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The Loopiness of Loops

A salesman once told Douglas Hofstadter not to point his camera at the TV screen because he thought it would break. However, that’s a false belief since cameras don’t have any problems with doing that. In fact, some people are hesitant about doing so out of fear even though it doesn’t cause any harm.

There’s a fear of loopiness that has existed for years, even though it isn’t well understood. It’s been defined as being odd or mysterious and is often seen as threatening. In the past, philosophers have tried to reduce all mathematics to logic, but they failed because there was an underlying loop at the core of their work. Kurt Gödel discovered this loop in Bertrand Russell’s logical system and showed why his project couldn’t be completed. Loopy ideas are found everywhere in our culture – from people who fear cameras and mirrors to those who don’t want their images captured on paper.

Loops are a natural part of the world. They can be benign or harmful, but they’re unavoidable. A good example is M.C. Escher’s “Drawing Hands,” which shows two hands drawing one another on paper. Your computer also contains loops; it’s a Turing machine that can copy itself and its functions (like copying an image). You are also a loop because you connect to yourself in various ways, such as your thoughts and actions in life leading back to where you started from (which is why people say “you gotta go back to square one”).

The Loopy Self

The human brain is a remarkable machine. It has the ability to represent itself and others through its symbolic system, which includes rich categorization equipment. Right now, your brain has a conception of you (or “self-schema”), including attributes, memories, judgments, likes and dislikes – all sorts of information that’s available in principle. Your self-schema is remarkably stable over time; it’s hard to change your views about yourself even if they’re wrong! In addition, you recognize yourself as the same person over time without any psychiatric disorder or malady altering your perception of reality. However, what’s at the center of this information? Is there an immaterial soul or mental essence holding everything together? No! You are simply your brain’s representation of itself.

Many philosophers and a surprising number of scientists don’t believe that the self is composed only of physical brain matter. Rather, they think there’s some nonphysical substance that allows the brain to have a sense of self. René Descartes believed this, and he thought it was in the pineal gland (which has since been proven wrong). Other forms of dualism are less enthusiastic about nonphysical substances but still believe that there’s something more than just physical parts involved when it comes to having a sense of self.

However, the self is not a separate entity. It emerges from the neural activity of your brain. Consider an analogy: you’re looking for a car to race on weekends and pick out a Ford Escort. When asked if that’s what you want, you say no because you want something faster like a Lamborghini. The dealer says it will be faster because it has more power (or RacecarPower). You ask how much RacecarPower costs as an option and realize that it’s merely related to engine size and other physical features of the car, not its own thing. Therefore, neither is the self its own thing.

Useful Illusions

If the self is an illusion, then it’s not a bad thing. Many philosophers think that way and call it epiphenomenalism. In medicine, epiphenomenon refers to something that happens along with other symptoms of a disease but isn’t the result of those symptoms. For example, coronary disease doesn’t cause bedsores (sores on your skin from lying in bed too long), but if you’re stuck in bed for a while because of heart problems, you might develop them anyway. Laymen may think that bedsores are caused by coronary disease, but they would be wrong; they’re actually just another symptom altogether. Similarly, calling the self an epiphenomenon suggests that the self is not involved in human lives at all. It’s just like phantom pain: The brain thinks there’s still a limb there even though we’ve lost one or more limbs after amputation.

I Am A Strange Loop Book Summary, by Douglas R. Hofstadter