362 of 391 people found the following review helpful
Douglas Hofstadter is an exceptionally bright and witty man, with a gift for analogy. This no doubt makes him entertaining company and a pleasure to have as a teacher, but at the same time it sometimes gets in the way of the message he's trying to convey- the allegories and metaphors become the dominant message, and the core gets lost in translation.
This is of course exactly what happened with Hofstadter's 1979 tour-de-force "Godel, Escher and Bach"; it was roundly praised to the heavens by scores of reviewers, none of whom seemed to notice that it was in fact a very clever way of presenting a theory of conciousness and intelligence. This bothered Hofstadter as well, as he tells us in the introduction to "I Am a Strange Loop", and so he set out to tell the story again, this time in a more straightforward manner. I'm not so sure he succeeded.
The bulk of "I Am a Strange Loop" is devoted to explaining Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, with a minimum of math and a lot of allegory and allusion. Much of it seems repetitious, and all of it is, I think, wasted, as the end product of all this attmepted explanation seems to be simply one more metaphor- that what's going on in the brain/mind is something very much like what's going on in Godel's theory: That a theory, or a formula, or a sentance, or a "thing," can contain within it a complete representation of itself. Hofstadter calls this a "strange loop", and believes that, combined with input from outside that adds to this (and other) loops is the wellspring from which consciousness springs.
I first heard this notion expressed in the following manner (although I don't recall who wrote it): Every living thing has in it some representition of the outside world. A plant has in some sense a representation of the sun, that allows it to bend towards it. A bacterium moving along a gradient of nutrients contains within it a representation of this source of nutrition. A bee has representations of hive, flower, sun, and other concepts that guide it goal-seeking behavcior. And so on, up the evolutionary line. When that representation become complete and complex enough to include itself, that is the birth of consciousness. This is not a particularly original notion, although when Hofstadter wrote GEB back in the 70s it wasn't a particularly widely held idea in psychology. At the same time, it was't a completely alien idea, either.
In the last few chapters Hofstadter toys with some more or less current ideas in the philosophy of mind, like Chalmer's "zombie", and presents us with a few more allegories and clever tales, none of which, I think, end up clarifying this position terribly well. One is left with the feeling that Hofstadter has a very strong intuitive sense of how conciousness evolves from these strange loops of self-representation, and what's he's struggling to do is to let us share his intuitions. I find that I share some of these intuitions with him, particualrly with his notions of where the self is represented, and representations of others alongside the self, and I think there's a germ of some powerful explanation hiding in there, but I can't seem to provide any more illumination than can Hofstadter.
And that in turn reminds me of something I was told at the beginning of my teaching career: If you can't explain something clearly and simply to another person, then you don't fully undertsand it. I think that's where Hofstadter is with respect to consciousness: He has a lot of intutions and parallels he can pull out, but in the end, he doesn't really have a theory of conciousness.
216 of 236 people found the following review helpful
You have certainly enjoyed the sensation of looking into a mirror that itself reflected a mirror, making a tunnel of reflections that went as deep as you could see. The same sort of thing happens when you take a television camera and turn it onto a monitor that is showing what the television camera is taking a picture of. But there is something spooky about such a loop. In fact, when young Doug Hofstadter's family was looking to purchase its first video camera, Hofstadter (showing in youth the sort of interest in self-reference that he would turn into a writing career) wondered what would happen if he showed the camera a monitor that itself showed the camera's own output. He remembers with some shame that he was hesitant to close the loop, as if he were crossing into forbidden territory. So he asked the salesman for permission to do so. "No, no, _no_!" came the reply from the salesman, who obviously shared the same fears, "Don't do _that_ - you'll break the camera." And young Hofstadter, unsure of himself, refrained from the experiment. Afterwards he thought about it on the drive home, and could see no danger to the system, and of course he tried it when they got home. And he tried it again many times; video feedback is one of the themes in Hofstadter's monumental and delightful _Gödel, Escher, Bach_ (known by millions as GEB) from 1979, and it comes back for further discussion (with more advanced hardware) in Hofstadter's new _I Am a Strange Loop_ (Basic Books). As in his other books, Hofstadter has written a deeply personal work, even though he is taking on the eternal philosophical bogey of consciousness, and has written once again with a smoothness and a sense of fun that will entrance even casual readers with no particular interest in philosophy or consciousness or mathematics into deep and rewarding thought.
Hofstadter's theme here is consciousness, or "I" or (and he shuns religious connections to the word) the soul. Humans have consciousness. Dogs seem to have some ability to understand what other dogs (and humans) are feeling, some way of representing themselves and others within their own brains. Goldfish, well that's pretty iffy. Mosquitoes have no capacity for self-knowledge. And go further down that scale. How about the neuron itself? Is there any consciousness there? After all, mosquito neurons aren't really much different from human ones, they are just more numerous and tangled in humans. Further down: DNA molecules - conscious or not? Further: carbon atoms - wait a minute, there's not even the possibility that an inanimate atom could have consciousness. Thus the great paradox, looked at repeatedly from different viewpoints here: inanimate matter, properly organized, yields consciousness. We take it all for granted, but it is all profoundly puzzling. Every human brain working at the symbol level (but very much dependent on neural and chemical foundations) "perceives its very own 'I' as a pusher and a mover, never entertaining for a moment the idea that its star player might merely be a useful shorthand standing for a myriad infinitesimal entities and the invisible chemical transactions taking place among them." The "I" is an illusion, an effective one that has great survival value for its possessors. This could be dense stuff, but Hofstadter's analogies are brilliant, as are many of his puns; he reminds us, "Just as we need our eyes in order to _see_, we need our "I"'s in order to _be_!" Hofstadter is fun to read.
Hofstadter's last book, _Le Ton beau de Marot_, was a long meditation on language and translation, and contained many reflections about his wife Carol, who sadly and suddenly died of a brain tumor in 1993 before she was 43. Carol reappears many times in the current work; it is clear that she and Hofstadter had an unusually deep and affectionate marriage, "one individual with two bodies". He is able to write movingly of what he has learned from the loss, how Carol's mind, her "Carolness" or "Carol-consciousness" has been incorporated into his own "I". He isn't Carol, and carries only an imperfect copy of Carol's soul within his own soul, but he shows how her strange loop has been incorporated into his, and just how strong and loving such an incorporation must be. It is a deeply humanistic vision of empathy, the sort of generous personal insight that shows that though souls might be merely the product of atoms and neurons interacting, might be merely illusory, they can still be grand and fully empathetic. Hofstadter has written another book to increase our wonder over the workings of our wonderworking brains.
88 of 94 people found the following review helpful
on August 25, 2007
I became interested in philosophy of mind about three years ago, and have since read a variety of books written by philosophers, neuroscientists, psychologists and computer experts. About a year ago I heard about Douglas Hofstadter and his [then] forthcoming book "I Am A Strange Loop". I also discovered his 1979 work Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, where the strange loop concept was expounded in great detail. While GEB did indeed attempt to apply strange loops to the workings of the mind, IAASL promised to focus this idea with laser intensity upon the mysteries of human consciousness. Given what I had already read about the importance of circular processes within the brain, especially regarding the "binding" of multiple sense and memory data into a "unified impression", I looked forward to IAASL with great anticipation. I hoped that it would provide cutting insights that would help dispel the fog surrounding the current consciousness debate. In the end, however, Dr. Hofstadter provided little more than a warmed-over version of an old theory, i.e. PHYSICALIST FUNCTIONALISM; albeit with a quasi-mathematical twist to it, i.e., the Godel / strange-loop approach.
Although Hofstadter is a computer scientist, his first love appears to be mathematics. He gives a great description of what mathematicians do, i.e. finding and analyzing patterns amidst groups of numbers. He gives examples of how this is done, and then shows how these patterns are analyzed and formally documented via axioms and theorems and strings of logical symbols. He then kicks it up a notch by explaining what number theory is, i.e. the foundation for those theorems and logical constructs. Not content with stopping there, he takes you to the next level by explaining how mathematician Kurt Godel performed a brilliant meta-analysis of number theory in 1931 and found that it breaks down when "indexicals" are considered (i.e., self-referential propositions such as "this quote is untrue"). By now, most of us reasonably-intelligent readers are gasping for mental oxygen, as though we're way up in the Andes. But Hofstadter then pushes us up to the peak, i.e. the "strange loop", which is an abstraction and generalization of what Godel did to number theory.
Yikes! How many levels up have we gone? Numbers can be called first-order abstractions of reality. Identified number patterns would be a second-order; documentation of these by theorems would represent a third. Number theory is four levels up, and Godel hits the fifth floor elevator button. So a "strange loop" is a sixth-order abstraction from everyday reality. No wonder it seems somewhat "strange" to mere mortals.
But strangeness doesn't mean that an idea is useless. Hofstadter makes it clear (more so in GEB) that mathematicians have come up with all sorts of abstract ideas, which often sit for years in dusty library books until some physicist comes along looking for a way to describe something rather peculiar about the data he or she has gathered from the lab. All of a sudden, an ignored system or obscure concept is found to be exactly what is needed to solve the problem of, say, electrical superconductence at room temperature. The question here is just how useful the strange loop concept would be in solving problems. It is not a logically formal idea, in the way that a math construct such as the proof of Fermat`s Last Theorem is. The strange loop paradigm is really more of a philosopher's construct, something a bit looser around the edges. Hofstadter tries to do with math what the late, great David Bohm attempted with quantum physics, i.e. to stretch it into a bigger, more holistic thought system that extends to the far corners of the human mind. What Hofstadter and Bohm found once they reached those far corners are quite different however; instead of localized loops, Bohm saw "implicate universal order". (Bohm's 1987 book Science, Order and Creativity is to "implicate order" what GEB is to strange loops).
This is important to keep in mind if you choose to climb the mountain of thought with Hofstadter. Right up through Godel's intellectual craftwork, Hofstadter stays on the pathways of formal logic. But that last jump is different, and Hofstadter does not warn you. It's easy (for those of lesser minds like myself) to be impressed by the strict methods used to get to level number five, and believe that such intellectual acuity carries through right to the top. So keep your eyes open (even though it's difficult at such intellectual heights); Hofstadter is very impressive as a wanna-be mathematician, but may not be as skilled when he shifts to philosophy, where the "strange loop" proposition actually resides.
In GEB, Hofstadter attempts to give real-world examples of strange-loop situations. Not surprisingly, the results are of mixed efficacy. He first refers to the Escher paintings so liberally sprinkled throughout his first book (a few of which show up in IAASL). But he gains little traction - those are just optical illusions. He then refers to what almost happened during the Watergate crisis during Richard Nixon's presidency; i.e. the Supreme Court interpreting the Constitution for the Executive Branch, and the Executive Branch contrarily interpreting the Constitution regarding the Judiciary. In fact, such political situations don't loop around very much; they are resolved rather quickly by riots and bullets (luckily Nixon backed off in 1974). Hofstadter's greatest success with strange loops in GEB came in a wonderful chapter about the workings of DNA in living beings.
Hofstadter also took on the problems of the mind in GEB. However, his efforts in that field were overshadowed by the expansive brilliance of the book. And thus, in IAASL Hofstadter conveys his disappointment about not being taken more seriously by the brain-mind-consciousness crowd. He calls GEB a "shout into a chasm" - although Hofstadter did in fact team up with one of the most formidable "mind philosophers", Daniel Dennett, soon after GEB (e.g., their 1981 book The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self & Soul). I read GEB only recently, but it was rather clear to me that Hofstadter's strange-loop concept of the mind was really nothing more than physicalist functionalism, a viewpoint that has been around since the mid-1960s. Not surprisingly, Dennett is quite sympathetic to this approach. For a good introduction to functionalism and its materialist interpretation, I'd recommend David Papineau's Introducing Consciousness.
In applying strange loops to the workings of the brain, Hofstadter establishes that the mind works "recursively". Sense data flows in from the body and drives the neurons; and yet this "bottom level" activity works its way through a hierarchy to the upper levels of the mind, where sensations are felt and decisions are made. Those decisions are then "passed back down" to the neurons and synapses, completing the strange loop from low-level to high-level and back again.
The brain is thus seen as having "mind states" that exist between sensory input and behavioral output. These states are loopy and recursive; their present status is as much a function of what they were like an instant ago, as of what new sense data was just inputted into them. Through devices such as memory, they tend to stabilize human behavior, allowing a longer-term perspective. E.g., if you are chasing a rabbit for food, and the rabbit temporarily disappears behind a tree, you don't stop running just because you no longer see it - you hold a belief that it will soon reappear. Brain states, as an intermediary between stimulus and response, obviously have a function, one that contributes to survival. And thus the case for functionalism. The physicalist part rejects any dualist notions about the ontological independence of "qualia" and inner experience, and equates our mind states and their functional interactions with consciousness itself. In GEB, Hofstadter used the strange loop abstraction to get to functionalism. In IIASL, he concentrates somewhat more on the physicalist agenda.
As such, Hofstadter wears the philosopher's hat more frequently in IIASL, while in GEB he mostly kept the mathematician's cap on. But the new hat doesn't fit as well. First off, he doesn't seem to be aware that he's pouring the old wine of functionalism into the new skin of strange loopiness (to reverse the Biblical metaphor). He seems a bit too sure of himself, too ready to summarily ridicule those who have argued against functionalism, most notably philosopher John Searle. (He may be doing the bidding of his partner Daniel Dennett, who has had rather vitriolic debates with Searle over the years; but unlike Hofstadter, Dennett has spelled out in great detail his position relative to Searle's. Hofstadter, in turn, is mostly yelling insults at the enemy of his friend). He spends many pages setting up and attacking a straw man, i.e. substance dualism, a position that has not been seriously espoused since Sir John Eccles passed away.
Professor Hofstadter doesn't show any appreciation for the subtleties of modern property dualism and its hope that future progress in understanding the nature of "deep reality" may eventually close the "explanatory gap" between physics and consciousness, e.g. the "information substrate to reality" and the hologram paradigms that physicists such as John Wheeler now discuss, and which David Bohm anticipated. Hofstadter admires, yet refuses to adopt the self-doubt that his fellow materialist Derek Parfait expresses after Parfait strictly identifies qualia and self-awareness with brain electrochemistry.
Hofstadter as philosopher shows no knowledge of the "mysterian" position of Colin McGinn and Thomas Nagel; this is especially regrettable given Hofstadter's words in GEB about the human brain ultimately being a Turing algorithmic system subject, one that at some point faces a determinability limit similar to what Godel found in number theory. Is it possible that our questions regarding our own consciousness are the ultimate indexicals? Hofstadter also seeks to kill some "sacred cows" of philosophy that are antithetical to the functionalist viewpoint, such as the "inverted spectrum" thought experiment. (Hofstadter swears in the book to be a vegetarian pacifist, but I suppose that philosophic sacred cows are still fair game.) Interestingly, though, he does not attempt to "kill" the thought-experiment denizen who should trouble him the most: i.e., Frank Jackson's "Mary", the formerly color-blind neuroscientist (also explained well by Papineau, cited above).
Even when explaining his own paradigms, Hofstadter can be a bit confusing. He spends a lot of time telling us that human consciousness is like a television with a camera pointed at it (he even provides pictures of what the frame-within-frame results looks like). The implied infinite series of frames-within-frames is claimed to be much like the strange loops that power our consciousness. But if so, then how far is this paradigm from the much reviled "Cartesian theater" idea of the homunculus (tiny little person) within the brain watching a screen tied to our sense organs, with a homunculus within him/her watching a screen, with a homunculus . . . . in the end, just another infinity of screens. Nonetheless, after a lot of words about TV cameras pointed at monitors, Hofstadter then tells us that it's not the infinity of screen frames that is important; infinity would have sunk Godel had he not gotten around the problem with a finite reference to infinity. The given example of a finite reference to the infinite is the girl on the Morton Salt container, holding an identical salt container under her arm so that her image, and an infinite regress, is blocked but still implied. OK, fine, but I didn't see how the TV/screen system was squared with the salt container. Are they both kinda-sorta like indexical consciousness, but in differing ways?
And then there's Hofstadter's illusion of the marble in the box of envelopes - proving that our everyday notions regarding self-consciousness are just illusions, anyway. But illusions to who? Don't ask, just be satisfied that the illusion is had by an illusion which is perceived by another illusion . . . . ad infinitum / ad absurdum.
IAASL is an intensely personal book - it could almost be sub-titled 'Please Understand Me', with apologies to David Keirsey and his work on Myers-Briggs and human temperaments (Hofstadter is clearly an INTP "architect" - an architect of numbers, ideas and systems). You learn a lot about the life and times of Douglas Hofstadter while climbing the intellectual heights with him. He makes a lot of entertaining little jokes and quips along the way, but becomes very serious as he discusses Carol, his beloved late wife. His word are truly moving until he tries to convince you that Carol lives on in his mind, almost as much as Douglas Hofstadter does. She is still conscious within him - certainly not to the same degree that he is, but according to his hyper-functional concept of "consciousness", just as qualitatively conscious. He goes through a rather convoluted thought experiment (regarding "Twinwirld") to justify the notion that one consciousness can be shared among more than one brain.
To truly grasp what is going on here, you need to be familiar with a certain tenant of physicalist functionalism: i.e., that consciousness is "platform independent". Platform independence has been used to support the notion that living protoplasm is not a sine qua non for consciousness, and that there is no reason why artificial intelligence researchers (such as Hofstadter) will not eventually reproduce consciousness "in silico". Hofstadter has put a rather innovative twist on the platform independence theory here: why not a person-to-person transfer of conscious awareness? One could think of all sorts of skeptical questions in response, but I would like to ask something more personal: is this really healthy? At some point, don't we need to learn to let go after we lose something or someone we love? (Or am I taking Hofstadter too seriously, since he feels that all human consciousness is just a "marble in an envelope box" anyway?)
Given all the psychological sharing in IAASL, one can see how much even a brilliant person's views are shaped by their own personal history and circumstances. It's not surprising that the wrapping of physicalist functionalism with a strange loop bow comes from a fellow of prodigious intellectual talents who, as a young boy, bought math treatises and who got goose bumps thinking about self-referential propositions, and whose teenage music thrills came from Albert Schweitzer doing Bach's greatest hits. (I wonder if Hofstadter considered calling this book "Godel, Schweitzer and Bach"?) Professor Hofstadter didn't know that Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes also recorded a song using the refrain "it ain't the meat, it's the motion", which Hofstadter uses to mockingly attack Searle's consideration of the idea that living protoplasm might be essential to consciousness. Hofstadter is being unfair here, as Searle is in fact quite cautious in discussing this. As to Southside and Mr. Popeye, well, they will probably get over the slight eventually . . . .
I'd give this book two stars from the perspective of the general reader who might want an overview on the current debate regarding how our brains, minds and consciousness relate. If you are already familiar with philosophy of mind, then perhaps Hofstadter earns a third star - he will at least give YOUR mind a work-out. And if you enjoyed GEB and more-or-less understood it, then IAASL could be a four or even five-star read for you. So I've averaged it out to three stars overall. As with Hofstadter's sense of humor, which is liberally sprinkled throughout the book (aside from the Carol chapters), some will enjoy and benefit from Hofstadter's approach, but many won't.
A final note about Douglas Hofstadter's admittedly touching tribute to his late wife. Despite his heartfelt attempts to weave his theories into something of beauty in her honor, recursive mathematical constructs still pale in comparison with Tennyson's "In Memoriam":
I trust I have not wasted breath:
I think we are not wholly brain,
Magnetic mockeries; not in vain,
Like Paul with beasts, I fought with Death;
Not only cunning casts in clay;
Let Science prove we are, and then
What matter Science unto men,
At least to me? I would not stay.
As Dr. Parfait realized, dualism will not be easily vanquished. Like Professor Hofstadter, I too am a vegetarian romanticist computer geek, albeit a considerably less brilliant one. But as to being a strange loop . . . no way.
192 of 223 people found the following review helpful
on April 7, 2007
In the "strange loop," Douglas Hofstadter has come up with a pretty fertile metaphor. The problem is that the book doesn't do a whole lot to explain it. If you can "dig" or "grok" or "intuit" that consciousness is a strange loop, then you won't need the long portions of this book that attempt to promote this thesis. If you cannot so grok, then reading those same portions will be confusing and unhelpful.
This is not Hofstadter's fault. Trying to understand consciousness in this way is like "the art of seeing one's own eye" - it pushes up at the limits of language and reason. Good writing can only get you so far.
There are other portions that are quite enjoyable and these are the ones that are less thesis-driven and more literary. Hofstadter's youthful attempt at his own Socratic dialogue is fun and -although he apologizes at length for its immaturity- actually pretty good. I could have read a book-length chat between his "Plato" and "Socrates" (who seem -anachronistically- to be aware of computers and fruit-canning machines).
But even these bits could have done with a bit more editorial direction. The main problem with this book is Hofstadter's isolation within the closed-universe of the academic philosophy of mind. He clearly attaches an undue importance to this vanishingly small world. Hofstadter's snipes at John Searle are embarrassingly frank in their personal bitterness. I have never thought Searle was worth taking very seriously, but Hofstadter has little sense of humor about him or his work.
The same problem colors Hofstadter's frequent digressions into ethics, since his ethical positions seem to stem more directly from the cultural values of the academy than from his own ideas. He makes clear that he is pro-animal rights and pro-choice, since animals have consciousness and fetuses do not. He proposes that there exists a hierarchy of consciousness, with "small-souled" beings (e.g. fetuses, vegetables, retarded human beings) at or near the bottom and "large-souled" beings (e.g. adult humans) at the top. I happen to agree with him here, but Hofstadter's ethical discussion would be greatly enlivened by a familiarity with mysticism and religion, especially Buddhism and Aristotle. Instead, his horizons seem limited to journal-page arguments with Dennett, Churchland and Searle (ethical geniuses none).
Specifically, Hofstadter conflates "degree of consciousness" with "relative right to exist." If he fails to recognize that this is a nonsequitur, he does at least acknowledge that it commits him to a troublesome implication: that 2-year old humans have less right to exist than adult humans. He deals with this as follows:
"Even though I sincerely believe there is much more of a soul in a twenty-year-old than in a two-year-old (a view that will no doubt dismay many readers), I nonetheless have enormous respect for the potential of the two-year-old to develop a much larger soul over the course of a dozen or so years."
It is entirely obvious that fetuses (not to mention spermatazoa) have this same potential, so to the extent that "potential" is the reason for Hofstadter's pro-choice views, his argument is unsatisfactory.
He gives another: cuteness. Perhaps, he suggests, the sensation of cuteness reflects a protective instinct in humans. But this is clearly a positive fact and not a normative one - Badtz Maru is cute, but this alone does not give him rights. Indeed, it seems to me that the OPPOSITE is often true. Babies are precious by virtue of their limited awareness, not in spite of it. (Which is a greater tragedy: the death of child or a highly realized being?) Viewed with a cold eye, the "strange loop" theory of consciousness simply has no necessary ethical implications. Like Dennett, Hofstadter is a terrific thinker but a hamfisted ethicist - an unreflective mouthpiece for the ideology of the academy.
By far, the most useful contribution here is Hofstadter's specific discussion of video feedback as a metaphor for consciousness. Again, you either "grok" this or you don't - there is just no explaining something this weird. In the most novel and interesting portion of the book, he uses Marvin Minksy's term "telepresence" to explore the notion that consciousness is not singular, discrete or correlated with a spatial location or any single "body." He suggests, I think rightly, that mind exists wherever there is sufficient feedback of information, and that it spills over from one feedback loop into another, without respect for bodies, matter, or location. However, in my view, the same prejudices that prevent Hofstadter from confronting the ethical implications of his views also commit him to a reductive, ateleological worldview (again, he is here in lockstep with Dennett here), and this forces him over and over again to explain mind as some sort of emergent (and therefore anomalous) property of information itself. It also forces him to spill gallons of ink unnecessarily in an (unsuccessful) attempt to salvage free will. Finally, it keeps him from exploring the teleological (and much more parsimonious) alternative: that information exists in order to facilitate the emergence of mind.
At the end of the day, this is a self-indulgent book-length footnote to Hofstadter's masterpiece, GEB. Rather than pick at these scraps, the reader should take the opportunity to read or re-read that work.
95 of 112 people found the following review helpful
on June 27, 2007
Hofstadter is a loopy loop. This opus might have made an interesting short essay, but is instead a stultifyingly long book. The main points could have been made in only a few pages.
In the early pages of the book the author tends to define terms precisely in sometimes excruciating detail, while throughout the book, for the central concept, he uses soul, intelligence, mind, consciousness, identity, "Iness", and some other terms including "feeling" and "personality traits" interchangeably. One is left asking what is the Iness he is trying to talk about.
In later pages he either uses words very carelessly, or intentionally chooses words to derisively bias or limit argument and create artificial boundaries to exploration of beliefs. Hofstadter presents mind games that are both impossible and unhelpful, from which he tries to draw conclusions applicable in the real world; presents analogies that are not analogous; forces either/or binary limits on multiple choice situations; uses fallacious reasoning, and dictates the way "others" (unenlightened others?) must think, which are contrary to the way at least this "other" thinks.
His central theme is that consciousness or Iness is the symbols and patterns carried in the neurological network of cell based structures we call a brain. These patterns and symbols have been built up over time from our experiences and learning. Seems plausible enough. But then he posits that one person's patterns can be copied, complete, but at lower resolution in another's brain, even to the extent that the essence of one person's Iness can live on in another. In reality we all have mental filters such that we store very different patterns from very nearly the same experiences and no two person's filters distort reality in the same way. What we can capture of another's patterns are simply distorted representations of one view of those patterns, (not lower resolution copies), such that they would be totally unrecognizable to the other.
Hofstadter then extends his fallacy to say that all of the patterns that make up an individual survive at different levels of detail in the minds of those who have known them well. All that really survives is some of the impressions they have made, not their patterns. Footprints in the sand are not even partially the feet that made them.
He also goes to great length to describe ascending layers of complexity from inanimate elements through living cells and neuronal structures to thinking brains, and finally to the complex patterns that result in self-awareness or Iness. All well and good. But then he posits a hierarchy of "animacy" from some undefined minimum state to fully developed Iness and has the gall to suggest that those with more developed esthetic sense, specifically for music, and especially Bach's music, have a higher level of Iness, and by extension are more animate. Of course he loves Bach. What self serving nonsense!
As major lacunae in all his elaboration of the development from experience of the symbols and patterns that constitute the Iness of each of us, he never considers either DNA or brain chemistry that would predispose what patterns might be developed, nor inherited hard wiring that limit the possible patterns, although he does deride free will. It's as if we all start with the same native potential and develop our personalities only through experience.
A detailed discussion of all of the absurdities presented would approach book length, - but why go on? The book is long, repetitive, often internally inconsistent, frequently silly, generally tedious, occasionally smug, sometimes polemic, consistently egotistical, and in the end, in its conclusion, simply trivial.
Be warned dear reader, this book is a gross waste of mental energy.
38 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on June 2, 2007
If you're interested in buying this book, you've probably already read it. The first half of it was called Godel, Escher, Bach, and the second half was called The Mind's I. But the amusing dialogues of GEB and the influential essays of The Mind's I are missing, leaving nothing but a dry exposition of Hofstadter's worldview that you probably already know.
I suppose the book would go over better with someone who was new to Hofstadter, but then such a person would still be better off reading Godel, Escher, Bach and making most of this book redundant in the process.
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on May 18, 2007
When GEB came out (1979) it rocked my world, as the fecund weaving of analogies, parallels, metaphors and unlikely connections brought new understanding to several fields and showed the "platform independence" of a whole lot of woolly concepts. Unfortunately Hofstadter's succeeding books (Metamagical Themas, The Mind's I, Fluid Concepts & Le Ton Beau de Marot) gradually lost me, as he became more-and-more enamored of arcana and twiddling details, and less-and-less able to illuminate big subjects with new insights. In short I found him increasingly self-centered and specialist, to the point where I could barely muster the will to follow his progressively abstruse writing. His last book I accused him (in my Amazon review) of being "seriously in need of an editor."
I almost didn't buy "I Am A Strange Loop" because of this. In the end a gift certificate, and the ten year interregnum in his output convinced me to give him another try.
On the surface the book appears to be an improvement -- no endless pages of typographic games, no fussy typesetting (to speak of), chapters laid out with some formal regularity. However, as I wormed my way into the book I began to feel the same confines and notice the same OCD disorders. He likes to make lists -- "with" "lots" "and" "lots" "of" "words" "in" "quotation" "marks" "and" "this" "can" "go" "on" "for" "a" "half" "a" "page" "or" "more." He likes to raise analogies and then repeat them, with minor variations, three, four, five or more times. I kept saying, "Okay Doug we get it, now move on willya?" In the Preface he mentions IAASL was written to distill some of the thoughts he'd been mulling since GEB, about the strange self-referential loop that is self-consciousness, a message he felt had gotten somewhat obscured by the numerous digressions and sidetracks generated by the succeeding books. Okay, I got this, and I agree with him. I was hoping IAASL would keep this in mind.
At a good 200 pages less than Ton Beau he makes a start at it, but his wheels still keep leaving the track. He still needs an editor to pull him back on-topic. He still hasn't written the book of clarion clarity he has in him.
I might buy his next book though. He's moving in the right direction again -- and he IS entertaining.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
In reading Douglas Hofstadter, one quickly realizes that Kurt Godel's incompleteness theorem is for Hofstadter what foreign locales are for Ernest Hemingway...the mood setter and point of departure.
In his classic Godel Escher Bach this was fantastic as the mathematics of Kurt Godel juxtaposed with the art of Maurits Cornelius Escher and the music of Johann Sabastian Bach excellently served as but "three shadows emanating from the same source." For those new to Hofstadter or new to Godel's theorem, it basically was a mathematical discovery that said even the best of mathematical systems would still be unable to discover all existent truths. An English language version of the phenomenon would the sentence "This sentence is false" which is neither true nor false so therefore recursive. Escher prints reflect this because they depict impossible creations like two hands drawing eachother. Similarly Bach's music was recursive because -- like with his Crab Canon -- it could be played backwards or forwards.
As might be expected readers picking up later works by Hofstadter would be understandably excited about what, well, other mind blowing stuff Hofstadter might be thinking. However, as with his previous book, Metamagical Themas, one quickly realized that Hofstadter was merely a one trick pony seeing recursiveness in everthing, provided it was banal and uninteresting. (In Themas for example Hofstadter actually spends a couple chapters trying to create different variations on the "this sentence is false" theme...an exercise that quickly grows tiresome).
However, Themas was written back in the eighties, and hope does spring eternal so legitimate curiosity did and does attach to what this book is about.
Here permit me to be clear: To the extent Hofstadter intends an homage to his wife who died in 1993 of a brain tumor, only the greatest of empathy can attach. And to the extent that Hofstadter reveals a naked desire to pierce the veil of death and retain any connection with his wife, only hope can attach.
If he's found it, so much the better for him.
However, as a vehicle for the rest of us, this book functions neither as great philosophy or great science.
As to the science, those genuinely interested in the nature of consciousness would be better directed to Dan Dennett's Consciousness Explained or Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works.
As to the philosophy, human consciousness is wonderful and enigmatic in ways manifold beyond Godel's theorem. As creatures, we do indeed engage in periodic self referential activity. However, perhaps some of the grandest parts of the human experience occur when our attention is focused outward...to our loves our children and our creations. And while it may indeed be true in some greater philosophic sense that these things are but instances of self reflection perhaps it's this reviewers measure of self delusion that they are best viewed as products of selflessness and in that way the finest of what it is to be sentient.
As can be gleaned this writer has read a lot of Hofstadter and the more I read him and the more he talks about Kurt Godel the more I long for Hofstadter's glory days when his ideas really were new and original and not just a loopy rehash of the same stuff he's been saying for thirty years.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on September 1, 2007
There's a revealing passage in this book, in which Hofstadter tells us how he dropped out of math graduate school, having reached the limit of his ability to handle the complex abstractions in abstract algebra and topology. I went to the same graduate school, and I know what he means. I observed there that the best mathematicians handle this complexity with two hard-earned skills operating in parallel: deft and precise manipulation of strict definitions according to the rules of logic; and deep intuition. Hofstadter has the latter, and in this book you believe he's onto something. But he's not so good at the former. At some point the analogies grow tiresome, and you just want him to spell it out.
It's disappointing that a brilliant thinker and teacher writing about a fascinating subject central to his work ends up leaving too much to the reader.
The book, in essence, expresses the following syllogistic fallacy: The human brain creates an internal "symbol" for its owner, which we call "I", and which can observe itself, creating a sort of self-enriching feedback loop called a "strange loop". Now strange loops, found primarily in mathematics, are magical things. And consciousness is a magical thing. Therefore it's the strange loop we call "I" that creates consciousness.
Unfortunately, Hofstadter never really connects all the dots. For example, he never explains precisely what a "strange loop" is. He makes a "first stab" in Chapter 8, but then never tries again, so we're left with a "definition" that is more vague than no definition at all. (It involves the word "paradoxical" and "level-crossing" - terms that wouldn't fly in a math seminar.)
He does go on to explain why he believes the self creates strange loops. The idea is that by observing its interaction with the world, it creates an ever more elaborate symbol of itself. It's a compelling idea, amply illustrated by analogies to video cameras and Gödel's theorem. But then he never quite closes the loop. What's the link between that strange mechanism and the feeling of consciousness that we all find so tangible and yet mysterious?
Quite possibly Hofstadter has rushed to a conclusion based on enthusiasm and intuition rather than evidence. It's clear that the man is obsessed with self-reference. He's never lost his early fascination with hallway mirrors and video feedback and Gödel. Which is good for us, but it doesn't serve this book well. He sees a connection between the self-reference of the mind and the self-reference of numerical systems, and leaps to a conclusion without checking his work. I can imagine the moment when the young Hofstadter realized that the self is self-reflexive, just like Gödel's proof. It must have been like the time I had this sudden insight into my own mathematics research. It was thrilling. I knew I was onto something. I rushed back home to write it down, and suddenly there were a hundred little details that had to be resolved, and it was two more years before I was done. Douglas Hofstadter isn't quite done yet, but I think he's onto something, and I look forward to the result.
41 of 50 people found the following review helpful
on May 31, 2007
I was disappointed upon reading I Am a Strange Loop (IAASL), especially because I enjoyed Gödel Escher Bach (GEB) so immensely. Whereas, with GEB Hofstadter was a Young Turk of sorts, excited about a new idea and approaching it straightforwardly, IAASL is the product of years spent in academia.
Hofstadter begins as an academic would, reviewing the past reception (and misperception, apparently) of GEB, and differing opinions from other academics. These disputes are of almost zero interest to a reader not specifically engaged in this academic field.
Second, Hofstadter aims at rehashing, clarifying, expanding, and enriching his thesis from GEB. This book fails both at providing a clear recounting of his previous ideas and at expanding upon or building upon them in any profound way. His writing this time around is far more academic (as if he were lecturing his graduate students with clever turns of phrase) rather than providing the clear insights of GEB. Of course, he indulges liberally in analogies and metaphors throughout IAASL, much like he did in GEB, but this time around their delivery is far more muddled and their purpose is less apparent, leading to an overall feeling of dissatisfaction.
Third, we are taken on a pseudo-relevant excursion in which Hofstadter ponders the application of his theory to his late wife. His dedication to her is profound. The chapters and musings centering around her are not, however, engaging to someone uninterested in a story of personal or private exploration. They add little to one's understanding of Hofstadter's thesis.
In sum, IAASL is a disappointment. It is not successful as a condensation or abridgment of the GEB thesis. It is not successful as a sequel or expansion to GEB.
If you are tempted to buy this volume, but have not yet read GEB, do not purchase this book. You will not gain an understanding of the GEB thesis from this book, you will merely be lead around circuitously and end up confused. Purchase GEB and ignore this volume. If you have read GEB and are itching to read more of the profound insights and witty dialogs, you will find it short on any new insights and bored by uninspired and frankly unnecessary metaphors.