Search the soul, boggle the mind

I Am a Strange Loop

May 25, 2007

In this pleasant and intriguing book, Douglas R. Hofstadter returns to the themes of his 1979 bestseller Gödel, Escher, Bach, ostensibly focusing on the nature of selfhood and consciousness. Hofstadter is a supremely skilful master of an educational alchemy that can, at the turn of a page, transform the most abstract and complex of thoughts into a digestible idea that is both fun and interesting. This he does throughout this book, guiding the reader through an impressive variety of anecdotes, dialogues, games, puzzles and paradoxes of a chiefly linguistic and mathematical nature.

The only trouble is that little of it seems to have much to do with either consciousness or "the self", the two chief things that I Am a Strange Loop is meant to be offering an "original and controversial" account of.

Of course, Hofstadter has a story to tell here, and it begins with the increasingly popular (but perhaps nonetheless misguided) suggestion that the brain, along with all its contents and processes, may be described on both a deterministic neurological level and a representational level of symbols. Hofstadter uses this idea as a springboard for motivating his analogy between properties of the brain and properties of Kurt Godel's logical statements.

Claiming that the latter manage to create new meanings through self-reference (each new referent being able to refer to itself, thus creating a larger, new self-referring referent, and so on ad Escher-style infinitum), he further suggests that "..." is a symbol of the brain that is equally capable of enlarging the entity it denotes through loopy self-reference.

This, in a nutshell, is meant to explain both how consciousness is possible and what selfhood ultimately consists of (namely a bundle of strange loops). Unfortunately, the insuperable difficulties that pervade Hofstadter's thesis are legion, although there is an undeniable method to the madness.

Early on, Hofstadter introduces the term "symbol" in purely syntactical terms but having used this technical definition to allow for symbol-manipulation in the brain, he then proceeds to write as if brains were capable of semantic representation and understanding. This equivocation facilitates Hofstadter's account of genuine double-meaning (or "double aboutness", as he calls it) in statements about oneself, inspired by Godel's mapping of second-order meanings onto the formulas of Bertrand Russell's Principia Mathematica .

He seems to ignore, however, the fact that the very possibility of such an exercise rests on the mind-boggling assumption that meaning is completely unrelated to the intentions of the utterer and the context (conventional or otherwise) in which the utterance originally occurred.

All this serves to mask a worrying brain fetishism that stubbornly ignores the fact that it is not brains (or their "loops") that think, feel, remember, are conscious and so on, but rather living creatures that would be no more conscious if they didn't have things such as ears, eyes and noses than if they didn't have brains.

Hofstadter nonsensically maintains that "..." refers to a structure (a "self" or "soul", as he puts it) that is, depending on which passage one reads, housed, realised, instantiated, located in or identical to a brain and/or one or more of its loops (the prime, but by no means only, candidate being one's own brain/loops). He does this without so much as a mention of the philosophical literature on whether "..." is typically, if indeed at all, used as a referring expression.

Presuming that it always is, Hofstadter maintains further that "..." simultaneously refers to a "biological substrate" and to "the most intangible and abstract psychological patterns". But while the former description may be merely misleading as a characterisation of human beings, it is meaningless to imply that abstract psychological patterns can act, feel, remember, love, talk, think and so on.

Elsewhere in the book, Hofstadter states that "..." denotes consciousness itself, which he variously describes as a physical activity, entity and system. Yet whatever consciousness is, it is not an activity, entity or system (physical or otherwise), and whatever people are we are not pieces of conscious activity.

Oddly enough, towards the end of his book much of this physical realism is replaced in one fell swoop by a fierce eliminativism that claims that "ultimately, all this 'I' stuff is a delusion - just a social convention, a kind of illusion that we all tacitly agree on". It is hard to know what to make of this, since the sorts of constructs that social convention gives rise to are as real as minds, numbers and propositions, and typically more so than some of the constructs of physics to which Hofstadter appeals.

While this strange and loopy book contains more rhyme than reason, it is impossible not to like it or its author. Hofstadter's good humour and easygoing style make it a real pleasure to read from start to finish.

Ironically, his honesty, endearing personal anecdotes and charismatic charm allow the reader a glimpse into his very soul.

I Am a Strange Loop

Author - Douglas R. Hofstadter
Publisher - Basic Books
Pages - 240
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 9780465030781

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