I Am a Strange Loop

I waited with great anticipation for the release of Doug Hofstadter‘s new book, I am a Strange Loop. Doug has expanded on a central theme of his landmark book, Godel, Escher, Bach (known as GEB) to explore and expand his concept of the strange loop, and its implications on human consciousness. I call him Doug in this review because he has written both an enlightening and personal book that makes me feel that I have known him for years, in spite of only reading two of his books.
The book meets all my expectations and hopes. It is not to be approached without effort, as Doug makes reading a mental exercise – illustrating his points on self referential loopiness by wildly alternating between straight exposition, and restating others’ illustrative passages in barely recognizable forms. This strategy shows additional meanings by mapping classic themes to new symbols. He also masquerades new parables as quirky stories using a vocabulary of anagrams of the main points and names in his thesis.

These antics can fatigue your mind, especially because he seldom lets you know what he is up to until you are several pages along. You then have to go back to pick up the fourteen points that you have missed along the way.

He develops the definition of a Strange Loop: A feedback mechanism that is self referential, that continually acts upon outside input, and combines this new input with the state of the self, and the history of that self. The result is often novel, and not at all obvious from the inputs and conditions.

He illustrates each of these concepts through exercises. An example is Godel’s paradoxical extension of Bertrand Russell‘s logical algebra. Kurt Godel mapped Russel’s symbols into huge integers that are congruent to the statement of proofs. Once the symbols were mapped, it was possible to write an integer that was equal to an equation that stated that the integer (which was also a proof) could not be proven using the logical algebra. (How is that for a thoughtful? [OOPS, I have been reading Strange loops too long])

The bottom line, is that Doug Hofstadter has made a very good case that human consciousness takes the form of a strange loop. His point is that our brain is the mechanism that executes a recursive algorithm that is “wired” as a strange loop. The loop IS consciousness. The the strength of the “soul” is proportional to the robustness of the execution of the loop.

Somewhat more controversially, Doug proposes that the instantiation of a strange loop in the brain that is “you” is not necessarily the only instantiation of “you” that can exist. Just as the sheet music for a symphony can give rise to a symphonic concert represented by the sheet music (in excellent fidelity to the author’s intent), or a novel can recreate the imaginary events of the author in the minds of readers, Doug proposes that the consciousness of one individual can carry on in the memory of others. The works of an individual and the memories carried by friends and families live on as coarse approximations of the strange loop of the original individual. A critical difference, not investigated in the book, is that the sensory inputs in these other loops are divorced from the original instantiation.

Once you understand this thesis you can see that a mosquito has little or no strange loop because the brain of a mosquito simply has an inadequate number of neurons to support a loop of even negligible robustness. A dog has enough of a strange loop running to be able to recognize its name, owner, bowl, etc. but not a strong enough loop to build a “personal history” with goals, desires, loves, etc. A child develops its strange loop over time. (which could explain “infantile amnesia”) An infant has the potential for a strange loop to develop, but there is just not enough “history” to reference until its proto-loop “executes” adequately to build a data framework of memory and symbols adequate for sophisticated consciousness.

The final two chapters are, in my opinion, kind of weak in its arguments dismissing the concept of dualism – that feelings are separate from the operations of the brain, and dismissing the “problem of the inverted spectrum”. It is not that I disagree with Doug’s premise – it is just that the argument is inadequate to the task. Debunking dualism has the same problem as trying to prove that God doesn’t exist. When you are inside a mind, it is darn hard to make a case for a view that requires that you are outside the mind. An inverted visual spectrum “problem” cannot occur because the wiring of cones and the optic nerve assure that humans will have vision approximating a norm. A much more worthy issue to investigate is an inverted spectrum of morality, where in some island cultures infanticide may be considered a social good – an inversion of our moral sense.

I strongly recommend this book for anyone willing to correct some old stereotypes on how they visualize their personal existence. It is unlikely to change how you feel about what makes your consciousness exist, but it will make you think on another level about just what makes up your “I”.