I was reading Hofstadter’s latest book, I am a Strange Loop, and encountered some rather provocative statements. Hofstadter is one of the only authors that I’ve read that is not afraid of explaining in great detail why materialism is both necessary and sufficient for all the complexity of human life.

This quote starts out on page 289 in Chapter 20: A Courteous Crossing of Words. The characters in the dialog were labelled “Strange Loop #641”, the viewpoint of the book, and “Strange Loop #642”, a skeptic. I’ve renamed them.

Searle: Ouch. Now just listen for a moment. My question is very straightforward. Anybody can understand it (except maybe you). Why am I in this brain? Why didn’t I wind up in your brain, for instance?
Hofstadter: Because your “I” was not an a priori well-defined thing that was predestined to jump, full-fledged and sharp, into some just-created empty physical vessel at some particular instant. Nor did your “I” suddenly spring into existence, wholly unanticipated but in full bloom. Rather, your “I” was the slowly emerging outcome of a million unpredictable events that befell a particular body and the brain housed in it. Your “I” is the self-reinforcing structure that gradually came to exist not only in that brain, but thanks to that brain. It couldn’t have come to exist in this brain, because this brain went through different experiences that led to a different human being.
Searle: But why couldn’t I have had those experiences as easily as you?
Hofstadter: Careful now! each “I” is defined as a result of its experiences, and not vice versa! To think the reverse is a very tempting, seductive trap to fall into. You keep on revealing your tacit assumption that any “I”, despite having grown up inside one particular brain, isn’t deeply rooted in that brain — that the same “I” could just as easily have grown up in a band been attached to any other brain; that there is no deeper connection between a given “I” and a given brain than the connection betweer an give canary and a given cage. You can’t just swap them arbitrarily.
Searle: You’re still missing my point. Instead of asking why I ended up in this brain, I’m asking why I started out in that random brain, and not in some other one. There’s no reason that it had to be that one.
Hofstadter: No, you’re the one who’s missing the point. The key point, uncomfortable for you though it will be, is that no one started out in that brain — no one at all. It was just as uninhabited as a swinging rope or whirlpool. But unlike those physical systems, it could perceive and evolve in sophistication, and so, as weeks, months, and years passed, there gradually came to be someone in there. But that personal identity didn’t suddenly appear full-blown; rather it slowly coalesced and came into focus, like a cloud in the sky or a condensation on a windowpane.
Searle: But who was that person destined to be? Why couldn’t it have been someone else?
Hofstadter: I’m coming to that. What slowly came to pervade that brain was a complicated set of mental tendencies and verbal habits that are now insistently repeating this question, “Why am I here and not there?” As you may notice, this brain here (mine, that is) doesn’t make its mouth ask that question over and over again. My brain is very different from your brain.
Searle: Are you telling me that it doesn’t make sense to ask the question, “Why am I here and not there?”
Hofstadter: Yes, I’m saying that, among other things. What makes all of this so counterintuitive — verging on the incomprehensible, at times — is that your brain (like mine, like everyone’s) has told itself a million times a self-reinforcing story whose central player is called “I”, and one of the most crucial aspects of this “I”, an aspect that is truly a sine qua non for “I”-ness, is that it fluently flits into other brains, at least partially. Out of intimacy, out of empathy, out of friendship, and out of relatedness (as well as for other reasons), your brain’s “I” continually makes darting little forays into other brains, seeing things to some extent from their point of view, and thus convincing itself that it could easily be housed in them. And then, quite naturally, it starts wondering why it isn’t housed in them.
Searle: Well, of course it would ask itself that. What more natural thing to wonder about?
Hofstadter: And one piece of the answer is that to a small extent, your “I” is housed in other brains. Yes, your “I” is housed a little bit in my frustratingly dense and pigheaded brain, and vice versa. But despite that blurry spillover that turns the strict city-limits version of You into Greater Metropolitan You, your “I” is still very localized. Your “I” is certainly not uniformly spread out among all the brains on the surface of the earth — no more so than the great metropolitan sprawl of Mexico City possesses suburbs in Madagascar! But there is another piece of the answer to your question “Why am I here and not there?”, and it is going to trouble you. It is that your “I” isn’t housed anywhere.
Searle: Come again? This doesn’t sound like your usual line.
Hofstadter: Well, it’s just another way of looking at these things. Earlier, I described your “I” as a self-reinforcing structure and a self-reinforcing story, but now I’ll risk annoying you by calling it a self-reinforcing myth.
Searle: A myth?! I’m certainly not a myth, and I’m here to tell you so.
Hofstadter: Hold your horses for a moment. Think of the illusion of the solid marble in the box of envelopes. Were I to insist that that box of envelopes had a genuine marble in it, you’d say that I had fallen hook, line, and sinker for a tactile illusion, wouldn’t you?
Searle: I would indeed, although the feeling that something solid is in there is not an illusion.
Hofstadter: Agreed. So my claim is that your brain (like mine and like everyone else’s) has, out of absolute necessity, invented something it calls and “I”, but that thing is as real (or rather, as unreal) as is that “marble” in that box of envelopes. In that sense, your brain has tricked itself. The “I” — yours, mine, everyone’s — is a tremendously effective illusion. and falling for it has fantastic survival value. Our “I”‘s are self-reinforcing illusions that are an inevitable by-product of strange loops, which are themselves an inevitable by-product of symbol-possessing brains that guide bodies through the dangerous straits and treacherous waters of life.

And there you have it. None of our selves really exists. Well we do exist, but that existence is a software symbol running on the hardware of our brains. We are neither incorporeal spirit nor materialistic bodies. Children and retards aren’t as human as adults, and are therefore subject to different laws; There isn’t an afterlife when the body dies, because the mental patterns cease; We have internal conflict, because the self is a symbol just the same as all the others in your brain; Multiple personalities can inhabit the same hardware just as virtual machines contain different operating systems; Consciousness is the sublimely subtle dance of memes; It explains the inherent difficulty of sharing the qualia of experience with another being.

And thus Hofstadter reveals the lies we tell ourselves. But it won’t be prooven until we successfully build a fully-fledged artificial intelligence using this concept of cognition; and even then people will doubt because the self-reinforcing myth is more compelling than objective reality.