From our Lacan episode and my comparison of Lacan with Sartre, you might think that this “no self” deal was just a Continental idea. If you remember back to our Owen Flanagan interview, however, you’ll know that (besides this being a doctrine in Buddhsim) this is also one of the main positions within the analytic philosophy of mind, due perhaps largely to Derek Parfit, though the idea goes back to Hume at least.
One author I recently spent time studying through the Not School philosophy of mind group is Douglas Hofstadter, who I’m here going to call “Doug” so I don’t have to type and potentially misspell “Hofstadter” 30 times. Doug became a big name in philosophy largely due to his very popular Gödel, Escher, Bach, a fat tome that graces many a wanna-be philosopher’s bookshelf (Mine included), likely not too far read. I Am a Strange Loop, which is the one I read, is his more recent work (2007), meant to expand upon the view of consciousness put forward in his earlier work.
He’s trying to explain (contra Searle and others) how it is that the brain, a mass of particles, can be aware of its own experience, and he does this, in part, by telling the story of how Kurt Gödel showed that the system of natural numbers (1,2,3,4…) is rich enough to represent any linguistic system, and thus can have sentences in it about the system itself. This part of the book, though interesting, is not actually essential for making his point: we’re all aware (or should be) of how 0’s and 1’s in computing are sufficient to represent any arbitrary content.
So the idea is that the brain, too, works on the basis of symbols, and not in the sense of symbols that someone is reading (and I’m just not clear whether this concept can be fruitfully connected to Lacan’s notion of symbols in the unconscious), but in the sense that, broadly speaking, if the environment acts on a substance and leaves marks, those marks symbolize that feature of the environment. So in a brain–any brain–repeated stimuli give rise to structures that Doug wants to call “symbols,” and this structure is then reactivated whenever that stimulus comes back. For some very complex beings, one of these structures is “myself,” and once you add the ability to linguistically cognize to the brain, then the number and connections between these symbols get very elaborate, so that our “self” symbol is complicated, and constantly built upon, in that our every experience adds something to it, such that, e.g. if a rude person makes us mad, then part of the sense of self becomes “I’m the kind of person that gets mad at that kind of rudeness.”
Now, quite a lot of this information that feeds the self is publicly observable, and the part that is not is mostly linguistically interpreted (by ourselves), such that we can and often do tell our intimate friends about it (as for Lacan, much of the self is linguistic and thus transmissible). Consequently, the symbol/structure that you have in your brain representing someone else is actually not fundamentally different in kind than the one you have of yourself. It’s just that the “myself” symbol has a lot more data feeding into it, all the time (though of course much of this is redundant in terms of real informational content), so that anyone else’s symbol for you will necessarily be “low-fidelity” compared to your own.
What’s interesting, and not to my mind fully spelled out, in the book is the relationship between consciousness and the self. Sartre, in the book we discussed Transcendence of the Ego, sharply distinguishes between these two: the self is a semi-public creation similar to what Doug describes, whereas consciousness, for Sartre, is a transparent, fundamental part of experience (which he goes on to describe as “nothingness,” but that’s another story). Doug, on the other hand, has a theory of the self, and thinks that this is just the same as talking about consciousness. Note that this concern with consciousness is not the same concern as whether there is a “subject” that “has” experiences over and above the public self; you can believe that talk of consciousness is irreducible to talk of the built self without thereby positing some different, higher self that is the one that is conscious. As Sartre puts it, consciousness is a primary feature of our experience and the self is built later. For Doug, we should consider an animal conscious only insofar as it’s built up this kind of self-symbol. So consciousness will be a matter of degree: there is probably little-to-nothing that it is “like to be” a mosquito, yet certainly a dog has a conception of self, and once you get language in there you get the whole deal.
One of the points of phenomenology Doug dwells on is how we experience people who have died. If you know someone really well, have a really developed sense of them, then you can, in effect, shift your perceptions so you’re thinking about the contents of your experience as (you think) they would. You know what they like, how they judge things, how they react, and the more you’re around them, the more you “absorb” them, the more you yourself not only might come to be like them (altering your own self-structure), but moreover (and even in the absence of your actually changing your self-structure), you find yourself able to shift gears and in a sense be that person, albeit the low-res version. By getting building up someone else’s self symbol, you get the “what it’s like to be” them part of it, i.e. a qualitatively identical (well, similar) though not of course numerically identical consciousness to theirs. And given the arguments from Parfit against robust personal identity, qualitative identity is all there really is.
To be a self, according to this theory, is to have a set of knowledge about yourself, including the way you experience things, and then to have new experiences through those eyes, so to speak. What a personality is is a set of habits: emotional reactions, recurrent thoughts, a “point of view.” This is illustrated through several analogies, including one from Parfit: If you’re teleported, your body at its original position being destroyed and then reconstituted at another location, with all the physical and memory details intact, most of us have the intuition that this describes the same person being moved. Certainly the end person would claim to the be same as the starting person, and with all the evidence on his side. However, what if the original weren’t destroyed, and so we end up with two people, with all the same physical and mental characteristics. According to Doug, these would BOTH be the same person, at least at that moment before the two of them start having divergent experiences. So the personality is portable: it’s a pattern, and hence it’s not crazy to say that when I gain a vivid conception of you, carry you around in my head, have imaginary conversations with you after you die, that I really have some form of you in there.
If it seems obvious that what I have is just a copy of you, then think about what the teleported has in relation to the starting dude, or for that matter what you have now in relation to what you had 10 years ago. You switch out physical matter over time, but are called the “same person” not only for social reasons (you look the same), but because we feel the same.
Doug was the dissertation adviser of David Chalmers, and the book is in part a response to Dave’s The Conscious Mind (which I discussed with the philosophy of mind Not School group; you can hear part of that here). He doesn’t seem to buy what I take to be Chalmers’s claim that the non-scrutability of the mental from the physical is different than making a metaphysical claim about the difference between mind and body. Chalmers argues that given that the laws of nature are how they are, two identical physical systems will have the same consciousness (or lack thereof). Chalmers and Doug on that, and that this correlation is not belied by the fact that as a practical matter, one can’t translate mental talk into physical talk; they’re both functionalists that think that the essence of what determines consciousness is a pattern of elements, which could then theoretically play out on different hardware systems, so we could get AI, or maybe save someone’s consciousness to a computer and have them live on that way, or similar things. For Chalmers, though, the correlation between the functional arrangement and consciousness still leaves something unexplained: even knowing all the functional facts wouldn’t allow us to deduce the fact of consciousness unless we’d already established a correlation through observation of repeated cases. The correlation itself would remain a mystery, and he characterizes that by saying that we can imagine, if the laws of nature were different, that you could have the functional arrangement and not have consciousness: a zombie universe, essentially, where all the behavior is the same and yet there’s no “light on,” no consciousness. Doug has no patience with this kind of hypothetical; it would leave room for a parallel world David Chalmers, arguing for the irreducibility of consciousness while still, himself, not being conscious as all. Admitting that this is even a logical possibility is in essence denying the procedures that we use, right now, to determine that other people around us are conscious.
I don’t feel like Doug has done justice to Chalmers’s position here, and I don’t entirely buy Doug’s idea that the phenomenal is sufficiently explained by the self-symbol. It may well be that growth in the self-symbol correlates to increased consciousness (this seems a very plausible and highly useful result of this book), but I also buy Chalmers’s charge that unless you’ve explained consciousness in the first place, then pointing to self-consciousness is not going to solve the problem. This “higher order theory” of consciousness seemed to me as of our philosophy of mind episode to be the best bet to explain consciousness, but now Wes and Chalmers have just about convinced me otherwise.
Putting aside the question of consciousness, though, I like Doug’s picture of the self as built in this semi-public way, which leaves it an open question how much of the matter of the self gets filled in by how other people treat us (per Hegel), what we figure out ourselves (like during Lacan’s mirror stage, or Ayn Rand, who I’m reading now in preparation for a future episode, is all about this to a pretty silly degree), and what comes to us second-hand through the terms of our language itself (the bulk of Lacan’s account). I think, actually, Doug’s picture defuses some of these conflicts we see in Lacan and Sartre over self-deception. True, I could of course think something like “I’m a great tennis player,” and so thinking that would be part of my self-symbol even while I actually suck at tennis, but something like Sartre’s concern about playing at being a waiter becomes not so pressing. By actually having the job of being a waiter day after day, I either acquire certain habits or I don’t, and if I’m thinking about philosophy the whole time I’m zooming around with trays, then those habits will stick with me too. The self-symbol is not just a self-conception, not an ego-image, but it is actually what the self is. I may not understand myself, and (for all of these thinkers) you as an observer may understand me better than I do myself, but such self-deception doesn’t seem entailed by the self-symbol idea itself.
While bad faith represents the prime ethical upshot of Sartre’s view, for Doug, the ethical comes in this ability to take in others’ selves: to develop robust symbols for other people (and animals, even) that we can then “see through.” With such sympathy comes compassion, and being a “large souled” person would have everything to do not only with acting ethically, but in having developed a certain mental capacity that would allow you to understand and “be in sync with” a lot of other people. This theme is not the focus of the book, and could certainly use more development. For instance, even if I gain such a self-symbol and thus sympathy for many individuals, we’d have to say how and if this would play out into a sympathy with humanity as a whole. Certainly my sympathy with and compassion for a suffering animal doesn’t mean I have a developed symbol for that particular animal.
I also had some issues with how this in Doug’s view played out in the aesthetic realm. For instance, he characterized Bach as large-soul music that only the large-souled can really understand and vibrate with. Fair enough: perhaps the musical geometry involved requires a certain level of intellect to really grasp. But it’s very clear that Doug has no tolerance for rock n’ roll of whatever brainy, emotionally developed variety. By his own theory, I think, this inability to sync with not just some particular objectionable individuals (one shouldn’t necessarily be going around trying to sync with serial killers) but with a whole, quite prominent form of life, should point out some limitation in his soulfulness, not that he’s transcended such things or otherwise locked himself off from them by his sympathy with Bach.
Overall, the book, like his more famous one, moves slowly but pleasantly, and to me reads like an introductory primer to a position than then needs more rigorous, systematic, and footnoted treatment in a more traditionally academic paper, which I of course would then probably not get around to reading. It’s fun and thought-provoking, and not dumbed down so as to leave out what appear to be the detailed limits of Doug’s thoughts on the subject.