Saturday, May 3, 2008

Hofstadter's "I Am a Strange Loop"


I finally finished reading the wonderful book I am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter. It took me longer than usual because this is my kind of thought provoking reading. It was impossible to read continuously without stopping to analyze and delve into my own ideas.

Hofstadter retakes the ideas he put forward in Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, which I read a few years ago. He makes several interesting points about the nature of consciousness and the elusive and illusory concept of "I".

At the core is the idea of self-reference. He explains the Godel's incompleteness theorem, which in essence says that withing formal systems, there are true statements whose proof can not be demonstrated by the rules of that formal system. A statement of this sort happens to be one that makes reference to itself on two different levels. I know my musing doesn't make justice (or sense) to the full length dissertation in the book. But the idea, I believe, is to realize that in their simplicity, natural numbers have the representational richness to talk about themselves. It was Godel himself that constructed a way to enumerate arithmetical statements about natural numbers. In short, every statement about natural numbers is a number itself!

The idea of consciousness is addressed from the point of view of the vast richness of our brain to fabricate and handle symbols. Symbols that live in the neuronal substrate of our brain. There are symbols for all concepts, even symbols for symbols. Our brain activity is the firing and reception of millions of electric impulses. At a more high level of description, that neural activity provides the substrate for "pushing" and "pulling" symbols all around. In that jungle of symbols there is also a symbol for the "I" concept. A very powerful and useful concept housed in our brain that is nothing more than an illusion. These structures whose object of observation is the structure itself form a self-referential loop, what the author calls a strange loop.

The book also raises the idea that to some extend, our "I" symbol is also contained or housed in other people's brain. The degree of this happening is closely related to the degree of knowledge, proximity and intimacy we have with other people. Our "I" symbol can live in other people's brain as a low resolution copy of the "I" symbol that is housed in our own brain. The more we know about someone, the more of his/her "I" is copied in our brain. Personally, although I never thought about the idea before, it stroke me as being true from the beginning. He illustrates his point by sharing his personal experience of the lose of his wife and some hypothetical scenarios considered by other authors.

I enjoyed this book from cover to cover. I definitely think that the physics and math background of the author gives him a unique perspective when confronting the problem of explaining consciousness without invoking the idea of dualism or the existence of a special substance inhabiting every person such as a soul.

I consider this book an account of an honest effort to understand one of the problems that has been around ever since we humans became aware of our own existence.

Hofstadter's scientific approach and methods are so appealing to me that I already got another of his books: Fluid Concepts And Creative Analogies: Computer Models Of The Fundamental Mechanisms Of Thought.

Let's see where this path leads to.
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