What I’ve been reading

Coraline by Neil Gaiman. This is a young adult/older kid’s book about a young girl who finds herself in an alternate world with an evil version of her parents. Entertaining, though slight – and there is going to be a stop-action movie of it made by Tim Burton coming out this year. (And oh – Gaiman’s Graveyard Book, which I wrote about here previously, just won a Newberry Medal. Well deserved, in my view.)

The Sharing Knife: Horizon by Lois McMaster Bujold. I’m a big fan of Bujold – she’s one of the handful of authors who I’ll read whenever she comes out with a new book. I’m much less of a fan of this series, which is a combination romance and fantasy-adventure. Not bad, but not her strongest work. But this, volume four, appears to be the end, so I can look forward to having her write in other worlds again.

I am a Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter. I mentioned this in my last blog post. This book examines the nature of human consciousness, walking a fine line between those who claim that consciousness results in some mystical quantity (often referred to as a “soul”), and those who would say that we’re all only a bunch of particles doing their particle thing. Instead, Hofstadter sees our brains as being symbol processing machines that are sufficiently complex to represent and reflect on ourselves. In other words, we are complex feedback loops, capable not only of presenting photographic feedback (as happens, for example, when you turn a TV camera on a television that shows what that camera is recording), but of containing ourselves as a complex symbol susceptible to detailed analytical reflection. Add in a dollop of some of the more interesting math of the twentieth century (the work of Kurt Goedel, who managed to prove that there are truths outside of any mathematical system that cannot be proven using the tools of that system) and you have a book that deeply impressed me.

I’ll go even further: this book has come closest of anything that I’ve ever come across to matching what I think is the source of the self, and will, after some thought, probably go on the short list of books that had a profound impact on the way I think about the world. I’m probably going to write more about this here in the weeks to come – I’m still processing it, deciding where I agree and disagree with Hofstadter, figuring how it all fits into my own world view. But for now, I leave you with this observation by Hofstadter: consciousness is an illusion viewed by an illusion, lacking the solid reality of the things out in the world, but nevertheless real in the eye of the illusion. And we, of course, are the illusion.

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