The Quantifiable Lightness of Being


Is one life more important than another? According to author Douglas Hofstadter, it depends on who you ask. In his book, I am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter attempts to philosophically solve this question by suggesting that all living beings have a soul. According to his theory, certain beings, have less of a soul than others, because they have less of a recognition of being alive than other beings. He quantifies the theory through a series of ratings that leads to a scoring of that living being’s soul. He uses the term “light count” to describe this recognition that we’ll call Hofstadters. This term is the over-arching term he uses to describe the quantifiable power of the soul.

LoopDouglas Hofstadter provides the reader what he calls a personal “consciousness cone” that he believes describes the level of consciousness a being has of its own existence. He uses the adult human as an indicator, and he gives them 100 Hofstadters, because the adult human has the greatest recognition of his and her own life. The dog has 80 Hofstadters, the rabbit has 60, the chicken has 50, the mosquito has 30, and the atom has zero Hofstadters. Hofstadter lists the atom at the bottom, as a result of the fact that the atom has the least recognition of its own life, and the least sense of consciousness than any other life form. He does not explain, however, how he can quantify the characteristics of the rabbit higher than the chicken, or why he rates the bee over the mosquito. The reader might have numerous opinions on this, such as the bee accomplishing more necessary tasks, and a resulting honing of instincts, but the consciousness cone seems rather arbitrary in places.

The Hostadters given to adult humans are more relative than any other being however, for the adult human has more ability to increase their soul’s light count, and damage it, than any other being. Some humans, Hofstadter writes, can achieve a score higher than 100 Hofstadters, depending on how much meaning they bring to the definition of life, and the manner in which they change the definition of life for the better for others. Jesus of Nazareth and Mahatma Gandhi could be said to be two people who changed the definition many people have of life for the better, and they would achieve more than 100 on Hofstadter’s scale. Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung, on the other hand, diminished the value of life for many, and in general, through their mass slaughter. They will spend the rest of their after-life rectifying the damage they did to life on Earth, and as a result they could be given a score less than one hundred, and presumably less than zero, based on their number of violations against the value of life. 

If Hofstadter kept his scoring process broad in this manner, we might not have a problem with it in the micro, but like most modern philosophers he can’t help but bring modern politics into the discussion. He begins by begging the reader to understand that the term “the soul” he will refer to in future passages, is not “the soul” most normally associated with religion. This distinction is made, presumably, to allow Hofstadter to keep a foot in the collegial halls of academe he achieved with his first book. Hofstadter suggests that his version of the soul is more of a sense of consciousness, a lightness of being, a sense of self, and a sense of consciousness about their life. In Hofstadter’s definition of a soul, the dog has a soul, and that soul is more powerful than the mosquito’s, because the dog has more of a sense of its own life than a mosquito does, but it does not have the sense of life, or philosophy, that the adult human does.

Next, Hofstadter suggests that those adult humans who would kill a man, via Capital Punishment, have less of a soul than those who abhor such activity. This is particularly the case, suggests Hofstadter, if the death row inmate is screaming for his life in the “dead man walking” trip to the gas chamber. So, if the “dead man walking” goes quietly, with lowered eyebrows, dark lighting, and a scary soundtrack, the people leading him to the gas chamber presumably have less to worry in their accumulation of Hofstadters in their light count. One would think that Hofstadter would be point blank in his scale that if you take a life, with malice and forethought, you owe something to the general definition of the value of life that cannot be recovered, and you are destined to a less than zero existence, but for Hofstadter emotion, and remorse, appear to assist in giving that soul a greater “light count” than the unapologetic. The latter half of this paragraph involves interpretation for Hofstadter makes no specific distinction between the two, except to say that the henchmen involved in the death sentence are the ones who suffer by scale. The reader is also left to wonder if Hofstadter might be influenced by the theatrical drama some movies bring to the dead man walking scenario.

Hofstadter then suggests that a two-year-old child has less of a light count than a twenty-year-old, since that twenty-year-old has had more time to build the Hofstadters in their light count, but he writes that he does not tread lightly on the life of a two-year-old since we must recognize the potential that the two-year-old has of building Hofstadters throughout the course of their life versus the mosquito’s limited capacity to build them. The natural progression the reader might make is that the human embryo has an equal potential for building light count, but Hofstadter states that the human embryo has no sense of its own life. He does not however discuss the word potential in the natural manner one would assume he would in conjunction with his statement that the two-year-old, but he equates the human embryo with the atom on the non-entity scale, aside the atom. Hofstadter does not explain the discrepancy. The only conclusion the reader can make is that if Hofstadter has an explanation it is either nakedly hypocritical or inconvenient to his politics. 

There is also no discussion of the potential diminished Hofstadters an aborting mother may incur as a result of deciding to abort this potential light source, as in Hofstadter’s view it is not a potential light source. This is a non-issue in Hofstadter’s narrative. With capital punishment Hofstadter draws disparities between those that would lead a screaming man to his death versus the ones that lead an unrepentant man to his death, but he doesn’t draw any distinctions between the women who would take the potential life that would be screaming if the woman gave it the chance to become a light source outside the womb, and the woman that allows the innocent, potential light source to live. He states that Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung diminished their Hofstadter’s by taking millions of potential light sources from the Earth, but he does not bother to explain the discrepancy. 

If his inconsistencies were a mere sin of omission, we would have nothing to write about, but Hofstadter dives right into the fray and develops hypocrisies that require analysis for their hypocritical lack of objectivity. He fails to draw such lines of distinction along philosophical parallels, in other words, and he loses points in an objectivity count with these inconsistencies.

Hofstadter does have an interesting, and unique, take on the meaning of life. Most readers will whole-heartedly agree with the general premise he outlines, but when we agree are we helping Hofstadter establish a general level of authority that allows him to make philosophical leaps with which we might otherwise disagree? When he ventures out into the particulars that support this theory, this reader can’t help but think that Hofstadter’s key is less about teaching how to achieve a sense of philosophical purity and more about political proselytizing about what he considers the negligible affects of abortion on one’s soul, the detrimental affects capital punishment can have on the participants, and the detrimental affects eating other animals can have on humans.

Do these same detrimental affects plague the animal kingdom? Hofstadter conveniently fails to list carnivores of the wild in his consciousness cone. He only lists herbivores. This omission allows him to sidestep the argument about the penalties lower life forms (lower than the human), such as lions and tigers and bears, should receive for eating other animals. Do the vegetarian panda bear or koala bear have more Hofstadters than the grizzly bear, because the grizzly prefers to eat fish and deer? Does the grizzly receive an asterisk in this equation, because she is less conscious of the potential light source she is destroying when she eats the deer? Is the human punished on equal level, or do we account for the fact that the human is more cognizant of the potential light source it is destroying, and the the lion, the tiger, and the alligator operate more on instinct? Hofstadter probably knows that any suggestion that meat-eating animals are more evil for eating meat might make his theory appear cartoonish. Hofstadter appears to focus his argument on meat-eating humans to provide himself more virtue among those humans who enjoy eating meat? Is he using his theory to proselytize the virtues of veganism? If not, the omission of tigers, bears, and alligators from his list seems, at the very least, a purposeful omission that Hofstadter cannot square. 

The author informs us that one of the keys to living the compassionate life is defined by placing spiders one finds in his home outside the door, in a gentle, compassionate manner. He does this to celebrate, honor, and respect the idea that lower forms of life have a soul. He implicitly states that you’ll know that you’ve achieved his level of heightened awareness if you’re so overcome by the infinite reserves of compassion in your system if you one day pass out as a result of handing a test gerbil to a research scientist for its use. This revelation informs us, perhaps implicitly, that one of the keys to being wonderful, or accumulating a greater light count, involves not only performing charitable deeds, but publicly declaring them for the publicity one receives for doing so. What’s the point of repeating such incidents, unless you use it to lubricate the reed on your own trumpet? 

Hofstadter’s attempt to toot his own horn is no different than any author in any genre or argument. We all believe we are living a more virtuous life, and we all try to encourage others to see the light. The question is, as always, do our arguments lean objective or subjective? 

Some readers may find Hofstadter’s writing a breath of fresh air, and others may view it nakedly transparent, but if Hofstadter’s purpose is to provide an objective view to import a sense of life, or philosophical view on the value of life, few can deny that his theory is inordinately clouded by his political views. He informs us that he has found resolution to his own conflicts by being so compassionate that he can be overwhelmed beyond his ability to retain consciousness, and that his concern for light counts and souls, both large and small, leads him to being a vegetarian who will not eat those light sources with greater potential for greater placement on his soul scale. He leads us to believe that he is a man in tune with the political variables for resolving conflict, but in the end it is obvious that all of his philosophical peculiarities line up on one specific side of the philosophical aisle, and that he cannot see the inconsistencies that arise from it. 

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