Author addresses self-perception

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The Saint Louis University Philosophy Club hosted Douglas Hofstadter, the Pulitzer-prize winning author and renowned academic on Sept. 20. He started his talk on being a ‘strange loop’ by commenting on how bacteria perceives.

“[Bacteria] sorts the world in to two things, directions I want to go and directions I dont,” Hofstadter said.

Building up from the most basic level of perception, a binary form, he considered the perception of a mosquito, stating that they have certain likes in that there are places they land to get nourishment, and they are more likely to bite some people than others.

He moved on to the perception of his dog.

“I don’t think my dog… is thinking about solutions to equations of general relativity,” Hofstadter said, jokingly. However, he said dogs can form a vocabulary, which is an important part of higher intelligence. From there he embarked on the core of his discussion by considering how what one perceives the most affects what has the deepest vocabulary, using as an analogy the false but common saying about Eskimos having 50 words for snow.

“We have more categories for what we experience most,” he said. He then contended that what we as humans perceive the most is ourselves.

As an example he talked about how people with severe mental disorders like her sister are often instantly recognizable in a photograph.

“[Abnormal people] seem to have no awareness of what they look like nor any interest,” he said. “They have no interest in internalizing styles.” He posited that human’s are naturally inclined to notice other people’s mannerisms, and that this was in many ways unique to the species and important for our sense of ‘I’.

He gave the example of a moment he remembered from first grade.

At show and tell he showed his ability to mimic his friends signature smile. For Hofstadter, the ability to compare oneself to another and to alter ones image or thoughts accordingly is a necessary part of the concept of self-perception.

“Perception is deciding what box something goes in by using analogy to prior experience or what is programmed into us by evolution,” Hofstadter said. In this respect humans sort their experience of themselves into certain bins, he argued. As we continue to gather information about ourselves through our experiences, our self-perception develops weight and depth, which he called an “emergent effect.”

“The perception we build up of ourselves has to do with certain properties,” Hofstadter said. “[Our] perception of who we are becomes a very real thing.”

However, he posited that who we are wasn’t entirely within our control.

“[I’ve] never been comfortable with the term ‘free will,’” he said. “ I’m comfortable with will… To call it free is a massive delusion.”

He stated that while we like to attribute causality to our will, it is a series of physical and chemical interactions that drives what happens in the physical world.

“Real causality happens at the microscopic level,” he said.

Here he reached the crux of his term “strange loop.” For Hofstadter, while we perceive the world around us in addition to our own sense of hunger and emotion, we don’t have knowledge of how the neurons in our brain are firing or what functions are occurring in our kidneys.

“The nominal ignorance [the self] has about itself… that’s the strange part,” he said.