I may have told this story before, but I'll tell it again. When I decided that I would write for my college newspaper, liked it enough I thought I might be a journalist my entire life. And if I did, I hoped that I might interview two people: Douglas Hofstadter and Linus Pauling. Hafstadter because I was reading Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid that year; and Pauling because he was my favorite chemist. I was able to interview them both in my first quarter of writing for City on a Hill.
Hafstadter has a new book out, I Am a Strange Loop, and I have requested it from the library. It made me a little sad that it wasn't checked out already. I hope I'm not the first.
A few excerpts from an American Scientist review:
Douglas Hofstadter suffers from the grave disadvantage of having written a masterpiece as a young man: the utterly unique Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. This exhilarating intellectual and rhetorical extravaganza, published in 1979, was focused on the new ways of studying life and minds that were being offered by cognitive science. The book spanned mathematical logic, artificial intelligence, artificial life, psychology, neuroscience and the philosophy of mind. Along the way, it provided deep insights into mathematics, music and creativity—plus countless deliciously outrageous puns. Despite the puns, it was translated many times and became a cult book worldwide.
Hofstadter feels that his first book, despite its massive popularity, has been widely misunderstood. Its fundamental message seems not to have been noticed: "It sometimes feels as if I had shouted a deeply cherished message out into an empty chasm and nobody heard me." This new volume is his attempt to set the record straight.
The core intellectual claim, then, is much the same as that of Gödel, Escher, Bach: namely, that a proper understanding of Gödel's proof helps us to see that life, mind and self are all constituted not by biochemistry but by the higher-level patterns that biochemistry makes possible. In particular, human selves are abstract self-referential (reflexively looping) patterns that arise spontaneously out of the meaningless base of neural activity.
In I Am a Strange Loop, Hofstadter, a cognitive and computer scientist at Indiana University, describes a more elaborate experiment with video feedback that he did many years ago at Stanford University. By that time he had become obsessed with the paradoxical nature of Gödel's theorem, with its formulas that speak of themselves. Over the years this and other loopiness--Escher's drawings of hands drawing hands, Bach's involuted fugues--were added to the stew, along with the conviction that all of this had something to do with consciousness. What finally emerged, in 1979, was Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, one of the most captivating books I have ever read.
"You make decisions, take actions, affect the world, receive feedback from the world, incorporate it into yourself, then the updated 'you' makes more decisions, and so forth, round and round," Hofstadter writes. What blossoms from the Gödelian vortex--this symbol system with the power to represent itself--is the "anatomically invisible, terribly murky thing called I." A self, or, to use the name he favors, a soul.
It need know nothing of neurons. Sealed off from the biological substrate, the actors in the internal drama are not things like "serotonin" or "synapse" or even "cerebrum," "hippocampus" or "cerebellum" but abstractions with names like "love," "jealousy," "hope" and "regret."
And that is what leads to the grand illusion. "In the soft, ethereal, neurology-free world of these players," the author writes, "the typical human brain perceives its very own 'I' as a pusher and a mover, never entertaining for a moment the idea that its star player might merely be a useful shorthand standing for a myriad infinitesimal entities and the invisible chemical transactions taking place among them."
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