A cascade of colliding ideas

Of late, I’ve been reading I am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter. I am really enjoying this book – it may end up on that short list of books that change the way I look at the world. (I’ll have to post that list here at some point.)

The book is about human consciousness, about what makes up the “I” that we all feel in our heads. Hofstadter’s view is that the “I” is a special kind of feedback loop – that consciousness occurs when a logical system becomes complex enough to represent and reflect on itself in symbolic form. He ties this to the mathematical work of Kurt Godel (some of the most interesting math out there) and to feedback loops of the sort that you get when you turn a television camera to view the television that shows what the camera is “seeing.” Truly fascinating stuff.

On the way home tonight, I was listening to Radiolab. This is a public radio show and podcast about science, and I strongly recommend it. This week’s episode is titled “Yellow Fluff and Other Curiosities” and is about the nature of scientific discovery. In one part of the episode the hosts interview Paul Davies, director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at the University of Arizona. Davies is examining the question of why we are here – why human beings exist. His view is that human beings exist because we provide a mechanism whereby the universe can perceive itself, that because perception comes only from intelligence, the universe found it necessary to form intelligent life as the means by which it can consider itself. (Rather conveniently for him, this means that the highest purpose in life is to study the universe, for in doing so you are fulfilling the universe’s purpose.)

And the final piece of the puzzle: my view of the purpose of human life. Meaning and purpose are purely subjective constructs. They do not exist in the objective world – they only exist in human minds. Therefore, the universe itself would have no meaning, no purpose, were it not for humanity. If you think that meaning and purpose are important, as I do (though recognizing that “importance” is itself a subjective construct), then the fact that meaning and purpose only exist within human minds is the most important possible purpose of human life. (There’s clearly a lot more than just that. I hope to post more on this at some point.)

As I was listening to the Davies interview today, all of these ideas came colliding together. Suppose Hofstadter is right, and consciousness is a special kind of feedback loop that can understand itself. But if Davies is right, then what we are really considering is not only our selves, but the universe. And, of course, we are part of the universe. So the universe itself is a feedback loop that understands itself, but it does so by using us as its mind.

Break it down a little further. When you think of yourself, do you think only of your mind? Or do you think of your mind and body? I suggest that most people think of their mind and body. But if that’s the case, and if Hofstadter is right in his view of consciousness, then only part of your self (that part that you call your mind) contains the consciousness of the whole.

So apply that to the universe. Our minds are the part of the universe that contain its consciousness. Therefore, we are in a true sense the mind of the universe. And, of course, that ties in with my own views of the meaning of life, because meaning exists only in the mind, and therefore the meaning of the universe exists in its mind, which is our minds.

I’m sure all of this seems fairly confusing. I’m lost in a swirl about this myself. (I literally felt my flesh tingle on hearing the Davies interview as all of this started coming together in my mind, and it isn’t all together yet.) I could only babble about it to Julie at dinner as I ate a rather excellent chicken marsala that she made. And I’m not at all sure where all this is taking me.

But I can’t wait to get there.

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