Delights of self-reference


Photo by Shane Willis

A key element of any definition of consciousness is the ability to view itself as an object in the external world. It arises when the system becomes sufficiently sophisticated to see parallels between itself and others.

Douglas Hofstadter is obsessed with all things self-referential. He rose to fame thanks to his 1979 Pulitzer-winning treatise Gödel, Escher, Bach, in which he draws parallels in music, math, and art and pays particular interest to the seemingly absurd and baroque idiosyncrasies of constructs that apply to themselves. As soon as self-reference is introduced, wild things happen and opportunities for complexity and emergence surge. Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems shook the very foundations of mathematics when theorems were applied to themselves leading to paradoxes.

In his 2007 book I am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter conjectures that consciousness and our sense of I is another example of a strange effect of a perception system turned onto itself. The book is replete with delightful examples of feedback phenomena in language, mathematics, logic, electric circuits, and human relationships. The book is mostly playful conjecture when it comes to the nature of consciousness, but it points to what we should be looking for when defining and discussing consciousness.

I enjoyed some of the short example of self-reference that lead to intellectually puzzling and humorous effects. Here are some found on page 62:

  • If the meanings of “true” and “false” where switched, this sentence would be false.
  • I am going two-level with you.
  • This analogy is like lifting yourself up by your own bootstraps.
  • If wishes were horses, the antecedent clause in this conditional sentence would be true.

I would like to add the following fun constructs that draw on self-reference for their humorous effect:

  • There are two categories of people: those who believe that people can be divided into two categories and those who don’t.
  • Reality has a well known liberal bias. -Stephen Colbert (To see the recursive nature of this statement, first, define bias.)
  • Referring to the fact that people missing the cerebellum often function quite normally: The best known description of the cerebellum’s function is to compensate for its own absence.



2 Responses to “Delights of self-reference”

  1. db Says:

    i thought you read this a long time ago? What got you thinking about this againg

  2. Dimitri Says:

    yes, i read it last year when it first came out. Just thinking more about consciousness as I have been studying the functional organization of the neocortex. I am also interested in better understanding the origins of the popular notions about consciousness.

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