Book Review: I Am A Strange Loop

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Douglas Hofstadter was one of my favorite authors in high school. After Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, I devoured all his other books I could find. His last, Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language, about translation (as well as, well, just about everything else under the sun) was one of my favorites and one of his most “human”, though all of Hofstadter’s books had that quality.

It’s been not quite 10 years since that book, and I Am A Strange Loop is probably closest in spirit to the postscripts in The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self & Soul, edited by Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett, though Hofstadter intends this as a followup and clarification to GEB. Given its source as a clarification of that earlier book, I Am A Strange Loop is Hofstadter’s most focused work to date. While his earlier material tends to take bits and pieces from everywhere to make an engaging whole, this one pretty much stays the course. Sure, there are the standard digressions on music and art, but Hofstadter works much harder to make them underline his point in a more explicit way, rather than his implied way of the past.

As usual, too, the book is full of wordplay and puns and a sense of wonder at the world, though one can detect a note of sadness. As he was writing Le Ton beau de Marot, his beloved wife Carol died (which adds a sad arc to his books — in GEB, Carol was referred to as his girlfriend, in The Mind’s I, his fiancee, by Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern they’d married and were deeply in love, and in Le Ton beau, she’d had a sudden brain hemorrhage and died. In a way, I Am A Strange Loop is Hofstadter dealing with his grief, although don’t think that this meditation on Identity and whether or not people die or can exist (in at least some, lower resolution form) in other people’s brains is a last ditch attempt to console himself over the loss of his wife. Admittedly, he HIMSELF wonders if this is at least partially the case, but he points out that he’s been working on this theory since before the GEB days, and so it’s also a continuation of his standard work. (It’s also an expansion of the Epilogue to Le Ton beau, where he mentions his “living-on-in-other’s brains” theory in brief. Sadly, however, in that book, it does feel like a type of self-consolation, for which he can be forgiven as she’d just died.)

His ideas are very interesting (and, as usual, very readable, even to the lay-person) and while I can find myself agreeing with him on the nature of the “I” and the consciousness, I’m not sure if I can really identify with his idea of soul-coronas, what he terms the low-res copies of people’s identity left in the minds of those who continue living after the person has passed. Although, I think partially it’s a conflict of what people necessarily think of “living on”, and that’s something he addresses via the Dennett fable of the interplanetary transporter (which can send the information with the absolute 100% blueprint via radio to any location and destroying the “original” copy, to be rebuilt shortly after i the new location) — whether or not the copy is YOU necessarily, or just another person who happens to have your Identity. The question is whether or not, if you go through this transporter, while the Copied You would still think of themselves as You, and for all intents and purposes BE You in fact, but whether or not the original You’s consciousness would be actually transported, or whether or not the You that went in the transporter would actually die, with the You on the other end actually being a wholly different person who happens to think just like you… or, basically, are you able to see the other side of the transporter, or are you merely sending an ambassador to act in your own interests?

This plays into Hofstadter’s idea of Soul Coronas in the similar way — basically, does the Carol whose body and original high-res Soul died have the ability to think in her husband, Doug’s low-res version of her Soul, or is Doug’s low-res Carol merely a knock-off, who happens to have many of the same experiences and feelings that the Original Carol had but doesn’t have the same… existence. Basically, when Carol was Transported from her brain into Doug’s, did she die and send an ambassador, or did she actually jump over to his brain (as well as the other brains of those who knew her in varying degrees). And, to be honest, I’m not 100% sure which Douglas Hofstadter would say — and to be honest, I think he’d probably say the former, but also that it doesn’t necessarily matter; even though That Particular Carol might not necessarily exist anymore, there is still a sense of Carol-ness that DOES exist and will continue to exist until all those who know her in some/any die out (which, along with her husband, will be rather longer now that he’s written so much about her).

The last few paragraphs of the novel are beautiful writing, and I’m half-tempted to transcribe them here, though I think I’ll refrain to give you just that extra dollop of encouragement to pick this book up — perhaps enough to just push you over the edge from not reading it to buying it, reading it, and cherishing it. Douglas Hofstadter is not only a national treasure, but an international one.