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Book Review: I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter

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Douglas Hofstadter is a larger-than-life academic researcher who manages to combine a thirst for beautiful forms with the most penetrating theoretical insights, whether it is in mathematics, music, linguistics, philosophy, or the visual arts. He is a Professor of Cognitive Sciences but also has an involvement in Philosophy, Comparative Literature, Psychology…

No surprise then that he gravitates to the most fundamental overlapping problems, the notion of the self, the I, the problems of volition, perception, mind, and consciousness. These problems are notoriously difficult to understand because we are the object of our own study. They involve thinking deeply about perception and its mechanisms, about symbols in our brains and how they might affect our actions, about how we can conceive of our mind as being separate from the reality we are part of, and about how all of this can develop in a human being.

But Hofstadter is no typical academic author. Instead of writing a theoretical tome, he has written a highly entertaining and challenging book using a mixture of descriptions, anecdotes, dialogues, photographs and visual illustrations, and weaves in fundamental arguments in philosophy, mathematics, neuroscience, language, and a host of other areas. Because he relies on many concrete examples and illustrations, the reader does not need expertise in any of these subjects and the work, though challenging, is very accessible.

Hofstadter draws on the work of Kurt Gödel, an Austrian mathematician and logician, who in 1931 showed that a consistent arithmetic based on axioms can contain true propositions that can't be proved by those axioms alone. That seemingly yawn-inducing result was so significant that it changed the way we think about mathematics and logic forever. Gödel was describing a mechanism of self-reference.

But there's a problem with self-reference — infinite regress. So, for example, if you think about yourself thinking about yourself thinking about yourself… there's no end point. Gödel though, showed it was possible to provide a self-referential process which didn't have that problem of infinite regress. He did it by turning theorems about numbers into numbers themselves, but we don't need to go into the abstruse details.

Hofstadter shows how the brain is just such a self-referential system. A neural network that is self-referential need not be subject to an infinite regress. That means that it can learn, it can create, it can derive new meanings. Even based on determinate rules, it can generate meanings which are new.

We are all aware of how we use analogy to explain something, or how we look at something differently when we see how similar it is to something else. These new meanings are possible precisely because our self-referential brains can make these new associations. We are not locked in a closed system, our brains are not limited by the fact that they are self-referential and in fact, have their remarkable powers precisely because of it.

Our brains then create and maintain networks of symbols to represent the world and ourselves in it. For each object, we maintain a network of associated symbols — one of which is the symbol for I, the self. But as we interact in the world, that symbol is in constant flux, being modified by our perceptions, our own actions, our own self-awareness. That's what Hofstadter means by the strange loop.

He suggests a video feedback analogy. Suppose a video camera is pointed at a screen and an event takes place in the field of view. Because of the time delay between the camera and screen, a strange whorl image eventually becomes stable. We get a unique image just as our strange loop gives us a unique image of the I. There is an important difference though. The camera does not involve any perception, and the strange loop crucially involves perception, abstraction, and categorisation. We perceive ourselves "in a highly subjective manner through the active processes of categorising, mental replaying, reflecting, comparing, counterfactualising and judging."

In this way Hofstadter gives us a thoroughly grounded materialist explanation of how our perception of self arises, how we perceive ourselves as being something apart from our bodies, something able to direct our bodies. The consequence of this strange loop that constitutes the I is that it feels as if it is some immaterial essence doing the directing.

Hofstadter uses this very powerful explanation to illustrate an enormous range of human experience, including our interaction with other people, how we construct our symbols for others, and how our sense of identity changes, but he also takes on some of the arguments in the philosophy of mind. There is a particularly entrenched idea that each perception has some ineffable primordial essence, that which "it is like to perceive" something, which academic philosophers call "qualia". Hofstader deals with this notion in masterly fashion in an entertaining dialogue between two strange loop characters, exploring its contradictions and sheer redundancy.

Maybe the most interesting part of the book is right towards the end when Hofstadter discusses how we know other people. By creating in our own brains the symbols which represent others, we have within us, part of them. Just as they have a symbol for themselves, we too maintain a symbol for them, and we can explore how they would feel by interacting with those symbols, and that's an explanation for empathy. In the same way, even when they have died, they live on to some extent in us.

This is a remarkably rich book which will change the way you think about your mind, your self, your I, your perception of people, and if you get a copy, you'll be dipping into it over and over again.

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About Bob Lloyd

  • yuri

    This is an amazing book… Discovering what is going on in our mind? was hofstadter question..and after years of work He can help us to understand ourselves..