Persons, Selves, Souls, and Loops

Week of: 
January 20, 2008
What is it: 

Can a self, a consciousness, an "I" arise out of mere matter? If it cannot, then how can you or I be here? And if it can, how does THAT work? These and other questions of identity are central to I Am A Strange Loop, the latest book by Indiana University Philosopher Douglas Hofstadter, author of the acclaimed Godel, Escher, Bach. He joins John and Ken for a probing discussion of the self, the soul, and the strange loop that binds them.

Listening Notes: 

John and Ken begin by creating a sense of puzzlement about what it means to be a person and have a self. Ken says that "person" doesn't mean "human". John agrees, giving the example of Donald Duck. They discuss the idea that being a person involves having self-knowledge.

The guest, Douglas Hofstadter, talks about the puzzling fact that we think of the brain operating according to the fundamental laws of physics, but such explanations seem incompatible with our every day explanations of the world in terms of personalities, senses of humor, etc.
John asks how real is the self. Hofstadter says that it is a very very useful fiction, a necessary short cut. He points out that even talk of hurricanes does not take place in terms of the most basic laws of physics, but still we think of hurricanes as being real. He says that selves are "abstract patterns" that exist at the same level of reality as hurricanes.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (seek to 5:14): Polly Stryker speaks with Psychiatrist Sophia Vinogradov of the University of California San Francisco, who says that our sense of self is build up over the years from memories and various associations. It feels like the same self exists over time even though our molecular constitution changes. Dr. Vinogradov also discusses split-brain experiments, in which two people seem to be housed in one body.

Douglas Hofstadter, Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Comparative Literature, Indiana University Bloomington

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