[extropy-chat] LA Times book review: I Am a Strange Loop - Hofstadter

pjmanney pj at pj-manney.com
Tue Mar 20 17:58:11 UTC 2007

Hello All --

It will be obvious why I posted this.  Hofstadter is writing about consciousness and empathy.  Any one read this book yet?

Brain dead with flu, but trying to mess with text to see if Eudora (and archive) readers no longer have run-on lines.  

[Damien -- let me know if you can read this normally.]

<cough, sneeze... ugh...>



'I Am a Strange Loop' by Douglas Hofstadter
On the nature of human consciousness and its relation to empathy.
By Jesse Cohen

March 18, 2007

I Am a Strange Loop 
Douglas Hofstadter
Basic Books: 412 pp., $26.95

"The phonographs of hades in the brain / are tunnels that re-wind themselves...." Hart Crane may have been thinking of other things when he wrote these lines from "The Bridge," but they accord nicely with the ideas and obsessions of Douglas Hofstadter. For close to 30 years, ever since his remarkable debut with the bestselling "G–del, Escher, Bach," Hofstadter has been developing a model of consciousness holding that the brain is a system of "tunnels that re-wind themselves," turning recursively inward to create what we think of as our selves.

Hofstadter's explanation of how brain becomes mind dispenses with immaterial qualities and other kinds of philosophical hocus-pocus that bedevil efforts to solve the "mind-body problem." Trained as a physicist and a computer scientist but endowed with the soul of a philosopher, he posits that as our neurons fire in complex patterns that represent our perceptions, and as these representations (or symbols) swirl and dance in ever more complex ways, their interplay is strong enough and rich enough to produce awareness — that is, to become self-referential.

This concept of self-reference allows Hofstadter to bring in the work of famed logician Kurt G–del, who proved the incompleteness of sufficiently powerful mathematical systems. The human brain is a system of symbols, and a system of symbols is just what a mathematical language is — the kind of language that G–del proved could generate self-referential statements. In "G–del, Escher, Bach," Hofstadter called this process of recursive self-representation — think of an Escher staircase, feeding endlessly into itself, or the lyrics to "The Windmills of Your Mind" — a "strange loop." And this strange loop constitutes the illusion (yes, the illusion) of consciousness, or the self, or "I" — terms that, for Hofstadter, are interchangeable.

Hence, "I Am a Strange Loop." (Hofstadter muses in the introduction, "I should probably have called it ' "I" Is a Strange Loop' — but can you imagine a clunkier title?") His new book is an amplification and extension of the central thesis of "G–del, Escher, Bach," which he felt compelled to revisit: "People liked [it] for all sorts of reasons, but seldom if ever for its most central raison d'–tre." That is, they grooved on his rich tapestry of fugues and formulas, hypotheticals and counterfactuals, Zen and Zeno, DNA and AI, but may well have missed his point about what consciousness is.

The marvel of "G–del, Escher, Bach" was not just its abundant insights or its author's infectious joie de savoir and range of reference, which cheerfully demolished the wall between novelist C.P. Snow's "two cultures." Rather, it was that the book itself, with its diverse modes of discourse and stack of nested arguments, modeled the very processes of self-referentiality and "loopiness" occurring in our brains. There was an experiential component to it: How a reader encountered the text was as important to the effectiveness of its argument as the words were.

Something similar is afoot in "I Am a Strange Loop." Once again, the method of argumentation is as important as the argument. But here the structure is looser, the discussion less technical. Having established the "I = strange loop" formula, Hofstadter now wants to show what it means for our souls.

"Soul" is certainly not a term one expects from a materialist like Hofstadter. But in his lexicon, "soul" is interchangeable with "I," "self" or "consciousness" — just another name for the mind's strange loop. And because a strange loop is an aspect of a physical process, it — like anything physical — can be measured.

Can one quantify a soul? Do some people have more "soul" than others? Well, yes: "I believe that a human soul — and, by the way, it is my aim in this book to make clear what I mean by this slippery, shifting word, often rife with religious connotations, but here not having any — comes slowly into being over the course of years of development. It may sound crass to put it this way, but I would like to suggest, at least metaphorically, a numerical scale of 'degrees of souledness.' " Citing a favorite comment from the early 20th century music critic James Huneker to the effect that "small-souled men" should not attempt a particularly demanding Chopin –tude, Hofstadter cheekily calls the units of this scale "hunekers." Mature human beings average 100 hunekers. Dogs and infants are in the single digits. Violent sociopaths are low on the scale too. And some people have more than 100.

Hofstadter's justification for these rankings draws on his personal experience of grief, giving the book the flavor of memoir. His beloved wife, Carol, died when she was in her early 40s, leaving behind two small children. Because she was (the term is inescapable) his soul mate and they were "one individual with two bodies," the loss was shattering. "For brief periods of time in conversations, or even in nonverbal moments of intense feeling, I was Carol, just as, at times, she was Doug. So her 'personal gemma' (to borrow Stanislaw Lem's term in his story 'Non Serviam') had brought into existence a somewhat blurry, coarse-grained copy of itself inside my brain, had created a secondary G–delian swirl inside my brain (the primary one of course being my own self-swirl), a G–delian swirl that allowed me to be her, or, said otherwise, a G–delian swirl that allowed her self, her personal gemma, to ride (in simplified form) on my hardware."

>From his grief, he gained an insight into how our souls are enlarged. Like Wagner's Parsifal, who goes from simpleton to savior when he incorporates into his consciousness the suffering of the Grail knights' king, we as individuals can replicate in our own minds the strange loops of others, seeing with their eyes, walking in their shoes, thinking their thoughts — and this ability to encompass others' points of view is the basis of compassion. "The interpenetration of souls is an inevitable consequence of the power of the representationally universal machines that our brains are," Hofstadter writes. "That is the true meaning of the word 'empathy.' I am capable of being other people, even if it is merely an 'economy class' version of the act of being."

So, to raise your hunekers, host more souls. Indeed, Hofstadter proposes a list ("Mohandas Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Raoul Wallenberg, Jean Moulin, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, and C–sar Ch–vez") of "extraordinary individuals whose deep empathy for those who suffer leads them to devote a large part of their lives to helping others." Since a soul is equivalent to consciousness, "[s]uch people, I propose, are more conscious than normal adults are."

Without judging the worthiness of the people on Hofstadter's list, I admit to some qualms. His contention that quanta of our consciousness can form in other brains is a reasonable ramification of his model. But can one convincingly say that the more points of view you imagine, the more compassionate you are? Could not such a person just as easily use that acute understanding of others to exploit them?

And is his explanation the most elegant? Neurologists have shown that there are two brain regions, the anterior cingulate cortex and the frontoinsular cortex, involved in compassion. Perhaps Gandhi et al. simply had larger ones than the rest of us; perhaps their "hardware" disposed them to be more compassionate and "strange loops" had nothing to do with it.

Hofstadter does not consider such neurological research in his book. I wish he had; it would be interesting to know how it validated or altered his model. I would also have liked to see a rejoinder to British mathematical physicist Roger Penrose's ideas about consciousness, since Penrose too employs G–del's incompleteness theorem, although with radically different results.

But such lines of inquiry await another book. In the meantime, "I Am a Strange Loop" is vintage Hofstadter: earnest, deep, overflowing with ideas, building its argument into the experience of reading it — for if our souls can incorporate those of others, then "I Am a Strange Loop" can transmit Hofstadter's into ours. And indeed, it is impossible to come away from this book without having introduced elements of his point of view into our own. It may not make us kinder or more compassionate, but we will never look at the world, inside or out, in the same way again. 

Jesse Cohen is the series editor of "The Best American Science Writing 2006.”

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