Tuesday, November 13, 2018

I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas R. Hofstadter

I am A Strange Loop by Douglas R. Hofstadter was written in 2008 and is the author’s follow up to Gödel, Escher, Bach, also known as GEB. My commentary on that book is here.

In this book, Hofstadter observes that due to the attention that other aspects of GEB garnered, the main point, that of strange loops being the origin of the human concept of self, got lost. He wrote this book to specifically hone onto those ideas. The author writes,

“And yet, despite the book’s popularity, it always troubled me that the fundamental message of GEB (as I always call it, and as it is generally called) seemed to go largely unnoticed. People liked the book for all sorts of reasons, but seldom if ever for its most central raison d’être! Years went by, and I came out with other books that alluded to and added to that core message, but still there didn’t seem to be much understanding out there of what I had really been trying to say in GEB.”

This book is much more comprehensible than Gödel, Escher, Bach. It is still technical in parts, but the author delves less deeply into hard to understand intricacies. He also hits upon fewer issues and goes off on fewer tangents, which allows him to stay on point. This work is a much more conventional book. It is less whimsical as it lacks the parable-like introduction to chapters that GEB offered. It is also less adventurous. 

What exactly is a strange loop? Roughly, it is a situation in which a loop is created, and the loop seems to jump between different levels. However, as a loop must do, it ends back in the same place that it started. The author goes on to explore strange loops that occur naturally, in mathematics, in art and in technology. The most easily visualized example of a strange loop is M. C. Escher’s Waterfall, which can be found here.

Hofstadter delves into how he believes that strange loops relate to human consciousness. He argues that animals, including humans, are equipped with both senses and brains that evolved to observe and analyze the world around us. When we turn these senses and cognitive mechanisms back upon ourselves to look and analyze ourselves, a strange loop is created. Hofstadter contends that this is the origin of our sense of self and our sense of “I.” He writes,

“I begin with the simple fact that living beings, having been shaped by evolution, have survival as their most fundamental, automatic, and built-in goal. To enhance the chances of its survival, any living being must be able to react flexibly to events that take place in its environment. This means it must develop the ability to sense and to categorize, however rudimentarily, the goings-on in its immediate environment (most earthbound beings can pretty safely ignore comets crashing on Jupiter). Once the ability to sense external goings-on has developed, however, there ensues a curious side effect that will have vital and radical consequences. This is the fact that the living being’s ability to sense certain aspects of its environment flips around and endows the being with the ability to sense certain aspects of itself. “

The book goes on to explore many of the debates and issues that scientists and philosophers who are exploring consciousness grapple with. As Hofstadter believes that the human mind is entirely the product of biological and physical processes, he argues against the opposite view, which is known as “Dualism.” 

This work is very personal. The author describes how after the death of his wife, he continued to develop ideas about how memories of other people, particularly of loved ones, are indeed aspects of those other people residing in the minds of others. These sections of the book are very emotional.

This book tries to make some of the same points as GEB. However, Hofstadter uses new examples and explores similar concepts in new ways. He also reaches a lot of new conclusions. Though less inventive, this book is a lot more coherent and understandable than GEB was. It can be read on its own as it provides a good overview of strange loops as well as Hofstadter’s views on the human mind. In fact, a reader may want to give this one a try first. As I wrote in my commentary on GEB, I actually put that work down in the middle and read this one. I found this unusual reading pattern to be helpful as this book helped me better understand what the author was trying to get in GEB.

My take on Hofstadter’s ideas here is similar to my take on GEB. That is, strange loops do occur both in the natural and human made world. They are interesting phenomena worth studying and thinking about. They do come into play within the human mind. I am not certain, however, that they play the primary role in the human sense of self that Hofstadter contends. 

This book is a neat and somewhat detailed look into strange loops. It covers a wide variety of subjects. It is coherent and interesting. It can be read as a follow up to Gödel, Escher, Bach or as a standalone. I recommend it to anyone curious about big, scientific and universal concepts and of human consciousness. 

34 comments:

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Bruan, it's a fascinating topic, what gives us our sense of self? How much is nature vs nurture? This sounds like a much more accessible book and Douglas Hofstadter is to be commended for revisiting his prior works and saying you know I didn't quite say what I wanted about loops so let me revise. Not many authors do that but more should. Great review as always.

Kathy's Corner said...

Sorry Brian about mispelling your name. Wish these comments sections had a way to edit after post.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - The interesting thing is that people seem to like GEB not for its conclusion, but for the crazy journey thaf the book takes to get to the conclusions. Here the author concentrates on his main points.

It is interesting that you brought up nature verses nurture. As I recall in Danial Dennett’s writing he attributes at least some of what we call consciousness to language, culture etc.

No worries about misspellings. When I leave comments they tend to be messy.

mudpuddle said...

some years ago i studied Zen a lot. then walking out to the barn one day it flashed into my brain that consciousness was an illusion. also the reasons for that. having to do with the nature of time, human sensory apparatus, light, and brain physiology... basically, when we're born, our senses capture images that we gradually learn to associate with what's outside of ourselves. this information builds circuits in groups of brain cells that develop the capacity to communicate with each other, creating memory, and a sense of presence... this 3 dimensional "stack" at a fairly early age learns discretion, namely the difference between itself and other objects and beings... a species of algorithm comes about in which the "self" functions as a connection with others, so that personality can arise in relation to social groupings...
later, after more reading, i discovered that quite a bit of research had been done that substantiated this viewpoint pretty well... so, that's what i think... and it's freeing in many ways, eliminating worry about "after-life" , religion in general, and provisional basis for regarding our species as part of the ongoing evolution of the planetary environment... anyway, i intend on reading both of these books next year, i hope... tx a lot for the excellent posts: they've been quite helpful in enabling me to realize that i don't just have a screw loose...

Tracy Terry said...

If nothing else this is certainly a title that captured my imagination for some reason or other.

For various reasons that I won't go into here the whole 'the human mind is entirely the product of biological and physical processes' is big in the UK at the moment so from that perspective I might have found this a fascinating read ... I'm just not sure I'm up to the emotional content that you mentioned at the moment.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpuddle- Having read a bit on the subject myself, from what I understand if your explanation for consciousness, it fits with what many others are theorizing. With that, I think that an explanation of consciousness does not necessarily make it an illusion.

I would love to know what you thought of this if you read it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - I understand about the emotional part. I am a materialist when it comes to consciousness so I can see why that view is popular.

Ron Pavellas said...

Brian, I will have to read this to see if I may intuit or more directly perceive where the 'loop' underlying the "I" (as I read your review) will correlate with the ego that doesn't exist for the Buddhist who askes "Who is the 'I' who says there is no ego?"

Sharon Wilfong said...

Another good review, Brian. This book sounds very interesting. I would like to learn more about looping. Of course I don't agree with his theory of origins. I am more interested in what we can observe now. Also, I think he cannot prove his hypothesis as to why we are self-conscious. To me he is finding an explanation to fit his theory.

Yet, I would still like to read this book because it sounds very interesting. If I disagree with him, then I need to at least analyze for myself why I disagree.

Thanks for alerting me to a good book.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon. The funny thing about this author’s readers is thaf a lot of people who like him seem to disagree with his final conclusions but just love how he gets there. His hypothesis do seem like they would be difficult to prove. I think that you would like his books.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ron - Hofstadter does talk a little about Buddhism as it is one of the many things that he is interested in. He more or less talks about how he likes the philosophy but more or less disagrees with it.

Unknown said...

I often wish I had more time to read non-fiction, particularly some of the books that delve into scientific topics in some detail. (While I trained as a scientist many years ago, I no longer work directly in that area - nevertheless, the subject still interests me.) This sounds like a fascinating topic, one that explores both scientific and philosophical ideas/hypotheses in some depth.

JacquiWine said...

Hi Brian,

It's JacquiWine here - for some reason my previous comment didn't show my name! Anyway, the 'unknown' comment was mine. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui- That is so interesting that you trained in the scientific field. I tend to like these books that are essentially philosophy books that try to base thier contentions on real science.

There is of course, never enough time to read all the books that we want to.

thecuecard said...

Wow your reviews of both books have opened up for me the whole concept of strange loops which I had not read anything about before. I'm starting to grasp what the author means by this. Thanks for explaining it more in this review. This later work sounds much more doable or accessible than GEB. It's quite interesting to think about human consciousness in this way ... in terms of loops.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - I also knew nothing about loops before reading these books. They are a fascinating thing to look at. At the very least, this author’s books are full of fascinating ideas.

Caroline said...

This sounds much more accessible and quite fascinating. I don’t think I e heard of the concept before.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I had never heard of the study off such loops before. I have never heard of this relating to consciousness ether.

Suko said...

Brian Joseph,
This is so interesting. Thank you for defining the term strange loop, as strange loops are a new to me concept. (I will take a look at Escher's Waterfall next.) This book sounds fascinating. Excellent review, as usual!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Strange Loops we’re also new to me. The Escher painting really shows a Strange Loop so that it can be visualized.

James said...

I have long been interested in the mind, the brain, and consciousness. This work by Hofstadter sounds like a challenging addition to the literature. Your insightful commentary has encouraged me to consider it.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James - This one was not too challenging. I think that you would like it.

Maria Behar said...

BRILLIANT commentary as usual, Brian!

As you know, I have purchased both of these books, since I'm very much interested in the topic of human consciousness. I've skimmed around GEB, and oh, man, it is indeed a daunting work! "I Am a Strange Loop" does sound more comprehensible, if less whimsical and inventive, as you have stated. When I get to these books, I will definitely start off with the second one!

Although I'm a science fiction fan, I am not interested in math and overly technical stuff. (Well, I do LOVE to look at spaceships, though.) What I find most interesting about these two books is the philosophical aspect. And, in regards to GEB, the parables are also interesting to me, as well as very enjoyable.

I LOVE the inclusion of the work of M.C. Escher in GEB!! He's one of my favorite artists, as a matter of fact, and precisely because his art is SO weird! Lol.

That quote you've included in your review is a very interesting one. I especially like this part: "This is the fact that the living being’s ability to sense certain aspects of its environment flips around and endows the being with the ability to sense certain aspects of itself. “ This certainly makes a lot of sense, as both of these perspectives are interrelated. The mind must necessarily reflect on both, as each affects the other. This brings up the age-old question of just how much of our true selves is REALLY us, and how much is actually the influence of our environments. Related to this is, of course, the question of free will....

How poignant that Hofstadter used the fact of his wife's passing as an example of how loved ones who have departed live on through the memories we have of them.... I think this part of the book will be difficult for me to go through.

I really need to make it a point to read at least all of he second book in the coming year. As for the first one, I know I'll be skipping large sections of it, lol.

Thanks for another very insightful post!! HAPPY THANKSGIVING!! <3 :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria – It is not a bad idea to go backwards and start with the second book. The mix of technical and playful in GEB is so different and strange,

Hofstadter really digs into the art of Escher in both books and how it relates to his contentions. That quote gets at Hofstadter’s view of Strange Loops and the self. He also delves into the definition of “self” as well as free will. There is so much going on in these books.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

The Bookworm said...

This sounds really interesting and I hadn't heard of strange loops before. I like that the author gets a little bit personal, that always gives it more heart and makes a book more relateable. Great commentary like always.
Enjoy your weekend.

Andrew Blackman said...

Very interesting concept, Brian! Strange loops sound fascinating, but it's hard to see how they're central to human consciousness. I think I'll read this, though, to find out more about his argument. Nice follow-up to your GEB post.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - Strange Loops are new to many. The personal angle is another thing that differentiated this from GEB.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Andrew. The Strange Loop thing and consciousness is hard to explain. In a way, Hofstadter spends over a thousand pages and two books trying to explain it.

Stefanie said...

I remember when this book came out and I thought it sounded really interesting, even put it on my TBR list. Did I read it? Nope. You know how these things go. So your review was extra fascinating, thanks! Not sure now if I will ever get around to reading it, but I am still curious, so maybe I will sometime.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stefanie - This is indeed interesting stuff. I would be curious to know what you thought if you read this. But there are so many things to read.

baili said...

A very powerful and very interesting review dear Brain!

I always like to dig about human consciousness and psychology!

I found this book really appealing and would love to read it if I find it around here

What I really appreciate about you is that you always come with different type of topics

Which put light over almost every aspect of life .

Thank you so much for this very special place!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Baili- I was thinking about this book when I read your post on Math :)

I try to read eclectically.

Sheree - Keeping Up With The Penguins said...

HA! I love the idea of a writer publishing a book, then getting all mad that people (even though they love it) don't really get his point, so he re-writes and re-publishes until finally they pick up what he's putting down. Brilliant! Persistence pays off!

This one definitely sounds more readable than GEB, and I really think Hofstadter would be a fascinating bloke to sit next to at a dinner party. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Brian - brilliant, as always!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharee - What is interesting is that, judging by online mini reviews and comments, a lot of people were a lot less interested in Hofstadter’s final conclusion as opposed to how he got there in GEB. He would be interesting sitting next to.