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I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter

Scott O’Reilly loops the loop with Douglas Hofstadter.

“You would not find the boundaries of the soul no matter how many paths you traveled, so deep is its measure.”

Today, more than two thousand years after Heraclitus wrote those words, science has shrunk the boundaries of the soul considerably. A soul that can transcend space and time, survive death, and even possess others, is considered intellectually passé. In its place we have the brain – “a teetering bulb of dread and dream” as the poet Russell Edson described the grey matter which makes us who we are – which is the indispensible substrate of our personal identity and consciousness. As the brain goes, so goes the mind, they say.

Not so fast, protests Pulitzer Prize-winning cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter in I Am a Strange Loop – the thoughtful companion to Gödel, Escher, Bach, his seminal contribution to consciousness studies and the field of Artificial Intelligence. Strange Loop says that each of us is a point of view, and one’s perspective – indeed our most intimate subjectivity – can exist in other substrates, outside of the brain. No, Hofstadter hasn’t gone mystical, religious, or superstitious; but he has pushed the boundaries of science by thinking poetically. This leads him to some very fruitful ways of looking at consciousness.

Does the score of a Bach fugue contain a trace of the composer’s soul or essence? Certainly there is a world of difference between the Old Master himself and a folio of his sheet music lying waiting to be played. Nevertheless, that objective musical notation does represent a pattern of symbolic activity that once danced through Bach’s brain. And when we listen to a particularly sublime passage, Hofstadter speculates, are we not in some sense sharing in Bach’s subjectivity – that is, in his experience?

Poetically speaking, Bach, Mozart, Shakespeare, Plato, Socrates and our loved ones can live on through us insofar as we can see the world through their eyes. Immortality by proxy may not be what most of us have in mind when we think about life after death, but it seems to me Hofstadter is on to something very profound.

Stories of Mind

Hofstadter subscribes to the concept known as the narrative self: the notion that the idea of the self is ultimately a hypothetical construct – a story our brains spin which generates the illusion that there is a single, stable and unified locus of willing, thinking and choosing which constitutes our ‘I’. We are all like Scheherazade, the queen narrating the 1001 Arabian Nights, who postponed her execution by seducing the king with one fantastic tale after another. Similarly, our ‘I’ can only be sustained through an act of perpetual storytelling on ‘our’ brain’s part.

Yet who – or what – is doing this storytelling? According to Hofstadter, the threads that make up the tapestry of a self are patterns of active symbols (‘neurological patterns’) that mirror the outside (and also the inside) world. For instance, we experience an object – we see a flower, for example – which causes a pattern of neuronal firings that symbolize or represent the external object. Our concepts are built up this way: for example, the fast-moving furry critter in our visual field with whiskers and spots, triggers a complex pattern of neuronal activity that once stored as a memory symbolizes a leopard.

Our enormous craniums each contain a hundred million neurons, with each individual neuron making thousands of potential connections, making our brains the most complex information processors in the known universe. Moreover, the concepts we can create are infinitely extensible – meaning, we can pile concept upon concept to generate ever increasing levels of generalization and abstraction. The individual leopard belongs to the genus feline, part of the category mammal, which falls under the heading life-form, which is itself subsumed in the more encompassing class of being.

Concepts are also extensible in that we can map analogies between seemingly dissimilar concepts. For example, one might say that writing an original philosophical article is a lot like trying to cut a trail through the jungle: they are both arduous processes where the destination is uncertain, but the possible thrill of new vistas and discoveries provides motivation. No two concepts could seem more dissimilar on the surface as writing philosophy and trailing through the jungle. Yet thanks to the infinite extensibility of concepts we perpetually manage to make useful comparisons between seemingly disparate ideas.

I Am A Symbolic Knot

Perhaps Hofstadter’s most intriguing argument is that the complexity and extensibility of active symbols in the brain inevitably leads to the same kind of self-reference which Gödel proved was inherent in any complex logical or arithmetical system. In a nutshell, Gödel showed that mathematics and logic contain ‘strange loops’: propositions that not only refer to mathematical/logical truths, but also to the symbol systems expressing those truths. This recursiveness inevitably leads to the sort of paradoxes seen in statements such as ‘This statement is false’.

Hofstadter argues that the psychological self arises out of a similar kind of paradox. We are not born with an ‘I’ – the ego emerges only gradually as experience shapes our dense web of active symbols into a tapestry rich and complex enough to begin twisting back upon itself. According to this view the psychological ‘I’ is a narrative fiction – a point that Wittgenstein made when he argued that the ‘I’ is not an object in the world, but a precondition for there being a world in the first place. “It is the ‘I’, it is the ‘I’, that is deeply mysterious!” exclaimed Wittgenstein.

A perspective (a mind) is therefore a consequence of a unique pattern of symbolic activity in our nervous systems. But Hofstadter contends it’s the symbolic pattern that is paramount, not the nature of the physical substrate. That is, if their logical activity was organized in an equivalent way, silicon chips could support consciousness just as neurons do. Hofstadter also believes that the pattern of symbolic activity that makes me who I am, that constitutes my specific subjectivity, can be instantiated within the brains of others.

This notion may seem far out at first, but I believe Hofstadter is onto something. As he observes, each of us is a more than just a self; we are a collection of selves. In addition to a core self which we identify as our ‘I’, each of us contain neuronally-based symbolic models that mirror and reflect the other people in our lives. These patterns of symbolic activity have a certain degree of autonomy in so far as they really do simulate the perspective of our significant others. Hofstadter contends that if we have lived and loved someone long and deeply enough, our symbol models will come to mirror their perspective ever more closely. We will essentially be able to see the world through their eyes.

Hofstadter acknowledges that the simulated subjectivity of another in us will not be as robust as the subjectivity that arises in the cranium of its owner. However, Hofstadter’s intuition seems to me is a remarkably deep way of understanding the permeable fluidity and the profoundly poetic dimensions of selfhood. The Cartesian prison of isolated and monadic selves is demolished, in favor of selves that are deeply enriched and entwined by their relationships to other points of view.

The Boundaries of Reality

Hofstadter is a natural phenomenologist and a first rate scientist (a pretty good combination, by the way). Yet his forays into the philosophical implications of his ideas, though often provocative, are the most frustrating part of his book. For instance, he argues that concepts like free will make no sense in terms of scientific explanations of matter at the most fundamental level. Yet Hofstadter readily acknowledges that when we shift our attention to the macroscopic everyday world, invoking free will or the intention of an agent is frequently the most expeditious and justified way of arriving at an explanation of the behavior in question.

To understand this, Hofstadter asks us to consider two very different levels at which we might view the Mona Lisa:

1) At the micro level, observed reality will consist of subatomic particles combining together to create pigments which reflect light of a certain wavelength;

2) At the macro or everyday level, however, we experience an entirely different reality: a gal with an enigmatic smile.

Which is more real? Similarly, the utility of thinking in terms of free will depends on which level we’re discussing, Hofstadter says.

There are several problems here, however. If the self is a narrative fiction, then how does it pull the levers which initiate free action? How does a hypothetical construct exercise causal powers? Second, when push comes to shove, Hofstadter, dyed in the wool scientist that he is, opts for the lawful, deterministic, and in principle entirely predictable universe of matter and physical forces as the most appropriate candidate for Ultimate Reality. When you get down to it, as far as Hofstadter is concerned, the self is the Ultimate Illusion – or even a hallucination, as he puts it.

Full Circle

Hofstadter is certainly right in exorcising the ghosts of Cartesian dualism. The self is not, and cannot be, some indivisible, indissoluble and immaterial phantom that nonetheless inhabits the physical body. He is also correct in expanding the frontiers of the soul, I believe – in illustrating how the phenomenon of subjectivity is much more open-ended, permeable and relational than we imagined. When we share our perspective with a receptive other, we are implanting a part of our self in the other, and vice versa. We can live in others, just as others can live in us. The boundaries of our souls are indeed beyond all measure.

© Scott O’Reilly 2010

Scott O’Reilley is an amateur philosopher. He is working on a book exploring the philosophical dimensions of the music of the band Yes.

I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter, Basic Books, 2007, 436 pps. pb, £15.99, ISBN: 0465030785.

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