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.
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.
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.
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.
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.