Sunday, August 16, 2015

review of self-referential book

I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter (Basic Books, 2007)

When Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach was published in 1979, it seemed everyone I knew was talking about it. When his Metamagical Themas was published in 1985, most of them were talking about it. But I've never heard anybody discussing this one. Hofstadter's strange disappearance from public discourse is something I've noted before. Purportedly it's due to his continuing insistence on trying to understand human cognition, a task that apparently everyone else has given up as hopelessly impractical. But from this book I sense a deeper problem.

The understanding of human cognition is purportedly the topic of I Am a Strange Loop; I say "purportedly" because it doesn't really engage with the subject. It does have a thesis: that human consciousness and understanding lie within the complexity of the system, not in the accumulation of the individual parts. ("Strange loop" is his term for a system that holds itself up by its own bootstraps.) I'll buy that thesis. The Game of Life (which is mentioned just once, in a footnote) long ago taught us that systems can be built to far greater levels of complexity than any of the rules making them up.

So far so good, but Hofstadter builds his case almost entirely from philosophical principle, rather than scientific research. As a result, there's an airy, detached quality to the whole thing, much of it recycled from his previous books. Mostly he spends his space by getting off on the wrong track philosophically and pursuing it firmly to questionable destinations.

For instance, Hofstadter seems to believe that our brains are not the limit of our consciousness. He advances the notion that bits of our consciousness exist in the minds of everyone who knows us really well, and that we can feel this sense of them inside ourselves. He implies that anyone who doesn't feel this is a psychopath. Well, I like the general notion of interconnectedness - there's an old Jewish proverb (not quoted by Hofstadter unless I missed it) to the effect that nobody is really dead so long as someone lives in body who remembers them, a maxim I've found of comfort - but I feel a huge gap between Hofstadter's hypothetical notion of embracing someone else's soul and the practical reality of just having a pretty good exterior idea of what sort of things they're likely to say, think, and like. Which I guess means that Hofstadter thinks I'm a psychopath. Thanks a lot, Doug.

One of the recycles is a long discussion of Gödel, again (Escher and Bach also make obligatory appearances), for apparently the sole purpose of teaching us that mathematical systems are complex. No kidding. It also reveals the author's burning disdain for Bertrand Russell. Some people think Russell was a credulous peacenik; Hofstadter thinks he was a lousy mathematician. Well, at least that's different. I was modestly entertained by the story of the early 20C amateur math buff who amused himself by counting up the number of syllables required to describe integers, and finding shortcuts. (e.g.: "One hundred forty-four" is 6 syllables, but "twelve squared" is only 2.) With the exception of some landmark numbers ("one trillion"), they tend to get longer with magnitude, and the buff wondered what was the smallest integer whose English-language descriptions always use at least thirty syllables. It would have to be very large. But wait! Once he found it, it could be described as "the smallest integer whose English-language descriptions always use at least thirty syllables," which is only 24 syllables! Oo-ee-oo. If you're tickled by that sort of paradox, go read Metamagical Themas instead: it's full of them.

However, I was so unentertained by the first chapter that I only continued reading the book because it was the only thing handy for the exercise bike one day. There's a lot of personal matter in this book - one chapter is entirely devoted to demonstrating the thesis of others living in us by expressing the author's devotion to the memory of his first wife - and the first chapter contains repeated, mostly irrelevant, references to his vegetarianism.

Normally I have no problems with vegetarians - I'm in favor of the right of any adult (and even, to a large extent, children) to eschew any food for any reason. But Hofstadter is the one kind of vegetarian I dislike: the sanctimonious vegetarian. Not only does he go around preaching, and his loved ones somehow magically convert along the same stages of the path to enlightenment that he does at the same time he does, but he declares that he cannot respect anyone, no matter how otherwise worthy and no matter how far in the past, who is less perfectly vegetarian than he. Most hypocritically, this comes oddly from a guy who freely admits swatting mosquitoes without compunction, and who even provides a chart (it's on page 19) showing a continuous gradation of consciousness level from the mosquito (and lower!) up to "normal adult humans." It doesn't suit someone who proposes such a gradual curve to draw a firm line across it and say, not just "This is where I personally draw the line," but to insist that everyone else draw it in the same place, or else earn his condemnation as immoral for drawing it in a slightly higher place sanctioned by the culture they live in.

He can't keep to the topic; he can't bring himself to relevant conclusions; he operates entirely in philosophical abstractions; he digresses massively; he uses his own brain as the model for everybody else's; he lectures the reader; and he indulges in TMI. This is a once-renowned author gone to seed.

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