Wednesday, July 09, 2008

"I Am A Strange Loop" by Douglas Hofstadter

To end my obsessive re-reading of classic computer literature I tossed in Douglas Hofstadter's "I Am A Strange Loop," which really has nothing to do with the topic at all. It's a rigorous explanation of Hofstadter's views on consciousness and "I"-ness, all based on his concept of "strange loops."

A strange loop is a (potentially) infinitely-recursive loop of (potentially) infinite symbols. Many of these symbols are much larger than the loop itself, which is just the beginning of the Gödelian properties they involve. Most importantly, each level of a strange loop can be perceived and analyzed by the levels above it...and out of this strange configuration, says Hofstadter, arises the illusion we call "consciousness."

This is basically a pithy restating of the ideas he presented in 1979's "Gödel, Escher, Bach," with much (though not all) of the mathematical explanations, symbolic logic, and whimsicality removed. I've been through GEB twice and have never gotten as clear a picture of strange loops as I got from "I Am A Strange Loop," so Hofstadter certainly achieved his main goal: to clarify GEB for everybody who didn't "get it."

But even though "I Am A Strange Loop" contains some crucial and rigorously-outlined revelations, I doubt that a non-convert would agree with it (let alone enjoy it). Hofstadter dismisses any dualistic approaches to consciousness (such as an intangible "soul material") and gives us an explanation where "I" am only aware of "I" because "I" am one of many interrelated strange loops in my cranium. The essence of "I" cannot be isolated because it is simply a pattern which arises from situations which allow strange loops; it is not anything mystical or divine (though it IS mysterious and wonderful!) Hofstadter even shows us that "I" cannot be confined to a single brain...and therein lies the humanistic side of his approach.

So those who believe in traditional, consciousness-invoking souls will not enjoy Hofstadter's ruminations, and neither will reductionists who want to actually find and observe the mechanics of consciousness. All who's left are those of us who already sort of believed Hofstadter's ideas before he graced us with a real explanation and an arsenal of terms to use.

If you decide you want to give it a try, "I Am A Strange Loop" is mostly an easy read. Hofstadter repeats and explains his salient points many times, often using half a dozen analogies to define each one (and to show how alternate points of view are much sillier than his are). He also shares many of his own life experiences, not -- as he says in the introduction -- because he's particularly egocentric, but because he believes these life experiences are things we can all relate to. And I think he's right.

If anything, the most difficult thing about this book are Hofstadter's "friendly, informal" quirks -- what he calls his "doggies and bunnies" approach. The puns are bad and the anecdotes intensely personal. This is both a strength and a weakness.

Do I believe in strange loops now? I think they're the best explanation for consciousness that I've ever run across, and they've already changed the way I deal with people...but believing Hofstadter's ideas is not really a springboard to other things. "I Am A Strange Loop" tells you more what consciousness ISN'T, which I think is useful, but knowing what it IS won't have an affect on most people in the long run.


jj said...

I paid 800 indian bucks for GED. It proudly occupies space along with Ulyseses as "books I brought for mis-guided intellectual aspirations that I would be crazy to actually read". :-)

Muffy St. Bernard said...

I guess 800 Indian bucks is a lot? :)

GEB suffers from a lack of's really an enthusiastic intellectual/philosophical splooge. Its individual pieces are entertaining and enlightening, but as a whole it is scattered all over the place.

"I Am A Strange Loop" suffers from a similar "where is this book GOING?" problem, but it does have a definite structure and its digressions are usually necessary. It also has more of a gentle, human approach than GEB, especially when he talks about the death of his wife.

So yeah, you might be crazy to read GEB, especially when "I Am A Strange Loop" is there as an alternative. But I still found GEB fun to read.

Eli McIlveen said...

That one's on my list too - my parents gave it to me recently but I think it got buried somewhere upstairs. I'll have to have a dig for it.

jj said...

> I guess 800 Indian bucks is a lot?

Let's put it this way. The sticker price for other books that I was seeing in the book store was about Rs 200 to Rs 500. Making it possible for me to justify paying 800 for so "important" a book. :)
BUT. My MTB bike cost me around Rs2000. And my father blamed for "wasting" money. So do the maths. :)

Muffy St. Bernard said...

As long as you take it gently, I don't think it'll disappoint, Eli! It was intended more as a "let me show you interesting things" book as opposed to a "HEY, HERE'S THE POINT" essay.

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Here, the book (currently) costs $34.00 (CDN), which is par for softcover books of its size, but your "average" book would probably cost about $8.00.

$34.00 is a bit of a stretch for something one doesn't plan to read, but other forms of entertainment -- CDs and DVDs, say -- cost $20+. Seeing a movie in a theatre is about $10, I think.

$34.00 will buy you one of the cheaper dresses at Le Chateau. It will pay for half of a tank of gas. :0

So I guess, to somebody who reads regularly and loves books, the price of GEB isn't excessive here in Canada...either that or our other retail items are very expensive. :)

As for how much a MOTORBIKE would cost...I've never bought one, and I'm sure there are HUGE differences depending on the kind you'd buy, but I'd least $6000?

jj said...

Well what do you know? So GEB costs approx Rs 1400. Now I remember. I paid closer to that figure. Movies are really cheap. Approx. 150 to 200 rs in multiplexes and Rs 10 - 40 (still) in smaller towns. Your motorbikes are expensive. Even the highest end motorbikes wont cost more than 1500 Canadian dollars. But I was actually talking about BMX style bicycle. THAT cost me around 60 Canadian dollars. Beat that! :)

jj said...

P.S. I stick to 2nd hand books now. That usually costs (depending on where i buy) either Rs 10 or Rs 100. :)

Muffy St. Bernard said...

Movies are notoriously expensive to see in the theatre. There's this idea that you MUST buy food, and the food is HUGELY marked up. Savvy folks just bring food along. I used to know people who brought in sandwiches.

I tend to go for used books as well, unless the author is still alive and I love him/her. I also pillage for all the stuff I can't find otherwise...

A BMX bicycle? Seems to be about $100 CDN here. So yes, you win! :)