Book Review: I am a Strange Loop by D. Hofstadter

This book deserves a lot of additional commentary, but I will keep it short and begin with philosophy of mind’s “elephant in the room”; free will.

Hofstadter rejects free will. No such thing, any appearance to the contrary an illusion. But even worse, it is an illusion on top of an illusion (the agent whose will it is) on top of another illusion, mind, that is subjective consciousness, also illusion or at best epiphenomenal with zero power of downward causation. Of course. What else can he say? He is committed to all of this being nothing more than manifestations of physical process in the brain whose complexity in some unspecified way becomes self-referencing, creating some sort of physical effect (like a harmonic oscillation though he doesn’t say this) that magically transforms itself into our subjectivity. A harmonic oscillation (a complex pendulum) that becomes an unmeasurable (by third parties) interiority.

Despite this multi-layered trickery, Hofstadter uses the word ‘soul’ many dozens of times throughout the book, even calling human beings “spiritual animals” in his conclusion. To what, in this epiphenomenal context, can these concepts possibly refer? Nothing. They are meaningless terms standing for illusory abstractions. Surely he knows that these words, in a non-physicalist context, stand for something purportedly both real (not illusory) and yet non-physical. To be sure, even in their normal context they are vague terms and there is no end of debate among philosophers of religion about what they reference. But all agree they reference something not material. But God is a fantasy to Hofstadter. Words normally associated with “God talk” can be appropriated and made to mean anything one wants. Nothing about ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ can be real. Although the words are real enough in the English language, they literally can mean nothing what-so-ever as  that to which Hofstadter applies them is ultimately an illusion.

Take beauty, the simplest of the values (truth, beauty, goodness) to grasp because we detect its manifestation in the physical world. Physical things (whether natural or artifactual phenomena, sunsets or art) strike us as beautiful or not but either way the perception of beauty is something that exists only in mind. We seem to see it in the material world, but there is not much controversey about its status as a purely mental phenomenon, coming out, in what would have to be Hofstadter’s view if he is being consistent, as an illusion in an epiphenomena. While having no causal power, our epiphenomenal mind can itself have an illusion about which we might report: “that is a beautiful sunset”. But this is but another behavior determined by the purely physical operation of our brains, a report that happens, magically to coincide with the illusion arising in a causally impotent epiphenomena having no correspondence what-so-ever to any physical quality of the sunset.

This leaves all of what Hofstadter says he values, the memories of a wife he loved deeply, and the children he continues to adore, his close friends, his career, all illusion. Memories are an imperfect mental record of past experience, but experience is nothing but effervescent epiphenomena. They don’t mean anything because meaning is intelligible only to a subject, itself an illusion. He likes to think he acts out of love for his children, but this is impossible unless there is downward causation. Love has an experience that is overtly more than its physiological concomitants. This part of it is quintessentially mental, and therefore epiphenomenal. There is nothing there that has any stake (and in any case cannot be a cause) in the behavioral game.  Like beauty, physics does not find love in the causal mechanisms of the physical world.

If Hofstadter is right, then we might as well be zombies of the sort envisioned by his student (years ago) David Chalmers. Our interiority would seem to belie that. Chalmer’s “philosophical zombies” (P-zombies) have no interiority, but then our having one makes not the slightest difference to anything we might say or do, like “I love my children”. There is no “him” (all illusion) there to love anything, only his brain that determines the verbal report made.

Hofstadter declares to us that he “takes mind seriously”. Another zombie-report forced on him by his brain, just as that same brain forced him to pen that book. This is not “taking mind seriously”. If you take mind seriously, then you have to come out a bit like John Searle (whose critique of “machine consciousness” Hofstadter swipes at here and there throughout the book). Searle takes mind seriously. He says that he cannot shake the feeling that nothing about the entire history of human experience, not to mention the day-to-day experience of individual humans, makes any sense, becomes unintelligible, unless free will, and even personal agency (for Searle at least of a functional and not ontologically real sort) are both real. Searle, being ultimately a physicalist, admits he cannot figure out how this would be possible, but he nevertheless cannot shake the conviction that it is. Hofstadter (Searle and many others also) has another option, one that his  sort of “taking it seriously” prevents him from considering. He could take consciousness, agency, and free will to be real, and conclude that therefore physicalism must be false!

If one takes mind, and provisionally like Searle, free will and agency seriously, if physicalism is false, then one moves on to asking what must be the case about reality as a totality that makes these phenomena possible? What must be true about the universe if these subjective experiences are experiences of real phenomena? This is a question that Hofstadter, like Searle, cannot bring himself to ask.

I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter 2004

Douglas Hofstadter, justifiably famous for “Godel, Escher, Bach” wrote about the much trickier subject of mind and personal identity in this 2004 book. It is one thing to analyze the relation between three applications (their results in Math, visual art, and music) of self-referencing thought, and quite another to analyze the entity doing the thinking. Hofstadter begins with Godel because as it will turn out, his insight into the recursive descriptiveness of number theory from which self-reference was (supposedly) banned by Bertran Russel, becomes his inroad into a philosophy of mind. Hofstadter is a master at describing (without mathematical formalism) what Godel did and why it matters. He is not so good at applying this to mind.

Besides Godel, the author’s other insight comes from the loopy-like nature of recursive entities like infinite halls of mirrors or what happens when you point a television camera at the screen displaying what that camera is viewing. We all have seen these, and from these two things, Hofstadter assembles a theory of mind based on the idea that whatever goes on in the brain at the low and mid physical levels results in some sort of abstractions (perhaps manifested in harmonic oscillations of electromagnetic energy) that from another perspective, are the very stuff of consciousness.

There is nothing particularly new about this. Rejecting religion or other basis for any sort of dualism (and his remarks are rather disparaging in this respect) and declaring oneself a physicalist (there is nothing more than physics) is par for the course and occasionally swatting straw-man arguments to the contrary, is all part of the contemporary game for most of today’s philosophers and scientists. Besides religion he mentions David Chalmers who was, apparently, a student of Hofstadter’s in his doctoral days and rejects Chalmer’s non-religious panpsychism (and along with this presumably Davidson’s “dual aspect” monism as well) which is fine as far as it goes.

Hofstadter’s theory is somatic. Mind arises from what goes on physically in the brain and nothing more. The problem is he never gets to connect up the subjective with anything that can, even in theory, be measured by third parties. This is not to criticize him alone here, no other physicalists (or for that matter panpsychists) manage to do it either, but in this case the author jumps from the neurological layer to the concept of self-referencing abstraction (presupposing consciousness) without pointing to anything in between that might connect the two.

After declaring his theory “explained”, Hofstadter moves on to considerations of how one strange loop-abstraction, the one that fools me into the illusion of a stable “I”, is influenced and modified by others. He is much impressed by Derek Parfit’s thought experiments [supposedly] demonstrating that what we take to be the uncopyable core of ourselves, is nothing but effervescent illusion and can in fact be copied. Moreover, though we cannot copy it today (and may never be able to do that in reality) we can, from our own interiority, find ourselves being partial expressions of other people, their strange loops!

He supposes that our own personal-identities form slowly as we proceed from infant to child based on all the various influences that impinge on us from the world as these come to influence new effects in our own minds. The totality of all this over time results in a relatively stable, but not changeless, personal identity. He moves on from there to suppose that those we hold and know particularly closely (our parents, wives, children, siblings, etc) can cause their own identities to be partly duplicated in our own minds. None of this really makes sense. Of course someone with whom we are close for many years will have a proportionally larger influence over the shape of our phenomenal arena. What he doesn’t seem to appreciate is that this influence takes the same pathways (our interpretation of sensory experience for example) as the initial early development of our own personality. There isn’t any loop in my brain that is a copy (however imperfect) of my wife or children’s identity, only modifications of my own that represent them.

There is much here and I do not doubt that writing “I am a Strange Loop” was a labor of love in more ways than one. It is, as with other somatic theories, even possible that oscillating fields in the brain have a lot to do with consciousness and personal identity. There are still reasons to believe that this is not the whole story.

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