Douglas Hofstadter:
"I Am A Strange Loop" (Basic, 2007)

(Copyright © 2009 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
This is a thick book, but it could and should have been a lot thinner. I confess quite a bit of frustration. Hofstadter spends way too much time in anecdotes that are in between senile blabbering and unrestrained self-glorifying. It takes him forever to make the point he wants to make. If, like me, to get impatient and skip to the next paragraph, you may miss the point, because it was hidden in a verbose description of a biographical event or in an elaborate analogy that only made it harder to understand.

This is also a book that lacks good foundations. At the very beginning he mentions being intrigued by the title of a book. He admits that he didn't read the book, but the book is then listed in the bibliography (which, by the way, reveals major holes in his knowledge of state-of-the-art cognitive science). One wonders how many of the books in that bibliography he has never read. It sounds like Hofstadter wanted to write a book of aphorisms (partly inspired by his own life and partly inspired by catchy titles) but ended up expanding each aphorism to the point that they became tales, and the tales became a thick book.

A scholarly work should always start with a survey of contemporary theories (if nothing else, to show which ones the author has studied). Hofstadter starts out with bits and pieces of his autobiography.

This explains statements that are controversial at best. For example, in chapter three he argues that "although what happens on the lower level is responsible for what happens on the higher level, it is nonetheless irrelevant to the higher level". First of all, philosophers have been discussing the pros and cons of reductionism for centuries: it would have helped to summarize what previous and contemporary scholars said about this subject. He proceeds to claim that "no one really knew the slightest thing about atoms... and people got along perfectly well". Except that they were dying like flies of all sorts of diseases and that they couldn't build most of the objects that are in your house today. I doubt that any of us would want to go back and live in the age when people didn't know what an atom is and "got along perfectly well".

After about 50 pages of this kind of detours, Hofstadter finally gets to the point. His point has to do with feedback loops. He correctly points out that even the simplest feedback loop is a powerful mechanism to generate complex behavior. (He can't help making irrelevant comments, such as that society would discourage people from making representations of one's own self, which is like saying that society discourages people from drinking milk, i.e. it is so vague and undocumented that it might as well be true or false). The best example he provides is barking dogs: one barking dog causes another dog to start barking, which in turn causes other dogs to start barking, which in turn encourages the first dog to keep barking. While this is not exactly the kind of loop he was describing in the previous pages (the self-watching television system), it does deliver the sense that a trivial event can create a self-sustaining pattern that seems to have a life of its own. The origin of the pattern becomes irrelevant. It has given rise to something else. He calls it "a new level of reality".

He gives a convoluted definition a few chapters later, that i try to summarize in one sentence: a "strange loop" is a loop in which each cycle constitutes a transition from one level of abstraction to another. Alas, he uses as an example Escher's famous drawing of the two hands drawing each other, a kind of loop that creates no new level of abstraction (only an optical illusion), and therefore confuses the very definition that he just gave. A few chapters later he seems to retract his statement about "strange loops" by implying that they can only exist in the human brain: "What makes a strange loop appear in a brain and not in a video feedback system is... the ability to think". (A statement that, of course, does not help to define thinking in terms of strange loops, since strange loops seem to require thought as a precondition).

His description of Godel's theorem is hopelessly diluted. After several chapters of digressions, the reader will probably just feel like yawning. If his point was that our consciousness is somehow related to the kind of loops revealed by Godel's theorem, i doubt you'll understand it from such a diluted discussion. By the end of the book i still have not understood where the similarity between the self and Godel's theorem lies. It probably requires a lot more Math knowledge than i can muster (i have a degree in Math). Godel's theorem simply states that every system of logic (of the kind that logicians ordinarily use) must contain at least one statement that says "I am unprovable". In order to prove this theorem Godel did use a kind of loop, but neither the sentence, nor its existence nor the loop used to prove it seem to me plausible analogies for the emergence of consciousness in human brains.

Now on to the good news.

The most intriguing meditation of the first part of the book is that the self can exist not only because of an ability (consciousness, which is basically a tautology) but also because of an inability: we are unable to perceive the working of our brain. Our mind's ability to create symbols (categories, concepts, ideas) out of the signals it receives through the senses becomes the very limit of our mind's ability to understand reality: it can't perceive anything at lower levels. Our mind cannot peer below the level of symbols. Were we able to perceive the detailed operations of our brain's neurons, we probably wouldn't be "self-aware". The self is an illusion that is created by the fact that we don't perceive ourselves as billions of neurons exchanging electrochemical messages. We perceive ourselves and our lives and the world around us as concepts: sun, busy, good, tired, etc. At the physical level each of these is an electrochemical process in our brain that involves millions of neurons. We know it as a scientific fact, but we do not perceive it. Thinking is inherently opaque: when i think of myself, i think of my goals, failures, desires, memories, but i don't think of Neuron 345-769-045 triggering Neuron 745-809-760 triggering Neuron... On the other hand, the self is capable of perceiving the symbolic activity: we "know" that we know something, we can retrace the steps of our logic, we can argue with ourselves why we believe in something. We cannot perceive the working of the neurons that make concepts possible (the working of our neural life), but we can perceive the working of our conceptual life. Hence consciousness dwells not at the level of the neurons but at the level of the concepts. "Our very nature is such as to prevent us from fully understanding its very nature".

A self is "the lifelong loop of a human being's self-representation", and that is a "strange loop", of the kind that Godel discovered in his truth-smashing theorem.

Then the book shifts gear and, to me, becomes more interesting, or at least more honest in that it becomes a philosophical meditation. It starts with the author's touching recollection of his late wife. And it becomes a book of contemplative philosophy. The broad theme is that the statement "one brain one soul" is a fallacy. Two bodies who spend their life together become one soul. At the same time your soul is spread throughout all the people (brains) who know you and whom you know. Your brain contains the strange loops of many other selves (of all the people you know), although those strange loops are rough copies (not identical copies) of the originals. A soul is housed in many brains.

This also provides an escape to eternity: your soul will keep existing long after your brain died, because it will still be housed in all the other brains that house it, although in a "low-resolution" version. (Of course there is still the fundamental fact that i am writing "your brain", i.e. something absolute has died about you).

Towards the end the author also manifests his skepticism towards free will ("there's no such thing as free will"), although it sounds like it's more about the word "free" than the word "will". He believes that the will is real, and it's what gives us our identities: it is just not "free" because it is the outcome of physical processes that happen in our brains.

Then he briefly talks about morality. He starts with the observation that in some languages the word for "conscience" and "consciousness" is the same. He believes that having a conscience is in fact a prelude to having a consciousness. His argument is basically that conscious beings are not only conscious of themselves but also of others (we can even identify with imaginary people that we encounter in films and novels), and therefore conscious beings evolve a conscience. The logic is flaky, but the concept is interesting. He views generous beings as having a "large soul" because they "internalize the abstract essences of other human brains". In his opinion, a precondition to being conscious (to having a self) is to have a "sense of other selves with whom one has bonds of affection". In other words, evil and selfish people are way less conscious than good and altruistic people. We are conscious not because our brains are capable of qualia but because our brains are capable of friendship and love.

The curse of this book are the "simple" examples, the "simple" analogies and (gasp) the dialogues. That's where the author loses his reader.

One wishes the book had been more about the philosophical meditations of the second half than about the shaky cognitive science of the first half.

P.S./ Trivia

In his previous and much more famous book, "Goedel, Escher, Bach", Hofstadter pointed at the lithograph "Print Gallery" (1956) as a strange loop. Hendrik Lenstra actually filled the hole that Hofstadter (and Escher) thought was unfillable, and Lenstra's solution was based on a 1959 idea by John Tate. In private conversations a distinguished mathematicians wrote to me "I burst out laughing when I saw its arguments were for why the hole could not be filled in - strained analogies to the Godel Incompleteness Theorem (and abuse of multiple meanings of the word "incomplete"), which has nothing at all to do with Print Gallery." So, as much as i respected and respect Douglas Hofstadter's work, take his books with a grain of salt.

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