This is one of my favorite books.
It does a marvelous job of explaining the nature of mind, soul, consciousness, I-ness, and such. Hofstadter's approach is based on modern neuroscience, but he doesn't focus on brain minutia. Rather, he takes a broad perspective that ties together science, philosophy, and everyday experience in a highly convincing fashion.
I've blogged about "I Am a Strange Loop" before:
After picking up the book in the course of my bookshelves decluttering, I've re-read a couple of key chapters. Once again, I'm blown away by how clearly and entertainingly Hofstadter makes his case for embracing material monism rather than spiritual dualism.
Meaning, for him (and for me), there's just one thing going on: the laws of nature operating in this physical world.
I used to believe otherwise during the more than three decades I pursued a path of daily meditation aimed at releasing my soul from the cage of my body, and materiality in general. But now I realize that I was on the wrong track.
What led me astray is a feeling that everybody in the world shares: the sensation of being a conscious living "I" that's qualitatively distinct from lifeless matter. It just seems so obvious that my consciousness inhabits a body -- rather than being part and parcel of my physical being.
Hofstadter says that he also senses this illusion. But he refuses to fall prey to it. He does, though, understand the appeal of dualism. In his Epilogue, Hofstadter says:
In Chapter 22, I discussed dualism -- the idea that over and above physical entities governed by physical law, there is a Capitalized Essence called "Consciousness," which is an invisible, unmeasurable, undetectable aspect of the universe possessed by certain entities and not others. This notion, very close to the traditional western religious notion of "soul," is appealing because it conforms with our everyday experience that the world is divided into two kinds of things -- animate and inanimate -- and it also gives some kind of explanation for the fact that we experience our own interiority or inner light, something of which we are so intimately aware that to deny its existence would seem absurd if not impossible.
...Furthermore, the idea that each of us is intrinsically defined by a unique incorporeal essence suggests that we have immortal souls; belief in dualism may thus remove some of the fear of death. It is not very hard for someone who grows up drenched in the pictorial and verbal imagery of western religion [also eastern, I have to add] to imagine a wispy, ethereal aura being released from the body of someone who has just died, and sailing up, up, up into some kind of invisible celestial realm, where it will survive eternally.
However, this view, no matter how appealing it may be, almost certainly is wrong. Most of Hofstadter's book is devoted to demolishing the arguments in favor of dualism. He does this convincingly, perhaps better than anyone else, in my decidedly personal opinion.
In the Epilogue, Hofstadter sums up his central argument: that we humans are "strange loops." Our brains have evolved the capacity to not only be aware, but to be aware of our awareness. We can abstract our experience into increasingly sophisticated concepts. This is the end result, as I quoted Hofstadter in a previous post:
That extremely slight doubt flies in the face of what we all take for granted ever since our earliest childhood, which is that "I"'s do exist—and in most people, the latter belief simply wins out, hands down. The battle is never even engaged, in most people's minds. On the other hand, for a few people the battle starts to rage: physics versus "I."
…My proposal for a truce to end this battle is to see the "I" as a hallucination perceived by a hallucination, which sounds pretty strange, or perhaps even stranger: the "I" as a hallucination hallucinated by a hallucination.
Even though I've read all of "I Am a Strange Loop" (parts of it several times), I still have trouble understanding that last sentence. Partly this is because the "I" that feels like me seems so damn real.
Here's how Hofstadter talks about this in the Epilogue:
A nondualistic view of the world can thus include animate entities perfectly easily, as long as different levels of description are recognized as valid. Animate entities are those that, at some level of description, manifest a certain type of loopy pattern, which inevitably starts to take form if a system with the inherent capacity of perceptually filtering the world into discrete categories vigorously expands its repertoire of categories ever more towards the abstract.
This pattern reaches full bloom when there comes to be a deeply entrenched self-representation -- a story told by the entity to itself -- in which the entity's "I" plays the starring role, as a unitary causal agent driven by a set of desires.
More precisely, an entity is animate to the degree that such a loopy "I" pattern comes into existence, since this pattern's presence is by no means an all-or-nothing affair. Thus to the extent that there is an "I" pattern in a given substrate, there is animacy, and where there is no such pattern, the entity is inanimate.
OK. I realize those paragraphs aren't going to mean a whole lot to many people. So I'll end with a few more passages from the final pages of Hofstadter's book that offer a somewhat different perspective on his worldview.
You and I are mirages who perceive themselves, and the sole magical machinery behind the scenes is perception -- the triggering, by huge flows of raw data, of a tiny set of symbols that stand for abstract regularities in the world. When perception at arbitrarily high levels of abstraction enters the world of physics and when feedback loops come into play, then "which" eventually turns into "who." What would once have been brusquely labeled "mechanical" and reflexively discarded as a candidate for consciousness has to be reconsidered.
We human beings are macroscopic creatures in a universe whose laws reside at a microscopic level. As survival-seeking beings, we are driven to seek efficient explanations that make reference only to entities at our own level. We therefore draw conceptual boundaries around entities that we easily perceive, and in so doing we carve out what seems to us to be reality.
The "I" we create for each of us is a quintessential example of such a perceived or invented reality, and it does such a good job of explaining our behavior that it becomes the hub around which the rest of the world seems to rotate. But this "I" notion is just a shorthand for a vast mass of seething and churning of which we are necessarily unaware.
...In the end, we self-perceiving, self-inventing, locked-in mirages are little miracles of self-reference. We believe in marbles that disintegrate when we search for them but that are as real as any genuine marble when we're not looking for them. Our very nature is such as to prevent us from fully understanding its very nature.
Poised midway between the unvisualizable cosmic vastness of curved spacetime and the dubious, shadowy flickerings of charged quanta, we human beings, more like rainbows and mirages than like raindrops or boulders, are unpredictable self-writing poems -- vague, metaphorical, ambiguous, and sometimes exceedingly beautiful.
To see ourselves this way is probably not as comforting as believing in ineffable other-worldly wisps endowed with eternal existence, but it has its compensations. What one gives up on is a childlike sense that things are exactly as they appear, and that our solid-seeming, marble-like "I" is the realest thing in the world; what one acquires is an appreciation of how tenuous we are at our cores, and how wildly different we are from what we seem to be.