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I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter
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I Am a Strange Loop (2007)

by Douglas Hofstadter

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This is an interesting book of Hofstadter's: it's less playful than GEB and more metaphysical, I do get the sense of the years passed between the books. Full of good analogies (that did become a little hackneyed by the end but, in some ways, that helped drive the point home). Overall, it left me thinking abut all the times I repeat "I" over and over again and how odd that is. I would read GEB first if for no other reason then that it'll make the obligatory Gödel's incompleteness theorem part make more sense. I feel like this is a good book to revisit ( )
  Lorem | Jun 28, 2015 |
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 |
non-fiction
  romsfuulynn | Apr 28, 2013 |
Holy crap. If I could give this more than 5 stars, I would. What a mind-blower. ( )
  chaosmogony | Apr 27, 2013 |
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To my sister Laura,
who can understand,
and to our sister Molly,
who cannot.
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I am so meta.
More meta than you, beeyotch!
Just like this haiku.

(Carnophile)

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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:23 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

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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