I Am A Strange Loop, By Douglas Hofstadter

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The Independent Culture

A more accurate, if admittedly less wieldy title for Douglas Hofstadter's book about the phenomenon of consciousness would be "One's 'I' Is a Strange Loop". His theory is that that thing which you call your "self", and which feels more real to you than anything else, is in fact a mirage. It's an epiphenomenon which emerges as an unexpected consequence of the fact that your mind perceives and constructs a model of your place in the world.

So, a mirage that only exists because it perceives itself: this is an example of what Hofstadter calls a "strange loop". He has an endearing passion for such self-reflexive paradoxes, and much of this book, as well as most of the one for which he's best known, 1979's Gödel, Escher, Bach, is spent investigating them. He still recalls the frisson of excitement he felt when first shown how to close a cardboard box by tucking flap A under B, B under C, C under D and D under A. He describes the many happy hours he's spent recording video feedback by pointing a camera at the screen to which it's connected. And he again details at length the work of the Austrian logician Kurt Gödel in uncovering a self-referential structure within Bertrand Russell's Principia Mathematica, akin to the discovery of a mathematical equivalent to a sentence such as "this statement is false".

In part because of the chimerical nature of his subject matter, and in part because of the kind of writer Hofstadter is, this is a long, digressive and looping book, full of autobiography and analogy, wordplay and humour, but seeming to contain very little hard science or tricky philosophy. And then, as if by some mysterious emergent phenomenon, by its end you discover that a complex working model of consciousness has arisen and that suddenly, and possibly for the first time, you see and understand your self quite clearly.

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