I Am a Strange Loop. Douglas R. Hofstader. xxiii + 384 pp.
Basic Books, 2007. $26.95.
Douglas Hofstadter suffers from the grave disadvantage of having
written a masterpiece as a young man: the utterly unique
Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. This
exhilarating intellectual and rhetorical extravaganza, published in
1979, was focused on the new ways of studying life and minds that
were being offered by cognitive science. The book spanned
mathematical logic, artificial intelligence, artificial life,
psychology, neuroscience and the philosophy of mind. Along the way,
it provided deep insights into mathematics, music and
creativity—plus countless deliciously outrageous puns. Despite
the puns, it was translated many times and became a cult book worldwide.
One might almost say it was incomparable. But, inevitably, all his
later work was compared with Gödel, Escher, Bach. And,
also inevitably, his readers' expectations have been largely
disappointed. Even his fascinating 1997 book, Le Ton Beau de
Marot—a discussion of language and of the challenges, and
the very possibility, of translation—couldn't measure up. It
was a masterwork in itself, sparkling with subtle insights and
stimulating asides. Yet it, too, suffered in comparison with its predecessor.
Hofstadter's new book, deeply thought-provoking though it is, is
less engaging than either Gödel, Escher, Bach or
Le Ton Beau de Marot. Yet I Am a Strange Loop
carries the high hopes of its author, not just those of its
readers. Hofstadter feels that his first book, despite its massive
popularity, has been widely misunderstood. Its fundamental message
seems not to have been noticed: "It sometimes feels as if I had
shouted a deeply cherished message out into an empty chasm and
nobody heard me." This new volume is his attempt to set the
The core intellectual claim, then, is much the same as that of
Gödel, Escher, Bach: namely, that a proper
understanding of Gödel's proof helps us to see that life, mind
and self are all constituted not by biochemistry but by the
higher-level patterns that biochemistry makes possible. In
particular, human selves are abstract self-referential (reflexively
looping) patterns that arise spontaneously out of the meaningless
base of neural activity.
These patterns are real, albeit abstract. And they have real causal
power, even though they are epiphenomena generated by the brain.
They affect other patterns within the mind-complex, and they loop
back into the brain itself. Unlike the complex patterns generated
when a video camera is focused on a television screen showing its
own output (an analogy repeatedly used to demystify the notion of
strange loops), the human-self patterns can determine changes within
the system's hardware. But this mind-brain causation is nothing
"spooky" or supernatural. It's an emergent consequence of
the physical complexity of human brains.
Electrical signals and neurochemicals, or the porridge-like matter
inside the skull, seem distinctly unpromising as origins of mind or
meaning. Indeed, Hofstadter scorns John Searle's suggestion that
neuroprotein constitutes "the right stuff" for
intentionality and consciousness, whereas silicon or old beer cans
obviously do not. What's important is not the stuff in itself, but
the looping patterns of activity that emerge from it—whatever
its chemistry happens to be. So whereas many philosophers despair of
there being any scientific, naturalistic explanation of
meaning, Hofstadter does not. But he doesn't accept the currently
popular neuroscientific reductionism either. In his view,
neuroscience can never capture the essence of mind. Indeed, the
neuroscientific details are in an important sense
irrelevant—even though they are, at base, what makes mind possible.
If a brain were all that one needed, then a newborn baby would greet
the world with a mind ready-formed, albeit nearly empty. Indeed,
many people assume that each human individual is equipped with a
special inner essence at birth, perhaps even from the moment of
conception. On the contrary, says Hofstadter, the mind-pattern
develops gradually. Newborn babies are human beings only
genetically, biologically or potentially. They don't yet
have human minds, still less reflective human selves. Such patterns
take many years to emerge.
The self, in short, is a lifelong construction. Up to a point, it's
amenable to deliberate (reflexive) self-molding. It's a unifying
pattern that enables its subpatterns—our desires, beliefs,
plans and actions—to cohere and to advance toward freely (that
is, personally) chosen ends. Hofstadter stresses the
reality, and even the necessity, of the self. Far
from being an arbitrary pattern, it emerges naturally from our
neural activity, much as the video image on the screen emerges from
the physics of the self-looping video camera. And it's a pattern
without which the person concerned simply couldn't exist, because
for that self to exist at all just is for that pattern to
be instantiated—a point to which I'll return.
The first half of the book adds little to what Hofstadter wrote 30
years ago, apart from some interesting personal memories about the
writing and reception of Gödel, Escher, Bach. So, for
instance, there are several chapters on Gödel's proof.
Hofstadter argues that this proof shows how meaningful
self-reference ("strange loops") can emerge out of so
apparently unpromising a base as the dry—and semantically
empty—logic of Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead.
Why should we care about that? Because, he says, the particular way
in which Gödel's proof went beyond Russellian logic is
essentially the same as the way in which psychology goes beyond
neuroscience, or mind beyond brain.
These "logical" chapters do, as Hofstadter hoped, clarify
the central argument of Gödel, Escher, Bach. They
provide some new explanatory metaphors, while avoiding the
potentially distracting references to other areas that made the
first book so richly exciting. But readers who are logic-phobic, or
already persuaded (perhaps by Gödel, Escher, Bach
itself) of this metamathematical point, may not be interested. They
may decide to skip, or anyway to skim, them. What they shouldn't do,
however, is to skip the rest of the book.
The second half of I Am a Strange Loop starts with an
intensely personal account of the author's savage grief following
the sudden death of his wife, the mother of their two infant
children, in December 1993. To supplement his memories of that
wretched time, and of the years of mourning—and the permanent
sense of loss—that followed, Hofstadter includes lengthy
extracts from an extended e-mail correspondence that he had in 1994
with his friend and colleague the philosopher Daniel Dennett.
Why is this account, emotionally gripping though it is, relevant
here? What can a description of such suffering add to a volume
inspired by Gödel's proof? Well, remember the antireductionist
claim cited above: that the self is—repeat,
is—an abstract pattern, which emerges from a feedback
system of sufficient complexity—namely, the adult human brain.
If the self, the mind or the soul—Hofstadter uses these three
terms more or less interchangeably—is not the brain, it's not
obvious that it must cease to exist when the (dead) person's
brain-stuff is dispersed by flames or by decay. Certainly the self
can no longer be instantiated by that very brain-stuff, because the
relevant complexity, or organization, has disappeared. But perhaps
it can be instantiated elsewhere—in the minds or selves of the survivors?
Hofstadter argues that it can. This is not merely a question of the
survivors still having memories of the dead person, although that is
indeed essential. Rather, it's a question of that person's self, her
idiosyncratic "point of view," having entered into the
selves of the survivors over past years. And this, in turn, is not a
question of mere psychological influence, as when one spouse
"catches" a love of opera from the other. Rather, each
spouse interpenetrates the other's mental life and personal ideals
over the years. In short, each spouse lives in the other, albeit at
a much less fine-grained level (the same overall pattern, but
represented by fewer personal pixels). And a spouse who dies
continues to live after death in the bereaved partner and, to a
lesser extent, children and close friends.
That phrase lives in is to be interpreted literally here.
The self, even the consciousness, of the dead person still survives
within the mind-patterns of the survivors. I spoke, above, of
Hofstadter's "permanent loss." What's lost is not the
whole person, however, but the rich details (the missing pixels,
which had existed within that person's own self-pattern during her
bodily life)—plus, of course, the instantiation in her
body/brain of what would have been her future story. But that future
story (again, in a less detailed way) can still be told, even
experienced, thanks to the survivors. In a real sense, according to
Hofstadter, his wife did live to see her children grow up.
That may sound weird, not to say crazy—even to readers who
believe in an immortal soul. Had anyone else said it, one might
write it off as mere wishful thinking or as unthinking
sentimentality. But those charges alone can't dismiss Hofstadter's
remarks. For he had long believed that the self is an abstract
pattern—as a careful reading of Gödel, Escher,
Bach makes clear. One reason that he had such a lengthy e-mail
exchange with Dennett at that time was that their philosophies of
mind were very similar. If anyone could understand, and resonate
with, what Hofstadter was saying, Dennett could. (So could the
artificial-intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, whose ideas about
mind had deeply influenced Dennett and with whom Hofstadter
exchanged similar e-mails.)
To be sure, the sincerity and longevity of a belief, and even the
prior generation of arguments intended to buttress it, can't
guarantee its truth. Perhaps Hofstadter's conclusions about mind and
self, newly expressed here without the distracting richness of
Gödel, Escher, Bach, are unsound? Readers will
judge that for themselves. But they must allow that this is not a
trivial volume. Hofstadter's grief-ridden memoir tests his
philosophy in the most personally challenging way. It's a deep book
and merits our attention.