I Am A Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter

I’ve got man-crushes on two scientists (so far):  Richard Feynman and Douglas Hofstadter.  Dr. Hofstadter is one of the world’s leading cognitive scientists, who holds joint professorships in computer science, cognitive science, and comparative literature, and who got his PhD in solid state physics.  (You can read more of my glowing profile of Douglas Hofstadter here.)   He wrote one of my favorite books of all time, Godel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a nearly unclassifiable popularization of his views on consciousness that won him a Pulitzer.  I just finished his recent book “I Am A Strange Loop”, where he continues his enchanting and entertaining tour through the problem of reconciling a conscious, aware mind with a physical brain.

You’ve heard of the “mind/brain” problem, right?  It’s a famous philosophical question – does our consciousness / awareness / sense of self come purely from molecules obeying scientific laws, or is there some mysterious “other” to it?  Is there some essence beyond the physical world that is responsible for our own consciousness?  Can we explain our souls using science alone?

Big shot scientists fall into a couple of camps on this question.  On the one hand, you have the strict materialists who believe – no, “believe” isn’t a strong enough word, more like assert – no, still not strong enough, perhaps aggressively shove up everyone’s asses, that there is no ghost in the machine, that we are nothing more than physical objects.  Exquisitely sophisticated physical objects, mind you, staggeringly complex products of millions of years of evolution.  But according to this camp, there’s nothing more to explain us than science – neuroscience, which is explained by biology, which is explained by chemistry, which is explained by physics.  In this camp you have folks like Francis Crick, who was known for stark scientific rigor and who didn’t suffer (in his mind) the dualist fools gladly. Crick’s book “The Astonishing Hypothesis” might as well be shouting “Come at me bro!” to the dualist camp.  (That reference ought to hold up over time, right?  Right.)

In another camp, you have folks expounding varying shades of dualism, but who all at heart feel there’s something more to consciousness beyond the chemistry & neuroscience we already know.  Folks like Roger Penrose, who goes to such lengths as roping in a new, as-yet undiscovered theory of quantum gravity to explain consciousness.  Or David Chalmers, a former student of Hofstadter’s, who is gently skewered in this book for positing some non-physical essence that separates a conscious being from an unconscious unaware robot.  These folks are a bit more romantic, folks who refuse to believe that the majesty of the human mind is already mostly understood, and that we just have to sort out the wiring diagram of the brain’s neurons.  They often appeal to some disparate branch of science or math, if not place human consciousness beyond the realm of science completely.

Douglas Hofstadter is squarely in the cold-hearted materialist camp with Francis Crick and Richard Dawkins, though you’d hardly be blamed for thinking otherwise (particularly if you never quite finish his books).  He’s by far the most engaging, most romantic writer of anyone in the materialist camp.  It’s ironic that his masterpiece Godel Escher Bach is a far more wild, engaging, dramatic ride than Roger Penrose’s “The Emperor’s New Mind”, despite Penrose’s actual theory of consciousness being much more romantic and extravagant.  In fact the first 75% of GEB reads like the Mother Of All Dualist Theories, winding its way through quantum mechanics, Godel’s theorem, the music of Bach, and the art of M.C. Escher.  I remember my disappointment that at the end of the exhilarating GEB ride, Hofstadter reveals that he’s using Godel’s Theorem as a metaphor for, not an explanation of, consciousness.  DAMMIT!  I mean, he’s probably right.  But wouldn’t it have been cooler the other way???

Hofstadter is a strict materialist when it comes to the mind-brain problem – he believes consciousness, our sense of self, of “I”, comes purely from material physical stuff going on in the brain, not from any separate soul or essence of consciousness.  Unlike other famous materialists like Crick, however, he doesn’t revel in the stark (some would say depressing) conclusion that there’s “nothing more to us” than physics.  He is in some sense asking us to appreciate the romanticism in the materialist’s argument.  Instead of decrying how rejecting a separate, otherworldly soul seems to banish a sense of wonder and awe from the world, he essentially says “isn’t it amazing enough that a wet sopping mound of chemicals can become aware?”  He spends GEB as well as this book (very much a sequel to GEB) trying to convey how such a strict materialist viewpoint of the world should still be staggering.


After all, when you think about it, it is staggering.  The mind/brain problem centers around the puzzlement of trying to understand the brain (which appears to have a free will) with physics, which shows how all interactions in the universe are determined by physical laws.  In classical physics, every action is completely predictable from previous actions, so in principle you can predict the future of every particle in the universe from the past — so even though we think we have free will, everything we do is completely predetermined.  As the full understanding of Newtonian physics percolated through society, many people logically concluded the history of the entire universe was predestined, that there was no free will.  Nevertheless since it seems so preposterous that consciousness could arise in material stuff subject to the basic physics we already know, many people assert there must be something more, something as-yet undiscovered that accounts for self-awareness and free will.  Quantum mechanics is a common choice, as it seems to introduce randomness into the universe, just what we need to get a little wiggle room out from underneath determinism, plus it already has some built-in consciousness stuff with all that “observer” crud.  In reality, despite what many popularizers of QM say (I’m lookin at you, Deepak), its unlikely that human consciousness is actually related to the popping of wavefunctions in QM by an observer, and it’s even dimmer chance that the opposite is true, that QM is somehow responsible for consciousness.  As one of my physics profs put it, people seem to conclude that Quantum Mechanics is weird, human consciousness is weird, ergo they must be related.

Another common candidate for that “something else” we need to explain free will is Godel’s Theorem, a groundbreaking discovery that did to math what QM did to physics.  In fact Godel’s Theorem is a main fascination of Hofstadter’s, forming the core of both IAASL and GEB.  (Is my pretentious acronyzing getting annoying yet?)  Personally I think it’s even cooler than quantum mechanics.

So if we don’t believe in a dualist soul, and instead conclude that the brain / consciousness is purely physical, then how the hell does a sopping wad of wet physical stuff have free will enough to get up and drive a car / fly a plane / carve mountains?  Isn’t it astounding that a bit of glop could self-organize on a rock hurtling through space, and that glop could dramatically change the environment around it through what appears to be its own volition?  Yes, says Hofstadter – be astounded by that, take time to appreciate how amazing that is.  As he puts it, both possible answers to the mind/brain problem will take you to strange places if you follow them to their logical conclusions.

I have to grudgingly admit that I find Hofstadter’s explanation of how the mind is solely explained by science a bit lacking.  He argues for the materialist side of the mind/brain problem, argues that there is no such thing as free will, furthermore that the sense of “I” and self are illusions.  But to my mind he doesn’t quite address *why* they’re such compelling illusions.  One example is his fairly out-there suggestion that a person’s sense of “I”, their soul or conscious self, is not quite all contained within the cranium of the owner — we are all to some extent diffused across our friends, family, and other loved ones.  This sounds obvious at first, but he’s actually proposing something much stronger than just that a memory of our experience lives on in other people – he asserts that when you attempt to locate where “I” is located, you have no choice but to draw the boundary to jut into the brains of other people.  He never quite got to the next obvious question (in my mind [ha!  Pun intended!]), whether that sense of “I” that exists in someone else’s brain is him/herself conscious.  A compelling idea, but I was left wanting some more explanation.


So this book (and also GEB) form his endlessly entertaining statement of his beliefs on consciousness, but despite the sweeping tours through wide-ranging areas of science, art, music, and literature, both books endeavor to get the reader to appreciate the complexity of self-awareness, not really to explain them.  Of course that’s probably the point – he’d probably tell me to head on over to his list of scientific publications if I really want to know the how.  But I don’t wanna do that, I want to read more of GEB, more of IAASL, more from the Douglas Hofstadter found in these books.  Hell, I want him to give me milk and cookies and read me a bedtime story.  Thanks for another amazing book, Dr. Hofstadter!

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