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I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter

I Am a Strange Loop (2007)

by Douglas Hofstadter

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Once more Douglas tries to convince us that consciousness is merely a complex algorithm(s). Although he fails in this, his readers learn a lot. ( )
  KirkLowery | Mar 4, 2014 |
I have an interesting perspective on this title because the book I read just before it was The New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, a book grounded in Zen Buddhist philosophy. Tolle declares that the Ego (or thinking mind) is the cause of all the poisons of our civilization and the only hope for us as a species is to embrace awareness and presence and escape the thinking mind that feeds our needs for material possessions, success, achievement, domination, and so on. This book is in fact an entire logician’s analysis of what the “Ego” is, which Hofstadter believes is equivalent to the “I,” the Self, the soul, and consciousness itself. In fact Hofstadter believes the Ego is all there is in us. Tolle would probably say…you may be right that the Ego is a strange loop…but so what? It’s poison; cure it! While Tolle occasionally does fall into new-age batshit, overall his analysis was fairly compelling to me. I would also claim that Hofstadter’s equating consciousness, the “I,” and the “Ego” as all one equivalent thing is nothing more than an assertion.

Hofstadter’s essential claim is that the Ego is a strange loop in the mind, and by strange loop he means a feedback loop (or “pattern”) that reflects on itself. Everything in our brain is a symbol, including the symbol of itself. I believe he would say that the Self-symbol is a loop, and the loop is a symbol that is continually reevaluating itself and making slight adjustments to itself. A loop that can observe itself and provide feedback on itself (it’s “self”). We invent this Self-symbol in our minds over our lifetime as it constantly accretes bits of other symbols to it—it provides feedback on itself constantly. I actually agree that this is (possibly) an accurate way to describe much of the Ego. Hofstadter agrees with Buddhism that the Self is an illusion, but he off-handedly says striving to get past the illusion as Buddhism suggests is a pointless, dead-end pursuit.

I did not find that Hofstadter compellingly demonstrates that this strange loop is the entirety of consciousness. Awareness and energy or pure presence seem to be aspects of consciousness which are outside the symbol of the Ego. He tries—but doesn’t succeed in my mind—to dispel that there is something else present. In addition, he seems to confuse our minds symbol of the “I” with what the “I” might really be. The mind is easily fooled after all so, this strange loop might certainly be an illusion. But also there might be something else we can’t sense because we are so easy to fool.

I think one of the key flaws in his argument is that he doesn’t delve deeply enough into the “self-reflexivity” he talks about. Since this “self-reflexivity” is the very point when a self-symbol examines itself then that very point may well be the point of the conscious mind. He essentially claims the self is a formula, and life is in fact mechanistic. There is no free-will because all your brain is doing is weighing pros and cons of various choices and whichever internal symbol gets the most checkmarks wins. The brain is an infinitely extensible, malleable computer processor and there is no “free” in will, only the choosing based on our brains weighing various symbols. He starts out sounding non-deterministic but in the end came out pro-deterministic. Thought=computation. In fact, he hasn’t really thought it all through. For example: can’t our brain re-evaluate a symbol’s value by thinking about it? By examining it internally, we can uncheck old boxes and check new ones. So in fact there is a consideration that occurs, a self-reflective change, an awareness that could be called “free.” It’s only action without analysis which is not free (at least within the framework he has set up.) This “will” to change is perhaps our moment of freedom.

There is something else to this self-reflective loop that Hofstadter doesn’t consider very thoroughly. Godel’s self-reflective mathematical statements are his model for what the Self is, such as “I am unprovable.” The self-reflective quality of Godel’s theories are certainly clever and very brilliant, but where they part ways with the analogy to human consciousness is our ability to change our formula and take a different direction through awareness. Someone actually wrote Godel’s formula, it didn’t burst into existence on its own. The claim that it represents the model for the self is nothing but a claim unbacked by scientific evidence.

One key outcome of Hofstadter’s analysis is that the “pattern” of the Self, or consciousness, can be distributed between people…so that a piece of his deceased wife’s consciousness exists in him because they were so intimate and her pattern lives on in him. But the flaw in this argument is so blatant, I can’t believe he doesn’t acknowledge it. If we grant him the premise that the Self is a symbol in the mind that the mind is constantly reinterpreting—then the symbol of “my dead wife” exists in his mind as a symbol of her but that symbol does not provide feedback to itself or reinterpret itself. So her consciousness is not distributed, merely a symbol of her is in his mind. The key difference being that (by his own definition) the Self is a self-reflexive symbol but my symbol of someone else—no matter how detailed it is, no matter how intimate we were—does not provide feedback to itself.

He gives us another hypothetical case to reinforce this theory. The story of a man who jumps into what is basically a Star Trek teleporter and is then reintegrated on another planet with every memory, thought, inclination, etc. Is it the same person or a new Self? What if the first person accidentally wasn’t disintegrated but survived? Which of the two would be the “real” man? He concludes that they really both are the real man and thus consciousness can be distributed. What this story lacks is an understanding of how a unique point-of-view makes the self what it is. To me the simple answer is: To other people, these two men will appear in every way the same. But to the individual who is teleported, the experience is not continuous. He simply dies in the first place and is not “reborn”. His consciousness will end and some other person identical to him in every way will be reborn, but his point-of-view of the world will be snuffed out. In the second case, the man who wasn’t disintegrated is the real consciousness while the new one is essentially an insta-clone. It’s not the complicated “grey area” puzzle Hofstadter claims. The clone may think it’s the same person as the previous one because it has the same thoughts and memories, but the man who stepped into the teleporter never had another thought. He died and was replaced by a doppelganger that was convinced it was him in every way. Hofstadter’s vision of distributed consciousness is not compelling.

Finally, in his conclusion, Hofstadter tries to bucket all people into two categories (an annoying habit he has): those who believe all things must follow physical laws (which would include those who agree with his theory), and those who believe in Dualism that would declare that there’s magic in that-there brain, a magic soul that gets squirted in at some point. The obvious flaw here is to assume that we have anywhere near a full grasp on what “physical laws” are. Does Quantum Physics “really” reflect what’s going on down there? Or is it just a metaphor for something we don’t understand at all? What about other universes or dimensions in space/time? So, perhaps there is another point to be made that maybe our “self” does follow a physical law that allows it to exist…but we just haven’t found that law yet. Or maybe physical laws are just abstractions and not so “determined” or concrete anyway. And what about the ambiguity and indeterminacy of quantum action itself? Or maybe something completely other is true that we have never even imagined.

Oh, and his weighing of “souls” by their level of consciousness is creepy. As well as his odd philosophy of how love of Bach makes you a bigger soul.

I Am a Strange Loop is overly-wordy and jammed with a few too many analogies and painful puns, but I enjoyed the intellectual challenge. He truly provides no concrete “reasons to believe” only assertions, which are worth pondering if not agreeing with.
( )
  David_David_Katzman | Nov 26, 2013 |
  romsfuulynn | Apr 28, 2013 |
Holy crap. If I could give this more than 5 stars, I would. What a mind-blower. ( )
  MattP225 | Apr 27, 2013 |
My Jan. 2009 review:

This book admittedly starts out slow, as many LT readers have pointed out, so I recommend to start reading on pg. 147, and referring to Index the as needed. For the mathematically inclined, pgs. 125-142 give an amazingly good explanation of Godel's Incompleteness Theorem. But pg. 147 is where the big picture ideas that I cared most about really started to start flowing.

I Am a Strangel Loop is a scientific discussion on the immortality of the soul. Or perhaps it’s a poetic discourse on the physiology of the brain. It floats between a diverse array of ideas that readers will either find fascinating or infuriating. Here's my attempt at a condensed summary of his message:

Our ancestors created stories that placed humans in the middle, in between the animals on one side, and the angels on the other. This picture illustrates our dual nature [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dual_inheritance_theory] our biological needs and impulses and our less fixed, but potentially stronger social nature. Our biological nature is relatively fixed and unchanging, but our social nature, being relatively new on the scene, is currently much more varied and dynamic.

What is our social nature? What exactly do we want from society? (Of course, we want the needs of our biological nature to be satisfied, but that tells us nothing about the ultimate goals and desires of the social part of our being.) While we've learned much about our biological nature (thanks to Darwin and evolutionary theory), our understanding of our social nature is still largely mystical, based largely on the accumulated wisdom passed on through religion and literature.

I Am a Strange Loop takes the first steps toward formulating a well-defined understanding of our social nature.

That's the over-arching purpose of the book. To accomplish this Hofstadter spells out, in grand fashion, a theory of consciousness: what it is and how it develops.

Think of man 10,000 years ago compared to where he is today. It would have taken biological evolution 10,000,000 years to achieve as much progress. Don't think that I'm talking primarily about technology. Although technological innovation has greatly increased the average individual's capacity for self-expression, technology is only a means to an end, not an end itself. Near universal literacy, the ease of travel, and political freedoms have greatly increased the life possibilities for the modern individual. Shakespeare, Muhammad Ali, J.K. Rowling and countless other lives are the shining achievements of our civilization. Humanity's greatest achievement has always been man himself. (`Man' in the gender-neutral sense of the word--couldn't figure out a good gender-neutral way to phrase this sentence.)

What is the source of this relatively rapid progress? What forces are behind this social evolution?

Hofstadter has built a framework for exploring our ever-still-emerging self-consciousness, ultimately the starting point of our social nature, in well-defined terms.

-----Hofstadter's theory of consciousness-----------------------------

A basic definition of `consciousness' is `awareness of one's desires'. Hofstadter believes that our desires ultimately are caused by the interaction of neurons obeying the probabilistic laws of quantum mechanics. The catch is that our consciousness, our "I", by its very nature is required to view things differently. Our "I" automatically sees itself as the cause of desires. "I" decides it wants something (say a peanut butter and jelly sandwich), our bodies move about in certain ways, and often that desire is fulfilled (if we have access to a pantry and a refrigerator at least). The cause and effect relationship couldn't be more obvious! And yet, in Hofstadter's view, that first assumption, that "I" decides what it wants, is basically illusory. "I" automatically views things in terms of higher level symbols, in terms of billiard balls and pressure fronts, rather than particles and molecules. But "I" is no more the cause of our desires than a pressure front determines the behavior of individual air molecules (rather than the other way around). "I" automatically turns causality upside down with regards to itself in the world.

So we are left with the question: Does causality start on the small level or the large level? Does the interaction of particles--particles, electrons, and molecules--determine the behavior of our billiard balls, computers, and pressure systems, as science claims they do? Or is science wrong about causation--does causation ultimately start on the symbolic, large level, the level of billiard balls, pressure systems, and "I"s?

Judging from the fact that I'm trusting the technology of laptops, wireless radio signals, and the internet to communicate this review, it's hard to claim that science is wrong. And Hofstadter, as one would expect form the son of a Nobel prize winning physicist, sees no choice but to choose the scientific, particle level as the ultimate source of causation, and claim that "I"ness is ultimately illusory--an extremely convincing, extremely necessary hallucination.

We are tempted to say: "Well maybe it can be both: maybe for non-conscious objects, like billiard balls and pressure systems, causation starts on the small level, but once consciousness kicks in, it is endowed with a causal ability of its own." But this goes against Hofstadter's whole conception of what consciousness is. Consciousness is not made out of some separate, "specially-endowed" material; it is made out of astoundingly complex patterns of the same particles, neurons, and molecules as everything else.

The last two paragraphs of the book, he says:
Pg. 363 - "In the end, we self-perceiving, self-inventing, locked-in mirages are little miracles of self-reference... Our very nature is such as to prevent us from fully understanding its very nature. Poised midway between the unvisualizable cosmic vastness of curved spacetime and the dubious, shadowy flickerings of charged quanta, we human beings, more like rainbows and mirages than like raindrops or boulders, are unpredictable self-writing poems--vague, metaphorical, ambiguous, and sometimes exceedingly beautiful.
"To see ourselves this way is probably not as comforting as believing in ineffable other-worldly wisps endowed with eternal existence, but it has its compensations. What one gives up on is a childlike sense that things are exactly as they appear, and that our solid-seeming, marble-like `I' is the realest things in the world; what one acquires is an appreciation of how tenuous we are at our cores, and how wildly different we are from what we seem to be. As Kurt Gödel with his unexpected strange loops gave us a deeper and subtler vision of what mathematics is all about, so the strange-loop characterization of our essences gives us a deeper and subtler vision of what it is to be human. And to my mind, the loss is worth the gain."

I won't try to go any further into Hofstadter's explanation of consciousness for now. (It involves a brilliant analogy to a mathematical proof written by Kurt Gödel in 1931. If you're at all mathematically inclined, he gives an excellent, understandable explanation of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, which by itself makes the book worth a look.) But here are some of Hofstadter's more interesting, possibly controversial conclusions:

1. He provides reasoning behind claiming that birds, mammals, and possibly some fish or reptiles have a self-consciousness that is qualitatively similar to human consciousness. Although even for these animals, he explains their consciousness is clearly limited compared to ours. (pp. 83-84)

2. He claims that human embryos and even probably human infants are not self-conscious as their minds have not taken in enough perceptions in order to construct the mental symbols necessary for a sense of "I"ness. He does however, also point out the potential that lies within a human embryo. (pg. 209) (The obvious conclusions being that abortion is not equivalent to murder, but is nevertheless wiping out a huge amount of potential and is therefore still a tragic occurrence.)

3. We are immortal to the extent that we live on within those that love us and to the extent that our life's achievements continue to impact future generations. As Hofstadter explains in this interview [http://tal.forum2.org/story?id=88&NewOnly=1&LastView=1970-01-01 02%3A00%3A00] "I would also say that I think that music comes much closer to capturing the essence of a composer's soul than do a writer's ideas capture the writer's soul." A prominent example Hofstadter uses in the book is how the thoughts, and therefore pieces of the soul (which he terms "soul shards"), of long-dead composers are preserved on sheets of music through which they sometimes are kept alive in other minds. And: "autobiographical story-telling is not nearly as effective a means of soul-transmission as is living with someone you love for many years of your lives, and sharing profound life goals with them -- that's for sure!" ( )
  Thomas_Burwell | Dec 15, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0465030785, Hardcover)

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

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:27:39 -0400)

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Hofstadter's long-awaited return to the themes of G?odel, Escher, Bach--an original and controversial view of the nature of consciousness and identity. What do we mean when we say "I"? 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? This book argues that the key to understanding selves and consciousness is a special kind of abstract feedback loop inhabiting our brains. Deep down, a human brain is a chaotic 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." But how can such a mysterious abstraction be real--or is our "I" merely a convenient fiction?--From publisher description.… (more)

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