Self-Reference – Paradox or Profundity

Scott Virden Anderson Blog

The case I want to outline here is simply that self-reference creates paradox – a kind of “double-bind” in the mind – and that only by going beyond the mind do you get profundity.

In math and logic, Bertrand Russel discovered in 1901 the fundamental self-referential paradox in “naive set theory” that led eventually to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems of 1931.

Much has been made since of Gödel’s finding in many different fields – some perhaps more appropriately than others.

Incidentally, only published posthumously, Gödel’s Ontological Proof (of the existence of God) suggests that at least some of Gödel’s tremendous popularity within the counter-culture might have been founded in his own esotericist inclinations (see here for more on this.)

In theoretical physics, perhaps the last of the great 20th Century physicists, John Wheeler, explored the possible relevance of self-reference to fundamental issues in various forms.

For example, his “law without law” states that “the ultimate principle of physics cannot be a ‘law’ of physics.”

Wheeler also delved deeply into the “problem of the observer” that lies at the heart of Quantum Mechanics.

Based on his exploration, he proposed the participatory principle:

“According to it we could not even imagine a universe that did not somewhere and for some stretch of time contain observers because the very building materials of the universe are these acts of observer-participancy. You wouldn’t have the stuff out of which to build the universe otherwise. This participatory principle takes for its foundation the absolutely central point of the quantum: no elementary phenomenon is a phenomenon until it is an observed (or registered) phenomenon.”

When I consider this principle with regard to my own experience in this very moment, I am reminded of a quote I saved years ago from a Deepak Chopra calender of quotations – the page for 2/16/96 (not attributed):

“Don’t we live in the same objective world?” a disciple once queried his guru. “Yes,” his master replied, “but you see yourself in the world, I see the world in myself.  This minor perecptual shift makes all the difference between freedom and bondage.”

In another of his major contributions – the Wheeler-DeWitt formulation of the quantum wave equation – one in which time plays no role – Wheeler provided the basis for what I feel is the key to a scientific understanding of profundity: that time is not fundamental.

I explored these issues in my PSESM paper and presentations for ISSSEEM earlier this year.

Another prominent explorer of self-reference is the polymath Douglas Hofstadter – author of the 1979 book that put Gödel on the map for the counter-culture (or at least for its digerati wing), Gödel, Escher, Bach.

I consider his most recent book, I Am a Strange Loop, another “finger pointing at the moon” of the possibility of profundity in self-contemplation.

It is here, when the self begins to contemplate itself, as in Yoga and meditation, that self-reference can lead most directly to profundity – the profundity of going beyond the mind with its hall-of-mirrors dichotomies and paradoxes.

In the next installment in this series, I’ll come back to how I think this all applies to Kuhn’s “paradigm of paradigms.”