Douglas Hofstadter: I Am a Strange Loop.

Two weeks ago I finished reading Douglas Hofstadter‘s 2007-book I Am a Strange Loop. I haven’t read other Hofstadter’s books and I want to write this review before I read any. My next Hofstadter-book is going to be Gödel Escher Bach — An Eternal Golden Braid which appears to be the most famous of his books, mysterious, misunderstood, deep and long and I can’t wait to start reading it!

The book made a generous impact on me and I recommend its reading to anyone. The book is about conciousness and aims to explain what is the human “I”. Or, what is a soul. Before I opened Hofstadter’s book I often said “What is meant by a soul?”, “What is that soul everybody are talking about?”. After I closed Hofstadter’s book, I understood indeed, at least partially, what this vague concept can mean. Best of all, Hofstadter’s notion of soul is in harmony with both the scientific world view and most soul-discussions out there. Other important mind-buggling questions that I had and that have been given a great chance to be answered (and some of them answered indeed) include those that are listed here.

The author of the book carefully builds analogies after analogies, examples after examples of a concept that he names “a strange loop“. The claim is that “I” is a strange loop, as the title of the book suggests. The loop originates in self-refence and self-representation. That is, a human being’s symbol and representation repertoire is so rich that it can form a symbol, a representation of itself. Accurate that representation need not be, but almost in every thought it is present. “I remember”, “I remember remembering”, “I am here”, “I remember I was here” and so on. The book is not about “I” as word referring to the physical system of our body, it is about the word “I” which refers to our conciousness, our mental activity, our “inner light”, our soul. The author explains via analogies and real and artificial examples, where does this “I” come from, why it feels like being “somewhere” and being us. One delightful (artificial) example is a world in which pairs of persons (which Hofstadter calls pairsons) develope common identities. I hesitated first whether this is a fair analogy, unless… I realized that our brains are formed from two halves which are quite isolated, distinct “brains” with many different functions even.

The language of the book is marvelous, it is pleasant to read. Sometimes (only) Hofstadter is a bit too down-to-Earth with his endless lists of concrete special cases of abstract concepts. They do make the book easier to read for many people, I suppose, but my mathematically adjusted brain would be happy with shorter lists as well.

The book includes a popular exposition of the Gödel’s incompleteness theorem which is one of the best popular expositions of a mathematical theorem I know. It is endowed in the context of the book however, so those who are interested in reading only that part of the book (hopefully not many) will experience some deviations from the main subject. As I already knew a big deal about Gödel’s theorem, I might be a bad judge, but I believe that if the reader is careful and thoughtful, she (or he) will get a good picture of what is going on in Gödel’s ideas.

It is fascinating how deeply Hofstadter is able to analyse entities which are so meagerly explored (human cognition and human brain) and partly the cost that has to be paid is the lack of scientific evindence or a clear-cut sceintific framework which could suggest meaningful experiments… so far!

So… if you want to know more… go and read the book instead of wasting your time at random blogs!

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2 Responses to Douglas Hofstadter: I Am a Strange Loop.

  1. Len says:

    Vadim, thanks for your review!
    I wanted to read the book for a long time but only got a chance when I was stuck at my home for a couple of days during hurricane Irene. Of course, I red GEB couple of times already. What strikes me about the Strange Loop is that it is based essentially on a single old idea of “strangeness” of downward causality and all that follows from it. The book gives it additional clarity by bringing together all its different manifestations from math to mind, but the comprehensive philosophical analysis of this old problem is not up to date, in my view. For example, the Searle’s criticism in the first chapters is quite shallow given how much was written lately on the subject of Mind-Body problem by Searle and others. Missing is analysis of seemingly downward causality in strange loops and its ontological status. Is “I” an epiphenomenon? What do you think?

    • Thank you for the comment, Len. Indeed, ‘I Am a Strange Loop’ was the first Hofstadter-book I read (and one first books on the philosophy of mind), so many ideas were new to me. For Searle’s criticism, I don’t think that Hofstadter meant to seriously crush Searle’s philosophy, it was not the point of the book; rather he wanted to clarify his own ideas by contrasting them to Searle’s.

      Wikipedia says about “epiphenomenon” that it can be an effect of primary phenomena (in this case brain/physical system), but cannot affect a primary phenomenon. In this sense the answer is twofold: as Hofstadter explains, we can conceptualize audio waves so that they actually have an impact on our ears, despite “waves” is an epiphenomenon the primary phenomenon being quantum mechanics. It is reasonable to say that ‘my the mind affects my arm’, even from purely materialistic point of view, as ‘waves affect my ear’. In that sense it is not an epiphenomenon; but thinking this way, I am not sure if anything at all can qualify as an epiphenomenon… On the other hand, yes I think it is an epiphenomenon in the conventional sense, i.e. that the brain alone is sufficient to produce it. What do you think? Your blog discusses that but didn’t (yet) come to a conclusion?

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