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March 23, 2007

  Go Ahead, Make Up Your Mind

I Am a Strange Loop
by Douglas R. Hofstadter

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Consciousness — what on earth is it? Most of us, if pressed on the matter, would confess a vague dualism. There is, we would say, mind-stuff and matter-stuff. Though non-physical, mind-stuff can push matter-stuff around somehow. Further, mind-stuff comes in discrete units, each unit attached in some more or less inextricable way to the brain of a human being, where it is aware of itself as a consciousness, a soul, or, in Doug Hofstadter's preferred usage, an "I." Whatever consciousness is, the "I"s have it.

In the past quarter century or so, speculations about consciousness have passed from the domain of philosophy into that of science, with evidence coming in from neurophysiology, zoology, evolutionary biology, and information theory. There is even, since 1994, a Journal of Consciousness Studies. It is ever more plain that the folk-naïve model of consciousness sketched above bears no more relation to reality than the notion of the sky as a crystal dome.

Doug Hofstadter has been thinking about consciousness for a very long time. From early childhood, he tells us, he was fascinated by the idea of self-reference, the idea illustrated by utterances like "This sentence contains five words." This is treacherous territory, mined with paradoxes. ("This sentence is false.") The puzzles are by no means solely linguistic. Hofstadter's 1979 best-seller Gödel, Escher, Bach contains photographs of some of the odd patterns you get when you turn a closed-circuit video camera on its own monitor.

In that same book Hofstadter suggested a theory of consciousness based on the idea of a strange loop — the ability of any sufficiently complex hierarchical system (language, closed-circuit TV, certain musical forms) to "turn back" on itself, refer to itself, observe itself. This new book picks up that theme and attempts to fill out the theory of "I" as a strange loop. Considering the complexity of the underlying system — that is, the brain — says Hofstadter, the ability of the highest levels of that system to be aware of themselves is not very surprising, and that is all consciousness is: "a hallucination hallucinated by a hallucination."

Hofstadter uses for his central analogy the strange loop that logician Kurt Gödel, in his tremendous 1931 paper, found in the elegant structure of Whitehead and Russell's Principia Mathematica. The authors of that book set out to build all of arithmetic from a handful of logical symbols ("and," "not," "there exists," and so on) and a few simple rules. The infinite hierarchy of theorems, theorems about theorems, theorems about theorems about theorems,… thus generated would, they assumed, be complete — that is, would include all true arithmetic statements. Gödel showed that this was not so, and could not be so in any such system. In Hofstadter's words, Gödel made PM "twist around and look at itself," generating strange-loop theorems which asserted their own un-provability.

This analogy allows Hofstadter to work up ideas about "upward and downward causality," with Whitehead and Russell's invented logical alphabet at the bottom of a hierarchy generating Gödelian loops at the top, analogous to neurons and dendrites at the bottom of the brain hierarchy generating concepts and categories — including of course the strangely loopy one called "I" — at the top.

Just as the richness of whole numbers gave PM the power to represent phenomena of unlimited complexity (eventually including itself), so our extensible repertoires of symbols give our brains the power to represent phenomena of unlimited complexity.

The difficulty faced by any new theory of consciousness is the strong attachment we have to our naïve intuitive models of the "I." It does not help that these models are built in to our very language. Hofstadter acknowledges all this, comparing the modern state of consciousness studies to the condition of physics before the great revolutions of the early twentieth century — relativity and quantum mechanics — changed everyone's viewpoint. Of the difficulty of convincing even himself of the validity of his ideas, he remarks: "It's frustrating to feel myself constantly sliding back into conventional intuitive ('classical') views of these questions when I know that deep down, my view is radically counterintuitive ('quantum-mechanical')."

I Am a Strange Loop is by no means dryly abstract all through. Far from it: The book contains enough "human interest" material to get the author a spot on the Oprah Winfrey show. Hofstadter writes movingly of the sudden death of his wife Carol at age 42, and of the effect this event had on his thinking about selfhood. Had Carol's consciousness entirely ceased to exist? He argues that it had not, since, by the closeness of their understanding, Carol's "I" was instantiated not only in Carol's brain, but in Doug's brain too, albeit in a partial, "low resolution" or "coarse-grained" form. My self, my "I," is not impenetrably fenced off from others. There is seepage and replication. No man is an "I"-land entire of itself.

At about this point I reflected that this is the second book I have read recently that has a title beginning "I Am..." The other was Tom Wolfe's 2004 novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, and there is considerable overlap in ideas between the two books. The novelist is of course concerned with the "I" in its social context — with the way that an "I" can be deformed by great social stresses. Hofstadter's approach is quite different, but at the end of his book he finds himself in novelist's territory none the less, facing the great truth that no inquiry into human nature can avoid: We are social animals.

And so I come to the surprising conclusion that what seems to be the epitome of selfhood — a sense of "I" — is in reality brought into being if and only if along with that self there is a sense of other selves to whom one has bonds of affection. In short, when and only when generosity is born is an ego born.

Content aside, there are many pleasures in I Am a Strange Loop. The author's trademark use of clever word-play to make his points is amply on display. For example, he discusses Alzheimer's disease as the slow disappearance of an "I" from its original container, while those "low-resolution" copies of it yet glow in the minds of others. This is, he says, analogous to what happens when the moon passes in front of the sun. At the moment of maximum occlusion, the sun's glowing corona remains plainly visible. So Alzheimer's is a sort of… soul-ar eclipse.

You may groan, but the analogy, and the pun, make the author's point unforgettable. Hofstadter lets his gift for word-play off the leash completely in a marvelous ten-page riff on "Twinwirld," an imaginary place where 99 percent of all births are identical twins — "pairsons" or "dividuals," with an appropriate set of invented pronouns: "i" and "I," "we" and "Twe," and so on.

Is the account of consciousness given in I Am a Strange Loop a plausible one? I think so. You should read Doug Hofstadter's fascinating book and judge for yourself. You will at least come away equipped with some original and thought-provoking new analogies, even if you decide at last that Doug Hofstadter is not a person you can see "I" to "I" with.