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.
“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.”
This really struck a chord with me. Not only do I find myself viewing an experience in the way I think members of my family might, but after reading a particular author enough I find myself speaking in sentences that sound like that author. Likewise, if I listen to enough of a podcast, I find myself being able to think like the people on the podcast. I swear that since I’ve started listening to you guys I’m able to look at philosophical problems in a similar way. Often I find myself mulling something over and then realize that I sound like Seth.
All of this goes to show that it’s really important to surround yourself with healthy, intelligent people. Surround yourself with assholes and you might start seeing the world like an asshole.
Andrew Werth says
Hofstadter has a new book due out at the end of April 2013 (after several postponements on Amazon): “Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking”. It looks to me (from the table of contents) to be more like GEB than “I am a Strange Loop”, which was much more of a personal tale.
For another take on the self, I also like Dennett’s “The Self as the Center of Narrative Gravity”, where he likens The Self to the physical concept of a center of gravity: a useful abstraction, though not something that actually exists in a metaphysical sense, and where our self is this abstract center of the stories we tell about ourselves over time.
Bruce Adam says
The subtitle of the new book indicates that it develops the the theme of his earlier essay ; on thought as analogy. It was a great essay and I’m sure it’ll be a great book. Thanks for alerting me to its publication.
Daniel David says
Your comments on Hofstadter and Bach vs. rock music are similar to something I heard Lit. Prof. Nick Mount say about T. S. Eliot in a lecture today. Pointing to what he saw as a few of Eliot’s flaws, he brought up Eliot’s general disdain for all things pop culture, and said that what Eliot failed to understand was that “95% of EVERYTHING is crap”, and that’s the price you pay for wading through to the good stuff. I think this is true. God knows there’s awful rock music out there, but to sweep it all into the same dust bin based on that is just stereotyping.
Jason Reynolds says
This discussion begs metaphysical questions about selfhood, consciousness, and brains/physical matter. Hofstadter strikes me as an emergentist thinker more than a strict materialist, panpsychist, or dualist. I think it’s interesting strange loop/recursive theories of mind in emergent terms over the traditional metaphysical/ontological paradigms. Take for example the work of Terrence Deacon, e.g. The Symbolic Species and Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerges from Matter. He situates sentience and selfhood at a much ‘lower’ level, recursive properties we share with other animals with nervous systems, and then works his way up to language use and SELF-consciousness. Deacon is an anthropologist and neurologist at UC Berkeley. His work is as dense and complicated as his systems theory and complexity approach, but it’s worth the effort: a possible paradigm-shifting way past the reductive-materialist/panpsychic-dualist impasse, a point-of-view where Hofstadter’s Godelized vision of selfhood fits right in.
Jason Reynolds: http://uroboros73.wordpress.com/
I’m a big fan of Hofstadter (you know, you could have just used a “Find/Replace” to make all the “Doug” references into “Hofstadter”), even if he fails to appreciate the 5% of rock music that’s really good.
I doubt there’s any way to prove this, but I have a strong intuition that a “zombie” universe, or any form of “philosophical zombie” existence, is impossible. That any intelligence, “artificial” or not, that is functionally at general human level or higher (and quite possibly lower as well), is just going to be conscious. It will “be like something” to be that intelligence.
Ayn Rand answered it all.
Another asked me – where is the inherent self ?
I told him and you :
I already answered you . Did you miss it ? Confirm . New bonus at the end .
I will answer your first outstanding (outstanding) question. But will you listen, apply reason and logic to reach a valid conclusion? Most likely not if you are over 25 because “myelination” in the brain has now stopped so many humans are in a state of ossification at this point literally [like the Cardinals that screamed at Galileo that they will “not look through the Devil’s instrument” as it would shake the foundation of their belief that there is NO heaven above nor hell below ] ! Are you going to be like Cardinale Bellertine?
Consciousness is the identification of existence.
You can pick up a pen or smell a flower or hold your chair [do it now] or point to something and ‘ostensively’ know it is “of and in” existence. A mental patient may disagree. A.I. does not know nor understand [it does syntactics not semantics]. Animals have no clue.
So man has something distinct and that is the identity called consciousness which identifies another preceding identity called existence.
If a chair or anything and everything that is real around you is an identity then it stands to reason that the broadest identity/concept possible of the universe is ‘existence’ as in ‘existence exists’. This is distinguished from ‘no existence’ or ‘existence before existence – logical contradiction’. So you are NOT in a simulation [zero percent chance so Susskind at Berkeley and Nick Bostrom at Oxford are WRONG just like SABINE is for a different reason or SAM HARRIS OR DENNETT OR DAWKINS or other religious people – that are scientists of repute]. There is NO multiple lines of existence so Sean Carroll is wrong at Caltech (many worlds) and string theory is “consistent ” like “Harry Potter” is as well but ‘Fantasy does not become fact’ as a result of that so “no multi dimensions” nor even “big bang creation’ [something from “no thing’ is a logical contradiction equivalent to deity : something before something – reductio ad absurd-um nonsense , logical error , circular logic, logical contradiction].
So there is
existence exists and
consciousness that identifies existence.
If you go Deepak Chopra on me OR WHEELER OR FREEMAN DYSON OR PENROSE OR PANPSYCHIST like Tonini and Christof Koch saying the universe is conscious then it is a logical contradiction because a consciousness that is conscious of nothing but itself is circular logic. One must be conscious of some’thing’ other than oneself as a primary. So existence comes first and then consciousness.
But is this true? Because an identity identifies the other identity then one has Arisotle’s law of identity which means truth! So yes the above is true.
There is existence, consciousness and identity.
Consciousness has attributes:
free will: you must exercise it to identify existence vis a vis “no thing”.
it belongs to you from birth to death: so it is not the universe! So it is delimited and finite whereas existence is infinite: it exists, existed and will forever exists. Something can not come from no-thing: it just “is” [the verb “to be” – but NEVER the Shakespeare quote ‘to be or not to be”!]
it is potent , not impotent epiphenomenon.
But wait! How to know any truth or identity?
The answer is by using the methods of reason and logic. This is man’s only way to know truth.
What about math , science OR FEELINGS like faith?
Man has two faculties of mind: rationality and emotions . Emotions are automatic and instant – helping you survive in the savannah. Emotions are NEVER about VERIDICAL truth. Man must formally learn, practice and master the methods of reason and logic to reach truth – just like reading, writing, math are NOT automatic to man and are an acquired skill.
Faith is a feeling of certainty about what something means. The feeling is NOT equivalent to veridical truth [until today you had a STRONG FEELING you do NOT even exist – and you are hallucinating yourself. This is a FEELING conditioned like a rat because of your readings and viewings such as Sabine and/or others. Feelings are NOT fact . Fiction is NOT fact. ]
What about science and math? These are SUBSETS [and not the parent set] of reason and logic to extend man’s senses ; equivalent to a telescope or a microscope – very useful. Science AND MATH are NEVER the ground floor to know reality- else you’ll make the same mistake as PYTHAGORAS AND HIS FOLLOWERS THAT CREATED A HARD CORE RELIGION . Did you know that?
All science needs to assume what I said above – axiomatic concepts of metaphysics; that you are in existence , with a mind that can separate control from experiment; that can “interpret’ data [even if computers can collect data] and that can reach valid conclusion using ‘reason and logic’ . Scientists then write that up [using reason and logic].
Math forms consistent and ‘equivalent” concepts within it’s frame of reference but it is NOT the ground floor to know things else you can get rid of words and use math to know everything! Most mathematicians think the universe is a PLATO reality – i.e. another religion .
Plato said there’s a reality out there that you can NEVER glean and you can only see the shadow. But how would he know that [he was on hallucinegens -which is in vogue today . A drugged out person’s state and experience can NEVER be reality! Yet so many do this primitive nonsensical event ! This event is fine if you are suicidal and the awareness helps you to “FEEL” peace but your logic would be wrong and two wrongs [suicide versus life because you had an experience of blending into the universe] , two wrongs do not make a right .
Math like consistent English grammar that makes up “Lord of the rings’ fantasy does NOT therefore make up reality!
The only way to know reality fully is the methods of reason and logic . That needs you to use word games and like soccer or other games there are rules to this game. LOGIC. Logic is derived from Aristotle’s law of identity.
So let’s summarize thus far:
metaphysics [what is reality]: existence, mind and truth [existence exists, consciousness with free will and identity].
epistemology [how do you know any truth?] the methods of reason and logic [never feelings ! ]
Feelings are VERY IMPORTANT to follow through on the conclusions of reason such as motivation, PASSION, love, even fear [e.g. hide from covid by wearing masks].
In a forever tango dance, rationality must lead and emotions must follow. This is NOT automatic and needs you to exercise free will : intensity of mind using the property method [reason and logic].
So the above , like dominoes leads to ethics, politics [and economics] and aeshetics. How?
Ethics: your inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Why?
The fact you’re an individual of a species that can think, by cosmic law, defacto you must think to sustain your life at every moment of your life! All other species come pre-adapted to a niche environment [e.g. polar bear with camoflage, blubber, teeth and sharp claws and strength].
You must ‘use your mind to re-adapt the environment to your values [e.g. k*** the polar bear to get fur to keep you warm; construct shelter like an igloo ; learn to fish by spearing the fish – after inventing this tool and point downwards vertically ! NOTHING IS AUTOMATIC TO MAN and man must learn how to do these things by using your mind to think using the proper methods: reason and logic].
The correct political system is democracy so a government can protect your rights found in ethics above.
The correct economic system is laissez faire capitalism because your right to acquire , maintain, dispose or trade your property (e.g. hat, cat, mat, iphone or money) comes from your right to (sustain) life in ehtics.
Man needs the liberty to “think and act” [in ethics] to sustain your life and pursue happiness.
A trade is a meeting of minds between two people without force or fraud. So THERE IS EVIL: the use of force or fraud against you.
Finally man’s mind needs art like your body needs nourishment. The mind is identified as true in metaphysics above. Art magnifies man’s life.
Man’s life has intrinsic meaning because you have free will – you select what to do at every moment of your life. That means life is “great” but it is up to you to pursue happiness using the correct methods [reason and logic such as goal setting, monitor and measure the plan, advance and optimize, getting closer to goals, and so much more like project management, time management, leadership and teamwork and much more].
Metaphysics [reality]: existence, mind and truth [exists regardless of your subjective beliefs of whether a rock is a mere rock or a deity like many in India believe or Christ believers that see a rock carved like a dead corpse of a white man correctly found guilty for practicing fraud unable to defend himself in court in a fair trial under Roman law by a jury of his peers!]
epistemology: reason and logic . This is a formal method. Reason is the ability to open up perception , whereas logic is the art of non contradictory identification of the truth using the methods of logic.
ethics: your inalienable rights
Aesthetics : yes! BUT NEVER AGAIN MIX FICTION FOR FACT. ENJOY FICTION like Christmas rituals or Disney or movies but do NOT make it fact using feelings like you or Scientists mentioned above have done to date [for that is NOT even science – it’s false philosophy of scientism].
The above is the only correct philosophy of new existentialism.
New bonus .
So to answer your question :
Consciousness is an identity .
An Apple is an identity .
An identity is the sum total of attributes . So color , shape , weight , texture , taste , ph level and so forth for the Apple is unified in the identity known as “Apple “.
Your “self” is consciousness.