On Santa Claus and Hofstadter’s Souls

“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”
Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ear even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.
“Of course it is happening inside you head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

—J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows




Source: Chloe Blanchfield, flic.kr/p/9AZChS

Whatever else Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop might be, in its sixteenth chapter, “Grappling with the Deepest Mystery,” it becomes something like a spiritual memoire.

Strange Loop is Hofstadter’s attempt to explain human consciousness and personal identity through many elaborate analogies, the most pertinent being Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, showing that the mathematical language in Bertrand Russel and Albert Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica was capable of making self-referential statements despite the authors’ best attempts to prevent that from happening. His thesis is that human consciousness—or personal identity or what he calls a “soul”—is a self-referential pattern. A representational system that is capable of perception and categorization (in Hofstadter’s view, perception necessarily involves categorization) should be capable of perceiving and categorizing itself, and perceiving itself perceiving itself, and so on, and this self-perception will get “sucked into the [feedback] loop and cycle around and around, like a tree limb picked up by a tornado.” In other words, a soul is a pattern of thoughts that refers to itself, updating its model of itself as time goes by.

A consequence of Hofstadter’s view of the self—a consequence I happen to find convincing—is that a human brain contains more than one soul. Specifically, because I have representational models in my mind of everyone I know, I have a fragment of their pattern in my brain; if a person is their pattern, then in a very real, literal sense they inhabit my brain. His privileged example for this is a married couple, specifically he and his now-deceased wife Carol (content warning: in many cases Hofstadter seems flippant about serious mental disorders, in this case postpartum depression):

…Our oneness-in-twoness started to emerge clearly in my mind on several occasions during the first year of our marriage, right after we’d had several friends over for a dinner party and everyone had finally left and Carol and I started cleaning up together. We would carry the plates into the kitchen and then stand together at the sink, washing, rinsing, and drying, going over the whole evening together to the extent that we could replay it in our joint mind, laughing with delight at the spontaneous wit and re-savoring the unexpected interactions, commenting on who seemed happy and who seemed glum – and what was most striking in these post partyum decompressions was that the two of us almost always agreed with each other down the line. Something, some thing, was coming into being that was made out of both of us.

Hofstadter also quotes Francine Klagsbrun in Married People: Staying Together in the Age of Divorce, where she writes, “I believe that a therapist should be neutral and impartial toward the partners, the two patients in the marriage, but that there is no breach of ethics in being biased toward the third patient, the marriage.” And so Chapter 16, “Grappling with the Deepest Mystery,” covers his reflections after Carol’s death but her continued life in him, her continued existence in the minds of the people who knew her. Since, for Hofstadter, a person really is a pattern, and since Carol pattern really is expressed in his brain, Carol really does exist in his brain, though in a reduced, less accurate form.1 It is sometimes said that a marriage fuses too people together; in various forms of Christianity, a married couple become “one flesh.” For Hofstadter, this is true, very literally true.

Of course, marriage is not the only relationship; it is not the only close relationship. While Hofstadter writes extensively about marriage, there are many situations in which a person would leak into another person’s brain. Any prolonged engagement which allows you to know a person allows you to download their pattern to your brain and, perhaps, upload your pattern to theirs. Spending time reading or listening to someone’s work is an excellent example:

This talk of someone “being” someone else reminds me of a Linguistics Department Christmas party back in the late 1970’s, when Carol’s and my old friend Tom Ernst did a marvelous imitation of his professor John Goldsmith (also a friend), with so many echt mannerisms of John’s. It was uncanny to me to watch Tom “put on” and “take off” John’s style – and in so doing, putting John on and making a fine taking-off of him.

If this is something that interests you, I highly recommend Chapters 14-16 of Strange Loop, which deal with this at much greater length. What I need you to take away is simple enough: according to Hofstadter (and I am inclined to agree) people’s souls are distributed across many brains (and other representational media—photographs, videos, writing…), while all or most people carry around fragments of many souls in their brains—the souls of their spouses, friends, teachers, enemies…

So I think I’d like to pursue this idea to see where it takes me.



Hofstadter also notes how these additions, these poor photocopies of souls that you pick up and carry around, change who you are. You pick up thoughts, behaviours, attitudes from various people and make them your own. Of course, you do this from the people immediately around you, but also from people long dead: he lists Niels Bohr as an influence on him, and I might list Jorge Luis Borges for myself. Hofstadter also lists Holden Caulfield and Charlie Brown.

If you are unfamiliar with these last individuals, let me introduce them: Holden Caulfield is the teenaged and quite fictional narrator of J. D. Salinger’s novel Catcher in the Rye, while Charlie Brown is the main character (perhaps) and equally fictional child in Charles M. Schulz’s comic Peanuts.

This brings me to a particular thought which, to the best of my recollection, Hofstadter doesn’t quite explore.

Is Holden Caulfield real? Of course there is no person walking about named Holden Caulfield who has the same biography of the narrator in Catcher in the Rye, but if some part of the pattern of my father is replicated in my brain and so he continues to exist, albeit in a much-reduced fashion, in my brain and the brains of others who knew him, then might not Holden Caulfield exist in this same manner?

And let me distinguish clearly between two possibilities: Holden Caulfield might exist as a pattern but not as a person (i.e., it has no strange loop and no consciousness) in the way that the concept saucepan exists in my head, or Holden Caulfield might exist as a pattern and a person, as my father does in my head. Of course which is the case depends very much on the way I recreate the pattern of Holden Caulfield in my head, but I think it is clearly possible that I could recreate Caulfield as a person—by inserting a copy of a strange loop in the middle of the pattern—in the same way that I take the various features of a person I encounter and recreate them by inserting a copy of a strange loop in the middle of my representation of a real person. So, tentatively, I might say that Holden Caulfield (and Charlie Brown, and Albus Dumbledore) exist as people in my head; they are much smaller, weaker, sloppier people than is a flesh-and-blood high-resolution person like myself at the moment of writing, but they are real people in the limited sense we’ve been discussing it.

But even if Holden Caulfield existed but not as a person, that doesn’t mean Holden Caulfield might not be a very important pattern nonetheless; without the slightest self-awareness at all, he might have significant consequences in the world. I do not think ideas like the Roman Empire or the British Empire or the United States of America or, for that matter, Labrador have strange loops in their middles, but they clearly do or did exist as patterns in many brains and motivated many great and many terrible things in those brains.

The specific kind of reality that fictional characters have might explain something I’ve always found ludicrous: authors frequently say that the characters they create do things they didn’t want those characters to do, and then these authors say, “I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true.” Honestly, having had some experience writing fiction myself, I thought it was a pretty stupid claim to make: the characters do not go and do things you didn’t intend, but rather you realized it would not be consistent for them to do anything else based on what you’ve written of them so far. However, perhaps I was wrong: perhaps, in a sense, the characters do refuse to follow plots, insist on going elsewhere, and so on. If the author has embedded a strange loop in their character, well… that character is, in some limited measure, a person living in the head of the author.

(Honestly, I think this would explain a lot about fannish behaviour, headcanons, and so on: a set of readers of books assemble the characters they read in a pattern different than the one in the author’s head, and so they feel like the book is wrong when it is not to their tastes, because the characters have a particularly kind of reality in their minds and the novels begin to deviate from that reality.)



So what else might exist?


Source: Brian Watson, flic.kr/p/7qpzKU

Let’s think about Santa Claus. The pattern for Santa is fairly reliable—more reliable, probably, than the patterns various people have made of me. The pattern for Santa is also widespread (though less widespread than you might think; is Father Christmas really quite the same thing, I wonder?). And this pattern for Santa seems to be pretty powerful, specifically in that Santa acquires, wraps, and presents presents for good (or at least sufficiently wealthy) boys and girls.

Again, there are two questions: does Santa exist, and is Santa a person? I think based on the above that, if Hofstadter is right about patterns and I am right about reliability and reality, then Santa does exist, at least in this very limited sense we’ve been discussing. I’m not really sure that Santa is a person, however. At least, the Santa that ho-ho-hos in mind head, as far as I can tell, lacks interiority. That laugh is more animatronic than truly merry; at least, it is only a semblance of merriment. I haven’t bothered to install a strange loop in the old elf and I suspect (but no more than that) that most other people haven’t either.

So yes, Virginia, Santa is real… but he’s probably not a person. He’s more like the British Empire.

(What I find especially marvellous is the parallel this has with my childhood thinking. I wrote rather a long time ago, in Internet years, about the various stages my belief in Santa took. When I finally accepted that Santa’s exploits were physically impossible and that “magic,” really, was a cheat, I instead believed that the spirit of Santa inhabited people who exemplified his virtues, causing them to give presents, etc. When I was older yet and such mystical explanations had no force for me, I believed that Santa existed as the collected actions and beliefs of people around Christmas time; I would not have used the phrases social reality or emergent phenomenon, but the idea was there. Now, working with Hofstadter’s ideas, I see I might have been on to something as a child: the custom of Santa, and a shared idea about what Santa does, results in various actions and beliefs which continue to perpetuate that custom. In that sense, the idea of Santa is the spirit of Santa inhabiting those people and causing them to act out his virtues—in very limited, very scripted ways.)



What about Apollo? Does Apollo exist? Did Apollo exist?

I choose Apollo and not, for instance, Poseidon because Apollo is famous for his oracles. At Delphi, the oracle was called the Pythia and as the mouthpiece of Apollo she was said to be infallible. To be honest, I do not know the specifics of a prophecy: was Apollo to be speaking through the oracle, or to the oracle? Was revelation more a case of possession or dictation? Either way, I wonder if, through the Pythia, Apollo was in some way real. Was there a reliable pattern that existed in people’s brains and caused them to make particular choices? Did any instance of this pattern have a strange loop?

I am no believer in Apollo, but in case there are any Hellenistic reconstructionists who might get upset with me, I will try to make a clear distinction between two possibilities:

1) There may be a Mount Olympus that exists independently of its representation in human minds, and on Mount Olympus there may be various gods. Among these gods is Apollo, far-shooting physician, light of the sun. Through the Pythia and his other oracles he interacting with mortals and these mortals created a representation of him in their own minds. Thus there are two senses in which Apollo exists like there are two senses in which I exist: Apollo exists as a god on Mount Olympus and as a pattern in human minds.

2) There is no Mount Olympus that exists independently of its representation in human minds; as Mount Olympus itself (rather than the gods) is rarely and poorly represented in human minds, it can barely be said to exist at all. But the cult at Delphi has been fairly consistent in its representation of Apollo and so there is a fairly reliable Apollo-pattern in people’s minds. Moreover, this pattern acts powerfully through the Pythia, and so Apollo is not only real, but active through his oracle… but this existence, and this activity, is much reduced in scope compared to option 1.

While, in respect to Apollo and the other Olympians, I support option 2, it seems to me that both are consistent with what I’ve written so far.



I encourage you to consider in what ways the following might and might not exist:

  1. demons, devils, and dybbuks
  2. Spider-man
  3. Sharon “Boomer” Valerii
  4. Slenderman
  5. vampires
  6. Moloch
  7. Crumple-Horned Snorkacks
  8. square circles

I suspect that some of these exist more robustly than others. For instance, since I can’t imagine a square circle and I can’t imagine anyone can imagine a square circle, I do not think it has any reliable pattern and therefore I doubt it exists at all.

Feel free to speculate on and mark arguments for the existence or non-existence of the others.

Lest you mistake my relative levity in tone and choice of examples for parody or satire, let me be clear: it strikes me that the groundwork I’ve laid out logically requires that I affirm Santa’s existence to the extent described above. To my knowledge Hofstadter does not go so far, and he also does not agree with my idea of what makes a thing real (he argues that what he calls souls aren’t real, which seems silly to me), but I think combining my definition of “real” with his arguments about strange loops results, necessarily, in various unexpected things being real, in a very limited sense.

  1. A person might worry that Hofstadter is unduly motivated to believe this; after all, he wants to believe his wife still lives. In general, anyone who fears death might be unduly motivated to believe this, since it promises a form of immortality. When I first read Strange Loop, I was skeptical for exactly this reason; it turns out to be a bad reason to be skeptical.

3 thoughts on “On Santa Claus and Hofstadter’s Souls

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