I Am A Strange Loop

Upon finishing Douglas Hofstader’s I Am a Strange Loop I threw it across the room. Not because the book’s contents were offensive, heretical, or objectionable to me. Quite the opposite; I found the book a bloated banality and was happy to be free of it. This is made all the more tragic because I wanted to like the book. It caught my eye in the basement of a San Francisco bookstore and the title immediately invoked a prior musing about how the brain is the only muscle that flexes itself. I was eager to read the thoughts of someone that had put the time in to develop the idea. Unfortunately this book doesn’t develop them very far and repeats the few ideas it does have again and again and again.

The Big Idea

The mind is an illusion, an epiphenomenon of a material substrate. Its primary components are symbols. As a person develops, more and more symbols accrete in their mind; the “largest”such symbol, the one “activated” in the most “loops” is the “I” or ego of a person. A consequence of this is that the “I” believes itself to be a prime mover, an agent of causality. The eponymous strange loop is perceiving events which activate certain symbols culminating in action (and then starting over). Also Gödel’s incompleteness theorem allows for self referential mappings in any sufficiently complex arithmetic system therefore any sufficiently complex perception to action mapping could be self referential. Hofstader talks about some other topics, such as simulation capture and how categories, including self identification are blurry.

My issue with I Am A Strange Loop is that it stated the obvious without building upon it and pretentiously hand waved the hard questions of consciousness. The idea that humans map perceptions to “symbols” in their head and then act on the world is as old and overly simplistic as it is obvious. Hofstader could have elucidated what constitutes a symbol, or the minimum set of symbols required for consciousness or explained the neurobiological underpinnings of symbolic systems or anything that would have made this observation interesting instead of unoriginal.

Ironically, on page 328 Hofstader lists and gently mocks a set of questions that, if he had attempted to answer, would have made his book far more valuable.

Which physical entities possess Consciousness, and which ones do not? Does a whole human brain possess Consciousness? Or is it just the human’s brain that is Conscious? … What organizational or chemical property of a physical structure is it that graces it with the right to be invaded by a dollop of Consciousness?

This goes on until it ends in the question the book eminently avoids answering:

How does Consciousness coexist with physical law? That is, how does a dollop of Consciousness push material stuff around without coming into sharp conflict with the fact that physical law alone would suffice to determine the behavior of those things?

i.e. the preeminent question of the mind.

This is made more frustrating because Hofstader states a pragmatic definition of truth and how it then it conveniently avoids applying the same definition to consciousness. For instance, Hofstader relies on the idea of self referential mapping that causes consciousness to arise from arbitrarily extensible sets of symbols. Functions are mathematical constructs dreamt up by the mind and do not exist in the same way the material world exists. Pragmatically they could both be said to be real but then you couldn’t hand-wave consciousness away as an illusion.

There are many other examples in the book of this unequal treatment (mostly because there are too many examples in the book in general), but this one stood out to me as particularly egregious:

SL #642: All of this I see, but why do you keep implying that one of these views is an illusion, and the other one is the truth? You always give primacy to the particle viewpoint, the lower-level microscopic viewpoint. Why are you so prejudiced? Why don’t you see two equally good rival views that we can oscillate between as we find appropriate, in somewhat the way that physicists can oscillate between thermodynamics and statistical mechanics when they deal with gases?

SL #641: Because, most unfortunately, the non-particle view involves several types of magical thinking. It entails making a division of the world into two radically different kinds of entities (experiencers and non-experiencers), it involves two radically different kinds of causality (downward and upward), it involves immaterial souls that pop into being out of nowhere and at some point are suddenly extinguished, and on and on.

This is sophism. Hofstader fails to explain why the world can be divided into particles and non-particles (and different types of particles) but not “experiencers” and “non-experiencers.” In addition Hofstader doesn’t find it objectionable that particles frequently pop into and out of existence or can have a virtual existence. The epistemological bottoming out of materialism, as humorously illustrated below, is never considered either.

I was not impressed with onerous retelling of basic phenomenological facts and inconsistent treatment of the ideas present within the book. There are some familiar ideas but they aren’t well developed.

Writing Style

The writing style is unexceptional, and Hofstader’s first person explanation of ideas to me came off as unnecessary and often pretentious, although that could just be my own projection. Speaking of projection, Hofstader goes out of his way to conspicuously note how not sexist he is (e.g. page 57 and 312) which gave me pause for thought.

The book is 363 pages long and ~300 pages too long. The cause of this bloat is the abundance of redundant examples for an idea. Hofstader would explain a concept and then throw in an example or analogy to facilitate comprehension. That’s well enough, but then he’d throw in another example. Then another. Plus a metaphor and two tangential anecdotes. I started skimming about the third of the way in because much of the book repeats itself.

My final complaint is that the puns are bad and Hofstader makes them worse by explaining them. A book this long doesn’t need to be padded by bad puns and their explanations.

Conclusion

This book is for no one. If you have never considered your own consciousness before, this book provides a minimal foundation, made scarce through its own verbosity, for you to build on. If you’ve given the paradox of existence some thought there is nothing new in this book; unless you really want to know about Gödel’s incompleteness theorem and even then I recommend the Wikipedia page.

Other Reviews

Reviews of the book corroborate my analysis, mentioning the book is: not as good as his other works, contains only one idea and is too long. Other people genuinely enjoyed the book, so don’t let this review dissuade you from this book or Hofstader’s other works.

Selected Reviews

This book is good in the sense that his major premise has much to commend it. In another sense, his major premise could have been explained in a rather lengthy article in only 36 pages, rather than the 363 pages it takes to explain.

It’s very long and tiresome at places […] I suggest reading it topological (don’t be afraid to skip pages or only read intros of sections). It’s still a good read with valid logic.

This is rather long for a one-trick pony ride and, after about the middle, devolves into what looks to this old psychoanalyst like pathological grief.

Something Broken

I’m not much of a poemer or an artist, but last year I was feeling down and so I sketched out the following.Girl in the corner appearing sad holding a mysterious item. I don't know what it is but I do that it's mine. I know it held a light within for when it worked it shined.

Initially, I wanted to write more about what was broken. However, it’s been so long that these feelings are vague and foreign to me now.  I wouldn’t want to do a disservice to them by trotting out platitudes to cover up my gaps in understanding.

I guess this is the price of procrastination. Poem below in writing.

I don’t know what it is,
but I do know that it’s mine.
I know it housed a light within,
for when it worked, it shined.

A Letter to Dr. Peterson

Tonight I have the pleasure of attending a talk in San Francisco featuring Jordan Peterson. As an avid fan girl of Dr. Peterson, I am very excited to meet him in person and deliver a letter of thanks.

If you ever doubt Peterson’s claims about the letters he receives, then you can know that at least one is true.


Dear Professor Peterson,

I am so happy to meet you in person and wanted to express my sincere gratitude for your works. My life is orders of magnitude better and I now have the tools to move forward.

I had been suicidally depressed for two years before coming out as transgender. While this provided temporary relief; I had spent two years building up the most vicious, overly rational and nihilistic arguments against existence, hoping to convince myself into suicide. I was afraid that during difficult times in the future, these demons would come back to lecture me on the irredeemable corruption of being and, lacking a counter argument, I would be equally vulnerable.

Synchronous, perhaps, that I was introduced to your works through your criticism of Bill C-16. I found your assessment apt and your University of Toronto free speech oration unforgettable. Intrigued, it lead me to your lecture series and I can honestly say I have watched every video on your YouTube channel. You are the first person in my life to adequately acknowledge the suffering of being while providing a theory for transcending it.

Tangentially related, I think your assessment of trans activists is correct. They do not represent me and often work against my interests by undermining the biological basis of gender. The idea that trans people cannot exist in a system with free expression is infantilizing and laughable. Given the nature of dysphoria, I think that trans people in particular could benefit from your lectures.

Thank you,
-Amy Jie

Figuring Out I Was Transgender

I am often asked “Did you have bottom surgery yet?” and regrettably inform them that no, I still have a penis.

Something that I also get asked a lot is, “How did you figure out you were transgender?” or it’s cousin, “When did you know you were transgender?”

📅 When

I knew I was transgender when I was 24. I know that this answer disappoints a lot of people, and probably any psychs that had to write me a letter.

Although there are a lot of things that make a lot more sense in retrospect that occurred well before I was 24, I never properly articulated the thought until I was 24.

💁🏼 How

I figured out I was transgender by watching a video series “Are You Transgender.” Specifically the following video series at the 4:08 mark of the second video:

I was working on a mobile app and I usually listen to lectures on YouTube to keep me company and maybe teach me a thing or two. So, like a normal cis-het-boy I queued up the “Are You Transgender” playlist.

I have a distinct memory of when I heard the speaker say:

If you are watching this video for yourself, or researching what transgender is online, then you are likely transgender.

After hearing this improper implication, I alt-tabbed back to YouTube and smugly paused the video. It’s true, just because you’re asking the question “Am I transgender?” definitely doesn’t imply you are transgender.

I resumed the video and the next line hit me like a truck:

Because cis-gender people do not ask this question, “Am I transgender?”

Why was I listening to to this playlist? This wasn’t the first time I had watched a video on this, or taken a stupid quiz about it, or read blog articles similar to the one I’m writing now or asked myself “am I transgender?”

Laughably I recall thinking;

Yeah just because I frequently wish I was a girl doesn’t mean I’m transgender.

It wasn’t as funny of a revelation at the time. I remember my heart stopping, my eyes widening and my blood turning cold as I realized, “Oh shit, that’s exactly what that word means.”

I spent the next six hours recontextualizing my life and eventually pulled myself together enough to walk down the street and come out to my friend.

🤦🏼‍♀️ Confusion

If you read my other post about All These Things That I’ve Done or are familiar with the standard narrative of “I’ve known since I was 3 years old” you might be confused as to why it took me 24 years to figure it out. This is the difference between knowing things and being unable (or unwilling) to articulate things.

If you asked me straight up and pressed me I would have confessed to wanting to be female. I knew that’s what I wanted but I hadn’t yet articulated to myself that meant I should transition and therefore I was transgender. Once I was able to articulate the concept of being transgender I was able to act because I had a framework to work within. Until I did that I just thought I was weird (albeit in specific ways stable across time) and being weird doesn’t explain what you are supposed to do, if anything.

So why was I unable to connect the dots? I think it is mostly from ignorance and a tiny bit from internalized cis-sexism. I sincerely believe had I known a trans person growing up I would have come out much earlier. I would have confided in them some of my thoughts and proclivities, laughed nervously and said something to the effect of “but that’s not like you at all, right?” and gotten hit like a hammer when I learned my experience is fairly typical. I didn’t believe I was”trans enough” to be transgender, I thought everyone knew with certainty since they were small children. Sure I wanted to be female, but I didn’t know if I should transition. To be fair, transition is very intimidating. It is long, painful, expensive, time consuming and the results are not guaranteed. In addition, I knew I wanted to be female, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be trans. There was probably a little bit of cis-sexism that held me back from exploring the possibility of living as a trans woman.

🤷🏼‍♀️ Questioning

I think everyone questioning their gender identity should understand that you will never be 100% certain about transition. There is no way to know before you do it that such a radically life altering event will be for the better. It is a supremely non-trivial commitment to transition. It is an act of faith that will require many sacrifices.

While coming out I was complicit in perpetuating the ultra-confident, I’ve always known meme. You sort of have to; there’s no “proof” you’re trans besides your own confidence. It took me 24 years to understand and I lived it, I can’t just hope that other people will “just get it” based on my own new, limited and unconfident expression. I think this narrative is dangerous because I delayed transition because I didn’t think I was “trans enough.” Please don’t make the same mistake I did.

I would like to share a quote from Julia Serano’s book, Whipping Girl that I think explains the feeling  I had pre-transition:

 

Trying to translate these subconscious experiences into conscious thought is a messy business. All of the words available in the English language completely fail to accurately capture or convey my personal understanding of these events. For example, if I were to say that I “saw” myself as female, or “knew” myself to a girl, I would be denying the fact that I was consciously aware of my physical maleness at all times. And saying that I “wished” or “wanted” to be a girl erases how much being female made sense to me, how it felt right on the deepest, most profound level of my being. I could say that I “felt” like a girl, but that give the false impression that I knew how other girls (and other boys) felt. And if I were to say that I was “supposed to be” a girl, or that I “should have been born” female, it would imply that I had some sort of cosmic insight into the grand scheme of the universe, which I most certainly did not.

Julia later elaborates on about “feeling” like a woman:

Speaking for myself, I can honestly say that I have never “felt like a woman” before my transition. Even as a preteen struggling with the inexplicable and persistent desire to be female, I understood how problematic that popular cliché was. After all, how can anyone know what it’s like to “feel like a woman” or “feel like a man” when we can never really know how anybody else feels on the inside?

All emphasis mine.

I definitely fell into the trap that I didn’t feel like a woman, so I wasn’t TruTrans™ (even though I had an “inexplicable and persistent desire” to be female). It was only in self reflection I realized how foolish it was to use this reason to keep myself from transition. If you’re considering transition I sincerely hope this post helps you avoid making the same mistake I did.