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I am a strange loop

vrijdag 25 mei 2007 20:18

By Douglas Hofstadter, Basic Books, 2007. I read Hofstadter's magnum opus, "Gödel, Escher, Bach", when I was about 16 years of age. Looking back, it's still an amazing piece of work. Hofstadter remembers the acclaim he received for this work, he now writes. But he also notes that the real meaning of the book has escaped most people. This meaning, that the strange loops that occur in complex enough systems, are also present in the human mind and form the person's self-awareness and consciousness, he revisits in this book.

From a cognitive science, or even philosophical point of view, the book does not offer anything new, really. Hofstadter goes through great lengths to bring back the ideas he explored in GEB. He then treats the concept of "I" in various manners. "I" is a pattern inside the mind. A pattern, like a software program, that can be executed in different brains. If you spend enough time with another person, this person's pattern is copied into your brain, and it starts to run on its own, although it will be a shallower pattern than the original. Each "I" pattern contains the patterns of others inside it, and those patterns, in turn, contain a representation of your pattern. You also create a representation of your self inside your brain. This stuff about "I" is actually quite good about this book.

The last third of the book, is just filling. He is taking Dennett's stance with regard to consciousness. He will ask all sorts of interesting questions about consciousness and then answer them with brain-dead materialistic nonsense. He equates consciousness with thinking, literally. It's really not worth reading.

Douglas talks about the way he became a vegetarian, the death of his wife, and about the contacts he's had with many others. This really makes the book come to life and is great fun to read. He is quite a loopy character. One moment he proves his respect for all living things by neatly placing an ant outside the house. Next, he kills a mosquito because it bugs him. Mosquitos are his example of entities with 'small souls'. Hofstadter is moving on thin ice with his unscientific distinction of smaller and larger souls. Psychopaths evidently have smaller souls than normal people, he suggests. And so do small children. You have to understand that Hofstadter doesn't acknowledge a religious dimension of a soul. The soul equates to the "I" of the person. And the "I" of a person gets bigger when it holds inside it the patterns of others, which is the process of empathy.

A random thought somewhere in the book compares dogs and other animals to special purpose machines, and humans, as they are capable of being anything they want to be, to general purpose machines. Funny how this distinction has never occurred to me before.

A must-read for lovers of Hofstadter, of course, but it does not reach the great heights of his first work.


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