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I Am a Strange Loop Paperback – July 8, 2008
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, March 2007: Pulitzer-Prize winner Douglas Hofstadter takes on some weighty and wonderful questions in I Am a Strange Loop--among them, the "size" of a soul and the vagaries of thought--and proposes persuasive answers that surprised me both with their simplicity and their sense of optimism: a rare combination to be found in a book that tackles the mysteries of the brain. This long-awaited book is a must-have for avid science readers and navel-gazers. --Anne Bartholomew
"(I am a Strange Loop) pulls off some remarkable achievements. For example, in a matter of 40 readable and even enjoyable pages, Hofstadter manages to explain Kurt Godel's incompleteness theorem in a way I have a never seen attempted before... he whisks us away to tangle with ever more layers of paradox and wonderfully mind-wrenching questions... (A) pacy mix of stories, metaphors, questions and explanations..." Nature "(A) brilliant American prof called Douglas Hofstadter has just written a book (about consciousness) that may point us in the right direction. And if I spend the next 700 words raving incoherently about it, that's because it is the most gripping 400 pages I've read in years..." The Times "In this pleasant and intriguing book, Douglas R Hofstadter returns to the themes of his 1979 bestseller Godel, Escher, Bach, ostensibly focusing on the nature of selfhood and consciousness. Hofstadter is a supremely skilful master of an educational alchemy that can, at the turn of a page, transform the most abstract and complex of thoughts into a digestible idea that is both fun and interesting. Times Higher Education Supplement Almost thirty years after the publication of his well-loved Godel, Escher, Bach, Hofstadter revisits some of the same themes. The purpose of the new book is to make inroads into the nexus of self, self-awareness and consciousness by examining self-referential structures in areas as diverse as art and mathematics. Hofstadter is the man for the job. His treatment of issues is approachable and personal, you might even say subjective. His discussion is never over technical and his prose never over-bearing. He stays close to the surface of real life at all times, even as he discusses matters of the highest level of abstraction, and his book is full of fresh and rich real-life examples that give texture and authenticity to the discussion." TLS If you enjoy such brain-bending questions and are willing to struggle with some deep mathematical ideas along the way, then you'll certainly enjoy this book... (I)f this book works its magic on you, you will no longer want to ask "why am I inside this body and not a different one?" Because you'll know what it means to be just a strange loop." BBC Focus Magazine "Nearly thirty years after his best-selling book Godel, Escher, Bach, cognitive scientist and polymath Douglas Hofstadter has returned to his extraordinary theory of self." New Scientist"
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Hofstadter must really hate mosquitos.
The problem with this premise though is that the mind itself is an illusion, as it does not possess any tangible properties. Thanks to this ontological constraint, our languages and descriptions also are wont to be imprecise. Hofstadter points out that this "twisting back of language" leads to a loss in logical correctitude. (Ironically, the plethora of autobiographical elements in this book itself - while endearing in some places - exemplifies this imprecision by contributing to the looseness of the narrative.)
I came to this book after reading "The Mind's I", which Hofstadter had co-authored with Daniel Dennett. I quite enjoyed reading that book - and had also heard a fair bit about Hofstadter's earlier book, "Godel, Escher and Bach", although I still haven't read it - and expected this one to be at least on par with "The Mind's I". But this book lacks the concision and intellectual rigour of the other one. I suspect there could be a few reasons for this: one is that Dennett perhaps had more editorial control over the other book. This suspicion is based on the fact that Dennett explained similar views - and a number of other concepts - a lot more succinctly and logically in his later work, "Consciousness Explained". Dennett presents also fairly reasoned arguments against Cartesian duality and the homunculus in the brain. (You do not have to agree with the materialist viewpoint. Nevertheless, Dennett's interpretation is well-argued.) In this book, however, while it is clear that Hofstadter is trying his hardest to deny the separation between mind and matter and other allied Cartesian themes, he does not appear to present any well-constructed and clear arguments for this denial. He instead spends considerable time describing Godel's top-down view of the mathematical theorem in Russell's Principia Mathematica as an illustration of how we are constrained by evolution to think of events at a macro level rather than at the level of particles and neurones and hence end up creating a world that may not be wholly correct. (James Gleick, on the contrary, explains Godel's work much more concisely and lucidly in his "The Information".)
It appears as if the publishers may have for some reason given Hofstadter unfettered reign over this book's content. Hofstadter's analogies neologisms and logic puzzles are initially very stimulating intellectually and the sweep of his imagination is at times admirable. However, these devices tend to wear thin as the narrative progresses because they become repetitive and overwhelming. In a number of places, the writing appears to be excessively verbose and even garrulous. (For instance, he gives not less than twelve examples to explain the idea that things do not go as planned.)
In summary, this book would have turned out a lot better if it had (a) a dispassionate no-nonsense editor ready to weed out the chaff, (b) arguments with more focus on the central themes and (c) less unfettered flights of imagination.
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Great insight and smoothly readable.