Strange Loops and Theology, Part 2: Symbols, Self, Patterns, and Causal Potency

Before we can get to the theological implications of Douglas Hofstadter's book I Am a Strange Loop we need one more post of preliminaries. Beware, this will be pretty abstract stuff.

First, recall that Hofstadter calls us "Strange Loops" due to the self-referential nature of human consciousness ("I can think about thinking about thinking..."). This is the "loop" part. What does the "strange" mean? As we saw in Hofstadter's discussion of Gödel, a strange loop is not simply a feedback loop like audio feedback through a speaker and microphone leading to that ear-piercing screech. Rather, a strange loop produces higher-order structures (like Gödel's coding did for Principia Mathematica). These higher-order structures which create meaning (via their reference to lower levels) are called symbols. In the words of Hofstadter,

What I mean by 'strange loop' is...not a physical structure 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.
This ability for level-crossing (higher-to-lower and lower-to-higher) and for loops of self-reference is what creates the vast complexity of human symbol acquisition and development. Again from Hofstadter,
Concepts in the brain of humans acquired the property that they could get rolled together with other concepts into larger packets, and any such larger packet could become a new concept in its own right. In other words, concepts could nest inside each other hierarchically, and such nesting could go on to arbitrary degrees.
Think of those Russian dolls from the last post. The symbol "dog" is actually a nest, a receptacle, of all sorts of concepts. These concepts all loop back and reinforce each other, expanding and strengthening the symbol of "dog."

What, then, is the Big Nest or the Big Russian Doll or the Big Symbol or the Highest-Order Strange Loop? Hofstadter says it is the Self-Symbol, the "I" sitting in your mind. As Hofstadter describes:
The vast amounts of stuff that we call 'I' collectively give rise, at some particular moment, to some external action, much as a stone tossed into a pond gives rise to expanding rings and ripples. Soon, our action's myriad consequences start bouncing back at us, like the first ripples returning after bouncing off the pond's banks. What we receive back affords us the chance to perceive what the gradually metamorphosing 'I' has wrought. 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...

And thus the current 'I'--the most up-to-date set of recollections and aspirations and passions and confusions--by tampering with the vast, unpredictable world of objects and other people, has sparked some rapid feedback, which, once absorbed in the form of symbol activations, gives rise to an infinitesimally modified 'I'; thus round and round it goes, moment after moment, day after day, year after year. In this fashion, via the loop of symbols sparking actions and repercussions triggering symbols, the abstract structure serving us as our innermost essence evolves slowly but surely, and in so doing it locks itself ever more rigidly into our mind. Indeed, as the years pass, the 'I' converges and stabilizes itself just as the screech of an audio feedback loop inevitably zeros in and stabilizes itself at the system's natural resonance frequency...

...but there is a key any strange loop that gives rise to human selfhood, [in] contrast [to the audio feedback loop], the level-shifting acts of perception, abstraction, and categorization are central, indispensable elements. It is the upward leap from raw stimuli to symbols that imbues the strange loop with "strangeness". The overall gestalt 'shape' of one's self--the 'stable whorl', so to speak, of the strange loop constituting one's 'I'--is not picked up by a disinterested, neutral camera, but is perceived in a highly subjective manner through the active processes of categorizing, mental replaying, reflecting, comparing, counterfactualizing, and judging.
That all might be a bit confusing. I'm trying to abstract a very complicated book. But the take home point for our purposes is this: Symbols are triggers and are triggerable. Symbols reach out and trigger events and events flow back in and trigger symbols. Inside, symbols trigger other symbols which can trigger more symbols. Oftentimes, low level symbols reach up and trigger higher level symbols like "love" or "Jana." And at the center of all this symbol triggering is the container of it all, the Gödelian Swirl of Self, the Stable Whorl, the Strange Loop: You, the Symbol of the Self. Which can be triggered like any another symbol ("Hey, you!") and can trigger other symbols ("I love Jana") or events ("I'm setting my alarm for 7:00").

Now, all this triggering brings up issues of causality. Are all these symbols controlling their own triggering or are these symbols being pushed around by the lower level particles which constitute our brains? Do the symbols have any causal power of their own, able to push around the atoms and molecules? Or are the atoms and molecules pushing around the symbols in a deterministic and reductionistic manner?

These questions take us a wee bit off course, but I'd like to share Hofstadter's thoughts as this blog deals a lot with issues of volition and determinism.

Hofstadter's ideas take inspiration from the thoughts of Roger Sperry of split-brained research fame (all our talk of "right-brained" versus "left-brained" traces back to Sperry). Here's the Sperry quote that inspired Hofstadter:
In my own hypothetical brain model, conscious awareness does get representation as a very real causal agent and rates an important place in the causal sequence and chain of control in brain events, in which it appears as an active, operational force...

To put it very simply, it comes down to the issue of who pushes whom around in the population of causal forces that occupy the cranium. It is a matter, in other words, of straightening out the peck-order hierarchy among intracranial control agents. There exists within the cranium a whole world of diverse causal forces; what is more, there are forces within forces within forces, as in no other cubic half-foot of universe that we know of...

To make a long story short, if one keeps climbing upward in the chain of command within the brain, one finds at the very top those over-all organizational forces and dynamic properties of the large patterns of cerebral excitation that are correlated with mental states of psychic activity... Near the apex of this command system in the brain...we find ideas.

Man over the chimpanzee has ideas and ideals. In the brain model proposed here, the causal potency of an idea, or an ideal, becomes just as real as that of a molecule, a cell, or a nerve impulse. Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each other and with other mental forces in the same brain, in neighboring brains, and, thanks to global communication, in far distant, foreign brains. And they also interact with the external surroundings to produce in toto a burstwise advance in evolution that is far beyond anything to hit the evolutionary scene yet, including the emergence of the living cell.
The big point Sperry is making is that it is perfectly legitimate to see ideas and symbols as causal forces. That is, a causal description of the brain does not have to be a description as a biologist and physicist would give it, at the level of molecules on down. It is legitimate to see ideas pushing around molecules and not the other way around. To quote Hofstadter:
Do dreads and dreams, hopes and griefs, ideas and beliefs, interests and doubts, infatuations and envies, memories and ambitions, bouts of nostalgia and floods of empathy, flashes of guilt and sparks of genius, play any role in the world of physical objects? Do such pure abstractions have causal powers? Can they shove massive things around, or are they just impotent fictions? Can a blurry, intangible 'I' dictate to concrete physical objects such as electrons or muscles (or for that matter, books) what to do?

Have religious beliefs caused any wars, or have all wars just been caused by the interactions of quintillions (to underestimate the truth absurdly) of infinitesimal particles according to the laws of physics? Does fire cause smoke? Do cars cause smog? Do drones cause boredom? Do jokes cause laughter? Do smiles cause swoons? Does love cause marriage? Or, in the end, are there just myriads of particles pushing each other around according the the laws of physics--leaving, in the end, no room for selves or souls, dreads or dreams, love or marriage, smiles or swoons, jokes or laughter, drones or boredom, car or smog, or even smoke or fire?
But beyond these rhetorical questions, Hofstadter tries to explain how there might be a scientifically valid way of viewing the causal power of symbols and mental states. The issue, according to Hofstadter, goes to levels of description. For example, consider the question: Why did World War II begin?

You could try to answer the question at the level of particle physics, trying to explain the swirl of particles that we labeled "World War II." Or you could try to describe WWII with a higher-level description, referring to larger-scale patterns. Like Hitler, for example.

Hofstadter also offers up this metaphor. Imagine a huge array of dominoes ready to fall. However, this array of dominoes is special. It is set up to do a calculation. Logically, you figure out an array of dominoes that can take a numerical input (e.g., knocking down X rows of dominoes in various spots to correspond to different numbers) and make a calculation. Specifically, the dominoes are set to fall to create two outputs, a red domino will fall in the end if the input number is prime and a blue domino, in a different area, will fall if the input number is not prime. So, we input our number--641--by knocking down the correlated rows of dominoes. We then watch the cascade of dominoes fall. The cascade goes in all directions dictated by the computational structure we've arrayed. Some cascades split and rejoin. Others stop. In the end, the red domino drops and the blue is left standing (as are all the chains leading up to it). Verdict: 641 is prime. (Computer people will recognize that this domino array is simply a computational algorithm, no different in application then what goes on in a computer or calculator.)

Given this example, Hofstadter asks the question: Why did the red domino fall?

Well, we could try to give the explanation in terms of particle physics. And that would be a valid but unfeasible and incomprehensible explanation. Or, we could scale up a bit and say, "Because the domino next to it fell." Again, that is a legitimate explanation but still too myopic. So, we could back up further and say that the red domino fell due to long complicated chains of dominoes falling, an appeal to the array. Again, this is accurate enough as far as it goes but it still misses a great deal, like the fact that this array isn't arbitrary or random. It has a pattern. So, in the end, it is perfectly legitimate to say that the red domino fell "Because 641 is prime."

Hofstadter's conclusion:
The point of this example is that 641's primality is the best explanation, perhaps even the only explanation, for why certain dominos did fall and certain other ones did not fall. In a word, 641 is the prime mover. So I ask: Who shoves whom around inside the domino chaninium?
To clarify, this isn’t a route around determinism. Rather, it is simply an acknowledgment that appeals to ideas and symbols as causal forces are scientifically legitimate. That is to say, if I love my wife I need not fear that a reductive appeal to biology, chemistry, or physics discounts or trumps the simple fact that I love my wife and it is this love that is the causal agent. Just like prime-hood was the causal agent in the domino example. And it is this love that pushes the molecules around in my mind rather than the other way around. Particle physics didn’t make the red domino fall. Prime-hood did. This is not to say that the particle physics picture and the prime-hood picture disagree. They are describing the same event. It is just that the particle physics picture, being at too low a level, can’t reach up and describe the higher-order pattern that is running the show (i.e., the computational pattern that I’ve imposed on the dominos). In the same way, brain function cannot reach up and explain love. Conversely, neither can love be reducible to brain functioning. Once the higher-order pattern is in place it gains a causal potency that does not exist when particles are random and patternless.

Pattern is everything. And you are a pattern.

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9 thoughts on “Strange Loops and Theology, Part 2: Symbols, Self, Patterns, and Causal Potency”

  1. This makes me think about several things I've read lately regarding language and meaning. For some reason, I'm convinced that it's very important to affirm - as hofstader does - the importance of conversation at high levels of abstraction. That even if we think we could describe the universe in deterministic language, that we will see the best results if we also can think of the world at high levels of abstraction ... that the reductionistic description is not necessarily more "true" than the abstract.

    Modernism saw us descending deep into the gritty world of reductionism, and I suspect that postmodernism will see us reaching up for symbol and gestalt meaning.

  2. Matthew,
    First, thanks for reading such a long post! After I posted it I was somewhat shocked at how long it became. Second, I'm in entire agreement with you. Reading those passages in Hofstadter was a breath of fresh air.

  3. Richard
    Interesting thoughts, and I just ordered the book I am a strange loop. I am wrestling with some of these same questions as I am currently pulling together a "behavioral" model of negotiation based in the evolutionary psychology foundation. Though the ev psych stuff makes a lot of sense, I think it misses the potential of some of this higher order stuff you refer to. I am trying to understand how "narrative" factors into this story and how self-reflection plays into this story. Am looking forward to hearing some more of your thoughts in addition to reading some of Hofstander. I guess my quick question is whether you think its possible to bring this type of thinking into empirical research or if its more conducive to theorizing. I do think any model which truly tries to be behavioral (and thus interdisciplinary, descriptive of how humans actually think/ behave) must find some balance of the determinism seemingly implied by our lack of "blank slates" and this higher order cognition and the potential causality from inside the system.

    I may have to blog about some similar thoughts to clarify my thinking :)


  4. Richard,

    Wonderful post!

    There is, however, a shorter way to establish the causal efficacy of human ideas: look around!

    (I take it for granted that human consciousness should not appeal to particle physics as if billions and billions of ultra-tiny humunculi hold elections on what my next thought will be.)

    Might we see the imagio dei as creativity--including and perhaps especially self-creativity? If so all theology is antique theology.


  5. @Peter:
    "I guess my quick question is whether you think its possible to bring this type of thinking into empirical research or if its more conducive to theorizing."

    This is a huge question. How do you study something really complex - say, swarm intelligence - when you have some idea of the mechanisms that make it happen but can't really reproduce the phenomenon for experimental verification?

    I think this idea also dovetails with some odd things like internet "churches": what happens when thousands people can discuss their religious experiences in a structured way? Doug Muder briefly speculates about this in the article linked above: "Theologies will not come down from the academy or the pulpit, but will bubble up from countless ordinary people comparing notes on their personal experiences and their efforts to live the best lives they can."

    Sorry if this doesn't all make sense, but I *think* the connection is there.

  6. Good to see Hofstatder is stimulating discussion in wide circles, although it seems that this blog is not short of stimulation.

    I have collected a number of responses to "I am a Strange Loop" in

    They show the range of thinkers from many disciplines that have found something in Hofstadters writings.

  7. I'm postive I didn't understand any of that. There is quote I like and it says, "Think wrongly if you please, but in all cases think for yourself."

    Not sure how to do that exactly considering that the media, our culture, our religion, and perhaps even our education are all trying to shape our thinking. Jesus sure does want to change our thinking, so I wonder if it is a bad thing to think for ourselves... or what does that really mean? To think for ourselves? Can anybody explain it to me.

  8. Peter,
    Right now I can't think of any experimental predictions. It seems like a piece of philosophy to me at this point. Regardless, you work sounds fascinating.

    I like the "look around" argument. Reminds me how Johnson refutes Berkeley by kicking a rock saying "I refute it thus!" :-)

    Thanks for the link!

    This is pretty abstract stuff. But I don't think it is necessary to understand it completely to enjoy the rest of the series, which is the best stuff.

  9. Richard,
    I would like to see where you go with this. This reminds me of Toltec philosophy which says we are all domesticated by our family, community and society in an outward ripple. We make agreements about how we see ourselves and our world based on what grabs our attention in the domestication process.
    The neat part is that we can change our beliefs or agreements and replace them with better suiting ones of our choice. If, indeed, this is the same subject that you are speaking of, then if we change our symbols, say of self, or we change our values, then we can change how we live our lives.
    For example, if I become enraged at an inconsiderate driver I might feel the need for retribution. Why? I might believe that the values of courtesy, cooperation, and consideration are important in society. I might also agree that those who fail to demonstrate these values will get whats coming to them. Road rage may follow.
    If, however, I don't believe in an eye for an eye, or that cheaters never prosper or such memes, then I my not mind as much if I'm cut off in traffic. In other words, it's not the actions of others that cause our reactions but our own beliefs and agreements that we hold that prompt action on our part.
    Could this be the same as sympols are triggers and are triggerable or am I missing the point?
    Rick T

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