You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Monday, November 16, 2009

I am a Strange Loop

Douglas Hofstadter's I am a Strange Loop is a sort of follow up to his Godel, Escher, Bach. In this volume he focuses his ideas on human consciousness: his thesis is that the patterns of symbols formed by our neural processes form the illusion of a central "I".

Hofstadter is fond of analogies, and he uses many of them to great effect. One central analogy is his experience of reaching into a box of envelopes and feeling a marble. Upon further study, he discovers that there is no marble, it is only an illusion created from the layers of paper. He continually references this experience, likening the experience of an "I" as a similar illusion that seems so real that we can't let it go.

Again he summarizes Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, and suggests that any system complex enough to represent arbitrary patterns can create a strange loop. The system (whole numbers, mental symbols) can even represent itself, which lends the loop the strange part. Thus the patterns in the brain represent themselves, perceive themselves, and from this strange dance comes something that we call consciousness, or "I".

Hofstadter uses several other analogies to illustrate his points. One of his ideas is that our personalities live partially in other people's brains, albeit with much less resolution. Thus he can feel his deceased wife's continued existence as part of him. There seems to be a good deal of sense in this idea; we may not see literally through our loved ones' eyes, but we have shared experiences and memories that make us who we are.

This book was enlightening. The author lays out a compelling case for how the simple representational capacity of the brain evolved to create consciousness, and properly dismisses any ideas of "magic" stuff that separates animate beings from inanimate objects. I enjoyed his many analogies. The book is easy to read and full of great ideas. A


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