Hofstadter, Aristotle, Jagger and Jesus.

October 3rd, 2014
by Chris


Cattle die, kinsmen die, the self dies likewise; I know one thing that never dies: the repute of each of the dead.

(Havamal, Words of the Highest, Old Norse poem; alternatively translated "word-fame lives forever")

I’ve recently finished reading “I am a Strange Loop” by the appallingly brilliant Douglas Hofstadter (Author of “Godel, Escher, Bach”). I can unheistatingly recommend either, though SL is a far easier read than GEB, for which a background in pure maths and/or formal logic is distinctly helpful, though not completely essential. However, GEB has been listed among the top 10 philosophical books of the late 20th century, and it combines philosophy, logic, number theory, music, art and humour in an unique way. I’d vote it among the top 10 thought provoking books I’ve ever read.

In SL, Hofstadter develops further an idea in GEB, namely that of the “strange loop”, arguing that consciousness and the “self” derive from self-referential loops (or systems of loops) in the brain. Setting on one side any consideration of the self as a soul or similar immaterial entity (which Hofstadter does not believe in, being an atheist and friend of Daniel Dennett, one of the “four horsemen” of the New Atheism), I find his argument fairly compelling.

One of the applications of this concept he develops in the book is the idea that we form within our own set of “strange loops” pictures of the sets of “strange loops” of those close to us (and, although he does not go into this, I would assume people who are known to us fairly well but more remotely, i.e. those who are famous, or whose writings survive them). He thus argues, taking the case of his late wife, who died far too young in her 40s, that on death our “strange loops” continue within the minds of others, albeit in a somewhat attenuated and potentially distorted form. Having lived with her for 20 years or so, he now finds, decades after her death, that he can still “channel” his wife.

Again, I find this fits nicely with my own experience. I channel my wife quite a bit of the time, but also my mother, who is still alive, and my father, who died 13 years ago. Hofstadter’s idea is that the “self” which is a “strange loop” continues in an increasingly attenuated form until all memories of it (and some of them will potentially be second-hand, third-hand or even more remote) have been forgotten. However, he omits to consider that his magnum opus, Godel, Escher, Bach, into which he has poured a fair bit of the workings of his particularly strange loop, is probably going to stay in print long after the ripples of his circle of acquaintance have died away.

Word-fame lives forever, or at least a very long time indeed compared with the fragile body of an individual. Courtesy of video, there will probably be people in 100 years who “move like Jagger”, and courtesy of GEB there will be people who “think like Hofstadter”.

This is one of a few work-rounds for a problem which arises from adopting an Aristotelean rather than a Platonic conception of how things are. Plato had a world of “ideals” which had real existence quite independently of their manifestation in the world (which he considered was always somewhat debased), and this has carried over into Christianity as, inter alia, a concept that souls are a higher level of being than bodies, and we would frankly be better off as immaterial souls. This did not work for Aristotle, who considered that qualities of things only existed insofar as they were embodied; it followed from this that the mind and the consciousness could not survive the death of the body. This was developed by Avveroes, who saw a major problem there for the concept of survival after death, and was a subject of concern for Spinoza, who developed a very idiosyncratic version of survival in which you survived because of the continued existence of the ideas which you had had within God. The more your ideas conformed to those within God, the more you survived. I’m skeptical that many people have found that idea a source of much comfort, but I could be wrong…

Now, I parted company with Plato a very long time ago (in my teens), thinking that the concept of “ideals” as having independent existence was both unnecessary to explain what I experienced and also gave rise to a set of philosophical conflicts which, to me, strongly indicated that there was a fault in the original concept. Granted, one facet of my “zap” experience has been an absolute conviction of some form of personal survival, but the specifics have been sadly lacking. The Aristotelean conception, though (which I think likely to be correct) only supports post-mortem survival if the pattern of one’s consciousness (mind, soul, spirit or whatever) is preserved in some material matrix. I have in the past tended to accept the “zap” based intuition that this is within that-which-is-God, which is similar to Spinoza’s model but allows for (for instance) affections and other feelings.

Hofstadter, however, give another way in which to some extent this could be the case. Indeed, a way in which it seems it very probably IS the case, thought not necessarily exclusively of some other mechanism.

Of course, when I listed some people whose consciousnesses I channeled, I left out one – Jesus. I work on the WWJD (what would Jesus do) principle as much as I can, and this means that I have within my own complex of strange loops a set representing Jesus.

Whose word-fame very probably will live forever…

 

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