Monday, August 29, 2011

Book Review: I am a Strange Loop (Part 1)

(To sort out my thoughts in reply to this remarkable book, I was going to try something very much in the book’s spirit and impose a virtual dialogue between myself and its author (or more precisely, the neural representation of the author in my head), but my neural representation must be too thin because I ended up talking too much and drowning out the poor author. I just don’t have a strong enough strange loop of Douglas Hofstadter in my head, so I’ll write a normal-ish review but address it directly to him to see how that plays out.)

Dear neural representation of Douglas Hofstadter in my head (and I do mean “dear”),

Your book got under my skin for a couple of weeks, so I have far more to react to than can fit on a blog, but let’s start out with the overall adjectives and superlatives: although it’s a bit longwinded – you add some obvious “padding” to make the paragraphs fit your aesthetic scheme – it’s everything a book should be, exuberant, poignant, detailed, fun to read. Whereas your previous book Godel, Escher, Bach taught me how computers really work vividly enough to stick with me permanently, this book has an excellent chapter or two on math talking about the same thing from a different perspective, but really you spend most of your time trying to suss out philosophical implications that you feel were in the previous book but not picked up on by most. I picked up on them and am not as sure this book is necessary as you seem to think, but I do have a soft spot for good sequels, and this counts as one. Ultimately, I agree, the different emphasis of this book was necessary, although I wonder if it could have been half the length. Nonetheless, it’s a lot of fun to follow along. I find your emphasis on the developing and ever-changing self to be very helpful: I’m reminded of the one day in middle school that I tried to slick back my hair to try on a new self in imitation of a friend of mine, but by the end of the day it all fell back to where it started. Do you emphasize the mutability of the soul in order to minimize the constant elements to it? Yet aren’t those constant elements the truly distinctive ones?

I actually have no problem with where you start. I just think your universe needs more than you allow on top of what you already allow. I can see your entire philosophical-scientific scheme of what minds are made of as actually compatible with my orthodox Christian belief, because I think historically that the speculation on the soul as a separate substance is more a Medieval imposition on the text (in which they tried to make everything invisible – souls, righteousness, etc. – a kind of fluid or substance) rather than in the original text itself. So I have no theological objection to being built up from atoms, and being tied to my body, because according my theological system, we’re going to get bodies when we’re resurrected, so the body and soul are just as tightly linked for me as they are for you. Actually, being intimately linked to a pattern of atoms lets me see one level of just how God will reconstruct that pattern.

At this fundamental level, I have to ask that beyond your two levels of meaning -- the atomic and the abstract/mental/symbolic -- why can’t there be a third level of meaning beyond that? Now, I don’t think this third level is composed of patterns formed entirely by the first two levels, but I think it can interact with them. How it interacts may be a problem, but one that’s fun to think about rather than one that negates the entire system. And I don’t think this third level has to be some substance like what you derisively call “feelium,” which is as unfair a simplification on your part as Searle’s pop-can analogy, which you detest, is to your own philosophy. Better to call it “personality” than “feelium” and to remember that it is not reducible and not a substance or fluid or any thing like that, so mocking it with a substance-seeming synonym is just as wrong as Searle proposing one pop can can represent thirst. Your problem, as I see it, is that you still have to deal with the fact that a careening mass of atoms somehow gave rise to personalities in what is to you a universe void of personality. In your universe, the fact that I own a bit of personality that really is my only true possession is a problem, while in mine it is an expected and predicted part of the system. I find that amazingly strange in a universe of physics and thermodynamics – not impossible by any means, just weird.

Your insistence that “I” is an illusion (but an illusion that is real in that it should act real), and that the illusion can be disassembled with the proper scientific insight, seems much like the very old ideas of the Gnostics. Your focus on abstraction is the same as theirs. There is a paradox here, in that you build up your Gnosticism from purely physical bits, but end up with a realm of thought that de-emphasizes the physical bits and even seeks to escape them. In true scientific fashion, you have edited the first person out of your writing.

(To be continued in Part 2)


PNG said...


You write good stuff. You haven't gotten much in the way of comments. I haven't really done any blogging myself, but I have sent out e-mails to lists of family members (and it turned into a blog this very day.) For me, if I get no response, after a while it feels like I am dropping letters into a well.

I haven't read the Hofstader book, although I read some of G, E, B years ago, so I can't critique the critique. Still, I'm guessing I have a pretty good idea what the book is like now. Thanks.

Ben McFarland said...

Thanks for reading. You know, long ago I abandoned the idea of putting up writing for comments. I come from such a different place than a lot of people that I've decided to use this blog as a public bulletin board to post some writing on and to keep track of books. Writing practice. When I got a lot of comments on the Meyer book review it was actually more trouble than it was worth in some ways, though I appreciate the eyeballs. Makes the occasion comment like this one mean that much more, so thanks for reading again.