on itself as substrate? Could a process itself give rise to a virtual substrate on which the process could run? Don’t know.

In principle, the substrate on which runs the process of being a person need not be organic, ie based on molecules of carbon. The substrate can be anything on which the process can successfully run. The substrate could, for example, be silicone-based (as in the case of the computer). But the substrate need not be material at all; it could be a “virtual substrate” comprised of abstract principles of internal logic.

There are many different types of immateriality, as many as the number of angels that can dance on the head of a bindu.

This post should be read in conjunction with all other posts published in this blog under the label of "personhood".


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Cara H said...

I prefer speculating on thoughts such as these to the political bile that has taken over my One Love blog recently.

masterymistery said...

Hi Cara, thanks for your comment. Great to hear from you, and thanks for stopping by! Yes there seems to be a lot of political bile around these days. It makes me feel quite bilious... Cheers, MM