Saturday, July 14, 2007

Book Selection of the Month: "I Am a Strange Loop" by Douglas Hofstadter

i-am-a-strange-loop.gif Book Selection of the Month (July 2007):

Many people simply refuse to accept the world as described by science, convinced that a fully material world would somehow be less satisfying than one full of ghosts, gods, or psychic powers. A particularly thickheaded strain of conservative even goes so far as to suggest that a world of molecules and electromagnetism could not be a world with art and love and minds in it (though it certainly appears we live in such a universe). One book I read recently is a reminder that the world described by science is thoroughly strange and exciting, not that the universe is under some obligation to entertain you, as some people who believe in the supernatural appear inclined to think (and to think they call materialist atheists self-centered!).

I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter is the antidote to the sort of reductionist anti-reductionist arguments that say that meat and molecules can’t lead to self-awareness, laughter, and joy (such as Dinesh D’Souza’s vicious, vile, petty, and obscenely-timed argument that atheists can’t meaningfully respond to horrors such as the massacre at Virginia Tech [where, as it happens, my girlfriend Koli was an undergrad two decades ago]). While most of the human race has for millennia envisioned mind and body as two completely different substances (able thereby to intuitively grasp the otherwise unsettling fact that a person is gone even when a dead body remains), Hofstadter, quite reasonably I think, suggests that minds are better thought of as complex patterns — self-reflexive (thus looplike) ones — in the atoms of our brains, much as a traffic jam is a higher-order phenomenon composed of cars or Hamlet is a complex pattern made up of what would seem like mundane words taken individually.

We have no rational reason to believe that the sensation of being conscious is anything more than what it feels like to be such a self-reflexive pattern — and intriguingly, this raises the possibility (perhaps oversold a bit by Hofstadter) that in a very real sense your mind exists a little bit inside the minds of others who come to know you very well and thereby think like you, adopting your mental patterns.

Hofstadter addressed this idea most beautifully in an older book, Le Ton beau de Marot, in which he showed how some of the same questions about what constitutes an accurate replica come up in the translation of poetry, the efforts to create artificial intelligence, and the mingling of lovers’ minds. The book was made all the more poignant by the fact that his wife — with whom he shared love, wordgames, and talk of his work as an artificial intelligence researcher — died during its writing, leaving him wondering, for both personal and philosophical reasons, whether some tiny portion of his wife’s mind lives on in his, each time he laughs at something exactly as she would have or knows precisely what she would have said in a given situation.

It’s funny that D’Souza should dismiss such atheistic, materialist musings as useless in the face of tragedy and death, since it was precisely Le Ton beau de Marot I had in mind when delivering my maternal grandfather Earl Geer’s eulogy, reminding my assembled relatives that Grandpa had been a storyteller with a very distinctive personality and that in some sense he’d live on each time we imagined how he’d react to a situation and what he’d say (including a lot of low-key, mellowness-fostering axioms such as “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” a concept that helps keeps me in my usual non-frantic, contented, easily-pleased state of mind to this day). Grandpa Geer is one of only two people I promised shortly before their deaths to mention in my writing, and I expect I’ll have more to say about his eight decades living on the same old-fashioned farm when I address the important topic of tradition — and its sometimes-useful opposition to dynamic, unfettered progress — at greater length in the future (though I’ve alluded before to the fact that spending time on that farm as a child probably helps keep me sane by reminding me that there are rhythms to live by decidedly different from New York City’s).

Perhaps D’Souza’s thoughts when he reflects on his dead relatives are orders of magnitude more rich and satisfying than Hofstadter’s or my own, but somehow I doubt it — and I doubt we need recourse to invisible, supernatural substances (soulstuff? ectoplasm? ghosts?) to describe the real world. It’s complex enough as is.

P.S. The one other person to ask me to write something for him shortly before he died, by the way, was fellow Brown student Dan Shuster, who committed suicide in 1990 shortly after asking me to write a screenplay about a man as fed up with the modern world as Dan turned out to be who, in the imagined opening scene, finally snaps during a particularly bad traffic jam and goes on a shooting rampage for the rest of the film. I’m going to let myself off the hook on writing up that one, though, since a mere three years later Falling Down with Michael Douglas began exactly as Dan wanted — though Dan was basically a frustrated, angry Buddhist, while the Falling Down character was an expression of paleoconservative rage — long before most people had ever heard the term “paleoconservative” — right down to his objection to foreign trade and bland franchise stores, his loss of purpose after the Cold War, his flirtation with militia-style racism, and his resentment of encroaching New Age religiosity. Strange that the screenwriters had diagnosed a movement and turned it into a film so long before the impact of that movement (most visibly represented by Pat Buchanan) had really been felt on the national stage.


Darby Higgs said...

Todd, as you mention the themes in The Ton Beau…recur in strange loop, more so than themes in Godel Escher Bach. Hofstader’s thinking and writing seem so rich and broad that it provokes a range of different responses, but his ideas (memes?) live on.

One little game I sometimes play is looking for GEB in bookshops and library catalogues to see where it is classified, is it science, philosophy, AI, Maths, Art, Music logic or what? I’m interested that it seems to have hit your button for the religion/atheism/morality/politics debate that seems to be raging in the US at the moment.

Anyway, I’ll link your blog item to the other reviews/responses I have of Strange Loop at

Re the crazy stuff about atheists not being capable of feeling the same way as theists to the horrors of modern life or ethical dilemmas, I like Dan Dennetts comment that we are all atheists, some people don’t believe any gods, most people seem to disbelieve all gods except for their favourite.

caveat bettor said...

Aren’t atheists just theists worshiping their favorite god: nada, nyet, /dev/null, {empty set}?

Clara said...

Aren’t theists just anthropomorphizing the emptiness?

Laura said...

Penn Gillette’s contribution to NPR’s This I Believe, entitled I Believe There Is No God, also quite eloquently demonstrates that atheists have feelings, too.

caveat bettor said...

Clara: It could be theists–or else it could be God– anthropromorphizing. Ironically, atheists appeal to teleology to hang it on theists.

Laura: I’m glad that Penn is as familiar with socratic proof as the apostle Paul or the deacon Stephen. I guess it’s all greek to theists and atheists, in the blogs of the anglosphere, anyhoo.

as above said...

I’m not commenting on whatever this page is about; rather I am commenting as a Geer, specifically the son of Earl Geer and a farmer, to inquire of the author whether we might compare notes.

Yours in Christ,