April 19, 2007


I Am a Strange Loop. By Douglas Hofstadter. Basic Books. $26.95.

      Oh my, this is a wonderful book. And oh my, it is a strange one. And oh yes, it is loopy. And it turns on itself and eats its own tail (and tale). And it harks back to Douglas Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Gödel, Escher, Bach, written in 1979 and every bit as fresh and astonishing today – yet it explores different regions and different elements of philosophy, and is a much more personal and emotionally involving work than that earlier masterpiece.

      Hofstadter teaches at Indiana University – Cognitive Science; no surprise there – and is partly a philosopher of science, partly a scientific philosopher, partly (maybe mostly) a wide-ranging intellect who sees in mathematics and its rules a systemic structure that can be used to explain, if not always elucidate, many decidedly non-mathematical concepts. Maybe even the soul. The problem – and it is a joyous one to have – is that it is so difficult to write about this book. Only Hofstadter’s own words seem adequate to explain what the book is about, and only all the words will really do, so the book loops back on itself as the best explanation of what it is about, and that is scarcely the strangest loop of all here.

      Gödel, Escher, Bach was self-referential, too, and was actually structured as a complete (closed) circle, the end leading back to the beginning – a form that had certainly been used before (by James Joyce, for example), but a particularly appropriate one in a book about mathematics (and, among other things, circular reasoning). I Am a Strange Loop is less elegantly put together – it meanders a good deal more – but it encompasses even wider subjects. At bottom, it is about selfhood: what it means, how it arises, and how the physical brain relates to the nonphysical concept of “I” (which may be equivalent to the soul or not, but certainly appears integral to it). In searching for the meaning of “I-ness,” Hofstadter delves more deeply into his personal life than he has before, specifically in discussing his younger sister, Molly, who from birth could not speak or understand language; and his wife, Carol, whose consciousness Hofstadter considers to have fused with his own in important ways before as well as after her death from a brain tumor in 1993. These two women, their brains imperfect or damaged in deep-seated ways, provide occasion for many of Hofstadter’s musings on what it means to be an “I.”

      But I Am a Strange Loop is far from a memoir. Hofstadter thinks in outré concepts that have a weird underlying clarity, and there are plenty of them here. Consider, for just one example, the “careenium,” a “metaphor for thinking about the multiple levels of causality in our brains and minds” in the form of a frictionless pool table on which innumerable tiny marbles called “sims” bounce around incessantly – except that they occasionally stick to each other in clusters called “simmballs” (Hofstadter loves to use bad puns – just in case the reader misses out on, in this case, the symbolic nature of this imaginary system). Hofstadter makes his “careenium” increasingly complex – and then turns quite serious in observing how a modern physicist would consider the concept from a reductionist perspective, compared with how most people would see it in everyday macrocosmic terms. And then he formulates the question (actually based on one uttered by someone else in a different context): “Who shoves whom around in the population of causal forces that occupy the careenium?” His answer – his suggestion, rather – leads only to further questions, for that is Hofstadter’s way. And the whole “careenium” episode takes up fewer than six pages in a 400-page book – giving some indication of just how deep (and wide, and broad) Hofstadter’s thinking is. This is an intellectually bracing book, filled with big and small concepts, with big and small joys, with echoes and with fascinating photos and drawings and with extremely complex ideas rendered, if not necessarily clear, certainly endlessly fascinating in their convolutions.

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