This is about I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter; my discussion is picky and pedantic and probably far too long for any but his devotees; but then, their number is many.
Context · I, like a whole lot of other people, bought Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach in 1980 because Martin Gardner said to, and was dazzled by the virtuositic writing, erudition, cool typography, and playfulness.
Unlike most others, I was disappointed at the end of GEB. Granted, I enjoyed and, dare I say, was enlightened by the individual discourses on the genetic code and the Gödel proof and the structure of a Bach fugue and the flavors of recursion and the charming contrast between reductionist and holist explanation and all that other stuff. But at the end of the day and the end of the book, I just didn’t buy the Big Analogy. I don’t think the Gödel proof is much like the genetic code in any interesting way, nor are either much like Bach’s counterpoint.
So what? You don’t have to buy the conclusion to enjoy the experience of getting there, and I would say that if you haven’t read GEB carefully, you’re not sufficiently acquainted with some of the key notions that inform twenty-first century intellectual discourse.
Having said all that, I’m pretty sure that Hofstadter’s finest work, and the one most likely to have intellectual currency a few centuries from now, is Le Ton beau de Marot, which is at once stimulating, entertaining, erudite, beautiful, and tragic.
My Viewing Angle · It’s not unlike Hofstadter’s. I have a math degree and, partly because I play the cello, an emotional connection with Bach. At one point I buckled down with the Nagel book long enough to have convinced myself that I kind of understood Gödel’s argument.
On the other hand, unlike Hofstadter, I eat meat, enjoy watching football on TV, and like rock music in general and Elvis Presley in particular. Go figure.
Strange Loop · In his preface, Hofstadter complains that many who enjoyed (or despised) GEB failed even to notice what he considers its central point, and tells us that this book is another attempt to drive that point home. I worry that he’s talking about precisely that part of GEB where my suspension of disbelief ran out; oh dear.
In this book, I have big problems with his heroic analogizing and think he scoots past too much prior art, but he’s got a core argument about the size of the soul that really doesn’t need the apparatus he stacks against its sides in an effort to support it.
What’s Good · Before I get into nitpicking, I should say that there is some wonderful writing here, as well as two Big Ideas that may not be 100% new but are beautifully argued and deserve the evangelizing. First the writing, and if I may quote by way of example from the conclusion:
Poised midway between the unvisualizable cosmic vastness of curved spacetime and the dubious, shadowy flickerings of charged quanta, we human beings, more like rainbows and mirages than like raindrops or boulders, are unpredictable self-writing poems — vague, metaphorical, ambiguous, and sometimes exceedingly beautiful.
The first big idea is that one person’s consciousness may live, in part, in another person’s brain. The second is that there is not a binary consciousness/no-consciousness switch; some consciousnesses are bigger than others. Hofstadter uses the word “soul” in this context for consciousness. Following his usage: In souls, size matters. And among humans, those with the largest souls are arguably those who are especially gifted at hosting the the souls of others; this produces, among other things, the quality that we label “empathy”, but the argument is bigger and more beautiful than that.
But let me get back to griping, first over Hofstadter’s overambitious analogizing.
The Big Analogy · It seems to me that the most obvious deceased equine tasting the whip here is reductionist/holist tension. He argues over and over that you have to think about high-level problems (a basketball shot, the nature of consciousness, the design of a gas valve) at a high level, without worrying about bosons or neurons or the kinetic theory of gases.
I don’t see why this is controversial or, really, worth his effort. Having said that, if you know anyone who’s a hard-reductionist (I suppose one must exist), make ’em read this and if they don’t chill out, well then, you know they’re insane.
The Gödel Problem · I think Hofstadter has an unhealthy relationship with the Gödel proof; in particular, in obsessing over its mechanics. He really enjoys explicating Gödel’s fiendish cleverness in finding a mapping between the Principia Mathematica apparatus and integer mechanics, and then launching into the analogical wild blue yonder.
As someone who cares about mathematics, although without sufficient talent to make it a profession, it seems to me that Gödel’s conclusion is what matters: you can’t assume that something you can’t prove is false, and you can’t assume that something that’s true can be proved. Let me oversimplify: Truth cannot be mechanized; deal with it.
The two views of Principia Mathematica—Russell’s original and Gödel’s arithmetic mutation—are among the many phenomena to which Hofstadter attaches the “strange loop” label; to me, using this gap as an analogy, for example, to that between thinking about neurons and about cognitive symbols is at best forced. When, as in Chapter 16, Hofstadter takes his point as proved and starts routinely referring to his own consciousness (and implicitly mine) as a “Gödelian swirl”, I find myself actually offended.
Lacunae · While I Am a Strange Loop includes a substantial scholarly apparatus (end-notes, bibliography, index), it skates by some pieces of intellectual history that seem to me both relevant and important. So I’m going to indulge in some pedantry and fill a couple in.
Marx · Hofstadter quotes, and argues furiously in defense of, the argument by Roger Sperry that ideas and statements and mental symbols and in particular the notion of “I” have an objective reality in the world, and this without buying into dualism or religion.
Which is fine; I agree, and while the truth of this notion seems so obvious to me that I wouldn’t have invested the pages in defending it, I particularly enjoyed Hofstadter’s skewering of the sloppy and problematic dualist notion of the “soul”. Having said that, it seems at best rude not to have tipped any hats in the direction of K. Marx, whose influential if now widely-disbelieved writing on economics were heavily interleaved with weighty Teutonic excursions on metaphysics, much of which was concerned with showing that you could be a Materialist and still believe that ideas were Material in the sense of being real and having force in the world.
Theory of Mind · Perhaps the central interesting idea in this book that hasn’t been belabored previously by Hofstadter is the notion that in some meaningful way, the consciousness of one person can exist at least partially in another person’s brain. I won’t repeat his argument, which is eloquent and deeply personal, but it’s a fine piece of work.
But in modern neuropsychology, discussion of Theory of mind is routine; in fact, I recently read something (can’t put my finger on it) that presented evidence that the Theory-of-mind function can be localized to specific regions of the brain.
What is theory of mind? It’s the indispensible ability, while interacting with other people, to imagine what it is they are thinking and feeling. Real communication is (self-evidently, it seems to me) impossible without such a capability, and its lack is implicated in certain mental disorders. Once again, Hofstadter’s lengthy discussion of multiple “strange loops” in one mind, without at least touching on this work, is unfortunate.
The Doors of Perception · In chapter 15, Hofstadter writes “Put less metaphorically, my sense organs feed my brain directly” and goes on to show that in fact your brain is sometimes fed by the sense organs of others. It seems highly relevant to me (and to one of Hofstadter’s other core arguments) that, as Aldous Huxley argued powerfully in The Doors of Perception, your sense organs don’t in fact feed your brain directly.
As Hofstadter argues, your consciousness is in some large part a construct of the your lifetime’s aggregate inputs, obviously involving your sense organs. As he fails to acknowledge, and as Huxley showed, your perceptions are not of the world directly but are filtered through your “I”-ness, through your own structure of consciousness, and thus subject to heavy interpretation and censorship on the way in. Hofstadter is really missing a trick here, because the notion of the consciousness built from the accreted input stream then becoming a primary filter for that stream is probably what he would call a “strange loop”.
On the other hand, Huxley based his argument on his mescaline-eating experiments, which may prejudice some against it.
Read the Book? · I’d probably recommend it. But if you haven’t read Le Ton beau de Marot, go read that one first.