Home » science

A Tiny and Swattable Mind

I am a Strange Loop

By Douglas R. Hofstadter
Basic Books, 2007

In Thornton Wilder’s powerful and subversive masterpiece Our Town, Mrs. Gibbs of provincial little Grover’s Corners holds forth on the wider world: “It seems to me,” she says, “once in your life, before you die, you ought to see a country where they don‘t speak any English and they don‘t even want to.” The line is delivered with just the slightest undertone of incredulity, of disbelief that such a place could really exist.  

If she could get past the dozens of entirely spurious mathematical equations and the apparently requisite acid-trip visuals, Mrs. Gibbs would feel right at home in Douglas Hofstadter’s new book, I Am a Strange Loop. Certainly the book’s tone of unquestioning self-satisfaction would help her along.

Hofstadter rocketed to fame in 1979 with the publication of his Godel, Escher, Bach, an inquiry into the nature of inquiring into inquiries that ran to some 2,500 pages. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and became the Missa Solemnis of every “deep” undergraduate pothead in the country. It brought Hofstadter a level of fame wildly out of proportion to his rather modest abilities as a cognitive theorist. As is typical in such cases, a slightly bewildered complacency settled in, and book upon solipsistic book trundled by with the stately irrelevance of parade floats after the State Fair has closed down. The books felt contrived and mannerish? Doesn’t matter! He wrote Godel, Escher, Bach! But if those books since GEB were the works of an author who’s lost whatever interest he once had in serious, rigorous work, I am Strange Loop is the work of an author who’s lost interest in anything but the sound of his own theorizing. To call this thing a tempest in a teacup would be to invite a defamation lawsuit from the folks at Wedgwood china.

Hofstadter’s stated area of inquiry is the concept of “I” in human consciousness – what it is, what it isn’t, how it comes about, what its parameters are. Serious work has been done in these areas, some of the most intriguing of which is in connection with imbuing computers with artificial intelligence and what those efforts can tell us about the nature of human consciousness. You’ll find some hint of this work in the pages of Hofstadter’s bibliography; he saves his main pages for a breathtaking farrago of false assumptions, faulty syllogisms, tautological quagmires, hyperventilating prose, and blatant jury-rigging. His legion of fans will be pleased because all his usual tricks are on display: there are equations, diagrams, and Escheresque visuals enough to convince all but the least credulous teenager that something profound is being discussed.

To excavate the question of “I,” Hofstadter invokes the familiar trope of conceptual categories – and the symbols necessary to distinguish them – combining to form an individual’s “concept repertoire.” The “strange loop” of his title refers to the confluence of “symbols” that go into creating the self-perception loops that constitute the human concept of “I.” With depressingly absolute regularity, he characterizes this particular “strange loop” as exclusively the province of humankind:

“Mosquito behavior strikes me as perfectly comprehensible without recourse to anything that deserves the name ‘symbol.’ In other words, a mosquito’s wordless and conceptless danger-fleeing behavior may be less like perception as we humans know it, and more like the wordless and conceptless hammer-fleeing behavior of your knee when the doctor’s hammer hits it and you reflexively kick. Does a mosquito have more of an inner life than your knee does?”

The relative truth of any of the roughly ten thousand blind assumptions in the above rumination seem not to have interested Hofstadter – which is a trifle odd, it being the center of his subject. Indeed, if the ridiculous final question is entertained seriously (one prays and wishes that Hofstadter is just mugging for the gallery, but one suspects with a grim suspicion that he is not), a moment’s thought answers it: of course not. Your knee does not fear the doctor’s hammer, nor does it flee – it doesn’t choose to do anything, because it cannot choose, being a non-sentient part of a larger organism. Mosquitoes obviously have “inner life” enough to choose whether or not to, for instance, flee from danger (and they differ in this from individual to individual, otherwise all mosquitoes would get swatted, or none of them would); if Hofstadter would stop blathering long enough to rent David Attenborough’s Life in the Undergrowth, he might learn what other elements of an inner life mosquitoes demonstrate. But the fact that Hofstadter doesn’t want the apple cart of his presuppositions upset in such a way is evident in the embarrassing simplicity of his allegedly long-contemplated questions. He seems to sense this, and repeatedly throughout the book he tries to distract the reader from the quality of his questions by pop-gunning them with quantity:

“Do dreads and dreams, hopes and griefs, ideas and beliefs, interests and doubts, infatuations and envies, memories and ambitions, bouts of nostalgia and floods of empathy, flashes of guilt and sparks of genius, play any role in the world of physical objects? Do such pure abstractions have causal powers? Can they shove massive things around, or are they just impotent fictions? Can a blurry, intangible ‘I’ dictate to concrete physical objects such as electrons or muscles (or for that matter, books) what to do?”

The rococo verbosity here is as annoying as it is deceitful, and it’s easily stripped bare. All the paired things in the first part of the passage, regardless of their varied vocabulary, are thoughts. As such they are not “pure abstractions” or “impotent fictions” … they’re thoughts, flashing across the neural network of the human brain. They don’t occur in stones or steel girders or supermodels, because those things don’t have neural networks. Underneath the dorm-room-wowing trickery of his verbiage, Hofstadter is asking this frankly stupid question: “do thoughts cause people to do things?” Since the answer to such a question is evident to anyone over the age of five (including, we presume with perhaps a touch too much confidence, Hofstadter), it’s entirely warranted to assume the author knows its answer and entirely fair to wonder why, then, he would ask it in the first place.

The cynical answer comes to mind immediately: that Hofstadter is simply showboating, building up a series of straw men solely for the purpose of wordily, quasi-mathematically knocking them down.

But there are other possible answers, and they none of them are as comforting as the cynical one. Godel, Escher, Bach won Hofstadter such universal acclaim so early in his life – won him devotees and university appointments – that it’s permissible to wonder if he’s become the kind of universally acclaimed academician who’s lost the ability to tell when he’s drifted into the ridiculous.

Certainly there’s more than a whiff of naiveté whenever he strays from his nominal subject, as for instance when he convinces himself that innocent English grammar falls within his bailiwick:

“It happens that there are a few common words and phrases in English that have a similarly flavored self-undermining quality. Take the adjective ‘nondescript’ for instance. If I say ‘their house is so nondescript,’ you will certainly get some sort of visual image from my phrase – even though (or rather, precisely because) my adjective suggests that no description quite fits it. It’s even weirder to say ‘The truck’s tires were indescribably huge’ or ‘I just can’t tell you how much I appreciate your kindness.’ The self-undermining quality is oddly crucial to communication.”

Needless to say, there is no “self-undermining” going on in the above examples, just ordinary everyday English colloquialisms at work. When someone says “their house is so nondescript,” they’re saying “their house went out of its way to have no distinctive features”; “no distinctive features” is what nondescript means, and the adjectival “so” nudges the meaning out of the forgettable and into the noticeable. Simple English in use. Likewise the colloquial construction “I can’t tell you how much I X” – the entire construction translates as “my gratitude for X is enormous, far exceeding my normal level of gratitude.” That Hofstadter doesn’t know this is relatively unthinkable: such understandings come standard with fluency in English. That he feels compelled to philosophize about them as though they contained some mystery is the real puzzle, and it’s a puzzle that crops up throughout the book. It scarcely ever fails to yield a silly, ninnyish result:

“And yet, was this ‘I,’ for all its tremendous stability and apparent utility, a real thing, or was it just a comfortable myth? I think we need some good old-fashioned analogies to help out. And so I ask you, dear reader, are temperature and pressure real things, or are they just façons de parler? Is a rainbow a real thing, or is it nonexistent?”

In the rush to point out the obvious (that temperature, pressure, and rainbows are indeed real, at least to the extent that everything else is), one almost forgets to pause and note that no “good old-fashioned analogies” were, in fact, used in the posing of the silly questions in question.

Hardly a page goes by without some staid old given of daily life being kidnapped off the street and held up as the key to unlocking the mysteries of Stonehenge. Fans of Hofstadter’s schtick will no doubt claim this is the central strength of his books, that they find rich, compelling complexities in deceptively simple things. Certainly there could be no other possible justification for Hofstadter’s earlier book, Le Ton Bon de Marot, which spent a Biblical amount of length inquiring into a very, very small number of syllables. But it’s a simple truth that not everything in the world contains deep mysteries. Sometimes a pickle is just a pickle.

Since the questions Hofstadter asks this time around have self-evident answers, his motivation for asking them takes center stage as the book’s main point of interest. The human brain is a staggeringly complicated evolutionary miracle, and as such it is the rightful focal point of innumerable serious questions about, among other things, selfhood and the construction of individuality. Simply pointing out that Hofstadter doesn’t ask any of those questions might not automatically condemn I Am a Strange Loop as a total failure – particularly if there are undercurrents threading their way throughout the book of which the author might not be entirely aware. The key lies in those far-off places where they don’t speak English and don’t even want to. Here’s our author again on mosquitoes:

“We thus have to ask, is there a strange loop – a sophisticated level-crossing feedback loop – inside a mosquito’s head? Does a mosquito have a rich, symbolic representation of itself, including representations of its desires and of entities that threaten those desires, and does it have a representation of itself in comparison to other selves? Could a mosquito think a thought even vaguely reminiscent of ‘I can smile just like Hopalong Cassidy!’ – for example, ‘I can bite just like Buzzaround Betty!’? I think the answer to these and similar questions is quite obviously ‘No way in the world!’ (thanks to the incredibly spartan symbol repertoire of a mosquito brain, barely larger than the symbol repertoire of a flush toilet or a thermostat), and accordingly I have no qualms about dismissing the idea of there being a strange loop of selfhood in as tiny and swattable a brain as that of a mosquito.”

What bears pointing out here (aside from the author’s somewhat pugnacious attitude toward mosquitoes) is that Hofstadter is rigging the jury to bring in a guilty verdict. He writes an entire book about the nature of consciousness and then glibly dismisses all forms of consciousness that don’t have credit cards. Flush toilets and thermostats are inanimate machines, serving mechanical purposes when activated; mosquitoes choose mates, invent hunting strategies, and make judgment calls about possible dangers in their immediate environment. Because their neural networks are virtually nonexistent, their awareness of self is no doubt equally nonexistent; but their individual selfhood is demonstrated beyond question, and a serious inquiry into it would be a worthy intellectual exercise. That Hofstadter would miss this opportunity in order to be blithe is criminally lazy, but it goes further than that. It suggests that he equates individuality with the ability to conceptualize (and vocalize) individuality.

Other species fare little better. Hofstadter says that dogs, for instance, have “far smaller souls” than humans (he’s free with the use of the term “soul,” even going so far as to write “if you don’t like the word ‘soul’ then feel free to substitute ‘I’, ‘person’, ‘self’, or ‘locus of consciousness’” … for all the world as though those things all connoted equally, and apparently blind to the fact that if they did his entire book would simply disappear), because they lack something called an “arbitrarily extensible concept repertoire.” That this really boils down to dogs lacking the ability to speak English couldn’t be more clear:

“I sit in a plane coming in for a landing and overhear random snippets of conversations around me – remarks about how great the Indianopolis Zoo is, how there’s a new delicatessen at Broad Ripple, and so forth. Each snippet carries me a smidgen into someone else’s world, gives me the tiniest taste of someone else’s viewpoint. I may resonate very little with that viewpoint, but even so, I am entering ever so slightly into that person’s ‘private’ universe, and this incursion, although absolutely trivial for a human being, is far deeper than any canine’s incursion into another canine’s universe ever was.”

The sheer level of species-arrogance here is as astounding as it is wrong and wrongheaded. The “incursion” any canine would experience in Hofstadter’s place would include the following: the age of each overheard speaker, their gender, their sexual availability, the contents of their last three or four meals, the presence of edible food on their persons, whether or not the women were menstruating, how full everyone’s bowels were, and, if current research proves true, what cancers each person was germinating. One needn’t have a Pulitzer to suspect this “incursion” is deeper than the one featuring the new delicatessen at Broad Ripple. There are only two things missing: the ability to extrapolate the back-stories of the overheard people, and the ability to talk about it all.

Hofstadter either doesn’t see or doesn’t want to see that the human “I” is confessional by nature. All non-human animals possess individuality (from the most rudimentary, binary turn-left/turn right kind found in, for instance, small fish or “American Idol” contestants up to and including zenith of individuality, altruism, exhibited by more than three dozen complex life forms on this planet); only mankind has the ability to yak about it. This has led stronger thinkers than Hofstadter to the erroneous conclusion that the ability to conceptualize and discuss individuality is a prerequisite for having it in the first place. Thus the jury is rigged, and he’s free to equate mosquitoes with toilets. But there are places in the world, an infinite variety of them, in which people don’t speak English and don’t even want to.

The most regrettable aspect of all this is the missed opportunity it represents. If Hofstadter had challenged his presuppositions instead of letting legions of students and fans cast them in concrete, he might have written a stronger book. Psychotics, stroke victims, autistic children … these and other manifestations of impaired or damaged self-awareness offer a rich field for intellectual inquiry into the nature of “I.” Hofstadter barely even alludes to any of them, preferring every time to go for the simple example:

“… think of the lowly hammerhead shark. The poor thing has eyes on opposite sides of its head, which look out, quite often, on two completely unrelated scenes. So which scene is the shark really seeing? Where does it consider itself to be, really? Of course no one would ask such a question. We just accept the idea that the shark can ‘sort of’ be in those two different worlds at the same time, mainly because we think to ourselves that no matter how different those scenes look, they nonetheless are contiguous pieces of the underwater world in the shark’s vicinity, so there is no genuine problem about whereness. But this is glib, and sidesteps the point.”

The irony of that final line is rendered all the sharper by the fact that, immediately after it, Hofstadter drops all consideration of the hammerhead shark and instead invents a hypothetical hammerheaded human. And while he’s off to the races about that, the impatient reader is left wondering a) is this really a question nobody asks (the answer being no – many intelligent marine biologists have devoted years of time and effort into studying the amazing mechanics of hammerhead vision) and b) how does a hammerhead conceptualize its surroundings – not a hammerheaded human, but an actual hammerhead shark. In I Am a Strange Loop it’s pointless to ask these kinds of questions – Hofstadter has asked “what is truth” but not paused for an answer.

He’s a very personal writer (that “dear reader,” far from being a Fieldingesque affectation, is, one senses, genuinely convivial) and hence an engaging one, but if he continuously raises questions he either fails to answer or answers wrong, it becomes forgivable to wonder if something else is going on in I Am a Strange Loop. Hofstadter himself raises one sharp possibility, when he (with characteristic candor and vividness) discusses the sudden and unforeseen death of his wife (a photo of the two broadly grinning and touching each other’s nose is nothing less than a gut punch in this context). He has contended that individuals not only create and maintain their own strange-loop “I” but also store the strange loops of those they know or love. The strongest portions of his book are the ones where he attempts to examine what happens to those stored loops when the person they represent dies; these portions are, quite understandably, filled with a heartbreaking earnestness:

“The activation of the symbol for the loved person swivels into action, whole sets of coordinated tendencies that represent that person’s cherished style, their idiosyncratic way of being embedded in the world and looking out at it …. but the crux of the matter for us right now is the following question: is your symbol for another person actually an ‘I’? Can that symbol have inner experiences?”

In other words, is there any way – any process of thinking – that can somehow make that cherished person not dead? The answer is no, and Hofstadter knows it; the tender honesty of his grappling with the possibility, however, raises the phantom of a very different book, a simpler, less vainglorious, and entirely more moving book about personhood in life and death.

In place of that work, we have I Am a Strange Loop, a deeply flawed misfire of a book for which Hofstadter should apologize to the roughly 90 billion beings on Earth who will never read his book, nor even want to.

Steve Donoghue began his professional life in the theater as a member of Edward Alleyn’s Admiral’s Company, for which he starred as Robin in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus among many other roles. Theater closings due to plague and a remunerative marriage turned him to writing. He hosts the literary blog Stevereads, at stevereads.blogspot.com.