I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter (reviewed by Scott O’Reilly)
"You would not find the boundaries of the soul no matter how many paths you traveled, so deep is its measure." Today, more than 2,000 years after Heraclitus wrote those words, science has scaled back the frontiers of the soul considerably. A soul that can transcend space and time, survive death, and even possess others is considered intellectually passé. In its place we have the brain – "a teetering bulb of dread and dream," as the poet Russell Edson described the grey matter within the cranium that makes us who we are – that is the indispensible substrate of personal identity and consciousness. As the brain goes, so goes the mind.
Not so fast protests the Pulitzer Prize winning cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter in his new book, "I Am a Strange Loop," the thoughtful companion to his seminal contribution to consciousness studies and the field of Artificial Intelligence, "Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid." Each of us is a point of view, and our perspective – indeed or most intimate subjectivity – can exist within other substrates outside of our brain. No, Hofstadter hasn’t gone mystical, religious, or superstitious, but he has pushed the boundaries of science by thinking poetically, which leads him to some very fruitful ways of looking at consciousness.
Does the score of a Bach fugue contain a trace of the composer’s soul or essence? Certainly, there is a world of difference between the Old Master himself and a set of his sheet music that lies waiting to be played. Nevertheless, that objective musical notation does represent a pattern of subjective symbolic activity that once danced Bach’s brain. And when we hear a particularly sublime passage, Hofstadter speculates, are we not in some sense sharing in Bach’s subjectivity?
Poetically speaking, Bach, Mozart, Shakespeare, Plato, Socrates, and our loved ones can live on through us in so far as we can see the world through their eyes. Immortality by proxy may not be what most of have in mind when we think about life after death. But Hofstadter, it seems to me, is on to something very profound.
Hofstadter subscribes to what is known as the narrative self; the notion that the psychological self is ultimately a hypothetical construct, a story our brains spin that generates the illusion that there is a single, stable, and unified locus of willing, thinking, and choosing that constitutes our "I." We are all like Scheherazade, the Queen from the 1001 Arabian Nights who postpones her execution by seducing the king with one fantastic tale after another. In other words, our "I" can only be sustained in its existence through an act of perpetual storytelling on "our" brain’s part.
Who – or what – is doing this storytelling? According to Hofstadter, the threads that make up the tapestry of a self are patterns of active symbols (neurological patterns) that mirror the outside (and ultimately inside) world. For instance, we experience a sensory precept, which causes a pattern of neuronal firings that symbolize or represent an outer object. Our concepts are built up this way; the fast-moving furry critter with whiskers and spots in our visual field triggers a complex pattern of neuronal activity that, once stored as a memory, symbolizes a leopard.
Our enormous craniums -- each containing a hundred million neurons (with thousands of potential connection between each individual neuron) -- are the most complex information processors in the known universe. The concepts we are capable of creating are infinitely extensible. That is, we can pile concept upon concept to generate ever increasing levels of generalization and abstraction. The individual leopard belongs to the genus feline, which is part of the category mammal, which falls under the heading life form, which is subsumed in the more-encompassing category class of being.
Concepts are also extensible in so far as we can map analogies between seemingly dissimilar concepts. For example, one might say that writing an original philosophical essay is a lot like trying to cut a new trail through the jungle; they are both an arduous process where the destination is uncertain, but the thrill of new vistas and discoveries is possible. No two concepts could seem more dissimilar on the surface – writing a philosophical essay and blazing a trail in the jungle – yet thanks to the infinite extensibility of concepts we perpetually manage to make valid comparisons between seemingly disparate ideas.
The inner self, of course, is invariably described in analogical terms -- the Cartesian Theatre, the engine of reason, the cork bobbing on the ocean, the tip of an iceberg, and the homunculus (the little man inside the head) – are just a few of the vivid analogies that have been proposed as the ideal images for understanding the psychological ego. A great deal of philosophical ink has been spilled debating whether these figurative reifications are true or not.
Perhaps Hofstadter’s most intriguing argument is his contention that that the complexity and extensibility of active symbols in the brain inevitably leads to the same kind of self-reference Gödel proved was inherent in any complex logical or arithmetical system. Gödel’s argument, in a nutshell, is that mathematics and logic contain "strange loops," propositions that not only refer to mathematical and logical truths, but also to the symbol system expressing those truths. This recursiveness inevitably leads to paradox – Gödel-like statements such as: "This statement is false."
The psychological self, Hofstadter argues, arises out of a similar kind of paradox. We are not born with an "I," the ego emerges only gradually as experience shapes our dense web of active symbols into a tapestry rich and complex enough to begin twisting back upon "itself." The psychological "I," according to this view, is a narrative fiction," a point that Wittgenstein made when he argued that the "I" not an object in the world, but a precondition for there being a world in the first place. "It is the "I," it is the" I," that is deeply mysterious," exclaimed Wittgenstein.
A perspective is a consequence of a unique pattern of symbolic activity taking place in our nervous systems. But Hofstadter contends it is the symbolic pattern that is paramount, not the substrate. That is, organized the right way silicon chips could support consciousness just as neurons do. Hofstadter’s also believes that the pattern of symbolic activity that makes us who we are, that constitutes our subjectivity, can be instantiated within the brains of others!
This notion may seem far out at first, but I believe Hofstadter is onto something rather profound. As Hofstadter observes, each of us is a more than just a self, we are a collection of selves. That is, in addition to a core self we identify as our "I," each of us contain neuronaly-based models that mirror and reflect the people in our lives. These models are patterns of symbolic activity that have a certain degree of autonomy in so far as they really do simulate the perspective of our significant others. If we have lived and loved someone long and deeply enough, Hofstadter contends, our models will come to mirror their perspective ever more closely. We will in essence, be able to see the world through their eyes.
Hofstadter acknowledges that the simulated subjectivity of another that can exist in us will not be as robust as the subjectivity that arises in the cranium of its owner. However, Hofstadter’s intuition seems to me is a remarkably deep way of understanding the permeable fluidity and the profoundly poetic dimensions of self-hood. The Cartesian prison, if you will, of isolated and monadic selves, is demolished in favor of selves that are deeply enriched and entwined by their relationships to other points of view.
Hofstadter is a natural phenomenologist and a first rate scientist (a pretty good combination, by the way). But his forays into the philosophical implications of his ideas, though often provocative, are the most frustrating part of his book. He argues that concepts like freewill make no sense as part of scientific explanations when we are talking about matter at the most fundamental level. Yet, Hofstadter readily acknowledges that when we shift our attention to the macro world, then invoking freewill (or the intention of an agent) is frequently the most expeditious and justified way of arriving at an explanation of the behavior in question.
Hofstadter asks us to consider, for instance, the two very different levels which we might view a painting like the Mona Lisa: 1) at the micro level the reality we experience will consist of subatomic particles and pigments that reflect light of a certain wavelength. 2) At the macro or everyday level, however, we experience an entirely different reality; a gal with an enigmatic and captivating smile. Which level is more real? The utility of thinking in terms of freewill, Hofstadter argues, depends on which level we are speaking on.
There are several problems here, however. If a self is a narrative fiction, then how does it pull the levers so to speak, that initiates free actions? That is, how does a hypothetical construct exercise causal powers? Second, when push comes to shove, Hofstadter (dyed in the wool scientist that he is) opts for the lawful, deterministic, and in principle entirely predictable universe of matter and the physical forces as the most appropriate candidate for Ultimate Reality. The self, when you get down to it, as far as Hofstadter is concerned, is the Ultimate Illusion, or even a hallucination, as he puts it.
Hofstadter is certainly right in exercising the ghosts of dualism. The self is not, and cannot be, some indivisible, indissoluble, and immaterial phantom that nonetheless inhabits the physical body. He is also, correct, I believe, in expanding the frontiers of the soul, illustrating how the phenomena of subjectivity is much more open-ended, permeable, and relational than we ever imagined. When we share our perspective with a receptive other we are implanting a part of our self in another, and vice versa. We can live in others, just as others can live in us. The boundaries of our souls are indeed beyond all measure.