Proof of God:  I Am a Strange Loop


How to prove that God exists?  Outline of a proof by contradiction:  1. assume God does not exist; 2. deduce that if God does not exist then I don't exist either; 3. but this is absurd, so the starting assumption must be rejected, QED.


Simple to state, but filling in the details requires some work.  A new book by Douglas Hofstadter does most of the work for me.  I Am a Strange Loop (2007, Basic Books) is written from a naturalistic perspective and Hofstadter definitely isn't trying to prove God's existence, but he does thoroughly deconstruct the "I" and delivers step 2. and half of 3. of my outline.


Anyone who promotes a "proof" of God is suspect, so let me say that I don't believe I've discovered the clincher in this age-old debate.  Every "proof" of God has been critiqued if not dismissed outright, and "proofs" often beg more questions than they answer.  But the more robust ones have an important place in the reasoning of apologists for faith, and have some power to win converts and especially to answer the doubts of believers.  I often ponder such doubts when I encounter bright and accomplished people who hold a nontheistic worldview, especially prominent scientists and popular writers.  How can they be so clueless (or is it me)?  Of course I know one can’t pin God down in the way some religious literalists try to do, but many science popularizers sound equally naïve about real theology.  I ask myself again if the world can make sense without God, or with God for that matter, and reconsider the arguments.  Seldom have I found an argument for a naturalistic explanation of human consciousness so paradoxically self defeating as Hofstadter's.


If you've stuck with me this far I expect you want to learn what I Am a Strange Loop is about.  Douglas Hofstadter became widely known when he was quite young, with his first book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, in 1979.  Widely known as GEB, it can still be found in many bookstores.  He talks about his motivation for this new book:  "And yet, despite the book's popularity, it always troubled me that the fundamental message of GEB ... seemed to go largely unnoticed.  People liked the book for all sorts of reasons, but seldom if ever for its most central raison d'etre!  Years went by, and I came out with other books that alluded to and added to that core message, but still there didn't seem to be much understanding out there of what I had really been trying to say in GEB."  His title I Am a Strange Loop sums up this core message, that the human being emerges from self referential interactions in our brains, bodies, and surroundings.  This book is directly related to the theme of the 2008 IRAS conference on “Emergence: Nature’s Mode of Creativity - The Human Dimension,” (and maybe even more to the 2009 conference on the Self), making a clear case for naturalistic emergence of the human self, but also showing how ethereal “I” am.


Hofstadter has an unusual style of writing, very personal, with dialogues, metaphors and puns aplenty.  He says "Clarity, simplicity, and concreteness have coalesced into a kind of religion for me -- a set of never-forgotten guiding principles.  Fortunately, a large number of thoughtful people appreciate analogies, metaphors, and examples, as well as a relative lack of jargon, and last but not least accounts from a first-person stance.  In any case, it is for people who appreciate that way of writing that this book, like all my others, has been written.  I believe that this group includes not only outsiders and amateurs, but also many professional philosophers of mind."  What a contrast to the 2008 IRAS Book Seminar, Stacey Ake’s book The Semeiosis of the Self: The Quest for Individuality within the Evolutionary Matrix. Sorry Stacey, I love you, but I much prefer Hofstadter’s straightforward style.  And I wish Zygon had more Hofstadter-style writing.


I certainly count myself a fan of Hofstadter from the time GEB first appeared, especially since I'd done my own Master's research in Artificial Intelligence just a couple years before (1977) and wished I could express myself so clearly and be as accomplished as Hofstadter, although IAaSL makes me pleased I forsook AI and returned to the all-too-practical field of geophysics.  And while Hofstadter is no more religious than his sometime collaborator Daniel Dennett, he is not overtly hostile toward religion.  He talks of souls but tries to avoid religion:  "By contrast, I believe that a human soul -- and by the way, it is my aim in this book to make clear what I mean by this slippery word, often rife with religious connotations, but here not having any -- comes slowly into being over the course of years of development."  This effort to specify the connotations seems quite ironic to me -- connotations come to readers regardless what the author intends -- especially alongside Hofstadter's exultation in Gödel's discovery of deeper meaning in Bertrand Russell's work, and Russell's denial of that meaning because he didn't intend it.  Hofstadter can no more deny that soul talk has religious connotations than Russell could deny Gödel's discovery of incompleteness.


I hope I got the thrust of GEB long before I Am a Strange Loop came out, and I quoted GEB in reviewing the Zygon Center Emergence conference in 2006 for the Houston discussion group I organized, as follows.


“Hofstadter builds these ideas [from his Achilles and the Crab dialog on smoke, real and imaged] toward the emergent "Crux of Consciousness:"


What might such [intrinsically] high-level concepts be?  It has been proposed for eons, by various holistically or "soulistically" inclined scientists and humanists, that consciousness is a phenomenon that escapes explanation in terms of brain-components; so here is a candidate, at least.  There is also the ever-puzzling notion of free will.  So perhaps these qualities could be "emergent" in the sense of requiring explanations which cannot be furnished by the physiology alone.  But it is important to realize that if we are being guided by Gödel's proof in making such a bold hypothesis, we must carry the analogy through thoroughly.  In particular, it is vital to recall that G's nontheormhood does have an explanation -- it is not a total mystery!  The explanation hinges on understanding not just one level at a time, but the way in which one level mirrors its metalevel, and the consequences of this mirroring.  If our analogy is to hold, then, "emergent" phenomena would become explicable in terms of a relationship between different levels in mental systems.


 . . .


My belief is that the explanations of "emergent" phenomena in our brains -- for instance, ideas, hopes, images, analogies, and finally consciousness and free will -- are based on a kind of Strange Loop, an interaction between levels in which the top level reaches back down towards the bottom level and influences it, while at the same time being itself determined by the bottom level. 


 . . .


This should not be taken as an antireductionist position.  It just implies that a reductionist explanation of a mind, in order to be comprehensible, must bring in "soft" concepts such as levels, mappings, and meanings. In particular, I have no doubt that a totally reductionist but incomprehensible explanation of the brain exists; the problem is how to translate it into a language we ourselves can fathom.


[GEB Chapter XX, , the sections on "Consciousness as an Intrinsically High-Level Phenomenon" and "Strange Loops as the Crux of Consciousness", in my original edition on pp. 708-709.]


I think this is the thrust of GEB that Hofstadter laments being ignored over the years, leading to I Am a Strange Loop.  Loopy though he be, he rightly points out that “We are all egocentric, and what is realest to each of us, in the end, is oneself.” (p. 92).  And he poses the key question:  “Well then, if this ‘I’ thing is causing everything that a creature does, if the ‘I’ thing is responsible for the creature’s decisions and plans and actions and movements, then surely this ‘I’ thing must at least exist.  How could it be so all-powerful and yet not exist?” (p. 97).  This is the key to his definition of a “strange” loop:  “Is there, then, any genuine strange loop – a paradoxical structure that nonetheless undeniably belongs to the world we live in – or are so-called strange loops always just illusions that merely graze paradox, always just fantasies that merely flirt with paradox, always just bewitching bubbles that inevitably pop when approached too closely?” (p. 103).  He promptly answers “Fortunately, there do exist strange loops that are not illusions.  I say ‘fortunately’ because the thesis of this book is that we ourselves – not our bodies, but our selves – are strange loops, and so if all strange loops were illusions, then we would all be illusions, and that would be a great shame.  So it’s fortunate that some strange loops exist in the real world.”  And he goes on “The quintessential example of this phenomenon, in fact, was only discovered in 1930 by Kurt Gödel …” (p. 104).  Later, “I’m reminded again that the name Gödel contains the word ‘God’ – and who knows what further mysteries are lurking in the two dots on top?” (p. 172).


Hofstadter explores the consequences of these ideas.  A line in a fictional dialog struck me:  “Just as we need our eyes in order to see, we need our ‘I’s in order to be!” (p. 295).  He concludes with “And this is our central quandary.  Either we believe in a nonmaterial soul that lives outside the laws of physics, which amounts to a nonscientific belief in magic, or we reject that idea, in which case the eternally beckoning question ‘What could ever make a mere physical pattern be me?’ – the question that philosopher David Chalmers nicknamed ‘The Hard Problem’ – seems just as far from having an answer today (or, for that matter, at any time in the future) as it was many centuries ago.”  I too used to think the only alternative to materialism was magic, but that now seems sophomoric to me, and I’m sorry Hofstadter hasn’t gotten beyond it.  And I think he too readily dismisses the great progress made by the discovery of quantum mechanical uncertainty and mathematical incompleteness after centuries of philosophical meandering, but that’s another story – ask me at Star.


Relating to the IRAS Emergence theme, I think Hofstadter is saying that there is only weak emergence, but it is incomprehensibly complex.  To comprehend ourselves, we must work with "soft" concepts which appear as "strong" emergence.  But this seems paradoxical to me -- if the weakly emergent theory of our mind is true, then we are merely a complex arrangement of particles and no one is really there to bring in concepts or to comprehend anything.  Strong emergence seems to be necessary to even discuss such a theory of mind, but where does it come from?  How can it emerge from the reductionist straitjacket of weak emergence?  Hofstadter's use of smoke and mirrors imagery [in GEB] suggests that whatever reality we have emerges by a partially obscure (smoky) process of compounded self-reference (mirroring).  Nontheistic thinkers see emergence as a way to get "something more from nothing but."  I am skeptical of nothing butters (no more butter cutters on Star Island!), and I see more smoke and mirrors than enlightenment. 


I don't just intend smoke and mirrors as a pejorative, recalling the words of St. Paul "For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.  When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.  For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.  So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love."


Daniel Johnson



P.S.  I too like the first person style, and if you’re interested I have a personal narrative of my trip in July 2008 to Star Island and onward, at  Somewhat related, I’m presenting a workshop on “What’s Emerged from … Years of Science and Religion Discussion in Houston, Texas” at 4pm on Thursday 31st in Newton Front.