Douglas Hofstadter’s I am a Strange Loop is difficult to review. Having read his masterwork Gödel, Esher, Bach more than twenty years ago, I expected to like this new work, in which he revisits and extends many of the same ideas.
Gödel, Esher, Bach won a Pulitzer and allowed Hofstadter that rarity in the academic world: freedom. Throughout his career, he mixed scientific rigour with playfulness creating works full of delight, curiosity and originality. I am a Strange Loop goes further, weaving personal stories, metaphors, and anecdotes with philosophical arguments in a way that is at times too cute, too shiny.
As always, Hofstadter seeks the key to understanding what constitutes ‘I’— the illusion he claims defines the human condition. He describes the human brain as more than a “soup of particles” and more than a “jungle of neurons”, positing a higher level that is an intricate system of meaningful patterns, the interplay of which is strong, rich and productive enough to make us aware. This awareness occurs in ‘feedback loops’ that exist in each brain in a unique configuration—the very thing that makes us who we are as individuals. What he is attempting to do is ambitious; he’s trying to present an underlying structure with which we can begin to model consciousness.
Hofstadter looks at events in his life and examines how they’ve served as triggers for his musings, brickwork for his intellectual ideas. Devoted readers of his earlier works will wish for more rigour. Those looking for iron philosophising should reread Gödel, Esher, Bach. But if you’re interested in where someone gets to when they begin their career at the top, you’ll find this book a clever synthesis of a lifetime of thinking.
I am a Strange Loop, Douglas Hofstadter, Palgrave Macmillan.
Review first published in The Courier-Mail in 2008.