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2 Degrees of Self-Reference - Talking about talking about talking
Feb 2, 2005, 1:13a

One thing I've noticed lately is that people can generally handle up to two degrees of self-reference on a specific topic:

No self-reference: The topic on its own (e.g. "Talking")
1st-degree self-reference: Reference the topic (e.g. Talk about "talking")
2nd-degree self-reference: Reference to the reference (e.g. We can talk about how people behave when they talk about "talking")

That's enough to make the head spin, eh?

Most human brains seem to have little difficulty understanding a single self-reference, also known as the "meta-level" (e.g. thinking about thinking). They have quite a bit more difficulty grasping a second self-reference (e.g. thinking about thinking about thinking), though it is possible after some thought (pun intentional). However, any more levels of self-reference leave the mind twisting in it's own twists.

The question is, why is that? Why can most human minds only handle a maximum of 2 levels of self-reference? Could it have something to do with human consciousness? If we're able to dive deeper into self-reference, does the truth about existence and reality become clearer? I don't have any good answers to these questions.

A similar pattern of 2nd-degree self-reference occurs in computer science, though anything of greater self-reference is very uncommon:
1) The object (e.g. a data structure)
2) A pointer to the object
3) A pointer to the pointer to the object (also known as a handle)

In a way, though, this discussion is a 3rd-degree of self-reference (a discussion that discusses discussing discussing), and the cycle can continue infinitely. I guess the real question is whether each additional level of self-reference introduces new information. No new information seems to exist when discussing self-references beyond the 2nd-degree.

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