Sunday, July 20, 2008

Soul Size

I’m reading Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop. Hofstadter teaches cognitive science (the science of thought – its origins and operations) at Indiana University. Strange Loop is an update and enlargement of his earlier book, Gödel, Escher, Bach. In both books Hofstadter explores the relationship between the self (what he calls “the ‘I’”) and the physiology of the brain. Simply put, his thesis is that what starts out as a purely physiological phenomenon involving brain biology and chemistry morphs into something that cannot be fully explained solely on the basis of physical matter; namely, a consciousness emerges that is, paradoxically and at one and the same time, both a product of the matter and master of it. That is, I Am a Strange Loop.

He’s a good writer. Even though he’s talking about a very complex subject that only the specialist can fully comprehend, Hofstadter grabs your attention and holds it with homey illustrations and punchy prose.

But what captured my attention in the book was Hofstadter’s distinction between “soul sizes.” He asserts that there are “big souls” and “little souls” all up the chain of life (from mosquito to man), and that value is (and should be) attached to souls relative to their size. His assertion is both provocative and problematic. For example, he argues that he has no compunction about swatting mosquitoes but, conversely, has become a vegetarian due to his “soul size calculus.” Moreover, on the same grounds ostensibly he asserts that he does not have a problem with aborting a five-month old fetus in deference to the mother because, on his consciousness calculus and criteria, the five-month old fetus does not have a fully developed “soul.” I find that strange.

That said, I do find his distinction between “big souls” and “little souls” to be intriguing. When C. S. Lewis once said that this world is the place for the growing up of souls, he was saying something of the same thing; namely, that souls (self, consciousness, “I” – call it what you will) have “work” to do, and that some souls do that work better than others and, consequently, have become (are becoming) either “big souls” or “little souls.” I think I’ve met some…of both kinds!

Reminds me of something Forrest Carter wrote in The Education of Little Tree. In the story, a little boy goes to live with his grandparents. His Grandma is a Cherokee and gives him a Cherokee name – Little Tree. She teaches him about life from her unique perspective. One day, in an impromptu lecture on “soul sizes,” she tells him that people have two minds – one for “body living” (animalistic impulses) and one for “spirit living” (the higher functions of “human”). She tells Little Tree: If you only use your body mind and think greedy or mean; if you are always cuttin’ at folks with it and figuring how to material profit off’n them…then you’ll shrink up your spirit mind to a size no bigger’n a hickor’nut. She goes on: When your body dies, your body mind dies with it; only the spirit mind lives on. And if you’ve thought all your life with only your body mind, there you’d be, stuck with a hickor’nut spirit.

Intriguing, isn’t it. I’d like to explore this more fully with you, but I’ve got to go exercise…my soul.

*The use of the image above to illustrate the article discussing the book in question qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

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