I think, therefore I am. But what is think, and what is I? Returning to themes first visited in Gödel, 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-like entity 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.