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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
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.)
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This is of course exactly what happened with Hofstadter's 1979 tour-de-force "Godel, Escher and Bach"; it was roundly praised to the heavens by scores of reviewers, none of whom seemed to notice that it was in fact a very clever way of presenting a theory of conciousness and intelligence. This bothered Hofstadter as well, as he tells us in the introduction to "I Am a Strange Loop", and so he set out to tell the story again, this time in a more straightforward manner. I'm not so sure he succeeded.
The bulk of "I Am a Strange Loop" is devoted to explaining Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, with a minimum of math and a lot of allegory and allusion. Much of it seems repetitious, and all of it is, I think, wasted, as the end product of all this attmepted explanation seems to be simply one more metaphor- that what's going on in the brain/mind is something very much like what's going on in Godel's theory: That a theory, or a formula, or a sentance, or a "thing," can contain within it a complete representation of itself. Hofstadter calls this a "strange loop", and believes that, combined with input from outside that adds to this (and other) loops is the wellspring from which consciousness springs.
I first heard this notion expressed in the following manner (although I don't recall who wrote it): Every living thing has in it some representition of the outside world. A plant has in some sense a representation of the sun, that allows it to bend towards it. A bacterium moving along a gradient of nutrients contains within it a representation of this source of nutrition. A bee has representations of hive, flower, sun, and other concepts that guide it goal-seeking behavcior. And so on, up the evolutionary line. When that representation become complete and complex enough to include itself, that is the birth of consciousness. This is not a particularly original notion, although when Hofstadter wrote GEB back in the 70s it wasn't a particularly widely held idea in psychology. At the same time, it was't a completely alien idea, either.
In the last few chapters Hofstadter toys with some more or less current ideas in the philosophy of mind, like Chalmer's "zombie", and presents us with a few more allegories and clever tales, none of which, I think, end up clarifying this position terribly well. One is left with the feeling that Hofstadter has a very strong intuitive sense of how conciousness evolves from these strange loops of self-representation, and what's he's struggling to do is to let us share his intuitions. I find that I share some of these intuitions with him, particualrly with his notions of where the self is represented, and representations of others alongside the self, and I think there's a germ of some powerful explanation hiding in there, but I can't seem to provide any more illumination than can Hofstadter.
And that in turn reminds me of something I was told at the beginning of my teaching career: If you can't explain something clearly and simply to another person, then you don't fully undertsand it. I think that's where Hofstadter is with respect to consciousness: He has a lot of intutions and parallels he can pull out, but in the end, he doesn't really have a theory of conciousness.
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.