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Book Review: I Am a Strange Loop

2020-02-06

I Am a Strange Loop, is a book by Douglas Hofstadter concerning the nature of the self. Published in 2007 it’s a followup to his Godel, Escher, Bach, and an attempt to drive home the central theme of that book, which he feels was missed by and large.

In this work Hofstadter explores what he considers to be the experience of the “I”, or self, and how this experience is constructed from a self-referential loop of sorts – his strange loop.

Through the text Hofstadter uses any number of metaphors and “thought experiments” to drive home his loop. Or I think that this is what he’s doing. Hofstadter’s prose at times can be a little wordy but overall he communicates his message well.

The one spot I felt Hofstadter drove home his message most effectively was his exposition of Kurt Godel’s work concerning Principia Mathematica. It’s really pretty incredible what Godel did, which was show that an entire system architected and designed by the geniuses of the time to eliminate all self reference, was actually self-referential through and through.

Hofstadter does a great job of explaining this, even for someone like myself who hasn’t really done math for a while. It’s pretty clever how it works, and the story behind it. It’s these few chapters that get me really excited about reading Godel, Escher, Bach. For me, these are hands down the best chapters of the book.

While I Am a Strange Loop has a lot of loopy stuff in it, this is the work that Hofstadter bases his notions of the self on, and builds his strange loop from.

Where the book falls apart for me is the rest of it though. Not so much that I don’t think he may be right, but I feel like he bounces around a lot and some of the metaphors are more effective than others. It seems to me that he kind of just throws some metaphors at the reader, hoping they may stick, to kind of explain what he’s trying to say.

I can’t really blame him for this though, but I do feel like the book doesn’t have the focus and effectiveness that it could. There are a few things I feel like he could have given more attention. I would have liked to have seen more about the causal potency of patterns he describe. Besides the experience of the self being analogous to the self-referential strange loop he discovers with Godel’s work, Hofstadter, in my opinion dances around what drives the loop a little bit.

Later in the book, nearly at the end, he casually mentions the “so-called problem of free will,” like its no big thing when discussing consciousness. Here Hofstadter, in less than a few pages, declares that we “have wants,” and that our “wants” cause us to do things. He then declares that there is no sense to maintain that our “wants” are free, or that our decisions are. He then claims, they are the outcomes of physical events in our heads.

To me the section in chapter 23, There is no Free Will, is an example of why I feel the book fell apart in some places. I seriously have some issues with just declaring free will a sacred cow, killing it, and then using the reasoning he uses in this section like its some kind of “proof” that there is no such thing. I mean, I wouldn’t to so far as to say that he is totally wrong, I just thing he is missing tying some pieces together, that he lays out in the text.

The experience of the self, through the strange loop, so far as our bodies experience feelings and emotions, is laid out through metaphor and thought experiments. What he is saying kind of boils down, in my opinion, to the idea that if we had thought recorders, for instance, each input that is processed by the mind is recorded, and then played back, we experience this process. As opposed to a computer playing back these inputs – a computer would have no feeling or experience.

In Hofstadter lingo, symbols should be thought of as “a symbol inside a cranium, just like a simmball in the hypothetical careenium, should be thought of as a triggerable physical structure that constitutes the brain’s way of implementing a particular category or concept.” So inputs, to the brain, trigger Hofstadter’s symbols, which does something physically, or whatever.

Honestly reading this book makes me feel like an idiot, but there is a fair amount of writing in this book and enough metaphorical construction (not enough fundamentals) that is put out there in such a way that it feels like a lot of the concepts in it are built on a shaky foundation. Not that I’m doing anything in this post to refute them, just saying this is what it feels like to me. This book is loopy enough to make me want a drink.

The book doesn’t answer who is the I (it kind of tries to), rather I think it explains how through the experience and construction of the loop, we develop an abstraction known as “I,” or the self. I guess what Hofstadter is saying, is that there is no true self – instead our experience constructs an abstraction which appears to us as this through our experience of symbols of which we attach meaning to (the derivation of what meaning is is left out of the book) and feel.

In Chapter 7, The Epi Phenomenon, page 97, Hofstadter says that the “I” is the driver – his words: “If I want something to happen, I just will it to happen, and unless it is out of my control, it generally does happen.” Sentences later while describing the “I”, “How could it be so all-powerful and yet not exist?”

In the next section is Hofstadter compares the bottom up and top down viewpoints using his analogies and declares that it seems that the bottom up is the more fundamental. And this is the course the book takes, and I suppose, it’s from this viewpoint that towards the end he kills the sacred cow of the so-called “free-will.”

Our existence is reduced to biological determinism – have a nice day meat sack. Based upon no less than a notion that the “bottom-up” thinking seems more fundamental, Hofstadter builds the rest of the book. In a way he tries to build up meaning again through a creative use of language to reduce the impact of the meat-sack reductionism he espouses. That’s my hot-take anyway. A harsher take might be to say that pseudo-scientific thought tries to rebuild the meaning it has killed by assigning new meaning to the meaning of the words it has ingloriously killed off.

While the dictionary isn’t written in stone, I think redefining the word symbol, as Hofstadter does in this book, is a mistake, and adds to the confusion I had reading it. Symbol is a vague enough word, but to give it the meaning this book does, is a little frustrating to me.

There are a lot of tangents that Hofstadter goes off on in the book, and a lot of them are interesting, and could be fruitfully pursued further. But the question to me, in this context, is if that fruit would be any good. For a book of science, the only thing “proved” in the book is Godel’s work, showing a system designed to eliminate self-reference was in fact, self-referential. I suppose from an empirical viewpoint, there could be some value in exploring some of Hofstadter’s concepts throughout the book. Or they might just be interesting to read about.

Hofstadter’s strange loop however is described well, and almost romantically in some places, as he seems to portray a secular notion of spirituality built from the experience of individual “selves” which exist in oneself, as well as others. It’s a nice way of kind of laying out an idea of immortality and remembrance of people who have passed, and Hofstadter describes this experience through his own personal life, and the tragic loss of his wife.

While I believe that I agree with the core premise of the book, that is, the strange loop is the experience of the self, I wasn’t really crazy about the book itself. Which is disappointing, because I am looking forward still to reading Godel, Escher, Bach by the same author.

I didn’t like the book mainly because of the writing style. As much as this book is about the strange loop, it’s also about Hofstadter, his opinions, and his life. I mean, I am basically in agreement with just about everything he says in the books. But I lost interest hearing what I think could be considered pseudo-scientific rationalizations of certain aspects of spirituality.

Despite my criticisms of the work, and my reluctance to submit to the viewpoint that all we are is sacks of meat and all of our behavior will one day be reduced to a deterministic system which has been derived from genetics and physics (Hofstadter does not put it so bleakly, but it seems this is his position), I think it’s a good book.

To be fair, Hofstadter does say in the beginning he doesn’t believe philosophical thought can be proved in the same way as mathematics. I kind of have to agree with him here. And he does lay out the course of the work early on, in the dialog he made up between Socrates and Plato when he was younger. Is the self an illusion? And what is to be made of free will?

Hofstadter gives his answer in this book I guess. I’m not even sure he’s wrong anywhere, I’m just not sure he’s right and I certainly didn’t find this to be convincing one way or the other.

Anyway, despite not being totally crazy about this book, or the style of writing, I’m still really looking forward to Godel, Escher, Bach. Hofstadter is a good writer, and he has a lot to say, even if I don’t totally agree with his viewpoint.