Loopiness, and not Taking Oneself too Seriously

Wednesday April 22, 2009

Strange Loop

I’ve just finished Douglas Hofstadter’s strange and very possibly loopy book I am a Strange Loop, which has got me thinking about selfhood. Hofstadter writes in his book that the “I” or the “self” is, in a very real sense, a hallucination. It is not just a hallucination, indeed, but is “a hallucination hallucinated by a hallucination.”

In the book Hofstadter develops an astonishing – but, I think, rather convincing – view of the self (or even of the “soul”): not as some kind of non-material or spiritual entity beamed down from God (remember Him?) knows where; but instead as something that arises out of the world, something that is fluctuating and changing yet nevertheless semi-stable, and something that is impossible to locate in a single place within the cranium, but that is smeared out across the world; in our own heads, certainly, but also in the heads of those who we know, of those whom we have encountered. My self, that is to say, is not so much a thing, as it is a mass of self-reflexive, loopy patternings. I can’t really do justice to Hofstadter’s deep and subtle arguments here, but the book is well worth reading and it has got me thinking about the seriousness with which we take our own existence.

Let us say, just for the sake of argument, that Hofstadter is right, that our precious selves or souls are hallucinations hallucinated by hallucinations, bootstrapping their way merrily into existence. What might this mean for all of our loves and passions and hopes and fears, these things that seem so important to us? Does it render these things unimportant? Does it mean that we should somehow do our best to do away with this hallucination? Well, not exactly. And for two reasons. Firstly, because this seems to be one hallucination that we are stuck with. And secondly, because it is a hallucination that may make ethics – you know: niceness, friendliness, those things that make this hallucinatory life of ours worth living – possible. There’s a nice line in the Mallika Sutta which reads, “Though in thought we range throughout the world, we’ll nowhere find a thing more dear than self,” and which goes on to say, in a piece of analogical thinking of which Hofstadter would no doubt approve, that “since others hold the self so dear, he who loves himself should injure none.”

Perhaps, then, we might conclude that the trick is not to try to jettison the idea of the self, but instead to not take ourselves so seriously. And yet this, too, doesn’t seem to ring true. Part of the strange loopiness of the hallucination of the self is that we cannot find a place to stand outside the self from which we can not take ourselves seriously. In Being and Time Heidegger talks about how we are beings for whom our own being is always an issue: taking ourselves seriously is simply a part of the deal. Can you imagine anybody taking themselves more seriously than the celebrity interviewee who claims that they “don’t like to take themselves too seriously”? And, besides, taking ourselves seriously – and, by extension, taking the selves of others seriously – may be another of those things that makes life worth living.

But if this ol’ self of mine is a hallucination hallucinated by a hallucination, then I’d like to go at least some way to acknowledging the fact. So let’s add a further loop, and say that perhaps it’s not a matter of doing away with the hallucination, nor is it a matter of not taking the hallucination seriously (both of which, I suspect, are neither desirable, nor perhaps possible), but it instead a matter of not taking quite so seriously the inevitable seriousness with which we go about our existence. Call it a kind of second-order irony, if you like.

How might this work? Let us say that you are waiting for the train, and the train is an hour late. You find that you are becoming restless and grumpy, to the extent that you are snarling at the other passengers. Then you think, “Hey, I’m a hallucination hallucinating a hallucination! Why so grumpy?” And with this bracing thought, you prepare to jettison the hallucination altogether. Here, however, you come up against a brick wall. Hallucination or not, you are still there pacing up and down, and the train is still ten minutes late. There’s nowhere, outside of the hallucination to go. You’re stuck with it.

So, instead, you try first-order irony. “Ach,” you say, “I take my life so seriously, but it’s only a hallucination. Why the seriousness? Why the glum face? Why don’t I just laugh a soft laugh (tinged, perhaps, with a poetic hint of melancholy), and stop worrying?” But this doesn’t seem to work either, because you find that you are either getting deeply serious about the fact that the train is late, or you are getting deeply serious about something else – perhaps about whether your soft, ironic laugh is tinged with precisely the right amount of melancholy, or about how great you are because you are not taking things seriously at all (are you?), whilst the other passengers are huffing and puffing. You are stuck not only with the whole hallucinatory shebang, but also with the fact that you are deadly serious about it, and can’t for the life of you find a way to undo this seriousness.

Along comes second-order irony and says “Ach and double ach: here I am, confused wee mammal that I am, getting steamed up about trains and lateness and my precious self. How quaintly earnest I am, that all of this should matter so much to me! How curious and wonderful it is to be tangled up in an existence so loopy and so strange.” And in this second-order irony, I think – if we give up all aspirations to break out of the endless looping circles of the hallucination, if we recognise that our lives matter to us and cannot but matter (and that the lives of others matter in the same way, and cannot but matter) – there might be a little relief from the frustration at the lateness of the train, a way of soothing our tendency to snarl at our fellow passengers, and a little more room for creativity, for pleasure and even for joy, here within the heart of a hallucination that has never mattered more.

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#1 · ramon sanchez

22 April 2009

aaaaaaaaaiiiiiiii normally like your blog but brother you have lost the plot here.the problem being that you only talk about your head.when you find your self grumpy/angry and you rotate through your habitual bad attitude….you need a practice.not more work of the mind. open your perineum…..breath into your dandien….feel the edge of your breath……….touch your posture ..feel your skin…fall into( the fantasy of) yourself.for this you need a mind/body practice……it works!! got a feeling you already know this.(:(:(:

#2 · Will

22 April 2009

Of course, Ramon, we are embodied beings, and it is certainly true (at least in my experience) that rooting awareness in the body is a useful practice – so that you do not just have the story “I am grumpy” but also the experience of grumpiness (and of everything else that is going on) in the body – which is, it must be said, much more interesting, and which gets you out of one kind of loop that can often seem rather more like a vicious circle.

But I’m also interested in the question of how we might think about this odd business of being conscious beings here in the world, and Hofstadter’s work provides a fascinating and intriguing way of thinking about this.

Best wishes, Will

#3 · Mike

22 April 2009

Seriously, that must have given you a headache! I’ve often puzzled over the idea that there might be some kind of ‘reality’ to which we can awaken from the hallucination you speak of. It seems to me we can only awaken to the dream, not from it, and to minimise our predicament in some way because it is a dream seems to me to miss the point. To say that everything is illusion is about as meaningful as to say that everything is ‘up’ – one might as well say it is all real. It simply is, and the more I think about it the less able I am to imagine how it could be otherwise. Looked at in one way everything does appear to be illusory, but it’s the only reality in town. We introduce complications when we try to grasp it in some kind of formula and say ‘this is how it is, this is how we should think and act, this is the correct strategy to follow.’ Of course, being humans we are always trying to do this but it is really just an attempt to gain control and solidify our position and it doesn’t work. As the Zennies might put it, when you’ve exhausted yourself with such speculations you need to wash the dishes.

#4 · Will

22 April 2009

Aboslutely, Mike: it is (as far as we are concerned) the only reality in town. What else could there be? Anyway, must dash. I’ve got some dishes to wash.

#5 · Seriously unserious!

23 April 2009

I quite enjoyed the post Will. While I can fully follow your description of Hofstadter’s writing I think you are missing out majorly in your interpretations and conclusions.

From personal experience I find the combined idea of being a hallucination and thus not having to take myself so seriously extremely relieving. Being able to laugh at having failed an exam because one can not only understand but live out the universal meaning of it is the ultimate freedom. Here people might come in and say I am just running away from reality or damaging my prospects by reckless behaviour. But no, what it is really, is seeing the illusion or hallucination of my subjective reality from a more (not absolute) objective stance.

As always I am struggling to put these thoughts into words…I hope you can follow.

It is really about being able to release one’s self from the immense responsibilities that our mind and other peoples’ minds impose on us.
That being said, I still live my life with all the emotions such as frustration and anxiety and joy and love. However, and this is the difference, I chose to feel these feelings, to have the full experience of what is available through this “hallucination”. Always at the back of my mind there is the calm undercurrent that I can “release” any part of the illusion.

Being able to “think” or “be” like this however stems from one single event in my life where suddenly for no apparent reason my point of view suddenly shifted from the subjective to the “objective”. And this is the issue. As you can read, explaining it seems futile. It is not so much about cognitively understanding but more about being in that state of mind with all of your senses. It is like somebody trying to describe to you what it is like to be Chinese or a professional football player. You can imagine it from your subjective perspective but you can never be convinced of it. No matter how many good arguments I propose in favour of not taking a failed exam seriously, if the person’s fundamental perspective stays the same they will never be able to laugh about it (until they may be 90 years old and then be able to see the relative objectivity of it).

Sadly I can never really hit the nail on the head.
However this leads onto one of my posts on Perspective. It leads on in quite the same mumble of words failing to explain much:

I enjoy your posts on the workings of the mind as it offers a very coherent comparison to what one’s self may experience.

Anyway don’t take this comment too seriously ;)

#6 · David Chapman

23 April 2009

I find what Hofstadter (and Heidegger) have to say interesting and relevant and useful… But I also find that, the more I have sat recently, the less likely I am to get upset about a late train. Because, it seems, I actually do take myself and other things less seriously.

I don’t think any amount or kind of thinking helps with that (as you say), but emptiness meditation does.

#7 · Sonia Gallagher

24 April 2009

I very much agree with David Chapman. I have been meditating, sitting, or whatever else you may call it for a few months now. Through my meditation practice(breathing meditation), I have discovered many things about myself and what I want to do in this lifetime. Heck, I went from owning my own law practice to now being a full-time online publisher on meditation benefits.

Spirituality is an incredibly difficult and complex subject to discuss. This I feel is one of the main reasons why religions were created; to share the information with people in a community with rituals, etc.

The more spiritual and in tune with God, the universe, spirit, the source, you become, the less emotionally reactive to stressors, annoyances, etc you become. I don’t know whether this is because you start to take yourself more or less serious. Labels, explanations, and classifications are what hinder us as human beings from developing.
Still, the benefits are clear and that is the most important thing.

#8 · Will

24 April 2009

I’m not sure I agree that “labels, explanations and classifications” are a hindrance, but then I have no desire to become in tune with God, spirit or source, whatever those things may be – the main reason for this being that I’m pretty sure I don’t believe in any of them.

When it comes to labels, explanations and classifications, surely it is worth thinking through what we think and how we think, if only because some ways of thinking are better than others, “better” here meaning that they are more conducive to happiness, to freedom from suffering, and all the other gubbins that we’re probably interested in.

What I am interested in are questions of ethics – how we make our way through this world, our ethos, if you like – and questions of epistemology – how we can come to understand ourselves and the world better. Thinking has a vital part to play in these questions. This does not rule out the possibility that certain kinds of meditative inquiry are also useful; but fortunately we do not have to choose one or the other. They are opposed, perhaps, in the way that playing the piano and baking cakes are opposed – that is, it may be that you can’t do both at once – but they are not opposed in any more fundamental sense. I am profoundly uneasy with the vaguely New Age idea that thinking is somehow the enemy, which I think has dangerous ethical and political implications.

Best wishes,


#9 · buddhist meditation

25 April 2009

I agree with you, we just have to laugh out of problems and it will just fade naturally. Don’t take life too serious because life isn’t taking you seriously. :)

#10 · Tom Armstrong

28 April 2009

Eek. Your loopy quote from “Strange Loop” reminds me of the first paragraph from Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Self, which is …

“Man is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation [which accounts for it] that the relation relates itself to its own self; the self is not the relation but [consists in the fact] that the relation relates itself to its own self. Man is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short it is a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two factors. So regarded, man is not yet a self.”

Possibly, this is something Hofstadter reflected upon (in an infinite mirror, perhaps).

#11 · Rob Myers

25 May 2009

My interpretation of Hofstadter’s Strange Loop book was that it did come to many of the same conclusions as Buddhism (as I understand it, which has a Zen flavor in my case). Took me a long time to get through this book. I’d suggest people read the beginning 1/5, the middle 1/5, and the last 1/5. The rest was unnecessary justifications and mental experiments. I thought he spent far too much of the book (and possibly far too much of his life) deriving and exploring analogies that were more puzzling than the basic premise of the Strange Loop, itself.

E.g., when he’s at his daughter’s birthday party contemplating whether or not his deceased wife was “there” as well, I wanted to shake him and say “Doug! Be present with your daughter! Less time locked inside your head!” Of course, I wasn’t there, really. Or was I…?

Ah, well. Either a lifetime of strenuous mathematical over-thinking, or a lifetime on the zafu. What’s the diff? ;-)

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