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Vintage and Original Hofstadter
on March 31, 2007
You have certainly enjoyed the sensation of looking into a mirror that itself reflected a mirror, making a tunnel of reflections that went as deep as you could see. The same sort of thing happens when you take a television camera and turn it onto a monitor that is showing what the television camera is taking a picture of. But there is something spooky about such a loop. In fact, when young Doug Hofstadter's family was looking to purchase its first video camera, Hofstadter (showing in youth the sort of interest in self-reference that he would turn into a writing career) wondered what would happen if he showed the camera a monitor that itself showed the camera's own output. He remembers with some shame that he was hesitant to close the loop, as if he were crossing into forbidden territory. So he asked the salesman for permission to do so. "No, no, _no_!" came the reply from the salesman, who obviously shared the same fears, "Don't do _that_ - you'll break the camera." And young Hofstadter, unsure of himself, refrained from the experiment. Afterwards he thought about it on the drive home, and could see no danger to the system, and of course he tried it when they got home. And he tried it again many times; video feedback is one of the themes in Hofstadter's monumental and delightful _Gödel, Escher, Bach_ (known by millions as GEB) from 1979, and it comes back for further discussion (with more advanced hardware) in Hofstadter's new _I Am a Strange Loop_ (Basic Books). As in his other books, Hofstadter has written a deeply personal work, even though he is taking on the eternal philosophical bogey of consciousness, and has written once again with a smoothness and a sense of fun that will entrance even casual readers with no particular interest in philosophy or consciousness or mathematics into deep and rewarding thought.
Hofstadter's theme here is consciousness, or "I" or (and he shuns religious connections to the word) the soul. Humans have consciousness. Dogs seem to have some ability to understand what other dogs (and humans) are feeling, some way of representing themselves and others within their own brains. Goldfish, well that's pretty iffy. Mosquitoes have no capacity for self-knowledge. And go further down that scale. How about the neuron itself? Is there any consciousness there? After all, mosquito neurons aren't really much different from human ones, they are just more numerous and tangled in humans. Further down: DNA molecules - conscious or not? Further: carbon atoms - wait a minute, there's not even the possibility that an inanimate atom could have consciousness. Thus the great paradox, looked at repeatedly from different viewpoints here: inanimate matter, properly organized, yields consciousness. We take it all for granted, but it is all profoundly puzzling. Every human brain working at the symbol level (but very much dependent on neural and chemical foundations) "perceives its very own 'I' as a pusher and a mover, never entertaining for a moment the idea that its star player might merely be a useful shorthand standing for a myriad infinitesimal entities and the invisible chemical transactions taking place among them." The "I" is an illusion, an effective one that has great survival value for its possessors. This could be dense stuff, but Hofstadter's analogies are brilliant, as are many of his puns; he reminds us, "Just as we need our eyes in order to _see_, we need our "I"'s in order to _be_!" Hofstadter is fun to read.
Hofstadter's last book, _Le Ton beau de Marot_, was a long meditation on language and translation, and contained many reflections about his wife Carol, who sadly and suddenly died of a brain tumor in 1993 before she was 43. Carol reappears many times in the current work; it is clear that she and Hofstadter had an unusually deep and affectionate marriage, "one individual with two bodies". He is able to write movingly of what he has learned from the loss, how Carol's mind, her "Carolness" or "Carol-consciousness" has been incorporated into his own "I". He isn't Carol, and carries only an imperfect copy of Carol's soul within his own soul, but he shows how her strange loop has been incorporated into his, and just how strong and loving such an incorporation must be. It is a deeply humanistic vision of empathy, the sort of generous personal insight that shows that though souls might be merely the product of atoms and neurons interacting, might be merely illusory, they can still be grand and fully empathetic. Hofstadter has written another book to increase our wonder over the workings of our wonderworking brains.