Douglas Hofstadter. With I am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter returns – loops back? to some of the concerns he addressed in his hugely successful book Gödel, Escher, Bach, a book which engaged and inspired readers around the world. Despite the popularity of the earlier book, Hofstadter feels the essential message was sometimes lost; the new book started out as a distilled restatement of that message, shorn of playful digressions, dialogues, and other distractions. It didn’t quite turn out that way, so the new book is much more than a synopsis of the old. However, the focus remains on the mystery of the self.

Is it a mystery? In a way I wondered why Hofstadter thought there was any problem about it. Talking about myself is just a handy way of picking out a particular human animal, isn’t it? In fact it doesn’t have to be human. We might say of a dog that “He wants to get in the basket himself”; for that matter we might say of a teacup “It just fell off the shelf by itself”. Why should talk of I, myself, me, evoke any more philosophical mystery than talk of she, herself, her?

I can think of three bona fide mysteries attached to the conscious self: agency (or free will if you like); phenomenal experience (or qualia); and intentionality (or meaning). Hofstadter is unimpressed by any of these. Qualia and free will get a quick debunking in a late chapter: Hofstadter shares his old friend Dennett’s straight scepticism about qualia, and as for free will, what would it even mean? Intentionality gets a more respectful, but more glancing treatment Hofstadter proposes the analogy of the careenium, which is to be imagined as kind of vast, frictionless billiard table on which hordes of tiny magnetic balls, know as simms, roll around. Occasionally the edge of the careenium may be hit by objects in the exterior world, imparting new impulses to the simms and possibly causing them to agglomerate into big rolling masses, or simmballs (the attentive reader will notice that a strong focus on the core message has by no means excluded a fondness for artful puns and wordplay). Evidently impulses from the outside world spark off neural symbols, whose interaction gives rise to our thoughts.

It would not be fair to criticise the sketchiness of this account, because it isn’t what Hofstadter is on about: it isn’t even the main point of the careenium metaphor. He acknowledges, too, that some will think talk of symbols in the brain leads to the assumption of an homunculus to read them, and to other difficulties, and he briefly indicates a response. The point really is that for Hofstadter all this is largely beside the point.

So what is the real point, and why does Hofstadter find the self worthy of attention? For him it is all about greatness of soul; friendship and the sharing, the sympathetic entering into, of other consciousnesses. This is where the loops come in.

Hofstadter quotes several examples of self-referential loops, re-creating, for example, experiments with video feedback which he first carried out many years ago. More substantially, he gives an account of how Kurt Gödel managed to get self-reference back into logical systems like the one set out in Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica. PM, as Hofstadter calls it, was a symbolic language like a logical algebra, which the authors used to show how arithmetic could be built up out of a few simple logical operations. One of its distinguishing features was that it included special rules which were meant to exclude self-reference, because of the paradoxes which readily arise from sentences or formulae that talk about themselves (as in ‘This sentence is false.’). By arithmetising the notation and applying some clever manoevres, Gödel was able to reintroduce self-reference into the world of PM and similar systems (a disaster so far as the authors’ aspirations were concerned) and incidentally went on to prove the existence in any such system of true but unprovable assertions.

This is one of the most interesting sections of the book, though not the easiest to read. It’s certainly enlivened, however, by the grudge Hofstadter seems to have against Russell: I found myself wondering whether Grammaw Hofstadter could have been the recipient of unwelcome attentions from the aristocratic logician at some stage. I’ve read many accounts which suggest that Bertrand Russell might have been, say, a touch self-centred: but it’s a novelty to read the suggestion that he might have been a bit dumb in certain respects. In this account, Gödel is the young Turk who explodes the enlivening force of self-reference within Russell’s gloomy castle: no mention here of how Russell himself had previously done something similar to the structure erected by Frege, so that Russell also has a claim to be considered a champion of paradox.

People are clearly examples of self-referential systems, but is self-reference an essential part of consciousness or merely a natural concomitant? It is plausible that self-reference might help explain why our thoughts, for example, seem to pop out of nowhere: when we try to locate the source, we get trapped into looking down a regress like the infinite corridor which appears in the video feedback. Hofstadter’s loops, moreover, are no ordinary loops – they are strange. A strange loop violates some hierarchical order, perhaps with containers being contained, or steps from a higher level leading up to lower ones. It is our symbolic ability which gives us the ability to create strange loops: to symbolise our own symbolic system, and so on. However, we are unable to perceive the lower-level neural operations which constitute our thoughts, and we therefore suffer the impression of mysteriously efficacious, self-generating thoughts and decisions, which we cannot reconcile with the sober scientific account of the physical events which really carry the force of causality.

Hofstadter spends some time on this issue of different levels of interpretation, seeking to persuade us that the existence of complete physical or neural stories does not stop accounts of causality in terms of higher-level entities (thoughts, intentions, and so on) from being salient and reasonable. He argues, intriguingly, that there is an analogy here with what Gödel did: by reinterpreting PM at a higher level, he was able to draw conclusions and in a sense set limits to what could be done within PM. In the same way we can legitimately say that our intentions were pushing the neurons around, not just that the neurons were pushing the intentions. This idea of downward causality across levels of interpretation seems metaphysically interesting, though I think it is quite redundant: the relation between entities at different levels of explanation is identity, not causation (though I suppose you can see identity as the basic case of causation if you wish).

Now things get more difficult. Hofstadter argues that bits of our own loops get echoed in those of other people, and that therefore we exist in them as well as in our own brains. If two video cameras and screens are looping and enter each other’s view, then the loop of camera A will be running, in miniature, in that of camera B, and vice versa. Our engagement with other people thus helps to create and sustain us, and in fact it means that death itself is not as abrupt as it would otherwise be, the afterglow of our own strange loops continuing to spin in the minds of others and thereby sustaining our continued existence to some limited extent. This theorising is attached to an account of Hofstadter’s reaction to the sudden, and tragically early, death of his wife.

Hofstadter does not believe that his views about death have been fundamentally influenced by this awful experience: he says that his conclusions were largely drawn before his wife’s sudden illness. All the same, the context makes it more difficult to say that, in fact, the reasoning here is wholly unconvincing. It’s just not true that the image of a feedback loop in another feedback loop remains a viable feedback loop in itself.

Hofstadter offers some arguments designed to shake our belief in the simple equation of body with person (he is happy to use the word ‘soul’, though without its usual connotations), including the one – rather tired in my view – of the magic scanners which can either relocate or duplicate us perfectly. Where a person is duplicated like this, he says, it makes no sense to insist that one of the two bodies must be the real person. “…to believe in such an indivisible, indissoluble “I” is to believe in nonphysical dualism” . Not necessarily: it might instead be to assert the most brutal kind of physical monism: we are physical objects, and our existence depends utterly on our physical continuity.

I’m afraid I therefore end up personally having a good deal of sympathy with many of the incidental things Hofstadter says while remaining unconvinced by the points he regards as most important. Whether or not you accept his case, though, Hofstadter has a remarkable gift for engaging and lively exposition, more of which will always be welcome.


  1. 1. alex says:



    just talk to me!

  2. 2. Eric says:

    I wrote a bit about downward causation at a philosophy of brains blog. Mostly I just provided examples that people take to be clear-cut cases of downward causation. I don’t endorse them, but just threw them out there as food for thought to drive the debate forward with specifics. It is here:

  3. 3. peter.hankins says:

    Thanks, Eric. My own attitude is a bit paradoxical – although as I say I think the idea is redundant, it still seems highly interesting. The metaphysics of that whole area of levels of interpretation seems to me to be in urgent need of clarification. Nearly everyone would agree that the world needs to be interpreted on several different levels; but how the levels relate and why we need multiple levels in the first place still seems largely mysterious to me.

  4. 4. Alejandro says:

    I have recently discussed that “rather tired” example of the scanner here, with a specific aim against the view you call “physical monism”. You might find it interesting. I liked your review; it discouraged me from buying Hofstadter’s latest because it does not seem to add much novelity to his previous books (the careenium was already there in “Metamagical Themas”).

  5. 5. peter.hankins says:

    Thanks, Alejandro. It’s probably really me that’s tired rather than the argument: I’ve been hearing forms of it for about thirty years now, and it seems to me that as time goes on it increasingly gets taken for granted that we can’t just be physical.

    To offer a positive case for a ‘physicalist’ view, it seems to me that I am located in both space and time. I change as time passes, and I move around a bit. If I’m not physical, I don’t see how I manage that. If I’m a pattern or a program or a set of data, then I exist unchangingly in some Platonic realm. I may be an object that instantiates a pattern, or a particular run of a program (indeed I think I am a particular process), but in that case I’m a one-off physical thing, and other instantiations, or other runs of the same program, would have separate identities.

    When you mix up Ernest’s two brains, you may lose track of which is which, and there may be no discernible difference, but it’s still the case that they have different histories – and history is crucial to identity. If I choose a particular penny and then put it back in my pocket, I may be unable to tell which coin I took out: but there is, so to speak, a fact of the matter about which it was.

    Frozen jigsaw Ernest, I grant you, is more difficult: I rather think you kill him when you freeze his brain.

  6. 6. Lloyd Rice says:

    There are feedback loops everywhere (in “smart” things, at least). They are certainly an important part of the process. However, I am not convinced that strangeness is the key element. Hofstadter talks often about perceptual systems, about the ability to construct “symbols” by abstracting from percepts or from memories. To my mind, he most clearly states the issue of consciousness in chapter 20 in the #641/#642 dialogues. The protagonist describes, on page 284, how the perceiving brain grew over time, immersed in cultural and linguistic environments, and came to perceive itself as an “I”. The antagonist accuses him of beating around the bush. The charge is accepted and #641 says, “Alright, Let me turn straight to that.” With apologies to Hofstadter, I would have had #641 reply, “But I just said it. You missed it. Let me try again.”

  7. 7. Lloyd Rice says:

    OK. My apologies again to Doug. He had it right all along. What he wanted to do was to twist the blade a little before plunging it in all the way to rout out the last remnant of the res cogitans (or what he variously calls “elan mental” or “feelium”). In the rest of the book, it seems to me, he downplays the importance of the strange loops and dwells at length on the nature of a symbol-constructing system given a lifetime of experiences. Agreed that the pattern collecting methods of such a system must be general enough as to be able to build symbols referring to the system itself, and thus you get strangeness. To my mind, he makes a good case that Chalmers’ zombie argument is of little merit.

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