Who's Counting: Hofstadter's Strange Loops -- as Well as Colbert and Borat

Who are you? Douglas Hofstadter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid," has just written a sequel to that much-acclaimed book in which he focuses on the nature of consciousness and self.

What does it mean to be conscious, to be self-aware? What is a self? What is an "I"? One reason it is so difficult to get a scientific handle on these questions is that we're too close to them. We can't employ the usual scientific technique of stripping away the subjective elements of a phenomenon to arrive at an objective account of it since it is the subjective elements we want to understand.

The gist of Hofstadter's answer to these questions in "I Am a Strange Loop" is that the self and awareness are best understood by looking at higher-level patterns and structures made possible by the underlying biochemistry of our brains. These patterns and structures are self-referential and emerge over time from complex neuronal activity.

What does this mean? One of the joys of Hofstadter's book is that it is full of suggestive metaphors. To hint at the unexpected consequences of even the simplest self-reference, for example, he considers a video camera aimed at a television monitor that shows its own output resulting, especially when the camera is moving, in a variety of hall-of-mirrors effects, some familiar, some not.

Careeniums and Simmballs

Another illuminating metaphor helps elucidate how symbolic thought emerges from lower-level neuronal buzz. Hofstadter asks us to imagine a billiard table with countless small interacting magnetic marbles, or simms. These simms careen around the table, leading Hofstadter to term it the careenium.

Sometimes these simms clump together magnetically and form spherical clusters of simms or simmballs. The simms move around randomly, but these larger simmballs have trajectories that are partially determined by external forces to the careenium, and their movement thus begins to model conditions outside the careenium.

Substituting cranium for careenium, individual neurons for simms, and symbols for simmballs, we understand that these symbols and structures gradually reflect a more and more refined representation of the outside world. Note that this awareness does not inhere in individual nerve cells but in the large-scale structures, the symbols, within the brain.

Symbols develop for all manner of entities including, at a sufficiently complex level of development, a symbol for an "I," that is, a symbol that represents itself. This symbol is aware of itself and of other objects, people, ideas, desires, fears, motivations, et cetera, but not of the neurons of which it's composed. The stories of our "I" symbols are the stories of our lives.

Strange Loops and Godel

This self-referential emergent loop that is the "I" symbol is indeed strange and abstract. Hofstadter argues that neuronal commotion can give rise to high-level symbolic thought in something like the way that dry statements about numbers can be interpreted, via appropriately clever codings and other techniques, as high-level statements about provability, consistency and the like.

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