I Am a Strange Loop

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Deep down, your brain is a chaotic seething soup of particles. On a higher level it is a jungle of neurons, and on a yet higher level it is a network of abstractions that we call "symbols." The most central and complex symbol is the one you call "I". An "I" is a strange loop where the brain's symbolic and physical levels feed back into each other and flip causality upside down so that symbols seem to have gained the paradoxical ability to push particles around, rather than the ...
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Overview

Deep down, your brain is a chaotic seething soup of particles. On a higher level it is a jungle of neurons, and on a yet higher level it is a network of abstractions that we call "symbols." The most central and complex symbol is the one you call "I". An "I" is a strange loop where the brain's symbolic and physical levels feed back into each other and flip causality upside down so that symbols seem to have gained the paradoxical ability to push particles around, rather than the reverse.

To each human being, this "I" is the realest thing in the world. But how can such a mysterious abstraction be real? Is our "I" merely a convenient fiction? Does an "I" exert genuine power over the particles in our brain, or is it helplessly pushed around by the all-powerful laws of physics?

These are among the mysteries tackled in I Am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter's first book-length journey into philosophy since his Pulitzer Prize-winning Godel, Escher, Bach. It is a tale crisply told, rife with anecdotes, analogies, and metaphors-cutting-edge philosophy that any strange loop can understand.

About the Author:
Douglas Hofstadter is College of Arts and Sciences Professor of Cognitive Science at Indiana University

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
In 1979, Douglas Hofstadter earned nationwide headlines when his quirky, erudite, thought-provoking Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid hit bestseller lists. The following year, it surprised no one when this imaginative book won the Pulitzer Prize. In I Am a Strange Loop, Hofstadter extends the themes of his magnum opus in new and expected ways. At the core of his narrative loop is the "I" itself, the nexus that enables us to posit our own free will. Hofstadter's own freewheeling wordplay on consciousness, cognition, physics, and identity will lead readers into radiant new avenues of inquiry.
Peter D. Kramer
Questions about the boundaries, location, continuity and constituents of the self stand at the heart of philosophy, but a mathematician and physicist, Rene Descartes, set the terms of the discussion. Who better to bring us up to date than Douglas Hofstadter? Trained in math and physics, Hofstadter won a 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Godel, Escher, Bach, a bravura performance linking logic, art and music. He returns now to apply a concept from that book, the strange loop, to the definition of self.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Hofstadter—who won a Pulitzer for his 1979 book, Gödel, Escher, Bach—blends a surprising array of disciplines and styles in his continuing rumination on the nature of consciousness. Eschewing the study of biological processes as inadequate to the task, he argues that the phenomenon of self-awareness is best explained by an abstract model based on symbols and self-referential "loops," which, as they accumulate experiences, create high-level consciousness. Theories aside, it's impossible not to experience this book as a tender, remarkably personal and poignant effort to understand the death of his wife from cancer in 1993—and to grasp how consciousness mediates our otherwise ineffable relationships. In the end, Hofstadter's view is deeply philosophical rather than scientific. It's hopeful and romantic as well, as his model allows one consciousness to create and maintain within itself true representations of the essence of another. The book is all Hofstadter—part theory, some of it difficult; part affecting memoir; part inventive thought experiment—presented for the most part with an incorrigible playfulness. And whatever readers' reaction to the underlying arguments for this unique view of consciousness, they will find the model provocative and heroically humane. (Mar.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal
What do we mean when we say "I"? What is it like to be a strange loop? In his new excursion into the nature of consciousness and selfhood, Hofstadter (cognitive & computer science, Indiana Univ., Bloomington) returns to the themes of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid—those of "strange loops," or "tangled hierarchies," that give rise to our sense of identity. Besides updating the central thesis of strange loops from his previous books, Hofstadter introduces new ideas about the self-referential structure of consciousness and offers a multifaceted examination of what an "I" is. He conveys abstract, complicated ideas in a relaxed, conversational manner and uses many first-person stories and personal examples as well as two Platonic dialogs. Though Hofstadter admits he writes for the general educated public, he also hopes to reach professional philosophers interested in the epistemological implications of selfhood. Recommended primarily for public and undergraduate university libraries.
—Victoria Shelton
Kirkus Reviews
I think, therefore I am. But what is think, and what is I? Returning to themes first visited in Godel, Escher, Bach (not reviewed), Hofstadter ponders most idiosyncratically. Humans think because we can and must, for reasons of mental architecture and accidents of evolution; we do so, Hofstadter suggests, by recalling things we have already thought about and employing metaphors, analogies and concrete images to communicate our thinking to others. Others are important, for there is a social quality to I-ness; in one memorable passage, Hofstadter writes of his wife's early death and her ongoing presence in his mind, as if he were allowing her to use some of it to continue to live. We humans wrestle with the ghost in the machine, looking for the soul or "that special kind of subtle pattern," whatever it is that lies beneath. Hofstadter, one of whose specialties is the study of feedback loops in complex systems, coins sometimes unfortunate terms for our own loopy ways of thinking, among them "thinkodynamics" and "statistical mentalics," but the governing idea is a fruitful one: There are large-scale and small-scale things happening within our minds all the time, but it can all seem like a funhouse mirror, just as Hofstadter recalls a philosophical treatise "talking about how language can talk about itself talking about itself (etc.), and about how reasoning can reason about itself." He adds, "I was hooked," which would explain his sometimes maddeningly circuitous explorations into, say, the manipulation of symbols or the nature of dogness. And what, in the end, is I? Perhaps "a certain abstract type of locked-in loop inside the careenium or the cranium," perhaps "a shimmering rainbow-likeentity that first recedes and then disintegrates entirely as one draws ever closer," perhaps just "little miracles of self-reference." Or perhaps not. Doesn't quite add up to a unified theory of anything.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465030781
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 3/26/2007
  • Pages: 436
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author


Douglas Hofstadter is College of Arts and Sciences Professor of Cognitive Science and Computer Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His previous books are the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid; Metamagical Themas; The Mind’s I; Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies; and Le Ton beau de Marot. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana.
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Table of Contents


Words of Thanks     ix
Preface: An Author and His Book     xi
Prologue: An Affable Locking of Horns     3
On Souls and Their Sizes     9
This Teetering Bulb of Dread and Dream     25
The Causal Potency of Patterns     37
Loops, Goals, and Loopholes     51
On Video Feedback     65
Of Selves and Symbols     73
The Epi Phenomenon     87
Embarking on a Strange-Loop Safari     101
Pattern and Provability     113
Godel's Quintessential Strange Loop     125
How Analogy Makes Meaning     147
On Downward Causality     163
The Elusive Apple of My "I"     177
Strangeness in the "I" of the Beholder     193
Entwinement     207
Grappling with the Deepest Mystery     227
How We Live in Each Other     241
The Blurry Glow of Human Identity     259
Consciousness = Thinking     275
A Courteous Crossing of Words     281
A Brief Brush with Cartesian Egos     301
A Tango with Zombies and Dualism     319
Killing a Couple of Sacred Cows     333
On Magnanimity and Friendship     343
Epilogue: The Quandary     357
Notes     365
Bibliography     377
Permissions and Acknowledgments     383
Index     385
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 15 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 17, 2008

    Brilliant explanation of the mind

    This book was a compelling read for me since: it is very new at this time it investigates the origin of consciousness and it seemed to have less scientific or religious fervor behind it. Plus the author has won a Pulitzer and seems to be a well respected professor teaching this topic. Having read it, I find Hofstadter to be a master at using analogy to elicit deep insight into every topic he presents. And he writes from his heart. You will learn much about the man behind the words. Which shows he is fully accountable for any bias or personal perspectives he may have. Although he clearly expresses his hope that you will share in his perceptions. I surely do. Is the mind a separate entity from the body? If not, then where does it come from? These questions are not immediately apparent but ultimately they are the questions he has written this book to address. The entire first half is spent introducing the reader to some background information that is presented in seemingly random fashion. But expressed in an entertaining, beautifully descriptive and informative way. There are many examples he uses to show the occurance of loops in everyday life. He starts with simple ones, like the toilet flush valve loop. Then more identifiable ones like looking into parallel mirrors which create what seems to be a corridor of forever repeating images. Or a microphone's feedback squeal when placed too close to the speaker. My favorite was his experiments with a camcorder pointed at the monitor. The crux of this background knowledge is his presentation of the work of Gödel - the only part of the book I found difficult to fathom. But this example shows how even mathematics creates loops, and has the incredible consequence of rendering logic inconclusive. This background information provides a perspective of thought that serves to show that the mind actually creates itself! He proposes that the mind does not exist until it becomes self aware. Before that, we are just unconscious beings on the level of base animals. His ideas about the levels of mindfullness of animals and even insects is also quite interesting to me, since it is something that most of us have considered but rarely speak about. His compassion has prompted him to become a vegetarian, yet interestingly, he has absolutely no respect for mosquitos! But then he goes on to explain how our consciousness evolves as it experiences itself, and the selfs of others. Adding another wrinkle to his theory to shows that there is cross-talk between 'souls' and that seeing others is key to seeing ourselves. He brings up quite a few other interesting topics and perspectives that explain his reasoning, all of which he presents with great skill. As you read this, without the tremendous insight of Hofstader, I don't expect you to take my word for it. And of course, I wouldn't have either, before reading this book. But perhaps, if you read it, you will learn something about yourself that right now, seems absolutely impossible.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2008

    A reviewer

    How often do we classify intelligent, scientific, reductionistic-determinists as non-human? Too often. After reading Hofstadter's 'I Am a Strange Loop' I am convinced that he is much more human than me and walks this world with a larger soul. Hofstadter reveals himself when he innocently suggests that people would not kill mosquitoes if they firmly believed the insects to be conscious creatures. I don't know about you, but I would kill a blood-sucking mosquito regardless of its level of consciousness. Why? Because it's taking my blood, can't defend itself, and I am a whole lot bigger. Hofstadter's description of consciousness is brilliant, yet, the convincing logic inherent in it doesn't move me. I am moved by the willingness of this book's author to open himself up to me. He tells of his wife's death and that his concern was not so much what he had lost, but rather, what she had lost. I'm sorry. I've lost loved ones and have never considered what they lost by dying. I've always been too busy worrying about myself. Hofstadter talks about the noncentralizedness of consciousness, that 'I' can be present in another's brain and another in mine. What openness to an expansion of consciousness! I tend to act as a miser with who I am. I'm not apt to share my soul with another or take another soul within my individual brain. It is not surprising that Hofstadter considers empathy the most valuable of human traits, and Albert Schweitzer as one of humanity's best examples of its manifestation in the world. Read this book to understand who you are. Read this book to engage in great philosophical debate. But most of all, read this book to spend time with a thinker who never discounts his feelings, a non-religious philosopher who nevertheless has pushed this reader's spirituality to new heights.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2012

    The short description of this book is: Nonsense about nonsense.

    The short description of this book is: Nonsense about nonsense. My short review of the book is bad nonsense about wonderful nonsense.

    Let me start with the subject of the book, nonsense which I find wonderful. Gödel and Turing demonstrated that the airtight Principia Mathematica of Russell is not as airtight as previously believed. This is a fantastic insight into thinking itself. In a sense ironically, the insight is that self reference, and in particular, thinking about thinking, will get you in trouble and turn everything into nonsense, albeit very useful and intriguing nonsense. But, there go absolute truths. It is indeed a fascinating subject worthy of a lot of pondering.

    So, any treatise of the subject will necessarily be nonsense also. But the book, which to me was bad nonsense, does not do justice to the subject. It is ten times longer than it needs to be. While some of Hofstadter’s concoctions have value, stating each one multiple times in extremely lengthy ways left me trying to figure out how to skip most of his boring verbiage to find the next significant point. Also, his condescending approach constantly telling you that you have to agree with him, particularly when there are plenty of reasonably nonsensical ways to disagree, is way too annoying. For example, souls come in different sizes and although there is a unit of measurement no soul can ever be measured, but souls can be ranked by size and we HAVE to agree with this and his rankings. Really? That’s what I call bad nonsense.

    So, If you have a lot of patience and don’t mind putting up with bad nonsense, go ahead; you’ll likely get something out of this book. Otherwise, unless you are extremely stubborn, chances are you’ll throw the thing into the “will never be finished” book pile.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 5, 2008

    Cleverest book you'll ever read

    This book will take you on a wonderful (and 'loopy') journey through the time, the brain, mathematics, and the concept of self. Hofstadter has an excellent command of language and presents numerous complex topics in a very understandable and readable way. You will 3 this book!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 13, 2007

    A reviewer

    When he was 27, Douglas Hofstadter wrote Gödel, Escher, Bach, a bestselling book loved by precocious teenagers and computer hackers. Its mixture of logic, music and visual art blended the richness of the humanities and the rigor of the sciences in an altogether unforgettable confection that won a Pulitzer Prize. But GEB, as it is affectionately known, was widely misunderstood. Now, at age 62, Hofstadter tries to get his message across more forcefully. Using invented dialogues, fanciful metaphors, mathematical analogies and light-hearted stories, he limns again and again his central point: The self is an illusion or, as he says, 'a hallucination hallucinated by a hallucination.' While this may seem a depressing or, at least, odd conclusion (If the self is unreal, then who is reading this?), it's not. In fact, Hofstadter¿s conclusion has some surprisingly moving consequences about how human beings should regard themselves, other people and animals. This book is a punning, playful meditation on the logical, rather than neuro-biological, structure of the self. We highly recommend this gorgeous, rich, magical work to anyone who wants to see eye to eye with his or her 'I.'

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 2, 2012

    This is an excellent book.

    Hofstadter writes well, on the concept of "thought". Through the use of analogies and first account stories he is able to walk the reader through a series of discussions on human consciousness. He avoids overwhelming the reader on specific subjects but discusses in minor detail everything from cerebral development and physics to human behavior and basic psychology. The book feels more or less like a discussion between the reader and Hofstadter.

    Easy to pick up and hard to put down.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 3, 2009

    We are strange loops

    Wonder where our souls originate? Wonder why you inhabit the body you inhabit? Wonder why you are your I and other are theirs? Professor Hofstadter takes us on a wonderful journey and explains the sights as we go long. We travel through theoretical mathematics (not as dense and difficult using Hofstadter's explanations), the essence of metaphor, and how we as humans use symbols to define ourselves to our world, each other and most importantly to ourselves (hence the strange loop). I highly recommend this book.

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    Posted December 14, 2010

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