Douglas Hofstadter – I Am A Strange Loop

Finally a book that proves we are fractals. Joking aside, in a more serious approach Hofstadter states in his book that consciousness can arise from a pattern called a “strange loop”.  The core problem of cognitive science in general is, that how can chemicals and inanimate matter form such thing as consciousness, that seems to be much more complex and chaotic than the machine-like environment of biology and physics. A strange loop is a hierarchy of levels, each of which is linked to at least one other by some type of relationship. In a strange loop hierarchy there is no well defined highest or lowest level, moving through the levels, one eventually returns to the starting point. Self-referential thought patterns, fractals, the ideas behind some works by Escher, certain music pieces like canons are examples for this. In short, a strange loop is a paradoxical level-crossing feedback loop.

The famous Liar’s Paradox (“This statement is false.”) is kind of a strange loop, as the sentence is refering to itself causing a logical paradox, we are oscillating between two levels of it’s hierarchy, always arriving back to another layer.

strangeloop-cover

One rarely comes across such an exciting book as anything by Hofstadter, his writings are challenging but rewarding. The author has a really gentle way of explaining, I’m pretty sure he must be a really good teacher, but this doesn’t change the fact that his books have such technical depth that is often not so easy to understand, I read this book two times already and probably will need more reads still.  Even if you can’t follow every threads and puzzle pieces, it is enjoyable to rediscover familiar thoughts or get new perspective on things by the concept of a strange loop.  Because as you see from the examples, the actual subject of the book are everyday things, like well-known biology, ancient tales, or famous theorems like Gödel’s.

There are several novel-like parts, the introduction already feels like a biography, and yet it’s the perfect introduction to such subject. Hofstadter mainly explains why he became vegetarian, and how do the consciousness of plants and animals differ greatly. Besides the economic reasons (the land you grow crops for animals to eat later could be used to feed us instead), this part of his book was a great fuel for my vegetarian diet as well. Though eating either plants or animals are killing, the main diference is in consciousness, as plants have no capability of self-refering thoughts. They feel pain, but they don’t know the magic concept of “I”.  Pain is truly a chemical reaction in this level, not a personal phenomena like for animals and especially for humans.

Compared to his earlier book, “Gödel, Escher, Bach”, this one is kind of easier to read because of the biography-like parts. While the first one was filled with technical examples, this latter one is filled with stories of life. If you decide to read any of them, then you may need to read both, the order is not important.

Standard