Revitalizing “The Soul”

I don’t know about you, but my “Soul” could sure use some revitalizing! I have felt rather exhausted, not so much physically, but mentally and “spiritually.” It is not that I am depressed, just worn out; beleaguered by a world in which too much has gone wrong recently. I am looking for some hope once again, and maybe that is all that it is, Feeling Rather Hopeless.

Memories of the Sky, Poem of the Soul by Louis Janmot, 1831. What a beautiful title, and an evocative rendering of it.

British psychologist and philosopher, Nicholas Humphrey, has offered some help in the form of two books: A History of the Mind (1992) and Soul Dust (2011). Metaphysical Hope, we might call it. True, both books are rather old, but still good, and each about 200 pages long. Nice that Humphrey, in writing a history, has respect for our time and forbearance. I hope to follow his example.

A “Soul”? Surely it is farfetched to think that this ancient and regrettably ongoing superstition has any modern beneficial use. Could it possibly accurately help describe our Human Condition? Could it help me shake these blues?

I will go out on a limb, with Humphrey, and suggest that it does. “Soul” has helped return some sparkle to my outlook. This rehabilitation is based (somewhat) in the belief that we humans often ‘know’ or ‘sense’ more than we realize about these “deep,” philosophical and religious issues. The turn of the 19th century German philosopher, Hegel, certainly thought so. He argued that mythology and traditional religion were a dim and eerie form of what an accurate philosophy of the world would look like. Humphrey contends something similar, that philosophical thought and awareness is natural to human beings, at least in some rudimentary forms.


Our New Soul

So, Humphrey attempts to revitalize this familiar concept in a rather straightforward way. Of course he jettisons the idea of the soul’s immortality and its immaterial character, but hangs on to what may be the true point of these, the Soul’s Transcendent Character.

The soul is the self, initially “a core self” and then eventually “the Ego” which is a larger and more complex self built from the core. Any self must transcend. It most last from moment to moment, day to day, year to year. It must transcend time, not totally as if godlike, but definitely forming a fairly durable duration. Also, it must transcend space and particular events and bodily faculties. The self is a unifier, an integrator in time and space. “I” have a toe, and the pain in it is equally its pain and mine. I see red, and that sensation is equally an activity at the surface of my retina, various events in my brain, and in general an experience of mine.

This general transcendental character of the self, and especially its supposed immaterial character, is demystified by Humphrey by postulating a Neurological Loop and a progressive sequence of development in it.

But if a Self is a “Soul” why not just stick with “Self”, why up the rhetoric to soul?

Surely some magic must be added, and that is where Quality and diverse qualities enter the story. Humphrey contends that about 300 million years ago, our reptilian ancestors —predecessors to all birds and mammals— evolved a Brain complex enough to “have” Phenomenal Experiences. In other words, it was “like something” to them (these creatures) to be them and to live their life. If they were damaged, they now felt pain, that is what damage was for them. They now experienced color, for example; or even enjoyed the taste of a juicy insect just devoured. Red was no longer just an electromagnetic wavelength responded to, but an experience of redness and also a behavioral response. Food was no longer just a biochemical necessity and a series of biochemical reactions but an activity “savored,” a satiation “appreciated,” a “craving” mitigated. That is what it was “like to them.” It was a new situation for any “thing,” at least in our section of the universe.

An “interiority” was now introduced, contends Humphrey! It was the dawning of not only “selves” and “souls” but also “Minds.” A kind of “interior theater” was established where not only the events that happened to a thing were recorded but they were interpreted and represented as something to me or for me. Qualities “appear” in the world. Perspective was created, and with that a variety of perspectives appeared. There is no perspective without differences of perspective.

Neurologically, the perception of the soul’s or self’s continuity and transcendence is naturalistically understood as an ongoing looping event occurring among the neurons in the brain. “Specialized neural circuits” exist and were selected by nature for their form as shown above. A flowing and continuous reverberation in the brain that takes time and potentially builds on itself. One that thickens and quickens at some points, but also relaxes, slows and thins at others. A loop and series of loops that may possibly offer in physical terms a kind of diagram for what an ongoing self may look like in brain activity, and what self-reflection may be based in. These kinds of self-reflective, varying but continuous events, can be mathematically described; they are called “discrete delay differential attractors.”

Humphrey admits that, in some ways, these neurological contentions are highly speculative and unusual. In effect, he is suggesting a neurological hypothesis based on its logical form, a logical form that has characteristics that seem to resemble the “shape” that consciousness and self-consciousness could take physically to be what it seems to us to be phenomenally. This is unusual, the logic of the problem of consciousness is leading the search for physical, neural, patterns.

In the above diagrams, let us say a sensation has occurred and is recorded in one small section of the brain, some small set of neurons. Its significance is ‘judged’ by the ongoing reaction of neurons around it. If it is a significant sensation, the initial pattern of responding neurons will be repeated and expand into larger sets of neurons that still maintain some of the basic pattern. Somewhat like the flower of a plant, a side-shoot of this activity may split off and ignite a repetition of that pattern in different parts of the brain. All eventually echoing back, returning to the initial sensation, as if a determination of its character and judgment of its significance. In a less significant experience, far less activity would occur but it would still maintain the above continuous, flowing and recursive character.


But the magic continues and escalates when a final observation is added. The self is better described as a soul when its absolute uniqueness is recognized. At no other point in all of history — past or future — will the same perspective exist that is The Basis of You. What the world seems like to you, who you seem like to yourself, seems to us to be a complete and irreplaceable creation. Not immortal in its physical existence, but immortal in its uniqueness. It is comparable to other Souls, but incomparable to them in strict identity. A Soul is a world-historically unique collection of Seemings and observations of Seemings themselves. Each is a perspective all its own. “The self comes into being at the moment it has the power to reflect itself,” writes Douglas Hofstadter. This self-reflective loop is what we have come to highly value.

This Unique Approach

This approach was pioneered years ago by Artificial Intelligence researcher Douglas Hofstadter and philosopher Dan Dennett. They co-authored a successful book called The Mind’s I in 1982. Previous to that, Hofstadter wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning and NYTimes Bestseller, Godel, Escher, Bach in 1979. Each book features the new insight that a self, and any “product of Mind,” has a looping, continuously self-referential but varying character.

Godel: Mathematics Turns in on Itself

Mathematician and logician.

In about 1930, Kurt Godel (pronounced with a long “o” and short “e” and equal emphasis on each sylable) proved that self-reference was impossible to avoid in any theory of the basis of mathematics. In response to Bertrand Russell’s and Alfred N. Whitehead’s voluminous Principia Mathematica, which tried to show math as built up from the bottom based on self-evident principles in a kind of pyramid form. Godel proved that all theories of math’s foundations could not have this form but contained Self-Referential Statements. They seemed to ‘hold themselves up by their own bootstraps,’ we could say.

Yes, self- reference or self-reflection is a strange kind of thing. It often leads to paradox. Hofstadter contends Godel’s work was an application to math of linguistic puzzles such as the statement “I am lying.” How are we to take this? Standing alone, and on its face value, it cannot be either True or False! Or, how do we take this pair of statements? “The following sentence is false. The preceding sentence is true.” They are “Strange Loops” that throw us out beyond them in search for further Context, or indicate to us a closed and circular form that is both logical and paradoxical.


M. C. Escher: Reality as if Turning in Upon Itself

Hand with Reflecting Sphere, 1935


Drawing Hands, 1948

A Dutch graphic artist working in the early to mid 20th century, labored in obscurity until he was almost 70 years old. His works are an exploration of the concepts of infinity, symmetry, reflection, perspective, and tessellation, says Wikipedia. Hofstadter values them as powerful portrayals of the effect of Self-Reflection. Each is a demonstration of a Strangely Looping Process.

(Print Gallery, 1956, lithograph. Said to be one of Escher’s own favorite works. The ‘dead spot’ in the middle of it is Escher’s signature. In 2003 several Dutch mathematicians contended they had “solved” the puzzle of the void. If the work is taken to be drawn on an “elliptic curve over the field of complex numbers” (whatever that means), the void disappears with a continuation of the drawing.)

Hofstadter contends Print Gallery displays three kinds of “inclusion.” The seaside town is “in” the picture being viewed by the boy, the boy and the picture are pictured “in” Escher’s work, and the entire idea of it is “in” Escher’s mind as represented by the void.

Bach: Bouncing a Theme Back Upon Itself in Many Different Ways

Hofstadter uses Bach’s piece A Musical Offering and its historical context as the background for his final example of Reflection, Variation, Recursion, and Self-Enclosure as displayed in his book’s title, Godel, Escher, Bach. I can barely begin a description of this piece’s musical character, but I will try. In the end, I will present a simple example of this musical form that will make sense to all, as it did finally for me.

(Flute Concert in Sanssouci, by A. von Menzel, 1852. The flutist is Frederick the Great of Prussia. Frederick was known as a military strategist but also as one of European history’s most acclaimed patrons of the arts. In 1747, he was finally paid a surprise visit by the now acclaimed eldest Bach, Johann Sebastian. The evening’s program was cancelled and replaced with pieces by Bach and improvisations involving the king. A Musical Offering grew from that, and was later presented to the king in his honor.)

A Musical Offering is a Fugue involving six parts! Reportedly even a four part fugue is difficult and a five part is rare; Bach himself only accomplished several of these in his collection The Well-Tempered Clavier. In a Fugue, each part, or ‘voice’, has a distinct melody to play, but all melodies are craftily designed to fit with each other as all are played at some points simultaneously. In this sense, each note of each part has multiple roles to play; it has its primary role in its own part, but secondary roles in relation to all the additional voices. A Fugue is an intricate work, like a finely woven tapestry.

A Canon is the simplest kind of Fugue, explains Hofstadter, and the simplest kind of Cannon is The Round. We all should be familiar with singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat as a round. That is the simplest Cannon, a variety of voices sing the same song over against and in contrast to itself. It creates a delightful effect.

Here is another noted Round, Frere Jacques. Thanks to the Missoula Valley Youth Choir!

Hostadter’s point is, in all these cases, Nature and Human Nature has ‘twined’ and intertwined itself about itself, and Reflected back itself, in ways that has set a foundation for more complex phenomena to appear to occur at what is called Higher Levels. New Things Happen, based on The Foundations of The Old. Hofstadter: “a higher-level view of a system may contain explanatory power which is absent on the lower level.” Like music, like art, like ethics, like science, all happen at levels beyond the microscopic. Its a more interesting life at this “chunkier” level!

A popular Canon— Pachelbel’s Canon, in two contrasting voices.
Drawing by Marty.

Stay Safe, Stay Connected. The


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