Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What a Long, Strange Loop It's Been

Review of I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter

Some years ago, Douglas Hofstadter published a large book called Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. It won a Pulitzer Prize. It sold many, many copies. I have one. I am convinced that few people actually finished it, or even got far into it. It was unquestionably the product of a brilliant mind. But man, reading it was work, lots of little exercises to work through, lots of symbolic logic to learn, but worst, the goal of all that work was unclear. I like a challenging read, so I’m not proud to say I didn’t get far before I put it back on the shelf, where it reposes to this day. The fact is, I just didn’t get it, and I’ll bet not many people did.

I think I will win that bet, because no less an authority than Douglas Hofstadter himself has expressed his disappointment that not many people got it. I quote from Wikipedia: “In the preface to the twentieth-anniversary edition [of GEB], Hofstadter laments that his book has been misperceived as a hodge-podge of neat things with no central theme. He states: ‘GEB is a very personal attempt to say how it is that animate beings can come out of inanimate matter. What is a self, and how can a self come out of stuff that is as selfless as a stone or a puddle?’”

To remedy this, he says, he wrote I Am a Strange Loop – to make the point that apparently eluded readers of GEB. It was published in 2007. It had been sitting on my to-be-read shelf, in hardcover, since then. It is almost 450 pages long. I read it to the end.

Capsule review: Looks like he’s going to have to write another book.

Its goal is to – well, now there’s the first puzzle. Recall that he says he wants to explore “what is a self,” and there is a lot of talk about self-ness in the book. Also consciousness; also possession of a human soul; also what it is that distinguishes humans from other animals.  But there is next to no explanation of what he means by these concepts, which question (if any) he is trying to answer.  I am very tempted to say that he would say that these questions are all essentially the same thing, which launches us into a muddle right at the outset.   

Which is too bad.  I'm interested in these things, and Hofstadter is really a fine writer and a brilliant man with some interesting things to say, so this volume should have been right in my wheelhouse.   But I can tell you very succinctly why this is not a good book: Hofstadter not only doesn’t get to the point, his thesis is all but invisible. If you handed him the book and asked him to find a paragraph, or even a page or two, clearly describing (1) the question he is trying to resolve (i.e., “what is a self,” “what distinguishes humans from lower animals,” “what is the nature of consciousness” “what do we mean when we talk about having a soul” – am I close on any of those?), and (2) his resolution of it, he might be able to do it. Personally, I never stumbled across it. I can’t tell you how his belief that humans are like what he calls “strange loops” gets him much of anywhere.

Why is this? The cheap answer is “because he had a lazy editor, or maybe an intimidated one,” but the real answer is that Hofstadter just may not have a clear answer to any of these questions.  If he does, it gets lost among the analogies and metaphors and stories and personal anecdotes he loves.  Nothing wrong with those strategies.  But after (actually, before) one employs them, one must articulate the idea the technique is employed to illuminate. The book is so thick with explanatory symbol-filled vignettes that they crowd out a simple, clear statement of his belief respecting these issues (and what he believes those issues to be).

The problem is illustrated right on the cover, which is a stylized representation of “video loop.”  Much of the first part of the book is devoted to a description of images Hofstadter created by pointing a video camera at a teevee that was displaying what the video camera was receiving – that is, displaying itself over and over and over.  Moving the camera distorts the image in interesting ways. You’ve seen the effect if you stand in front of a mirror with another mirror behind you – you see yourself receding into infinity. This is a purely mechanical phenomenon that has absolutely nothing to do with consciousness, but Hofstadter goes on and on and on about it, even including a number of useless color plates of his teevee images, as though it tells us something profound about ourselves as human beings. It doesn’t, and if there is a useful analogy to the way humans perceive the world and re-transmit it, I missed it.

Of potentially greater interest might have been his analysis of Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem (1931) and its undermining of Bertrand Russell’s and Alfred North Whitehead’s “Principia Mathematica” (1910-13).  His explanation – which is very lengthy and punctuated with fictional dialogues and analogical fables – isn’t bad, but would it be asking too much for a simple statement, or even a complex or subtle statement, of what these abstract mathematical theories have to do with “I-ness,” or “soul,” or “consciousness,” or “self”?

Let’s return to his central simile. A “strange loop” is a self-referential system (that’s reductive but saying any more would not illuminate this discussion). I have called this Hofstadter’s simile, but I can’t even report that with any confidence – are we “strange loops” in the way that is understood in topology, logic, and mathematical systems, or is he only saying we’re like them in some way that is meaningful to his theory? I went in search of what other people think Hofstadter is trying to say when he says argues that human beings sorta have this characteristic and that it somehow relates to their essential humanity. What I discovered is that no one else knows, either, and those who purport to know sort of skip over what the hell they – and he – think any of this has to do with a unique human nature.

There’s a lesson here.  We see it around us every day, in government, in the workplace, on Wall Street, in the academy, in science:  Brains aren’t enough.  Learnedness isn’t enough.  Opinion leaders, all kinds of leaders, have an obligation to be clear.  Heck,we all have an obligation to be clear with one another.  I don’t care how complex the subject matter is – if you’re writing a nonfiction book for a general audience, especially one that purports to solve a problem or take a position, you have a sacred duty to state your position early and clearly. If you can’t or won’t, you probably haven’t really figured it out for yourself.

With over a thousand pages of closely-printed text sitting on my bookshelf, I don’t know if Douglas Hofstadter is a strange loop. I can say that he is damned near an endless one.

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