I Am a Strange Loop

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek –

First Reading “No Luck, No Soap, No Dice” 

One day, many years ago, I wanted to pull out all the envelopes from a small cardboard box…and stick them as a group into one of my desk drawers….I picked up the box, reached into it, clasped my right hand around the pack of envelopes inside it (about a hundred in number), and squeezed tightly down on them in order to pull them out of the box as a unit. Nothing at all surprising in any of this. But all of the sudden I felt, between my thumb and fingers, something very surprising. Oddly enough, there was a marble sitting (or floating?) right in the middle of that flimsy little cardboard box…. 

I peered in between the envelopes, looking for a small, smooth colored glass sphere. No luck. Then I fumbled about with my fingers between the envelopes, feeling for it. Again no soap. But then, as soon as I grasped the whole set of envelopes as before, there it was again, as solid as ever! Where was this little devil of a marble hiding? 

I looked more carefully, and of course took the envelopes out and tried to shake it out from between them, but still no dice. And finally, on checking, I found that each envelope on its own was empty. So what in tarnation was going on? 

….It is probably already obvious, but believe me, I was baffled for a minute or two. Eventually it dawned on me that there wasn’t any marble in there at all, but that there was something that felt for all the world exactly like a marble. It was an epiphenomenon caused by the fact that, for each envelope, at the vertex of the “V” made by its flap, there is a triple layer of paper as well as a thin layer of glue. An unintended consequence of this innocent design decision is that when you squeeze down on a hundred such envelopes all precisely aligned with each other, you can’t compress that little zone as much as the other zones….The hardness that you feel at your fingertips has an uncanny resemblance to a more familiar (dare I say “a more real”?) hardness…. 

Well, I was so charmed and captivated by this epiphenomenal illusion of a marble in the box that I nicknamed the box of envelopes “Epi”, and I have kept it ever since….And sometimes, when I…lecture on the concepts of self and “I”, I carry Epi along with me….[1] 

Second Reading  “‘I’ vs. the Laws of Physics” 

My claim is that your brain (like mine and like everyone else’s) has, out of absolute necessity, invented something it calls an “I”, but that that thing is as real (or rather, as unreal) as is that “marble” in that box of envelopes. In that sense, your brain has tricked itself. The “I”­—yours, mine, and everyone’s—is a tremendously effective illusion, and falling for it has fantastic survival value. Our “I”’s are self-reinforcing illusions that are an inevitable by-product of strange loops, which are themselves an inevitable by-product of symbol-possessing brains that guide bodies through the dangerous and treacherous waters of life…. 

One thing that gives many people a sneaking suspicion that something about this “I”…might be mythical is…[that] there seems to be something incompatible between the hard laws of physics and the existence of vague, shadowy things called “I”’s [or selves]. How could [these entities that appear to sense and experience their surroundings] come to exist in a world where there are just inanimate things moving around. It seems as if perception, sensation, and experience are [somehow] extra, above and beyond [the laws of] physics…. 

We all take for granted ever since our earliest childhood…that “I”’s do exist—and in most people…that belief simply wins out, hands down. The battle is never even engaged, in most people’s minds. On the other hand, for a few people the battle starts to rage: physics vs. “I”. And various escape hatches have been proposed, including the notion that consciousness is a novel kind of quantum phenomenon, or the idea that consciousness resides uniformly in all matter, and so on. My proposal for a truce to end this battle is to see the “I” as a hallucination perceived by a hallucination, or perhaps even stranger: the “I” as a hallucination hallucinated by a hallucination.[2] 

I Am a Strange Loop

Nancy Parker purchased a sermon at last year’s goods and services auction. When I asked her what I should preach on, she handed me a copy of Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop.  I’d never heard of it. I liked the questions inside the dust jacket: “Can a self, a soul, a consciousness, an “I” arise out of mere matter? If it cannot, then how can you or I be here? If it can, then how can we understand this baffling emergence?” Great questions. Pawel happened to be walking by and said, “That’s a great book.” Evidently—and somewhat inexplicably—he has read the entire Hofstadter canon. Encouraged, I started reading, last June, 2010. I finished, 363 dense pages later, earlier this month, January, 2011. I feel a little like Nancy must’ve felt when she said, “I’m vague about what my question is – and I’m confused about the content of the book right now. Since I gave it to you, I reread Godel, Escher, Bach, which was Hofstadter’s first book—it got him a Pulitzer Prize. I don’t even try to follow the math. Strange Loop is a later and more personal version of the same ideas—still too much math for me.” 

For anyone planning to bid on a sermon at our February 12th goods and services auction, here’s a good rule of thumb: if it’s too much math for you, rest assured it’s too much math for me. Perhaps Nancy felt a bit competitive with Fred Sawyer who has bought sermons at the last seven auctions; sermons which have a certain scientific quality. For a moment I thought Nancy had exceeded even Fred’s wildest, most complicated sermon ideas, until Fred asked me, for his sermon this year, to preach on the Anthropic Cosmological Principle. No math is too much for Fred. If it were a ‘most obscure’ sermon competition—and it is not—Fred still maintains the crown. 

In all seriousness, Nancy is not confused about this book. Even if the math is too much she grasps the spiritual implications of Hofstadter’s theory—and she wrestles with them. She said, “I’m trying to sort out where the warmth of human beings comes from in a cold, indifferent universe. Hofstadter talks about soul and recognizes the richness of human life. If it’s not from a supernatural source, then is it inherent in our busy little neurons? They’re working away below the level of our awareness. Why would they steer us toward beauty and wonder if they hadn’t somehow been programmed by the universe?” Great questions, Nancy. Spiritual questions. Human questions. Thanks. 

We know our bodies are consistent with the rest of the physical world. Like all matter our bodies form from a foundation of sub-atomic particles. Protons, electrons and neutrons combine to make atoms, which combine to make molecules, which combine to make increasingly larger, more complex structures: cells, organs, organ systems, bodies. We can understand all of this in physical terms. Yet, when we contemplate our selves—this notion of “I”—we don’t perceive swirling sub-atomic particles or chemicals spitting across synaptic pathways or enzymes cascading. When we contemplate our selves we perceive something more vague and elusive. Hofstadter calls it shadowy. We perceive hopes, fears, aspirations, instincts, passions, confusions, values and so on. We perceive all these things but we can’t identify exactly what they are in the same way we can look at cells under a microscope and describe their physical structures. Selves don’t seem to comply with the laws of physics. Hofstadter says, “A creature that thinks knows next to nothing of the substrate allowing its thinking to happen, but nonetheless it knows…very intimately something it calls “I”.[3] We know it, but we can’t say with any precision what it is or how it got there. We can’t say exactly what makes us human. 

I know that even as I perceive the concreteness of my hand or this pulpit there is still a vast realm I cannot perceive: a seething, churning, spinning, dynamic mass of particles beyond my awareness. If that mass is the basis of physical reality—and I accept that it is—then how does consciousness arise from it? I can comprehend how my physical body arises—atoms, molecules, cells, organs, body—but how do “I” arise? Where does my humanness come from? Or as Nancy put it, “Why would our busy little neurons steer us toward beauty and wonder?” 

This kind of questioning is ancient and deeply spiritual. What makes matter come alive? What endows matter with thought and feeling? If all matter is composed of the same basic particles, what accounts for the distinction between animate and inanimate? Why do the rocks not shout for joy? In Genesis 2:7 an ancient Hebrew priest offers this familiar answer: “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”[4]  Through the ages some form of this answer has been given countless times to the question, “What makes us us?” If our bodies are no physically different than other matter, then what animates us, what invests consciousness in us, what gives us a sense of “I”, what makes us human must come not from the earth, but from some other unseen source: from God, divine breath, spirit; from some non-physical property inherent in the universe that we can’t perceive yet which must be there. We can’t prove it, but it must be there. This dualism between the physical world and an imagined non-physical world remains pervasive in much of western thought. It takes many forms. Hofstadter calls it magical or mythological thinking. It may feel comforting to imagine a god who makes us come alive, but it is unnecessary. He says our sense of “I” is a purely physical phenomenon. What some imagine to be an otherworldly soul is a purely physical phenomenon. As we heard in our reading,  “Our “I”’s are self-reinforcing illusions that are an inevitable by-product of strange loops.”[5] So what is a strange loop? 

Imagine a newborn baby. It has just emerged from the dark security of its mother’s womb. It cries out in shock, but doesn’t know why. It doesn’t know anything. It has no concept of inside or outside, warm or cold, wet or dry, hungry or full. It doesn’t perceive a difference between itself and the world. Until this moment it has been blissfully “one” with its universe. We might call this a pure, spiritual state: Oneness. And this oneness lingers in these first moments outside the womb because the baby has not yet perceived itself. In fact, Hofstadter says a newborn has no self. It has no “I.” It has genetic traits that will, in time, shape its personality, but there is no self inherent in a newborn’s body, no “I” pronoun. 

A nurse wraps the newborn in a blanket and places it on its exhausted mother’s chest. It experiences warmth, though it does not know it. Hofstadter would say that, as of yet, its brain has no symbol for warmth. It experiences the familiarity of its mother’s heart-beat, but it does not know it because its brain has no symbol for heart-beat. 

Soon the baby feels discomfort because its body is hungry. It doesn’t know its body is hungry; its brain has no symbol for hunger. It cries, but doesn’t know it cries; its brain has no symbol for crying. Someone—probably the mother—inserts a nipple into the baby’s mouth. The baby senses something, but doesn’t know what. Its brain has no symbol for nipple. The baby doesn’t know its caregiver is struggling to teach it to suck. Its brain has no symbol for suck. But eventually, milk fills the baby’s belly, its discomfort abates, it stops crying and most likely falls asleep. 

A very rudimentary feedback loop has begun to take shape. When the baby is uncomfortable it cries; in response some outside entity does something to relieve the discomfort. Hofstadter says a lot about feedback loops. A toilet is a feedback loop. When the ball in the tank gets to a certain height, the water shuts off. A thermostat is a feedback loop. When the temperature drops below a certain point, the thermostat feeds that information to the furnace which pumps more heat into the system. 

But something strange happens in a human brain that doesn’t happen in toilets and thermostats. Human brains develop symbols in response to feedback from the environment. Somehow that seething, churning, spinning, dynamic mass of particles enables this to happen. A five-month old may not have words for its symbols, but its brain is creating them nevertheless: warm big person who always gives yummy milk; soft thing that yummy milk comes out of; smiling big person who laughs; round thing that makes funny noises; green thing that spins. As the infant brain develops symbols for things and people out there, and as the brain begins to categorize those symbols and relate them to each other, the baby begins to sense its own distinctiveness. It begins to sense a self receiving feedback. It begins to create its most powerful symbol, “I”. Smiling big person who gives yummy milk when I cry; soft thing that yummy milk comes out of when I suck; smiling big person who gives hugs when I smile; round thing that makes fuzzy noises when I shake it; green thing that spins when I push it. 

For our opening words we read from T.S. Eliot: “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started.”[6] I talked about the way musical canons cycle back to where they started. It’s the same with feedback loops. They keep cycling around. But what is unique—and strange—about our participation in feedback loops is that every time they cycle back to us—every time we receive some signal from our environment—our “I” symbol gets activated. That shower feels good to me. That snow is up to my hip. For us, every feedback loop is an occasion for self-reference; and this self-referential quality, made possible by the brain’s capacity to create symbols and organize them, and which is absent in toilets and thermostats, is the most prominent characteristic of a strange loop. Without self-reference, there can be no consciousness. 

T.S. Eliot also writes that “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”[7] Toilets and thermostats don’t grow and change in response to feedback. But we do. Our “I” is not static. Every time we return to the place we started, our “I” is a tiny bit different. Hofstadter likens our actions in the world to a stone tossed into a pond. “Soon,” he writes, “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 our gradually metamorphosing “I” has wrought….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…the abstract structure serving us as our innermost essence evolves slowly but surely, and in so doing it locks itself ever more rigidly in our mind.”[8] 

And there it is, locked.  Our “I” feels very real. Hofstadter says “we all take for granted ever since our earliest childhood…that “I”’s do exist.”[9] But if we really ask, “What is a self?” “What is consciousness?” “What makes the mass of particles in my body different than that in a boulder?—if we start to ask these deeply spiritual questions about the nature of life—Hofstadter’s strange loop theory tells us there is nothing there other than a complex arrangement of symbols. Our “I”s are no different from the marble in the middle of the envelopes. They feel incredibly real; and our bodies need them to survive. But they amount only to self-reinforcing illusions: hallucinations hallucinated by hallucinations.[10] No divine breath. Just strange loops. 

That’s a tough message for some. Even an ardent materialist might sense bleakness as we probe down beneath our symbolic ordering of the world to look at what’s really going on. Down here, with the hallucinations, meaning and value don’t seem so meaningful and valuable. And thus this sermon loops back to where we started, to Nancy’s questions about what makes us human: Where does human warmth come from in a cold, indifferent universe.? If human warmth (or goodness, morality, kindness, love, passion, creativity) is “not from a supernatural source,” as Hofstadter argues, “then is it inherent in our busy little neurons? Why would they steer us toward beauty and wonder? 

Wednesday night I took the boys sledding. It was dark. Snow fell in big, soft flakes. To hear my boys laugh is one of my fondest joys. I noted a strange loop. The boys laugh. I feel joy. Was all this perceiving just a hallucination? Maybe so. But then, for a moment, on that cold, dark night, with the snow coming down, everything seemed to stop. Everything was quiet. I suddenly felt warm. For a fleeting moment my strange loop paused. No symbols; no “I.” Just oneness. And some new measure of peace grew in me as the moment passed. I wondered, is this where human warmth comes from? Is this where the drive towards goodness, kindness, love, passion and creativity comes from: from that original experience of oneness, that experience of the womb? Do we not at some level know that beyond all the symbols that enable us to perceive ourselves as distinct “I”s, we are not separate—not from each other, not from the earth, not from the universe. Somewhere deep inside we know that the particle stuff that comprises us is the same particle stuff that comprises the stars. That lost oneness—is that not why newborns cry? That lost oneness—is that not at some level the goal of our spiritual searching? That lost oneness: after all our exploring, is that not where we shall finally return? Strange loops indeed. 

Amen and Blessed be. 

[1] Adapted from Hofstadter, Douglas, I Am a Strange Loop (New York: Basic Books, 2007), p 173. 

[2] Adapted from Hofstadter, Douglas, I Am a Strange Loop (New York: Basic Books, 2007), pp. 291-293. 

[3] Hofstadter, Douglas, I Am a Strange Loop (New York: Basic Books, 2007),  p. 173. 

[4] Genesis 2:7 (NRSV). 

[5] Hofstadter, Douglas, I Am a Strange Loop (New York: Basic Books, 2007),  p. 292. 

[6] Eliot, T.S., from “Little Giddings” in Four Quartets, excerpted in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993) #685. 

[7] Eliot, T.S., from “Little Giddings” in Four Quartets, excerpted in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993) #685. 

[8] Hofstadter, Douglas, I Am a Strange Loop (New York: Basic Books, 2007),  p. 186. 

[9] Hofstadter, Douglas, I Am a Strange Loop (New York: Basic Books, 2007),  p. 293. 

[10] Hofstadter, Douglas, I Am a Strange Loop (New York: Basic Books, 2007),  p. 293.