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Self Assembly

Margaret Boden

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.

Image from a “Video Voyage”Click to Enlarge Image

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 record straight.

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.

Douglas Hofstadter in Click to Enlarge Image

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.

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