I was vaguely aware of Douglas Hofstadter by reputation: his reputed magnum opus, a dense 1970s work called Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden
Brain , has been the subject of much praise and adulation. My brother, who read the work in question in the context of a college course, read and apparently enjoyed this new work by Hofstadter somewhere in the time surrounding the death of our father. It is from that recommendation that I picked the book up.
Before I started throwing adjectives or grades around, I should expand upon the context at play here: Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden
Brain was, if I may condense it thus, an exposition of Hofstadter’s thoughts on conscious and the nature of Self-with-a-capital-S. Despite the acclaim which this book earned him, Hofstadter was perturbed that much of his thesis was largely ignored or misunderstood, and so almost 30 years later comes this latest book about Self, and if I might guess1, I would wager that none of the imprecision or vagueness or…. opaqueness… has been resolved in that span.
I picked up I Am a Strange Loop because it ostensibly sought to understand how the “strange loop” of human consciousness managed to worm its way into surrounding consciousness—essentially, how one mind continues to inhabit, influence, or inform another, even long after it’s gone. You can imagine the interest of such a book to a person experiencing the loss of a loved one. In fact, Hofstadter’s wife passed away suddenly at the age of 43 from the brain tumor, and so Hofstadter more than anyone has a particular investment in the concept of a sort of continuity of consciousness.
Here’s the issue: Hofstadter is not, to me, a good writer. He goes to great pains to be accessible, taking a page from Stephen Hawking’s book and speaking in clear English, with plenty of visual language, examples, and metaphor. But (and isn’t there always a but), Hofstadter takes so long to actually make a point that by the time he does so, it’s underwhelming and foregone. The first half of the book, literally, is spent in short, digestible little sections which are generally rambling tangents about whatever ill-chosen metaphor Hofstadter chose to illustrate his point. Let me do a bit of summary (with page numbers fudged because I can’t be arsed to be exact):
- Introductions – page 15: “I’m smart.”
- Page 16 – page 40: The principle of gestalt will be at play in this book” (that is, Hofstader will not concern himself with the biochemistry or cellular biology of the brain; rather, its ending effect—that of thought, which is the level upon which most of us experience our brain—will be his focus.
- Page 41 – page 150: “Strange loops” are a curious artifact that scare mathematicians (Bertrand Russell in particular), Gödel is a genius who formulated theories about such self-referencing loops. I will illustrate these by way of totally ridiculous metaphors which only serve to confuse and obfuscate my point by virtue of the metaphors’ sheer shallowness and unnecessary length and complexity.
- Page 151 – end: Who the hell knows?
Let me profess at this point that Douglas Hofstadter is a Pulitzer-prize-winning author and I am a schmuck with a blog. It is entirely possible—nay, likely—that I Am a Strange Loop is a brilliant book, full of both technical insight and philosophical comfort, but I confessed to being left flat and underwhelmed by the whole book. It seemed to me a long and arduous (not to say semantically-tricky) way of talking about memes, the psychosocial behaviors which are passed onto progeny, and first proposed (using such a word) by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. Granted, there are differences between a multi-generational look at common behaviors and a more invasive exposition on the idea of “I”-ness or the sense of self, and how it self-creates and propagates, but it seems to me as though Hofstadter’s point actually proposed very little about the human brain except that its capacity of self-reference currently escapes our ability to describe mathematically with any kind of philosophical comfort2.
So, my immediate opinion as a self-admitted schlub with no formal philosophical or mathematical training is that I Am a Strange Loop is an explanation without a question. Ostensibly, it seeks to correct misunderstandings about Gödel, Escher, Bach, though I think Hofstadter’s tendency toward obfuscatory is apparently as present as ever, and so I Am a Strange Loop ends up a sort of rambling and ultimately cloudy sort of book that gives vague impressions rather than any sort of resounding point. I liken it to watching clouds float by, anthropomorphizing shapes and meaning out of the random or the otherwise-structured. Its mission to give the consciousness the quality of a self-referencing mathematical loop is by and large a silly exercise, like trying to put a Halloween costume on a household pet: its owner may ultimately feel proud that Rover is dressed like Darth Vader, but no one else is very impressed.
Continuity of consciousness? Identity of Self? All very interesting, and none of which are covered to my satisfaction in I Am a Strange Loop. With the caveat that there is a distinct possibility that I am a mouth-breathing and just don’t “get it” when it comes a mind like Douglas Hofstadter’s, I have to say that I fail to be impressed. Everything that Hofstadter says seems like old news to me; the difference is that he takes forever (and a lot of mediocre writing and bad analogies) to get there, rendering any such epiphanies tempered by frustration and disincredulity.