Strange Loops and Theology, Part 3: The Curious Collage of the Human Soul

Thanks for waiting patiently for me to return to reflecting on the theological implications of Douglas Hofstadter's I Am a Strange Loop. For this post to be best understood please read, review, or recall the first two posts in this series:

Part 1: The Gödelian Swirl of Self

Part 2: Symbols, Self, Patterns, and Causal Potency

The big points have been:

1. The "Self" is a symbol that forms via feedback and interaction with the world and other minds.
2. Symbols are patterns.
3. Symbols are triggerable and act as triggers. That is, events in the world trigger symbols in my mind and symbols in my mind trigger events in the world or other symbols in my mind.
4. Symbols of have causal potency.
In this post we get to the part of I Am a Strange Loop that I think has the richest theological implications, Hofstadter's notion of blurred selves.

Let me get to his thesis directly. If the Self is a symbol--a pattern--that interacts with the world and other minds via feedback loops, then parts of the pattern of that symbol leave copies of itself, mainly upon other minds. When I say about my wife, "Jana would like that dress," I know this because Jana's Self-Pattern--her Strange Loop--has been using my Self-Pattern--my Strange Loop--as a feedback source for years. Thus, parts of Jana's pattern--her Selfhood--have left traces on my mind. Succinctly, my internal pattern/representation/symbol of Jana is due to the ORIGINAL pattern of Jana. Thus, parts of Jana's Self live in me. I say "live" because we've noted that symbols have causal potency. To some degree the patterns of Jana's Selfhood in me have the same causal potency they have in her. Thus, when I act or think in a way that reflects "Jana would do this" or "Jana would like this", I have these responses because, to a very real degree, because Jana's pattern in me is CAUSING those responses. I am not the cause. Jana is the cause. The summation of this argument is that my Self, my Pattern, is not solely located INSIDE me. Rather, my pattern is distributed, shared, and blurred across many minds. And, if symbols have causal potency, then my soul is affecting the world via that distribution.

Let me let Hofstadter make his point:
What is really going on when you dream or think more than fleetingly about someone you love (whether that person died many years ago or is right now on the other end of a phone conversation with you)? In the terminology of this book, there is no ambiguity about what is going on. The symbol for that person has been activated inside your skull, lurched out of dormancy, as surely if it had been an icon that someone had double-clicked. And the moment this happens, as much as with the game that opened on your screen, your mind starts acting differently from how it acts in a 'normal' context...The activation of the symbol for the loved person swivels into action whole sets of coordinated tendencies that represent that person's cherished style, their idiosyncratic way of being embedded in the world and looking at it.
Some more...
If you seriously believe, as I do..., that concepts are active symbols in a brain, and if furthermore you seriously believe that people, no less than objects, are represented by symbols in the brain..., and if lastly you serious believe that a self is also a concept, just an even more complicated one..., then it is a necessary and unavoidable consequence of this set of beliefs that your brain is inhabited to varying extents by other I's, other souls, the extent of each one depending on the degree to which you faithfully represent, and resonate with, the individual in question.
Thus, we are, in Hofstadter's words, "curious collages" of human souls:
Every normal adult human soul is housed in many brains at varying degrees of fidelity, and therefore every human consciousness or 'I' lives at once in a collection of different brains, to different extents.
If you are thinking ahead then I think you can see why there are deep theological implications for Hofstadter's idea of the Self as a Curious Collage of Human Souls. Issues regarding empathy, the body of Christ, resurrection, and the Imago Christi all spring to mind. We'll get to those implications in the coming posts.

For today, think of all those souls who now inhabit you. And how you inhabit others.

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3 thoughts on “Strange Loops and Theology, Part 3: The Curious Collage of the Human Soul”

  1. Richard,

    This is hugely cognitively resonant for theology.

    To say the least, I look forward to your coming posts!


  2. Hate to be the naysayer, but isn't any concept of 'self' or 'soul' that doesn't include unified subjectivity necessarily quite weak? The symbol of Jana may well be 'causing' certain thoughts/dispositions/behaviors in me, but that's a far milder claim than to say that Jana (or 'a' Jana?) is subjectively experiencing her thoughts within me--which is what springs to mind when I think of 'soul-fudging'... The only subjective consciousness inhabiting this skull, to the best of my knowledge is 'me'.
    (Though of course, the problem of other minds would apply if separate centers of consciousness were to form in my brain, so perhaps I'm being too hasty. But that doesn't sound like what Hofstadter is talking about.)
    My two cents.

  3. Daniel,
    It is a weak notion. Hofstader speaks of "soul shards," bits and pieces of our selfhood.

    However, Hofstader does make the arguement, as we'll eventually note, that when a bit of selfhood inhabits my mind and is "activated," so to speak, a part of that person's interiority and subjectivity is experienced by me. This is the root of empathy: If I know you very, very well I can begin to experience the world as you do. And my internal experiences are thus, in a sense, mediated by you. I don't own them as "me." They are internally labeled as "yours." And yet I feel them to some degree of fidelity.

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