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on 24 December 2017
Actually an interesting book but to me a lot of the concepts have been visited before, the author, who is highly rationalist tries to play "the spiritual guy", but fails miserably as he does not understand nothing of the subject, still an interesting read by the many propositions he portrays, some of them a bit crude. Also he hints that the self is just composed by our experiences, and there is nothing there before, I contest this assertion, I believe there is something on the DNA that interferes with our personality, he should look into that, there are many people who were brought up without the original parents and still some behaviours could be traced, on those respects he should refer to Sheldrake, that is way more competent then the author.
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on 22 August 2009
I Am A Strange Loop is well-known and loved by lots of geeky readers, but I can't really count myself as one of them, sadly. I wanted to like this book because of its many recommendations by fellow nerds, but it's hard-going. Hofstadter is fascinated, obsessed with the idea of self-referential paradoxes, or 'loopiness' as he calls it. Woe betide you if you find them even slightly less fascinating than he does! You will find your intelligence insulted, your emotional maturity trashed, and even be called a coward (seriously, wtf?). Poor old Bertrand Russell takes the brunt of Hofstadter's frustration at the idea that not everybody finds his pet subject the One True Concept to get their pants in a twist over, and he's continually insulted for attempting to find resolutions to logical paradoxes as though doing so was some kind of intellectual crime against thought. Hofstadter is convinced that we are both fascinated and a little afraid of loopiness, and he's convinced of that because he is himself. He doesn't really make much effort to persuade anybody else, because if you don't feel that way then you're probably in denial or just not able to 'get' what he's telling you.

The other reviewers have done a better job of dissembling Hofstadter's philosophy than I could, so instead I'll concentrate on my other gripes, which is his writing style. He seems to have an idea that his writing is somewhat charming and whimsical. I would disagree, finding it somewhat hectoring and trite. He's obsessed with lists - often presenting an example of some concept immediately followed by ten or twenty sub-examples that all say the same thing. The typeface of the book is huge, so he can easily fill three quarters of a page with arbitrary nouns, something he does with relish. After the third or fourth such block of pointless examples, one finds one's eyes glazing over and skipping to the bottom of the page and reading back up just to avoid his train of thought. After the fifteenth block of them, one starts to actively feel a bit annoyed. Think of all the poor trees that had to be cut down to make these big books full of redundant phrasing. Do they have souls?

He uses frequent alliteration, a convention that drives me mad at the best of times, but becomes still more offensive when it's over-used. Hofstadter says in his preface that he's had fine control over everything in the way the book is presented, including the typography. I dearly wish he'd left the typography and the editing to the experts and concentrated on rigorous verification of his ideas.

All in all, it's a fairly charmless and tedious monologue, patronising and sometimes directly insulting (to both the 'Dear Reader' as well as Bertrand and poor John Searle). Some interesting ideas, but he could do so much better.
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on 22 May 2007
I wont go into the details of the book, as other reviewers have already done that. I would also like to note that I am no psychologist, but just a scientifically minded person who enjoys reading all sort of scientific works.

I Am A Strange Loop is a great book to get started to think about consciousness, the mind, the "I". Hofstadter has a knack of clearly explaining all sorts of lines of reasoning that subtly come together as one progresses through the book.

Although not all the sections will be easy reading (take the Gödel section), with a little extra thought (and perhaps a little re-reading) Hofstadter gets his message across and takes you on this marvelous journey into ... nothingness!

Unless you're into the subject already it's sure to conjure up some new thoughts in your Strange Loop, whether you accept his point of view or not.

Definitely worth reading!
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on 27 April 2007
Let's start by stating a simple fact: nothing by Hofstadter can ever be anything but fascinating (even his terrible translation of Eugene Onegin had a very interesting introduction). Now we've got that out of the way, let's admit that this book isn't quite up to par with his others (of which my favourite, for the record, is Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies).

There's not really anything here that we haven't seen before: we have Godel's theorem, self-engulfing camera systems and other paradoxes from GEB; science-fiction thought experiments from The Mind's I; the Careenium from Metamagical Themas; blurred souls and personalities from Le Ton Beau. We get the sense that Hofstadter is frustrated that people still don't quite 'get it', which is fair enough except that I and most of his core readership probably *do* get it.

Now, naturally this doesn't detract from the fact that it's a lovely read as ever (although I miss Hofstadter's playfulness, which seems to have diminished over the years). The chapters on Godel, particularly, are well-explained and do clarify the relationship Hofstadter sees between Godel and the brain. Also, he spends some time expanding on the themes introduced in Le Ton Beau, that a person's spirit is not just held in a single brain but spreads through those they influence. He gives this more rigour than before, likening it to a virtual machine on a computer, creating a (slightly imperfect) version of another program. And his discussions of levels of soulhood (framed in musings about his own vegetarianism) are thought-provoking, particularly the idea that the cut-off point for having a soul could be the ability to have a concept of 'friend'.

What I'd have liked to see was more speculation from Hofstadter's actual area of expertise. He gives the impression that representational power simply appears within a system as soon as it has enough stuff going on on the lower level (this particularly strikes you when reading about his Careenium metaphor), whereas in his actual research he knows perfectly well that it takes a lot of work to make real representation (and indeed he often berates other AI researchers who miss this point). He discusses theories of Dennett, Searle and other philosophers, but we've seen this before and it would be nice to see some mention of the things we have learned in neurology, psychology and evolutionary biology since GEB.

A Hofstadter book is an all-too rare event. Here's hoping we get another and it has more meat to it.
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on 17 May 2013
This book has formidable shortcomings.

At the beginning of Chapter 4 Hofstadter takes the flush toilet as `probably the most familiar and the easiest to understand' example of `mechanical systems with feedback in them'. He describes how the interaction of its main components - tank, water, float, rod and valve - maintains a constant level of water in the tank. Then he goes on to talk about a `little rubber gizmo' which can cause the feedback system to malfunction. He doesn't explain what this `little rubber gizmo' is and how it interacts with the main components already described. So this is an explanation suitable for the reader who needs to know (or at least to be reminded of) the interaction of the main components of the flush toilet but who already knows about - and so needs no explanation of - the `little rubber gizmo'. Surely the author can't believe that any such reader exists; more likely, he just didn't think carefully about what he was writing.

The text continues with an anecdote about how a malfunction of the `little rubber gizmo' once cost Douglas Hofstadter an extra $300 water bill. What is the point of this whole one-page passage that contains both the feedback description and the anecdote? Is the author's purpose to describe the normal, effective working of a flush toilet, as one small but relevant step in the exposition of his theory of mind? (In that case, the stuff about the `little rubber gizmo' and the $300 anecdote are irrelevant and distracting.) Or is the purpose to present a simple example of how a mechanical system with feedback in it can malfunction, thus making its malfunctioning the main point of the example? (In that case, surely the text ought to have started off with a sentence such as `Here is a simple example of how a mechanical system with feedback can malfunction') Or did the author just not bother to think too hard about what role this example served in the book? (That is what I suspect.)

Next in Chapter 4 there is a passage about anthropomorphic language, ie saying that such a feedback system has `desires' and `goals'. The text seems to start by saying that this a bad thing but ends up by saying that it is `indispensable'. The reader gets the feeling that this is a mere hint of a theme that the book will probably cover in more depth later on (and indeed in a later chapter questions are asked such as whether a machine can perceive, be creative, have opinions etc). However, the author doesn't link up this short passage explicitly to any other part of the chapter or to the rest of the book; he just stops after two pages and goes on with something else.

Third comes description in about three pages of two different situations: where a microphone amplifies its own sound coming from a nearby loudspeaker, and where a videocamera is pointed at a screen that shows images of the camera. The reader might reasonably assume that the anthropomorphic passage just gone was an intermezzo and that this third passage was the next step after the opening passage about the flush toilet in developing the analysis of feedback that is necessary to explain the author's theory of mind. However, Hofstadter doesn't say that; he doesn't relate the flush toilet to the microphone/loudspeaker combination in any way, except that he uses the word `feedback' for both. But they are quite different cases: the first is one machine so designed that, if functioning properly, it ensures a constant level of something (in this case water); the second involves two quite distinct machines, not primarily concerned with maintaining a constant level of something, which, if by chance juxtaposed in a certain way, as occasionally happens, can produce interesting results. True the word `feedback' can reasonably be used of both cases, but that is nothing like enough linkage to be meaningful without further explanation: you might as well write a passage about coal mines and then one about explosive mines, and assume that the connection was obvious because both were about `mines'.

It may well be that in order to understand Hofstadter's theory of mind you have to understand the microphone/loudspeaker case and in order to understand that you must first understand the flush-toilet case; maybe, but if so, he should have explained that linkage. And if not, he should not have forced the reader to study the case of the flush-toilet - including malfunctions - for, as it turned out, no purpose at all.

These six pages (pp51-56) provide examples of several generic clarity-hindering faults that can crop up in any text that explains something complicated:
- Failure to explain something from a consistent level;
- Inclusion of material(such as personal anecdote, example from another field, analogy, parable, imaginary dialogue,thought experiment, or some adjacent but different topic) that is irrelevant to explanation of the main topic. The reader may waste a lot of mental energy before concluding that the material is irrelevant.
- Failure to explain specifically how some piece of material (anecdote, example etc) that plausibly does have some relevance fits into the explanation of the main topic. The reader struggles to the tantalising position of concluding that the material probably is relevant in some way, but being unsure exactly how.
- Failure to organise a chapter in a form that is both coherent and clear to the reader.

In the chapters beyond Chapter 4, ie most of the book, Hofstadter puts forward his ideas that `we ourselves .. are strange loops' and that `the quintessential example of this phenomenon', ie strange loops, was discovered by the logician Gödel (pp103-4). He then describes Gödel's work in a chunk of some 70 pages, and constantly refers to it in the 180 pages after that, while never missing a chance to be contemptuous about Russell's Principia Mathematica.

So then, if Hofstadter's explanation of the flush toilet is so poor, how does he do at using advanced concepts of mathematical logic to present his original ideas on the slippery subject of the nature of the mind? Not well. Going through the heavy part of the book, I don't find a clear explanation of a theory of mind, and I do find plenty of the generic clarity-hindering faults given above. There are some whoppers: for example, Hofstadter gives us his personal ethical views on such things as vegetarianism and Albert Schweitzer, as if that material will somehow make his theory of mind more clear and more convincing. But no, life is too short for any more of this.

The book attempts to explain the author's theory of mind. It fails to do that competently. Therefore it can't deserve any more than two stars.
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on 10 April 2009
Having read the book I could not disagree more with the reviewer who gave one star. This book does not have any agenda in the slightest and I doubt very much the reviewer really read the book as if anything Hofstadter argues that consciosness exists to a varying degree depending on the sophistication of the brain possessed by the animal and so one could infer that he advocates meat eating! which he doesn't do either.

Although elements of the book seem abstract and sometimes a little off track, once fully read I began to appreciate the care the author has taken to tie all of his anecdotes and metaphors together to provide his wonderful vision of what a soul means.

In addition to all this, the book is peppered with great: scientific, musical, literary and everday analogies that really clarify the points he is trying to make.
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on 2 April 2014
I think Mr Hofstadter works on the principle, never say something in 100 words when you can use a thousand. It's full of personal anecdote of the "too much information" kind. When I eventually got to what I thought was going to be the crunch of the matter... i.e. the deep nature of consciousness he dismisses the question in a sentence that equates it to mere thinking. He does have something interesting to say about the nature of self and there is an interesting but badly explained insight into the work of Goedel but I don't think it's worth the effort of ploughing through the rest of it to get to them.
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on 28 December 2016
I’ve wanted to read this book for so long that this year, it was finally the Christmas present I asked for from my husband. And I’m sorry to say it was rather disappointing! Like other reviewers, I soon tired of the self-indulgent style (endless alliterative lists and lame jokes), perhaps reflecting the status of an established academic who has been understandably revered ever since the precocious brilliance of G.E.B.

Actually, I felt rather sorry for the author. Here is a genius trapped in his own “careenium,” trying to use the nuts and bolts of logic to answer metaphysical questions that forever elude such an approach. So his ideas go round and round in circles – from “if you look closely enough, we’re just a bunch of neurons” to more wistful passages hoping for more than that.

Throughout the book Hofstadter tries to tick all the boxes scientifically, yet from a philosophical perspective (and this is, above all else, undeniably a philosophical book) fails to consider many possibilities – in particular, never calling into question the clunky Western assumption that the material body precedes consciousness, and not vice versa. This despite his admission that AI can't even approach the subtlety of the most basic processes involved in human awareness.

This leads him into all sorts of binds when considering, for example, what happens to an individual consciousness after death – a question that must have preoccupied him considerably after the tragic death of his first wife, Carol. He concludes: “When someone dies, they leave a glowing corona behind them, an afterglow in the souls of those who were close to them. Inevitably, as time passes, the afterglow fades and finally goes out, but it takes many years for that to happen.” Yet elsewhere, he admits that we can never know if we mean the same thing as another human even when using the same language, such as when referring to colours; there’s no way of knowing whether my blue is your red.

I can only imagine the burden of responsibility he must have felt in faithfully preserving Carol’s data (which he equates with her “soul”), like a sort of faulty hard drive: “The sad truth is, of course, that no copy is perfect, and that my copies of Carol’s memories are hugely defective and incomplete, nowhere close to the level of detail of the originals.” Ouch.

Einstein, apparently, said that “no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” It’s a great pity that Leary did so much to stigmatise the exploration of consciousness by adjusting the brain’s filters, because it’s sad to see a brilliant mind so imprisoned “inside the box” that it comes up with such clumsy narratives. And disappointing for a scientist to acknowledge the unique complexity of human consciousness without ever asking the most fundamental question, “Why?”
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on 27 September 2008
Philosophy, to those who are disdainful of it, is a sucker for *a priori* sleights of hand: purely logical arguments which do not rely for grip on empirical reality, but purport to explain it all the same: chestnuts like "cogito ergo sum", from which Descartes concluded a necessary distinction between a non-material soul and the rest of the world.

Douglas Hofstadter is not a philosopher (though he's friends with one), and in "I am a Strange Loop" he is mightily disdainful of the discipline and its weakness for cute logical constructions. All of metaphysics is so much bunk, says Hofstadter, and he sets out to demonstrate this using the power of mathematics and in particular the fashionable power of Gödel's incompleteness theory.

Observers may pause and reflect on an irony at once: Hofstadter's method - derived *a priori* from the pure logical structure of mathematics - looks suspiciously like those tricksy metaphysical musings on which he heaps derision. As his book proceeds this irony only sharpens.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, for I started out enjoying this book immensely. Until about halfway I thought I'd award it five stars - but then found it increasingly unconvincing and glib, notably at the point where Hofstadter leaves his (absolutely fascinating) mathematical theorising behind and begins applying it. He believes that from purely logical contortion one may derive a coherent account of consciousness (a purely physical phenomenon) robust enough to bat away any philosophical objections, dualist or otherwise.

Note, with another irony, his industry here: to express the physical parameters of a material thing - a brain - in terms of purely non-material apparatus (a conceptual language). In the early stages, Professor Hofstadter brushes aside reductionist objections to his scheme which is, by definition, an emergent property of, and therefore unobservable in, the interactions of specific nerves and neurons. Yet late in his book he is at great pains to say that that same material thing *cannot*, by dint of the laws of physics, be pushed around by a non material thing (being a soul), and that configurations of electrons correspond directly to particular conscious states in what seems a rigorously deterministic way (Hofstadter brusquely dismisses conjectures that your red might not be the same as mine). Without warning, in his closing pages, Hofstadter seems to declare himself a behaviourist. Given the excellent and enlightening work of his early chapters, this comes as a surprise and a disappointment to say the least.

Hofstadter's exposition of Gödel's theory is excellent and its application in the idea of the "Strange Loop" is fascinating. He spends much of the opening chapters grounding this odd notion, which he says is the key to understanding consciousness as a non-mystical, non-dualistic, scientifically respectable and physically explicable phenomenon. His insight is to root consciousness not in the physical manifestation of the brain, but in the patterns and symbols represented within it. This, I think, is all he needs to establish to win his primary argument, namely that Artificial Intelligence is a valid proposition. But he is obliged to go on because, like Darwin's Dangerous Idea, the Strange Loop threatens to operate like a universal acid and cut through many cherished and well-established ideas. Alas, some of these ideas seem to be ones Douglas Hofstadter is not quite ready to let go.

The implication of the Strange Loop, which I don't think Hofstadter denies, is that a string of symbols, provided it is sufficiently complex (and "loopy") can be a substrate for a consciousness. That is a Neat Idea (though I'm not persuaded it's correct: Hofstadter's support for it is only conceptual, and involves little more than hand-waving and appeals to open-mindedness.)

But all the same, some strange loops began to occur to me here. Perhaps rather than slamming the door on mysticism, Douglas Hofstadter has unwittingly blown it wide open. After all, why stop at human consciousness as a complex system? Cconceptually, perhaps, one might be able to construct a string of symbols representing God. Would it even need a substrate? Might the fact that it is conceptually possible mean that God therefore exists?

I am being mendacious, I confess. But herein lie the dangers (or irritations) of tricksy *a priori* contortions. However, Professor Hofstadter shouldn't complain: he started it.

Less provocatively, perhaps a community of interacting individuals, like a city - after all, a more complex system than a single one, QED - might also be conscious. Perhaps there are all sorts of consciousnesses which we can't see precisely because they emerge at a more abstract level than the one we occupy.

This might seem far-fetched, but the leap of faith it requires isn't materially bigger than the one Hofstadter explicitly requires us to make. He sees the power of Gödel's insight being that symbolic systems of sufficient complexity ("languages" to you and me) can operate on multiple levels, and if they can be made to reference themselves, the scope for endless fractalising feedback loops is infinite. The same door that opens the way to consciousness seems to let all sorts of less appealing apparitions into the room: God, higher levels of consciousness and sentient pieces of paper bootstrap themselves into existence also.

This seems to be a Strange Loop Too Far, and as a result we find Hofstadter ultimately embracing the reductionism of which he was initially so dismissive, veering violently towards determinism and concluding with a behavioural flourish that there is no consciousness, no free will, and no alternative way of experiencing red. Ultimately he asserts a binary option: unacceptable dualism with all the fairies, spirits, spooks and logical lacunae it implies, or a pretty brutal form of determinist materialism.

There's yet another irony in all this, for he has repeatedly scorned Bertrand Russell's failure to see the implications of his own formal language, while apparently making a comparable failure to understand the implications of his own model. Strange Loops allow - guarantee, in fact - multiple meanings via analogy and metaphors, and provide no means of adjudicating between them. They vitiate the idea of transcendental truth which Hofstadter seems suddenly so keen on. The option isn't binary at all: rather, it's a silly question.

In essence, *all* interpretations are metaphorical; even the "literal" ones. Neuroscience, with all its gluons, neurons and so on, is just one more metaphor which we might use to understand an aspect of our world. It will tell us much about the brain, but very little about consciousness, seeing as the two operate on quite different levels of abstraction.

To the extent, therefore, that Douglas Hofstadter concludes that the self is that is an illusion his is a wholly useless conclusion. As he acknowledges, "we" are doomed to "see" the world in terms of "selves"; an *a priori* sleight-of-hand, no matter how cleverly constructed, which tells us that we're wrong about that (and that we're not actually here at all!) does us no good at all.

Neurons, gluons and strange loops have their place - in many places this is a fascinating book, after all - but they won't give us any purchase on this debate.

Olly Buxton
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on 23 April 2007
Hofstadter revisits a number of topics from his earlier books, centered around his concept of a "strange loop." All rests on a few basic observations about multi-scale systems: (i) the higher (aggregate) levels can often be described more succinctly and profitably with their "own" sets of laws; (ii) information flows both up and down between the various levels (essentially through boundary conditions, although Hofstadter can be trusted to come up with more flowery terms like "downward causality"); (iii) whereas the lower levels involve a modest set of different entities with relatively simple rules, the higher levels tend to allow for a huge variety of entities behaving in complicated ways; (iv) hence the higher levels are endowed with representational power and can accomodate a representation of the system itself; (v) such a self-image would have to be abstracted relative to the real thing, meaning that the lower level is in some sense inaccessible at the level where representations interact.

Hofstadter makes these points using a very neat pedagogical example, called the "Careenium" (which I believe was first introduced in an Achilles-Tortoise dialogue in "Metamagical Themas"). Especially observations (i) and (ii) are brought out very nicely by the Careenium. Hofstadter spends a lot of time discussing observation (iii), which is really not such a hard idea to come to terms with. This is a pity since general popular science books often make the reader feel clever in a cheap way by banging on endlessly about a simple notion; such tactics are generally beneath him. I would have welcomed a Hofstadterian analysis of the technicalities surrounding (ii), which, after all, are his research speciality. Instead, we get a discussion of Goedel's construction, which is fine, even if it is just an abridged reprise of GEB. The most tenuous (and tedious) part of the book is where Hofstadter connects the Goedel construction with multi-scale systems by insisting that observation (iii) holds in both cases. I am not so convinced of the strength of this analogy. Does Goedel's construction really mean that at the level of fantastically long PM strings, PM is thinking about itself? What is lacking is perhaps that we can construct meta-mathematical statements as number-theoretical statements, allowing them to "talk" about themselves or other statements, but they just "sit there" (not exactly in plain view, but that is beside the point). They do not interact much. I make rather a lot of this point since it seems to me that the general usefulness of the concept of "strange loop" is riding on this. My impression is that, after discarding throwaway examples like Escher prints and the like, the human mind (with its self) is the only instantiation of a strange loop that Hofstadter is really serious about.

At any rate, Hofstadter seems to be aware of the weakness, since this is where he resorts to italics and talk of the system "engulfing itself": signs that words are failing him and he hopes that we will "get it". I am reluctant to go along, irked as I am by the assertion, repeated several times over, that Russell himself never "got it" while I am not given detailed pointers to the literature in support of this unkind appraisal, true as it may be (the only reference to work by Russell is to the Principia itself; annoying in a reference list more obsessed with cute references to fictional works).

Perhaps so as not to stress the multi-scale vs Goedel analogy to the breaking point, another earlier example of Strange Loops is not or barely discussed. This is the soi-disant "isomorphism" between the Goedel construction and molecular biology, which received a lot of emphasis in GEB. Good riddance, since this analogy is not all that great either. On the other hand, it is a pity that relatively little attention is paid to biological systems besides the brain which actually are genuine examples of multi-scale systems, like social insect societies or the immune system. I would be very interested on Hofstadter's take on the immune system.

Hofstadter's resolution of the mind/body problem is based on observation (v): his claim is that thinking about our minds in terms of the neurological processes that form its physical correlate naturally comes very unnatural to us. This is basically the "there is no real problem" argument advanced by, among others, Hofstadter's friend Dan Dennet.

The book offers the usual entertainments of a Hofstadter book: parables making technical points, clever neologisms (for one's memory-analogue of things that never happened, or might yet happen). There is also a dollop of self-indulgence (do we need footnotes explaining the jokes?), which is more annoying here because it is not tempered with intellectual rigour as it was in earlier books, which always distinguished clearly between fact and opinion and opinions were usually closely reasoned. This book feels sloppy and rushed by comparison, and could have done with proof-reading by friends who know their biology.
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