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INTRO

[clips of people using “I” – “I’ll be back,” “Did I do that?” “I love the smell of napalm in
the morning,” “I am not a smart man,” “I HAVE THE POWER!!!”] Don’t take this the
wrong way, but you’re a little strange. So am I. So is everyone. And that’s because day in
and day out, we believe in ourselves. I don’t mean it in a motivational way. I’m talking
about believing in the self as identity, the capital “I”, the home of our hopes and dreams,
our thoughts and feelings. It may ​feel ​perfectly ordinary to be a conscious, experiencing
being, but it’s that very sense of ordinariness which is itself extraordinary. Here’s why:
our cognitive abilities have evolved to such a high level that in addition to perceiving the
world around us (like lot of other species), we’re able to perceive ourselves as well.
Which means we perceive ourselves perceiving. This in turn gives rise to the self; the
conviction that there’s something in your brain having ideas, forming opinions, making
decisions, commanding the body.

Now if I were to ask you ​who​ is doing all that, you’d probably answer “Me. I am.” But
what exactly do we mean when we say “I”?

Consider this: you’re the realest thing in your life. You’re at the center of every
experience you’ve ever had. Every sight, smell, taste, feeling, and memory has been
mediated by your senses. And yet, when we start to investigate what exactly is going on
in the mind when we say “I”, something trippy happens. The concrete conviction of who
you are, who “I” is, starts to crumble. Not only that, but the very ​reality ​of “I” comes into
question. Follow this thread far enough, and you run smack into a paradox. This is
known as the paradox of self, and its conclusion is equal parts fascinating and
unsettling. It argues that although we ​know ​intuitively that there is an “I,” we can’t
empirically prove it without referring back to ourselves. Your self, your “I,” whatever you
want to call it – confirms and reinforces ​its own​ realness. But if the reality of the self is
founded upon a recursive logic, you have to wonder: How reasonable is it to believe in a
self? How real are you? Who are you? Do you exist at all?

HOFSTADTER TO THE RESCUE

There are literally thousands of ways to answer these questions. It’s why neuroscientist
Todd Feinberg begins his book ​From Axons to Identity​ by writing, “There are nearly as
many conceptions of the self... as there are writers on the subject.” And to complicate
matters even more, “the ideas generated from these diverse viewpoints are often
unrelated or mutually incompatible.”
So you can turn to neuroscience or cognitive science or philosophy or religion, but
whichever you choose, you’re bound to draw complaints that you ignored, or
misinterpreted, or flat out didn’t understand some crucial aspect of the self. Which is
basically my way of saying sorry in advance if I ruffle some feathers.

The best approach draws from as many fields as possible, all of which have something
useful to contribute to our understanding. That’s why in this video I rely heavily on
Douglas Hofstadter’s ​I Am A Strange Loop​ — an ambitious, creative, beautiful attempt
to answer these questions by drawing from math, art, music, science, philosophy, and
personal experience. Hofstadter, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his book ​Gödel,
Escher, Bach​, has a knack for interdisciplinary study. He boasts a background in math,
physics, cognitive science, computer science, and artificial intelligence. He composes
music. He speaks several languages. He translated Alexander Pushkin’s novel ​Eugene
Onegin​. This guy is a polymath. He sees patterns and parallels where the rest of us
would never have thought to look, which makes him the perfect guide through the
treacherous paradox of self.

Hofstadter defines the problem as a rift between two levels of being that the self seems
to occupy simultaneously: “On the one hand, ‘I’ is an expression denoting a set of very
high abstractions: a life story, a set of tastes, a bundle of hopes and fears.” This one we
know intuitively through daily experience. “And yet on the other hand, ‘I’ is an
expression denoting a physical object made of trillions of cells, each of which is doing its
own thing without the slightest regard for the supposed ‘whole’ of which it is but an
infinitesimal part” (298). This one we’ve discovered through scientific observation, but
it is not part of our lived experience. Is one level of the ‘I’ the correct, ​real
interpretation? Or can both be real at the same time? And if so, how? To begin
answering these questions, let’s take a look at the architecture of the self.

WHAT AM I? (SYMBOLIC THINKING)

Consciousness and the self don’t just switch on like a light when you’re born. It’s not
delivery (upswing); it’s DiGiorno (matter of fact). Some of the ingredients are there, but
it takes about five years to metaphorically ‘bake in’ consciousness. The process begins
immediately, as we interact with the world around us. But processing all that
information would be like drinking out of a fire hose, so what the brain does is reduce
that flood to just a trickle of essential input. This input triggers your neurons, and a
specific input will trigger a specific group of neurons. Hofstadter calls this group of
neurons a ‘symbol.’ He doesn’t mean these kinds of symbols (show: Chinese characters,
musical notes, mathematical equations), or these (show: Christian cross, hammer and
sickle, Wu-Tang Clan, Star Trek, Superman). He means “neurological entities that
correspond to concepts” (51).​ ​For example, you see Mom, and the symbol that
represents ​Mom​ is triggered. You drink milk, and another symbol that represents ​milk ​is
triggered. Obviously in both these cases, other related symbols are triggered too. I’m just
zooming in on the behavior of an individual symbol.

But the coolest thing about this library of symbols is that it’s “arbitrarily extensible” –
that is, the number of symbols you can create is essentially unlimited. We’re constantly
creating new symbols, updating old ones, categorizing and classifying them. Maybe
most importantly, we can combine symbols to make more and more complex ones.

Consider the concept “grocery store checkout.” There’s no way you can conceive of that
without all these other nested concepts (show: grocery cart, line, customers, to wait,
candy bar, tabloid newspaper, nametag, cashier, tin can, frozen food, moving belt,
scanner, beep, prices, barcode, credit card, cash, swipe, receipt). And if you think about
it, many of these are themselves complex concepts made up of their own family of
symbols.

Early on, as your young mind keeps adding to its library of symbols, you form the most
exceptional one of all: yourself. You’re able to metaphorically look back at yourself and
understand that the very object being perceived is the same one doing the perceiving.
On it’s own, this self-symbol isn’t all that special. “Self-knowledge,” says Steven Pinker,
“including the ability to use a mirror, is no more mysterious than any other topic in
perception and memory…[it] is an everyday topic in cognitive science, not the paradox
of water becoming wine” (137). But it’s the first step in what Hofstadter calls the “dance
of symbols inside the cranium” (131) - ​that’s ​what makes it exceptional.

WHERE AM I? (PINPOINTING CONSCIOUSNESS)

But where exactly is the “I”? Where in the brain can we drop a pin and say: here be
consciousness? Maybe there’s some yet-undiscovered particle, soul dust or “feelium” as
Hofstadter calls it, that is sprinkled all over your brain. Or maybe like Descartes, you
believe the “seat of the soul” is located here, in the pineal gland. (show: arrow on
hypothalamus) If so, then you’re wrong, not only because that’s been disproven, but
because this isn’t the pineal gland. This is. (show: arrow on pineal gland) But from what
we can tell empirically, it appears that the self resides within the structure of the brain.

A reasonable course of action might be to break everything down into its most basic
parts. This is called the reductionist view, which argues that the entire system that adds
up to the “I” can be explained by zooming in to the lowest informational level. For
example, if you wanted to know why a wave breaks exactly the way it does, you could
hypothetically zoom in to examine how each individual water molecule interacts and
find your answer.

Maybe your Spidey Sense is already tingling: there’s a big problem with this approach.
See, by jumping down to the lowest level, you’ve created a highly accurate but
impossibly complex data set. Even if you managed to gather that data, there’s no way a
human could comprehend it. Imagine if instead of posting this video, I posted its binary
code. Those ones and zeroes dictate exactly what happens in this video, but they’re
irrelevant to our understanding because we can’t process that sheer volume. Instead, we
shift up several informational levels from binary, past pixels and soundwaves, to the
abstract level of images and words. The same issue crops up when trying to understand
the consciousness. You could reduce it, as roboticist Hans Moravec does, to a bunch of
“squirting chemicals”. And it ​is ​that. But it would be meaningless. We have to simplify
and abstract — to jump up levels — because our brains can’t handle the information
overload otherwise. Trickle, not fire hose, remember? It’s why we talk about wars in
terms of armies instead of each individual soldier, or hurricanes instead of raindrops.
Like it or not, we’re bound to these higher levels.

There’s another problem, though. If consciousness is, at its most basic level, the result of
a bunch of atoms randomly bumping into each other, then why does it feel like you’re in
charge? You pull back a string, fire an arrow, hit the bullseye. (show: Legolas clip) ​You
did that. Hofstadter feels you, man. “We are built to perceive ‘big stuff’ rather than
‘small stuff,’ even though the domain of the tiny seems to be where the actual motors
driving reality reside” (173). And our ‘big stuff’ bias leads us to believe in ​downward
causality​, the notion that the big stuff pushes around the little stuff, and not the other
way around. The notion, in other words, that the “I” is in charge. This, Hofstadter
explains, is an illusion. A strong, persistent, ​inevitable ​illusion.

It takes hold as soon as consciousness arises. The “I” cements its realness through every
interaction with the external world. Hofstadter calls it the “locking in of the ‘I’ loop” and
likens it to ripples on a pond. An external action is like a stone thrown into a pond,
sending out ripples that eventually bounce off the shore and return, informing us of the
consequences of our action. “Millions of tiny reflected signals impinge on us from
outside, whether visually, sonically, tactilely, or whatever, and when they land, they
trigger internal waves of secondary and tertiary signals inside our brain. Finally this
flurry of signals is funneled down into just a handful of activated symbols — a tiny set of
extremely well-chosen categories constituting a coarse-grained understanding of what
we’ve just done.” For example, “I made her laugh,” or “Bullseye!” It’s a failure of
processing; we couldn’t possibly conceive of all the microscopic interactions that give
rise to a joke, or a bullseye, so we jump to a higher level where the information is
abstracted, but conceivable. And at this level, the “I” is driving the bus. “I” is in charge.
“I” made it happen.

Part of the frustration associated with the notion that your “I” is an illusion is that we’ve
been talking about consciousness as a material thing. If it’s made up of neurons and
cells and atoms, how can it be an illusion? Well, ‘illusion’ doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Listen to psychologist Bruce Hood explain in a 2012 presentation. [clip]

And consciousness is not what it seems to be. Because while it’s made up of billions and
billions of neurons, it’s not the neurons themselves that matter. It’s how they’re
arranged. Hofstadter again: “Mental properties of the brain reside not on the level of a
single tiny constituent but on the level of vast abstract patterns involving those
constituents” (30). It’s like a piece of music. A single note in isolation isn’t moving, but
when arranged with others in a pattern, they can make you cry, or cheer, or dance like
an idiot. Similarly, there’s no meaning in an individual neuron, but when enough of
them fire together, they give rise to a symbol which we interpret as having meaning. It’s
not the medium, it’s the message. By extension, consciousness could hypothetically
consist of a bunch of soda cans, or dominos, or ones and zeroes - any medium that could
convey a binary signal (show: yes/no, on/off, up/down). You just need enough of them
arranged in a particular pattern, and they too could do what our neurons do.

Consciousness is made up of matter, but…the matter doesn’t matter. Because


consciousness isn’t a ​what ​as much as a ​how​.

STRANGENESS

Let’s turn to the main thesis in ​I Am A Strange Loop​, which is (unsurprisingly), that the
“I” is a strange loop. But what does that mean?

Well, you know what a loop is. The water cycle. The circulatory system. Night and day.
In each case, you eventually end up where you began.

But a strange loop is a lot…stranger. Hofstadter explains it as “not a physical circuit but
an abstract loop in which, in the series of stages that constitute the cycling-around, there
is a shift from one level of abstraction (or structure)​ ​to another, which feels like an
upwards movement in a hierarchy, and yet somehow the successive ‘upward’ shifts turn
out to give rise to a closed cycle. That is, despite one's sense of departing ever further
from one's origin, one winds up, to one's shock, exactly where one had started out. In
short, a strange loop is a paradoxical level-crossing feedback loop.”

That’s a lot to chew on at once, so let’s break it down into smaller bites. Some of the
most popular visual representations of a strange loop come from the work of M.C.
Escher, like ​Drawing Hands​. Here we have a simple two-level paradox. We see an
upward shift from 2-D to 3-D, from drawn to drawer, and yet there’s a violation in this
upwardness, since each hand owes its existence to the work of the other.

Or consider the paradox of ​Waterfall​. The water flows down a course before pouring
over the waterfall, only to wind up where it began. Once again, the hierarchy of levels
has been violated.

These sketches are helpful analogies, but they’re not full-fledged strange loops because,
well, they’re not real. There are, however, two real-life examples. One is mathematician
Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, which contains self-referential proofs. But I was
in the lowest-level math class in school, so I’m not going to attempt to explain that. The
other real-life strange loop is - you guessed it - the self.

According to Hofstadter, there are two crucial elements that make the self a strange
loop. The first is an ability: the ability to think. We don’t just passively ​receive​ input, we
perceive​, and in doing so we distill a dizzying amount of raw information into abstract
symbols in our minds. The second element is an inability: namely, the inability to peer
below​ the level of symbols. “Our innate blindness to the world of the tiny forces us to
hallucinate a profound schism between the goal-lacking material world of balls and
sticks and sounds and lights, on the one hand, and a goal-pervaded abstract world of
hopes and beliefs and joys and fears, on the other, in which radically different sorts of
causality seem to reign” (204). Although it seems like the self sits at the top of the
pyramid, building up from neurons to symbols to thoughts to “I”, you reach the top only
to realize the “I” is an illusion - it really is just squirting chemicals. And just like that,
you’re back where you started. You’re Escher’s waterfall. You’re his ascending figure. All
thanks to that sneaky “I” that insists it’s in charge, when in fact it isn’t.

IDEAS IN PRACTICE

For me, the most profound aspect of ​I Am A Strange Loop​ isn’t the thesis itself but the
ideas orbiting around the thesis. Think of them as side-tunnels down the rabbit hole,
unexpected ways that this book changed how I thought.
First is the concept of a consciousness hierarchy. Would you be as comfortable killing a
dog as you would be killing a mosquito? No way. That’s because, consciously or not, we
assign different values to the lives of living things. Obviously this hierarchy is influenced
by culture, religion, education, and all sorts of other factors - including, Hofstadter
believes, the level of consciousness we think these creatures have; the degree to which
there’s a ‘light on’ inside. For example, we have a good deal of compassion for dogs
because they can recognize us, obey commands, express simple desires and emotional
states, and learn. They seem to possess a greater degree of consciousness than, say, a
bee. And so we construct something akin to Hofstadter’s ‘cone of consciousness’ (show:
p.25), which informs the value we place on different species’ lives.

There’s a darker side to this hierarchy when you look at how it applies ​within​ our
species. Unsurprisingly, not all human lives are considered of equal value. Consider
wars, when one group justifies the murder of another. Propaganda campaigns portray
the enemy as less-than-human, bestial, and thus lower on the hierarchy of
consciousness. Same with capital punishment, incarceration, racism, sexism, all the
-isms. Or think of the controversy over abortion, or pulling the plug on coma patients,
those instances where we debate what level of consciousness constitutes being alive.
Every day we consult our consciousness hierarchy, determining the extent to which we
deem other people worthy of dignity, respect, and life.

The second concept is Hofstadter’s theory of entwined loops. Have you ever heard a
song and thought, “My friend would love this”? Have you left a dirty plate in the sink
and imagined your mom nagging you? These are mental representations of other
people, a rough model of their internality, their self — their strange loop. Granted, this
is a much lower-fidelity copy than the one in their own head. If their strange loop is
Springsteen live in concert, your copy is Springsteen played through a shower radio. But
it’s ​something​.

Your copy of someone’s strange loop can be strengthened, too. Conversations, parties,
vacations, adventures, marriage – any shared experience adds richness to your copy of
their loop, sometimes so much so that it feels inextricably tied to your own. They
become a part of you. A soulmate.

It’s a beautiful notion, one which Hofstadter grappled with in the wake of his wife’s
sudden death at 42. Her body was gone, but he refused to accept the notion that she had
been erased completely. After all, there were letters and photos and videos that survived,
relics that contained elements of who she once was. Most of all, she remained in the
minds of everyone who knew her, hundreds of copies of her original strange loop
distributed across a network of friends and family. And yes, those people would die
someday too, but it helped combat the totality of her death. It’s a beautiful notion, a
community keeping rough copies of your strange loop after you’ve died. Funerals and
memorial services become a sort of resurrection through collage, as the community
draws together their copied loops to recall the one they’ve lost. “Though the primary
brain has been eclipsed, there is, in those who remain and who are gathered to
remember and reactivate the spirit of the departed, a collective corona that still glows”
(130). Death, Hofstadter illustrates, is inevitable, but not immediate. It’s not a candle
blown out; it’s a fire burning down to flames, coals, and finally to ashes.

CONCLUSION

Forty years before ​I Am A Strange Loop ​was published, philosopher Alan Watts wrote:
“Our normal sensation of self is a hoax, or, at best, a temporary role that we are playing,
or have been conned into playing.” And he wasn’t the first to suggest so. Descartes,
Hume, Nietzsche, Locke, all the way back to Socrates and Buddha, have struggled to
understand the enigma of the self. It’s not the kind of struggle that has an end, either.
Even if we were able to isolate consciousness, or we did actually discover something like
soul dust, the whole world wouldn’t suddenly come to agreement. The debate would
rage on. Because as Hofstadter has shown, even in the face of facts, we’re governed by
our feelings. As long as it ​feels ​like the “I” is in charge, we’ll believe it is. ​Whatever feels
real, is real​.

Maybe, after all this, you’re still feeling skeptical. That’s completely understandable.
Maybe you feel an existential crisis coming on. (show: Who Am I?) Personally,
Hofstadter’s book left me feeling alive. I always thought I was complicated; I just didn’t
realize I was a living/breathing paradox. I’m more invigorated than frustrated, knowing
that there’s more to who I am than I initially thought. While ​I Am A Strange Loop​ ​robs
us of our conviction that things are as they seem, it gives us a subtler vision of what it
means to be human. Or Hofstadter sums it up: “Poised midway between the
unvisualizable cosmic vastness of curved spacetime and the dubious, shadowy
flickerings of charged quanta, we human beings, more like rainbows and mirages than
like raindrops or boulders, are unpredictable self-writing poems — vague, metaphorical,
ambiguous, and sometimes exceedingly beautiful” (363).

Sure, the whole idea is strange but…so are we.