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.