I Am a Strange Loop

Hofstadter, Douglas (2007). I Am a Strange Loop. New York: Basic Books. 2007.

L’avevo aspettato con ansia, l’ultimo libro di Hofstadter. Sono passati 10 anni da Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language.

Non sapevo, prima di leggerlo, che sono in qualche modo coinvolto nella genesi di questo libro. Hofstadter racconta di averlo iniziato nell’estate del 2004 in una settimana di studio ad Anterselva, e Boris (assieme a un’altra settantina di fortunati) c’era.

Il tema generale – ma il libro è tutto una digressione – è: che cosa intendiamo quando diciamo “io”? la coscienza, il sé, l’io possono emergere dalla mera materia? L’io è “un’allucinazione allucinata da un’allucinazione”? Il tutto è difficile da riassumere. Non posso che invitarvi a leggerlo. Posso anzi suggerire di iniziare da questo, se non avete mai letto altro, e poi passare agli altri: il più famoso è Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (tradotto in italiano da Adelphi), ma vi raccomando anche tutti gli altri.

Hofstadter è considerato un guru dell’intelligenza artificiale. È, invece, un rarissimo caso di “umanista scientifico” (definizione che, come tutte, lascia molto a desiderare), come Daniel Dennett e Richard Dawkins. Ma lo è con una sensibilità particolarmente toccante, e questo lo rende unico.

Mi limito qui a riprendere 3 spunti:

  1. Sulla definizione di sé (e in ultima istanza, sulle “somiglianze di famiglia“). “Earlier in this chapter, I briefly offered the image of a self as analogous to a country with embassies in many other countries. Now I wish to pursue a similar notion, but I’ll start out with a very simplistic notion of what a country is, and will build up from there. So let’s consider the slogan ‘One country, one people’. Such a slogan would suggest that each people (a spiritual, cultural notion involving history, traditions, language, mythology, literature, music, art, religion, and so forth) is always crisply and perfectly aligned with some country (a physical, geographical notion involving oceans, lakes, rivers, mountains, valleys, prairies, mineral deposits, cities, highways, precise legal borders, and so forth).
    If we actually believed a strict geographical analogue to the caged-bird metaphor for human selves, then we would have the curious belief that all individuals found inside a certain geographical region always had the same cultural identity. The phrase ‘an American in Paris’ would make no sense to us, for the French nationality would coincide exactly with the boundaries of the physical place called ‘France’. There could never be Americans in France, nor French people in America! And of course analogous notions would hold for all countries and peoples. This is clearly absurd. Migration and tourism are universal phenomena, and they intermix countries and peoples continuously.
    This does not mean that there is no such thing as a people or a country, of course. Both notions remain useful, despite enormous blurs concerning each one. Think for a moment of Italy, for instance. The northwestern region called ‘Valle d’Aosta’ is largely French-speaking, while the northeastern region called ‘Alto Adige’ (also ‘Südtirol’) is largely German-speaking. Moreover, north of Milano but across the border, the Swiss Canton Ticino is Italian-speaking. So what is the relationship between the country of Italy and the Italian people? It is not precise and sharp, to say the least – and yet we still find it useful to talk about Italy and Italians. It’s just that we know there is a blur around both concepts. And what goes for Italy goes for every country. We know that each nationality is a blurry, spread-out phenomenon centered on but not limited to a single geographical region, and we are completely accustomed to this notion. It does not feel paradoxical or confusing in the least.
    So let us exploit our comfort with the relationship between a place and a people to try to get a more sophisticated handle on the relationship between a body and a soul. Consider China, which over the past couple of centuries has lost millions of people to emigration. […] There is a strong residual feeling inside China for the ‘Overseas Chinese’. […] This overseas branch of China is thus considered, within China, very much a part of China. It is a ‘halo’ of Chineseness that extends far beyond the physical borders of the land.
    Not just China, of course, but every country has such a halo, and this halo shimmers, sometimes brightly, sometimes dimly, in every other country on earth. If there were a counterpan at the country level to human death, then a people whose ‘body’ was annihilated (by some kind of cataclysm such as a huge meteor crashing into their land) could survive, at least partially, thanks to the glowing halo that exists beyond their land’s physical borders.
    Though horrific, such an image does not strike us as in the least counterintuitive, because we understand that the physical land, no matter how beloved in song and story, is not indispensable for the survival of a nationality. The geographical place is merely the traditional breeding grounds for an ancient set of genes and memes – complexions, body types, hair colors, traditions, words, proverbs, dances, myths, costumes, recipes, and so forth – and as long as a critical mass of carriers of these genes and memes, located abroad, survives the cataclysm, all of this richness can continue to exist and flourish elsewhere, and the now-gone physical place can continue to be celebrated in song and story.
    Although no entire country has ever been physically annihilated, events somewhat like this have happened in the past. I am reminded of the gulping-up of all of Polish soil by Poland’s neighbors […]. In parallel fashion, the original Jews, scattered in biblical times from the cradle of their culture, continued to sunive, keeping alive their traditions, their language, and their beliefs, in the Diaspora.
    In the wake of a human being’s death, what survives is a set of afterglows, some brighter and some dimmer, in the collective brains of those who were dearest to them.” (pp. 272-274).
  2. Sui processi cognitivi (the central loop of cognition). “Mature human brains are constantly trying to reduce the complexity of what they perceive, and that means that they are constantly trying to get unfamiliar, complex patterns made of many symbols that have been freshly activated in concert to trigger just one familiar pre-existing symbol (or a very small set of them).In fact, that’s the main business of human brains – to take a complex situation and to put one’s finger on what matters in it, to distill from an initial welter of sensations and ideas what a situation really is about. […]
    The machinery that underwrites this wonderfully fluid sort of abstract perception and memory retrieval is at least a little bit like what the skeptics were clamoring for – it is a kind of perception of internal symbol-pattern­s, rather than the perception of outside events. Someone seems to be looking at configurations of activated symbols and perceiving their essence, thereby triggering the retrieval of other dormant symbols (which, as we have just seen, can be very large structures – memory packages that store entire romantic sagas, for instance), and round and round it all goes, giving rise to a lively cycle of symbolic activity – a smooth but completely improvised symbolic dance.
    The stages constituting this cycle of symbol-triggerings may at first strike you as being wildly different from the act of recognizing, say, a magnolia tree in a flood of visual input, since that involves an outside scene being processed, whereas here, by contrast, I’m looking at my own activated symbols dancing and trying to pinpoint the dance’s essence, rather than pinpointing the essence of some external scene. But I would submit that the gap is far smaller than one might at first suppose.
    My brain (and yours, too, dear reader) is constantly seeking to label, to categorize, to find precedents and analogues – in other words, to simplify while not letting essence slip away. It carries on this activity relentlessly, not only in response to freshly arriving sensory input but also in response to its own internal dance, and there really is not much of a difference between these two cases, for once sensory input has gotten beyond the retina or the tympani or the skin, it enters the realm of the internal, and from that point on, perception is solely an internal affair.
    In short, and this should please the skeptics, there is a kind of perceiver of the symbols’ activity – but what will not please them is that this ‘perceiver’ is itself just further symbolic activity. There is not some special ‘consciousness locus’ where something magic happens, something other than more of the same, some locus where the dancing symbols make contact with… well, with what? What would please the skeptics? If the ‘consciousness locus’ turned out to be just a physical part of the brain, how would that satisfy them? They would still protest that if that’s all I claim consciousness is, then it’s just insensate physical activity, no different from and no better than the mindless careening of simms in the inanimate arena of the careenium, and has nothing to do with consciousness!” (pp. 277-279).
  3. Sul libero arbitrio (free will). “Our will, quite the opposite of being free, is steady and stable, like an inner gyroscope, and it is the stability and constancy of our non-free will that makes me me and you you, and that also keeps me me and you you. Free Willie is just another blue humpback” (p. 341).

5 Risposte to “I Am a Strange Loop”

  1. morgaine Says:

    Ma la recensione dov’è?

  2. La colonna sonora dell’incontro d’amore ideale (4) « Sbagliando s’impera Says:

    […] abbiano un sé o ce l’abbiano molto rudimentale (è uno dei punti che Hofstadter discute in I Am a Strange Loop). Però è una presenza costante, da cui ogni tanto cerchiamo di sfuggire: il grande successo delle […]

  3. Lev Tolstoj – Anna Karenina « Sbagliando s'impera Says:

    […] «[…] Dice che siete una vera eroina di romanzo e che, se fosse un uomo, farebbe mille sciocchezze per voi. Strémov le dice che le fa anche così.» [6783: Tolstoj gioca con gli strange loops] […]

  4. Daniel C. Dennett – Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking | Sbagliando s'impera Says:

    […] Mi piacerebbe poterlo scrivere non soltanto metaforicamente, ma la realtà letterale è che – dopo avere letto Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (non riesco a ricordare in quale anno, ma la mia copia è molto consunta ed è datata 1983) di Douglas R. Hofstadter, ed esserne rimasto folgorato (è certamente uno di quei libri che hanno contribuito più profondamente a cambiare il mio modo di pensare) – mi sono imbattuto in The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul, di cui Hofstadter era autore insieme a Daniel C. Dennett, all’epoca a me del tutto sconosciuto. Anzi, se devo essere sincero (sì, lo so che sono liberissimo di non esserlo, è soltanto un modo di dire), dall’alto della mia spocchia eurocentrica ero molto diffidente rispetto alla possibilità che potessero esistere dei filosofi americani. Per Hofstadter era stato amore a prima vista, cresciuto libro dopo libro (Metamagical Themas: Questing For The Essence Of Mind And Pattern del 1985, anche se io ho l’edizione Penguin del 1986; Fluid Concepts And Creative Analogies: Computer Models Of The Fundamental Mechanisms Of Thought del 1995) fino allo struggente Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language del 1997. Paradossalmente, questo amore prima incondizionato ha mostrato qualche incrinatura proprio da quando ho avuto occasione di conoscere Doug Hofstadter personalmente nel 2004: ma forse quella di nutrire dubbi è una caratteristica dell’amore maturo. Resta il fatto che I Am a Strange Loop del 2007 mi è piaciuto meno degli altri libri (ne ho scritto una recensione su questo blog, che trovate qui). […]

  5. Gli elastici degli astici | Sbagliando s'impera Says:

    […] Per le sensazioni serve un’organizzazione cerebrale, una complessità, una presenza di strange loops ben […]


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