Clay's Reviews > I Am a Strange Loop

I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas R. Hofstadter
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Mar 26, 09

Read in March, 2009

I read Douglas Hofstadter”s “Godel, Escher, Bach” long ago – sometime in the early ‘80s, and I remember thinking “I really need to read this again. I liked this book, but there was a lot I think I missed.”

When I saw a copy of “I Am a Strange Loop” in a used-book store, and Hofstadter said in the intro it was his update of “Godel, Escher, Bach,” I figured this was my chance to rediscover the concepts in “Godel, Escher, Bach.”

Well, I did, but I can’t say I was happy with the result. Hofstadter’s topic in “I Am a Strange Loop” is consciousness, and the concept of the “I” that we all carry around in our heads. And somewhat like Gilbert Ryle and the other black-box philosophers who believe that mental states are unimportant phenomena, and all that matters is physical behavior, Hofstadter concludes that there is no I there at all. Instead, there are just a bunch of competing desires that he says, using one of his many analogies, compete in the brain for votes, and the one with the most votes gets to see that desire translated into action.

Hofstadter’s primary point is the problem that’s haunted the mind-body dualists since Descartes: How does a thought or idea get transmitted from the non-corporeal plane of mental activity to the decidedly down-and-dirty mass of blood and bone that is human flesh? Hofstadter claims that the I we believe we have is just a convenient fiction our brains have constructed, and that there’s no way our mental beliefs could be translated into physical action.

Of course, Hofstadter’s own theory suffers from the same fundamental problem: How does the winner in the competition between various wishes and desires translate that specific wish and desire into physical action? What is the mechanism that bridges the gap between the world of spirit and the world of flesh?

Absent that key connection, Hofstadter’s alternative to our ingrained belief in our own consciousness, and our own ability to make decisions that we then execute, lacks any real advantage. It’s just another theory about mental states, but one that ignores the reality of our belief in our own identity.

Which leads to a second argument against Hofstadter’s position that there’s no I there: the evolutionary one. If the I really doesn’t exist, why do we think it does? If we don’t have free will, why did we develop this elaborate mental apparatus that makes us think we do? If free will is an illusion, wouldn’t we as a species be better off applying the resources we spend believing in our ability to choose to something more practical, like running faster, or producing more sperm and eggs, or having a better sense of smell? Why would evolution have allowed this strong sense of our own consciousness to use up so much of our mental energy if it was just a figment of our imagination?

Another argument: In the 19th century, there was a great deal of philosophical debate, again going back to Descartes, about the validity of our perceptions about reality. Bishop Berkeley contended that all that existed were ideas, as whatever we perceive is mediated by our brains – and thus even if there were an objective reality, we could have no idea what it was because of the barrier set up by our brain’s interpretation of what our senses transmitted.

Logically, there is no real answer to this contention, but pragmatist G.E. Moore finally simply said “This is my hand” – and the idealists, as they were called, cannot deny that the world operates as though our hands are real, and exist.

Finally, though I could go on, there’s this question: Does Hofstadter himself believe that he doesn’t make choices? Does he really live his life as though his own identity doesn’t matter, and doesn’t make decisions? Does he go to lunch with the other philosophers who believe our mental states cannot translate into action, and wind up just walking aimlessly until they find a Taco Bell? Or do they act as if they could decide that the local taqueria is a better choice?

All that said, I did find parts of “I Am a Strange Loop” well worth reading. Hofstadter’s long explanation of precisely how Kurt Godel demolished the formalist mathematical theories of Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead is fascinating (if sometimes difficult), and there are other segments early in the book that are very engaging.

But as the book goes on, Hofstadter’s penchant for unusual analogies and his reductionist philosophy take over, and frankly, left me cold. I read the first 200 pages with interest, but it was a struggle to finish “I Am a Strange Loop.”

Oh, and I am now cured of my desire to go back and re-read “Godel, Escher, Bach” – especially since, according to Hofstadter, I don’t really exist at all.

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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by John (new) - added it

John Howard ha! strangely enough, I'm interested in reading this now, though judging by your great sense of humor, I'll probably have the same reaction at 200 pages.


message 2: by Sandys (new) - added it

Sandys Nunes Nice review.


Clay Thanks for the kind words ... and it is an interesting book that makes you think -- and there's a lot to be said for that.


message 4: by Joseph (new) - added it

Joseph Sverker I have only just started it, and I will most likely finish it, but I had premonitions about it not being as satisfying as I would like it to be. And even though I should wait until I'm done until I judge it, I sense that my thoughts will be much along the line of your review.


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