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I Am a Strange Loop by [Douglas R. Hofstadter]
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I Am a Strange Loop Kindle Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 359 ratings

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Hofstadter—who won a Pulitzer for his 1979 book, Gödel, Escher, Bach—blends a surprising array of disciplines and styles in his continuing rumination on the nature of consciousness. Eschewing the study of biological processes as inadequate to the task, he argues that the phenomenon of self-awareness is best explained by an abstract model based on symbols and self-referential "loops," which, as they accumulate experiences, create high-level consciousness. Theories aside, it's impossible not to experience this book as a tender, remarkably personal and poignant effort to understand the death of his wife from cancer in 1993—and to grasp how consciousness mediates our otherwise ineffable relationships. In the end, Hofstadter's view is deeply philosophical rather than scientific. It's hopeful and romantic as well, as his model allows one consciousness to create and maintain within itself true representations of the essence of another. The book is all Hofstadter—part theory, some of it difficult; part affecting memoir; part inventive thought experiment—presented for the most part with an incorrigible playfulness. And whatever readers' reaction to the underlying arguments for this unique view of consciousness, they will find the model provocative and heroically humane. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.

From The Washington Post

Reviewed by Peter D. Kramer

Okay, I think, therefore I am. But who gets to play that game? A newborn? A mosquito? A computer? If my thoughts are elsewhere, am I here or there? When I no longer think as I once did, am I the same person? What composes this "I," molecules or memories?

Questions about the boundaries, location, continuity and constituents of the self stand at the heart of philosophy, but a mathematician and physicist, René Descartes, set the terms of the discussion. Who better to bring us up to date than Douglas Hofstadter? Trained in math and physics, Hofstadter won a 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Gödel, Escher, Bach, a bravura performance linking logic, art and music. He returns now to apply a concept from that book, the strange loop, to the definition of self.

Like consciousness, the strange loop is elusive. When a brilliant author uses one slippery concept to clarify another, the result for the reader can be anxiety. Page after page, we may wonder whether we will reach the limit of our understanding and whether the journey will be worth the effort.

Fortunately, Hofstadter is a gifted raconteur and a master of metaphor. He conjures up a car with a 16-cylinder motor and what the salesman calls Racecar Power®. It's not as if you can get a model that has the engine without the trademark feature. Similarly, Hofstadter writes, "consciousness is not an [added] option" for beings evolved to engage in symbolic thought, recognize patterns, create categories, reason via analogies and wonder about the self. Consciousness is "the upper end of a continuous spectrum of self-perception levels that brains automatically possess as a result of their design."

Hofstadter's strange loop is the feedback loop. Point a video camera at a TV displaying the camera's output, and you will produce a receding corridor of screens. Pixels make up the picture, but our interest is in the image, the tunnel of rectangles. Identity resembles that phenomenon. Never mind the neurons that make up our brain. Our emotions, others' responses and our repeated looks outward to the world and inward to ourselves shape what we call our self. Nor is ours the only loop we contain. We know how our friends see things; our mind houses their perspectives -- it has the formulae for producing their thoughts.

However mechanistic, Hofstadter's account of the self emerges from deep emotion. In 1993, when she was 43, Hofstadter's wife and soul mate, Carol, died suddenly of a brain tumor. Three months into his mourning, Hofstadter initiated a heartfelt correspondence with the philosopher Daniel Dennett. What emerged was Hofstadter's understanding of self as distributed over many minds, a concept that explained how Carol's "personal sense of 'I' " lived on (in "low-resolution fashion") as a "loop" in Hofstadter's consciousness.

I have so far given a superficial account of Hofstadter's position. As his book title indicates, for Hofstadter the self is a strange loop. Strange loops are reflexive and paradoxical, like M.C. Escher's impossible image of right and left hands drawing each other into existence. Hofstadter's example of a real-world strange loop is a key construct in Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorem, published in 1931, a proof that any seemingly comprehensive mathematical system will contain true statements that cannot be proven. The theorem is notoriously indigestible.

How elusive is this strange loop? I was a young math buff. Last year, when Discover magazine surveyed authors about science writing that had influenced them, atop my list was a popularization of Gödel's proof by Ernest Nagel and James Newman -- the same book that inspired Hofstadter in his teens. If I am, for that reason, an ideal audience for the strange loop theory, there's good news and bad. I found Hofstadter's explication of Gödel revelatory. There were implications of the proof that I had never appreciated. But then (here's evidence for discontinuity), I no longer quite understand the proof. Nor, given what I do grasp, am I convinced that the entities Gödel conceived are apt analogues of the self.

This difficulty does surprisingly little to diminish Hofstadter's achievement. Philosophers of mind are divided between those who see consciousness as a special quality (like Racecar Power®) and those who see it as irredeemably physical (like neural networks). Hofstadter points to another level at which self might exist, up among the symbols and patterns -- or rather, to various levels on which self exists simultaneously. His conclusions mesh well with those of psychotherapy. We are not selves first and social creatures later. It's through empathy that we develop a rich sense of self. Nor is the self neatly demarcated. We contain multitudes.

Copyright 2007, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved. --This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.


Product details

  • Publication Date : August 1, 2007
  • File Size : 3239 KB
  • Word Wise : Enabled
  • Print Length : 440 pages
  • Publisher : Basic Books (August 1, 2007)
  • Lending : Not Enabled
  • Language: : English
  • ASIN : B004PYDBS0
  • Text-to-Speech : Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting : Enabled
  • X-Ray : Not Enabled
  • Screen Reader : Supported
  • Customer Reviews:
    4.4 out of 5 stars 359 ratings

Customer reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5
359 global ratings
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Top reviews from other countries

Marcus
2.0 out of 5 stars I am not a strange loop
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on December 19, 2018
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5 people found this helpful
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forcevitale
4.0 out of 5 stars The self as symphony
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on February 2, 2016
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Stan
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on September 25, 2020
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Rev. Andy
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting ideas
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on May 15, 2019
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John Harbord
4.0 out of 5 stars ... that held my attention but it did not seem like the update sequel to GEB [Godel
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on August 19, 2016
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