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I Am A Strange Loop

by Douglas Hofstadter

Basic Books, Copyright 2007

436 pages, softcover

Review by Jim Walker

Best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Gödel, Escher, Bach, published in 1979, Douglas Hofstadter continues his examination of self-referential systems in his latest book. Hofstadter felt a need to write a new book because so many people misperceived GEB as a hodgepodge of neat things with no central theme. I Am A Strange Loop attempts to correct this problem by better illustrating how inanimate matter can lead to animate beings with awareness and consciousness.

By using the analogy of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, a mathematical system that looks at itself, Hofstadter shows how indirect mappings in the human mind can loop back on itself and produce an entirely new concept called "self". The "I" of selfhood, according to Hofstadter represents an emerging property of brainpowwer that, similar to Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, loops back on itself and produces consciousness.

I like Hofstadter's image of a video camera looking at itself to produce a swirling video pattern where images at the periphery of the images become part of the swirling pattern, thus part of the loop (the cover illustration gives an example of this). Human consciousness, too, transforms itself to whatever input it receives. Selfhood does not exist in a vacuum as a solitary thing separate from other selves. Instead, each of us incorporates a part of other selves, each contributing a part of the periphery of input, similar to a video camera looking at itself in a mirror. Thus we humans become part of our inputs, which includes other selves. Rather than thinking of selfhood as a different kind of self from other selves, we differ only by degree (albeit, a large degree).

Much of Hofstadter's thinking coincides almost exactly with the philosopher, Daniel C. Dennett's view of consciousness. (Indeed, Hofstadter and Dennett have collaborated on several books together, and both remain friends.) Basically their view of consciousness consists of high level symbolic structures carried out by brain processing. Not only self awareness, but feelings and sensations come as an emerging property out of symbol manipulation. Thus, in principle, we may one day design a computer that has consciousness with all the feelings and emotions of a human.

According to Hofstadter, consciousness (including selfhood, meanings, and feelings) depends on categorization of symbols; in other words -- patterns. And since pattern manipulation requires thinking, thinking equals consciousness! As Holfstadter says, "The basic idea is that the dance of symbols in a brain is itself perceived by symbols, and that step extends the dance, and so round and round it goes. That, in a nutshell, is what consciousness is."

Although I agree with most of Hofstadter's hypothesis, I do not agree (or perhaps do not understand) that the feeling part of consciousness requires referential symbol manipulation. According to Hofstadter and Dennett, qualia (feelings, sensations, etc.) come about as an emerging property through neurological mappings at the symbolic level of the brain. In Chapter 20, Hofstadter gives an example of staring at a big broad sheet of pure, uniform color, lets say, purple, or a color of your favorite shade, entirely filling your visual field, and asks if you would experience the same rush as when you see that color in the petals of a flower blooming in a garden. Hofstadter doubts it because you would not experience all "the subtle shades, the delicate way each petal is curved, the way the petals all swirl together around a glowing center made of dozens of tiny dots..." Granted, one would not, but color (in my mind anyway) does not represent exactly a pleasurable feeling in itself, but rather a tag or a signal that identifies a particular light frequency pattern, no doubt, evolutionary important as it allows animals to spot colored fruit on a bush that could help it survive (or something similar to this).

In other words, Hofstadter thinks the higher level symbolic representations produce the pleasurable experience. Exactly how this comes about, Hofstadter doesn't explain. "But why?" I ask, should experience of subtle shades and shapes coupled with color produce pleasure by itself?

Instead of using color as an example, I would use pure cocaine injected into the vein of a person. In an instant, the person would feel a rush of pleasure regardless of what symbols he happens to think (or not think) about at that time. How would Hofstadter explain that?!

Hofstadter and Dennett see the qualia argument as two distinct and separate camps. One camp believes qualia emerges at the symbolic level (Dennet and Hofstadter's view) and the other camp (such as Thomas Nagel) believes qualia a something magical, an extra component that produces a kind of Cartesian dualism (brain vs. mind) that no amount of objective or educationist science can explain.

But a third camp exists and I belong (for the moment) in that camp. I don't accept either of the first two camps on its own but instead I take a little from both. Yes, I think of qualia as an extra component, a brain component more primitive than the cerebral cortex, but I do not think it requires anything magical. On the contrary I see qualia as a something extra that comes from brain functions but not at the symbolic level, but rather, from a primitive pleasure/reward center in the brain.

One thing I noticed remarkably missing from Hofstadter's book: endorphins, dopamine, the nucleus accumbens (the brain area responsible for pleasure and rewards) [read, A New State of Mind], and the cingulate cortex (a brain area involved in pain sensation). How can one understand consciousness without understanding brain biology? It seems to me that the nucleus accumbens and high concentrations of dopamine neurons destroys Hofstadter's argument of qualia experienced only at the symbolic level. Although higher level symbolic brain functions surely use the nucleus accumbens to achieve its pleasure sensations, it does not require it. Cocaine addiction gives a prime example of this as well as Zen masters ability to turn off the thinking part of the brain yet still experience sensations.

At present, I think qualia represents the core of consciousness. Yes we need symbol manipulations too but without qualia, we could not create values or meanings to our symbols. Without the pleasure and pain centers of the brain, I think that, indeed, we would live as zombies (but we would not react to pain or pleasure as do philosophical zombies).

This also helps explain why artificial intelligence computers even though they can process symbols on high levels do not feel and could never feel (at least without an equivalent dopamine system). There exists no equivalent nucleus accumbens in their circuits. This does not, however, exclude the possibility that someone might one day design a nucleus accumbens circuit into them. Of course the question remains as to just how dopamine neurons produce pleasure, and neither of the philosophy camps nor science has come close to explaining it. Yet.

Philosophy can only take us so far. Without the science of brain biology, how in the world can we possibly understand the nature of consciousness? Although Hofstadter appears to understand the neurological effects on thinking, he does not appear to understand the neurotransmitters responsible for qualia. As Leonard Susskind observed, "Science is the horse that pulls the cart of philosophy."

I think Hofstadter (and Dennett) provide us valuable understandings for the thinking part in the brain but little about how we feel. Sorry, but saying that qualia just emerges out of complexity does not suffice any more than saying "God did it." In any case, I Am A Strange Loop provides provocative insights into how humans use self-reference to achieve self-awareness*, but not necessarily consciousness.

* And don't make the mistake of thinking that self-awareness equals consciousness. We can easily make robots aware of themselves without having an inkling of consciousness.

A few quotes from the book:

[T]o some people -- perhaps to most, perhaps even us all -- the ineffable sense of being an "I" or a "first person", the intuitive sense of "being there" or simply "existing", the powerful sense of "having experience" and of "having raw sensations" (what some philosophers refer to as "qualia"), seem to be the realist things in thei8r lives, and an insistent inner voice bridles furiously at any proposal that all this might be an illusion, or merely the outcome of some kind of physical processes taking place among "third-person" (i.e., inanimate) objects. My goal here is to combat this strident inner voice.

[I]n the case of a being struggling to survive, the one thing that is always in its environment is. . . itself.

[A] mosquito's wordless and conceptless danger-fleeing behavior may be less like perception as we humans know it, and more like the wordless and conceptless hammer-fleeing behavior of your knee when the doctor's hammer hits it and you reflexively kick.

We are all egocentric, and what is realest to each of us, in the end, is yourself.

Mathematicians are people who at their deepest core are drawn on -- indeed; are easily seduced --- by the urge to find patterns where initially there would seem to be none. The passionate quest after order in an apparent disorder is what lights their fires and fires their souls.

We have seen that even primary meanings depend on unspoken mappings, and so in the end, we have seen that all meaning is mapping-mediated, which is to say, all meaning comes from analogies. This is Gödel's profound insight, exploited to the hilt in his 1931 paper, bringing the aspirations embodied in Principia Mathematica tumbling to the ground.

[N]o one before Gödel had realized that one of the domains that mathematics and model is the doing of mathematics itself.

This, our innate blindness to the world of the tiny, forces us to hallucinate a profound schism between the goal-lacking material world of ball and sticks and sounds and lights, on the one hand, and the goal-pervaded abstract world of hopes and beliefs and joys and fears, on the other, in which radically different sorts of causality seem to reign.

We are creatures that congenitally cannot focus on the micromachinery that makes our minds tick.

The closing of the strange loop of human selfhood is deeply dependent upon the level-changing leap that is perception, which means categorization, and therefore, the richer and more powerful an organism's categorization equipment is, the more realized and rich will be its self. Conversely, the poorer an organism's repertoire of categories, the more impoverished will be the self, until in the limit there simply is no self at all.

[T]here is a fundamental and absolute distinction between how my brain is linked to my own body and how it's linked to someone else's body is seen to be exaggerated. There is a difference in degree, that's clear, but it's not clear that it's a difference in kind.

[L]ike two drops of water coming together, touching, and then seamlessly fusing, showing that sometimes one plus one equals one.

One day, as I gazed at the photograph of Carol taken a couple of months before her death, I looked at her face and I looked so deeply that I felt that I was behind her eyes, and all at once, I found myself saying, as tears flowed, "That's me! That's me!"

But if the molecules making you up are not the "enjoyers" of your feelings, then what is? All that is left is patterns.

Consciousness is the dance of symbols inside the cranium. Or, to make it even more pithy, consciousness is thinking.

To make an "I" you need meanings, and to make meanings you need perception and categories. . .

The basic idea is that the dance of symbols in a brain is itself perceived by symbols, and that step extends the dance, and so round and round it goes. That, in a nutshell, is what consciousness is.

Just as we need our eyes in order to see, we need our "I"'s in order to be!


Table of Contents

Words of Thanks  
An Author and His Book
Prologue An affable Locking of Horns
Chapter 1 On Souls and Their Sizes
Chapter 2
This Teetering Bulb of Dread and Dream
Chapter 3 The Causal Potency of Patterns
Chapter 4 Loops, Goals, and Loopholes
Chapter 5 On Video Feedback
Chapter 6 Of Selves and Symbols
Chapter 7 The Epi Phenomenon
Chapter 8 Embarking on a Strange-Loop Safari
Chapter 9 Pattern and Provability
Chapter 10 Gödel's Quintessential Strange Loop
Chapter 11
How Analogy Makes Meaning
Chapter 12 On Downward Causality
Chapter 13 The Elusive Apple of My "I"
Chapter 14 Strangeness in the "I" of the Beholder
Chapter 15 Entwinement
Chapter 16 Grappling with the Deepest Mystery
Chapter 17 How We Live in Each Other
Chapter 18 The Blurry Glow of Human Identity
Chapter 19 Consciousness = Thinking
Chapter 20 A Courteous Crossing of Words
Chapter 21 A Brief Brush with Cartesian Egos
Chapter 22
A Tango with Zombies and Dualism
Chapter 23 Killing a Couple of Sacred Cows
Chapter 23 On Magnanimity and Friendship
Epilogue The Quandary


Permissions and Acknowledgements


To obtain this book, click below:

I Am A Strange Loop

Other books by Douglas Hofstadter:

The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self & Soul (softcover), 2001

Metamagical Themas: Questing For The Essence Of Mind And Pattern (softcover), 1996

Fluid Concepts And Creative Analogies: Computer Models Of The Fundamental Mechanisms Of Thought (softcover), 1996

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (softcover), 1979