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2/5/09

Douglas Hofstadter:What Do We Mean When We Say "I"?

Douglas Hofstadter: What Do We Mean When We Say "I"?

Douglas Hofstadter has a vivid recollection of a pig's head on a table in a market. As a teenager he could see the severed neck that once had lines of communication with the body, that had once connected all the outposts of information with the headquarters in consciousness. He asked, "Who once had been in that head? Who had lived there? Who had looked out through those eyes, heard through those ears? Who had this hunk of flesh really been? Was it a male or female?"

He had a mid-life loss. "In the month of December 1993, when we were just a quarter of the way into my sabbatical year in Trento, Italy, my wife Carol died very suddenly, essentially without warning, of a brain tumor. She was not yet 43, and our children, Danny and Monica, were but five and two. I was shattered in a way I could never have possibly imagined before our marriage. There had been a been a bright shining soul behind those eyes, and that soul had been suddenly eclipsed. The light had gone out."

So what does all this mean? He tries to understand. "Deep down, your brain is a chaotic seething soup of particles. On a higher level it is a jungle of neurons, and on a yet higher level it is a network of abstractions that we call 'symbols.' The most central and complex symbol is the one you call 'I.' An 'I' is a strange loop where the brain's symbolic and physical levels feed back into each other and flip causality upside down so that symbols seem to have gained the paradoxical ability to push particles around, rather than the reverse.

To each human being, this 'I' is the realest thing in the world. But how can such a mysterious abstraction be real? Is our 'I' merely a convenient fiction? Does an 'I' exert genuine power over the particles in our brains, or is it helplessly pushed around by the all-powerful laws of physics?" From I Am A Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter. Here is A Washington Post book review.

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