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I Am a Strange Loop Douglas Hofstadter Basic Books: 412 pp., $26.95

March 18, 2007|Jesse Cohen | Jesse Cohen is the series editor of "The Best American Science Writing 2006."

"THE phonographs of hades in the brain / are tunnels that re-wind themselves...." Hart Crane may have been thinking of other things when he wrote these lines from "The Bridge," but they accord nicely with the ideas and obsessions of Douglas Hofstadter. For close to 30 years, ever since his remarkable debut with the bestselling "Godel, Escher, Bach," Hofstadter has been developing a model of consciousness holding that the brain is a system of "tunnels that re-wind themselves," turning recursively inward to create what we think of as our selves.

Hofstadter's explanation of how brain becomes mind dispenses with immaterial qualities and other kinds of philosophical hocus-pocus that bedevil efforts to solve the "mind-body problem." Trained as a physicist and a computer scientist but endowed with the soul of a philosopher, he posits that as our neurons fire in complex patterns that represent our perceptions, and as these representations (or symbols) swirl and dance in ever more complex ways, their interplay is strong enough and rich enough to produce awareness -- that is, to become self-referential.

This concept of self-reference allows Hofstadter to bring in the work of famed logician Kurt Godel, who proved the incompleteness of sufficiently powerful mathematical systems. The human brain is a system of symbols, and a system of symbols is just what a mathematical language is -- the kind of language that Godel proved could generate self-referential statements. In "Godel, Escher, Bach," Hofstadter called this process of recursive self-representation -- think of an Escher staircase, feeding endlessly into itself, or the lyrics to "The Windmills of Your Mind" -- a "strange loop." And this strange loop constitutes the illusion (yes, the illusion) of consciousness, or the self, or "I" -- terms that, for Hofstadter, are interchangeable.

Hence, "I Am a Strange Loop." (Hofstadter muses in the introduction, "I should probably have called it ' "I" Is a Strange Loop' -- but can you imagine a clunkier title?") His new book is an amplification and extension of the central thesis of "Godel, Escher, Bach," which he felt compelled to revisit: "People liked [it] for all sorts of reasons, but seldom if ever for its most central raison d'etre." That is, they grooved on his rich tapestry of fugues and formulas, hypotheticals and counterfactuals, Zen and Zeno, DNA and AI, but may well have missed his point about what consciousness is.

The marvel of "Godel, Escher, Bach" was not just its abundant insights or its author's infectious joie de savoir and range of reference, which cheerfully demolished the wall between novelist C.P. Snow's "two cultures." Rather, it was that the book itself, with its diverse modes of discourse and stack of nested arguments, modeled the very processes of self-referentiality and "loopiness" occurring in our brains. There was an experiential component to it: How a reader encountered the text was as important to the effectiveness of its argument as the words were.

Something similar is afoot in "I Am a Strange Loop." Once again, the method of argumentation is as important as the argument. But here the structure is looser, the discussion less technical. Having established the "I = strange loop" formula, Hofstadter now wants to show what it means for our souls.

"Soul" is certainly not a term one expects from a materialist like Hofstadter. But in his lexicon, "soul" is interchangeable with "I," "self" or "consciousness" -- just another name for the mind's strange loop. And because a strange loop is an aspect of a physical process, it -- like anything physical -- can be measured.

Can one quantify a soul? Do some people have more "soul" than others? Well, yes: "I believe that a human soul -- and, by the way, it is my aim in this book to make clear what I mean by this slippery, shifting word, often rife with religious connotations, but here not having any -- comes slowly into being over the course of years of development. It may sound crass to put it this way, but I would like to suggest, at least metaphorically, a numerical scale of 'degrees of souledness.' " Citing a favorite comment from the early 20th century music critic James Huneker to the effect that "small-souled men" should not attempt a particularly demanding Chopin etude, Hofstadter cheekily calls the units of this scale "hunekers." Mature human beings average 100 hunekers. Dogs and infants are in the single digits. Violent sociopaths are low on the scale too. And some people have more than 100.

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