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I Am a Strange Loopby Douglas R. Hofstadter
Synopses & Reviews
Douglas R. Hofstadter's long-awaited return to the themes of Gödel, Escher, Bach — an original and controversial view of the nature of consciousness and identity.
What do we mean when we say "I"?
Can thought arise out of matter? Can a self, a soul, a consciousness, an "I" arise out of mere matter? If it cannot, then how can you or I be here?
I Am a Strange Loop argues that the key to understanding selves and consciousness is the "strange loop" — a special kind of abstract feedback loop inhabiting our brains. Deep down, a human brain is a chaotic seething soup of particles, on a higher level it is a jungle of neurons, and on a yet higher level it is a network of abstractions that we call "symbols." The most central and complex symbol in your brain or mine is the one we both call "I." The "I" is the nexus in our brain where the levels feed back into each other and flip causality upside down, with symbols seeming to have free will and to have gained the paradoxical ability to push particles around, rather than the reverse.
For each human being, this "I" seems to be the realest thing in the world. But how can such a mysterious abstraction be real — or is our "I" merely a convenient fiction? Does an "I" exert genuine power over the particles in our brain, or is it helplessly pushed around by the all-powerful laws of physics?
These are the mysteries tackled in I Am a Strange Loop, Douglas R. Hofstadter's first book-length journey into philosophy since Gödel, Escher, Bach. Compulsively readable and endlessly thought-provoking, this is the book Hofstadter's many readers have long been waiting for.
"Hofstadter — who won a Pulitzer for his 1979 book, Gdel, 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.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"OK, 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... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) and physicist, Rene 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 'Godel, 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 Godel'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 Godel'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 Godel 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 Godel 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. Peter D. Kramer is the author of 'Against Depression' and, most recently, 'Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind.'" Reviewed by Julie PowellJonathan YardleyDarrin M. McMahonAnthony CudaPeter D. Kramer, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"I Am a Strange Loop is vintage Hofstadter: earnest, deep, overflowing with ideas....It may not make us kinder or more compassionate, but we will never look at the world, inside or out, in the same way again." Los Angeles Times
"Hofstadter's analysis will not convince all skeptics. But even skeptics will appreciate the way he forces us to think deeper thoughts about thought." Booklist
"[Hofstadter] conveys abstract, complicated ideas in a relaxed, conversational manner..." Library Journal
"Doesn't quite add up to a unified theory of anything." Kirkus Reviews
Douglas R. Hofstadter's long-awaited return to the themes of Godel, Escher, Bach - an original and controversial view of the nature of consciousness and identity.
About the Author
Douglas R. Hofstadter is College Professor of Cognitive Science and Computer Science at Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. His previous books are the Pulitzer Prize winning Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Metamagical Themas, The Mind's I, Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies, Le Ton Beau de Marot, and Eugene Onegin.
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