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I Am a Strange Loop

I Am a Strange Loop

Douglas R. Hofstadter


Douglas Hofstadter (always referred to parenthetically as "author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid"), returns to the subject of consciousness and identity for a book that has the feel of a swan song. Part philosophical treatise and part autobiography, he explores how the feeling of "I-ness" emerge from physical processes that underlie the brain. As with GEB, he still has a telling line in analogies and discourses that really light-up hi explanations.

I'm somewhat at a loss to try to sum up a book like this, but here goes:

Animal minds have evolved to filter the huge volume of sense data that they receive from their environments and distil it a smaller range of concepts. Humans are unusual in that their concept maps can be indefinitely extended as new concepts are discovered and linked together. Uniquely (or, perhaps, almost uniquely), humans have been able to develop concepts referring to concept formation itself, thereby having their conceptual system feed-back to explore and influence its own processes. It is this "strange loop" – the ability to perceive, influence, and conceptualise the ability to perceive , influence, and conceptualise – that gives rise to the "I", the feeling that there is an observer observing the processes of thought as well as the world "outside". It's a pattern emerging from a symbolic representational system that's sufficiently complex to represent itself symbolically.

This being Hofstadter, he relates these ideas back to Gödel's use of self-description within the number system to argue that such hierarchies of meaning and manipulation are commonplace, and indeed inevitable in systems that are sufficiently representationally rich. It's an unusual argument for a philosopher of mind to be able to make. But he scores some telling points: my favourite is when he examines the concepts firing in the reader's mind when he mentions reading a Jane Austin novel, and shows that several parallel interpretations and contexts can be activated simultaneously. It's a strange concept to have a writer write directly about what's happening inside your (the reader's) head as you read their words!

This further being Hofstadter, he explores the consequences of his models thoroughly, of of which is the notion that one person's strange loop can live inside another's mind, albeit at a greatly reduced resolution. He runs-down and makes more scientific the common notion that the dead live on in our memories: literally true, at low resolution, in Hofstadter's formulation. (Frank Herbert's The Dosadi Experiment sprang to my mind immediately.) He uses to explain funeral rituals, and to explore the sense that one speaks (and thinks) differently when talking to different people, because parts of your model of them become activated by their presence, making it literally the case that different symbols are being used in discussing the same concepts with different people, even without their direct input.

All in all, an interesting read and one that will hopefully inspire neuroscientists and psychologists to the same extent that GEB spoke to mathematicians and computer scientists.

4/5. Finished 24 October 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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