Self-reference is what this book is all about. Douglas Hostadter, author of Gödel, Escher, Bach (which I never have gotten all the way through), tries in this book to get at what we mean when we say “I”. I found it a pretty good read; some silly parables and stories help illustrate his concepts. Below I’ll try to summarize what I got out of it, and where I think it leads.
1. Hofstadter believes that Gödel’s real breakthrough was creating a mapping system on top of the natural numbers. Once he had done that, he had shown that you can create a kind of ‘universal machine’ for creating new patterns and abstractions (taken to the level of computing by Alan Turing).
2. Hofstadter rejects any notions of dualism, and thus sees physical matter & laws as the bedrock for all we perceive. No mystical notions of elan vital for him! All must map back down to the physical level of neurons (or atoms, or however far you want to go).
3. He believes that as the brain evolved, it got to a point where it could start to self-reference, and act as a powerful type of ‘universal machine’. He places living things on a scale of consciousness, with humans at the peak, dogs at some low level and mosquitoes at virtually nil.
4. He then posits that as the human brain develops patterns of high-level abstractions and self-references (strange loops), it creates for us an ‘illusion’ or ‘mirage’ that we call “I” (or the soul, or consciousness; he uses the terms to mean a similar thing).
5. Part of what we model in our brains is the patterns of other people; he sees each person’s ‘soul’ as existing (in low-res ‘copies’) in a distributed way amongst the people we know. Thus after we die some low-res version of our ‘soul’ is still around as long as someone remembers us.
I’ve obviously simplified a lot, and hopefully not butchered his basic positions. I plan to comment on a number of these points in later posts.