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From Publishers Weekly
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
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.
- Publication Date : August 1, 2007
- File Size : 3239 KB
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print Length : 440 pages
- Publisher : Basic Books (August 1, 2007)
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- Language: : English
- ASIN : B004PYDBS0
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- Enhanced Typesetting : Enabled
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- Best Sellers Rank: #98,297 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
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Besides Godel, the author's other insight comes from the loopy-like nature of recursive entities like infinite halls of mirrors or what happens when you point a television camera at the screen displaying what that camera is viewing. We all have seen these, and from these two things, Hofstadter assembles a theory of mind based on the idea that whatever goes on in the brain at the low and mid physical levels results in some sort of abstractions (perhaps manifested in harmonic oscillations of electromagnetic energy) that from another perspective, are the very stuff of consciousness.
There is nothing particularly new about this. Rejecting religion or other basis for any sort of dualism (and his remarks are rather disparaging in this respect) and declaring oneself a physicalist (there is nothing more than physics) is par for the course and occasionally swatting straw-man arguments to the contrary, is all part of the contemporary game for most of today's philosophers and scientists. Besides religion he mentions David Chalmers who was, apparently, a student of Hofstadter's in his doctoral days and rejects Chalmer's non-religious panpsychism (and along with this presumably Davidson's "dual aspect" monism as well) which is fine as far as it goes.
Hofstadter's theory is somatic. Mind arises from what goes on physically in the brain and nothing more. The problem is he never gets to connect up the subjective with anything that can, even in theory, be measured by third parties. This is not to criticize him alone here, no other physicalists (or for that matter panpsychists) manage to do it either, but in this case the author jumps from the neurological layer to the concept of self-referencing abstraction (presupposing consciousness) without pointing to anything in between that might connect the two.
After declaring his theory "explained", Hofstadter moves on to considerations of how one strange loop-abstraction, the one that fools me into the illusion of a stable "I", is influenced and modified by others. He is much impressed by Derek Parfit's thought experiments [supposedly] demonstrating that what we take to be the un-copyable core of ourselves, is nothing but effervescent illusion and can in fact be copied. Moreover, though we cannot copy it today (and may never be able to do that in reality) we can, from our own interiority, find ourselves being partial expressions of other people, their strange loops!
He supposes that our own personal-identities form slowly as we proceed from infant to child based on all the various influences that impinge on us from the world as these come to influence new effects in our own minds. The totality of all this over time results in a relatively stable, but not changeless, personal identity. He moves on from there to suppose that those we hold and know particularly closely (our parents, wives, children, siblings, etc) can cause their own identities to be partly duplicated in our own minds. None of this really makes sense. Of course someone with whom we are close for many years will have a proportionally larger influence over the shape of our phenomenal arena. What he doesn't seem to appreciate is that this influence takes the same pathways (our interpretation of sensory experience for example) as the initial early development of our own personality. There isn't any loop in my brain that is a copy (however imperfect) of my wife or children's identity, only modifications of my own that represent them.
There is much here and I do not doubt that writing "I am a Strange Loop" was a labor of love in more ways than one. It is, as with other somatic theories, even possible that oscillating fields in the brain have a lot to do with consciousness and personal identity. There are still reasons to believe that this is not the whole story.
Top reviews from other countries
As well as repeating his arguments about Gödel's theorem, Hofstadter uses this book to discuss his theory of self, "I", or consciousness, which he treats as synonyms. The title of the book says that consciousness is tied to self-representation, the level-breaking recursion that happens in the proof of Gödel's theorem. It's a nice theory, but Hofstadter leaves it as a tantalising possibility, rather than giving any detail.
Indeed, when you start to think seriously about Hofstadter's theory, it falls to pieces. If I were to build a computer that had an internal representation of itself, a "strange loop", would that make the computer conscious? Even if the computer had no sense of pleasure or pain, in fact no sensations at all, and no knowledge of other computers or people or individuals of any kind? Surely a strange loop is not a sufficient condition for consciousness. Or what about an infant human without the mental ability to represent itself. Is it conscious? Surely it is, unless you have hit it on the head with a blunt instrument. So a strange loop is not a necessary condition for consciousness.
If you want to read a far more disciplined analysis of consciousness, I can strongly recommend the works of Hofstadter's friends, David Chalmers and (especially) Daniel Dennett. Or try Thomas Metzinger.
Sorry Hofstadter, you must try harder. But please do, you are a genius, and it is a waste to fritter away your talent writing books like this.
His pages on the death of his wife. I was brought to tears and to deepen the already deepest bonds I have with my friends.