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I Am a Strange Loop

by Douglas R. Hofstadter
Basic Books, NY, NY, 2007
412 pp., illus. Trade, US $26.95
ISBN: 0465030785.

Reviewed by Richard Kade
Ubiquitous Iconoclast
Sunnyvale, CA, USA


The line from Ecclesiastes that there's nothing new under the sun far too often provides cover for those unwilling to use blinding flashes of insight to see the more adumbrative——even if less obvious——subtext. The potential pitfall of that route——attempting to cross the line from reviewer to previewer——is justification of Cicero's call for legislation that no two soothsayers be allowed to greet each other without first laughing hysterically!

Most of Douglas R. Hofstadter's latest book is fun to read even if there is little that is new. Indeed, if one is looking for the next great work on a scale comparable to Gödel, Esher, Bach... or Le Ton Beau de Marot , the wait is probably another decade or so from now.

The standard rap——absolutely a bum rap at that——is in regard to the volume of writing used to deal with so many inter-related topics. John McWhorter referred in 2003 to GEB as an "erudite doorstop" in Doing Our Own Thing; The degradation of language and music and why we should, like, care telling how it is a common "sight in educated people's homes despite ... having heard more than a few who own it admit" to never having gotten around to reading it.

Think of Wagner likening Beethoven to "a Titan, wrestling with the gods." As great as so much of Ludwig's output was, one probably will derive greater pleasure skipping most of the even-numbered symphonies and both even-numbered piano concerti. So it is with Hofstadter's writing. Most except for those of us who enjoy his "intermediate" works, such as the novel versification of Eugene Onegin and now, again, with Strange Loop will probably want to wait until the next big inspiration.

This book has ample imperfection. A typical example is one page after deploring the "linguistic sloppiness" in marketing hype. The author suffers yet another instance of his own "lexical laxity" when he uses a buzz-cliché‚ "near misses". Obviously, he really meant the exact opposite, "near hits". In all fairness, such lapses are rare and almost all are when he attempts to write in a breezy, "with-it", manner not quite getting the "slanguage" right or just not exercising sufficient discernment in weighing the worthiness of the latched-onto locutions.

The other somewhat off-putting aspect of the writing is Hofstadter's compulsion, as he put it, not only to paint himself into a corner but, also, to go out (to the farthest extremities) on a limb. Most such examples are premised upon way-left-of-center dogma leading to the rooting of pronouncements in, amongst other things, Albert Schweitzer's silliness over never even stepping on an ant! From this the author goes yet further, ascribing moral superiority of ants over mosquitoes suggesting that the ant, by the pre-programming of her DNA, is somehow less malevolent than the stinging flying insect.

What is new in this book is the author's expanded view of cognition, based in large part on Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem to encompass the traditional belief that we live on in the memories of others as long as our deeds, pronouncements and accomplishments as well as idiosyncrasies remain——even if such memory is, sadly, "coarse-grained" and "low-resolution". To go into greater detail here would do disservice to the author and all who enjoy the playfulness, charm and style of his writing.

The editors of Seed Magazine invited Hofstadter to lay out his new ideas about consciousness and what it means to be human for their March 2007 issue. That synopsis is probably the best starting point. For clearer understanding of how these seemingly unrelated strands (Gödel, cognition, sense of soul or spirit, what he calls "I"-ness, etc.) evolved, the author's list of references contains one of the best clues: a chapter titled "Analogy as the Core of Cognition" from a book originally published by MIT Press in 2001. This piece is posted in its entirety at the Stanford University Library's website along with every type of update to lend context; most notably, "A Somewhat Self-Referential Interview About This Very Web Site (extracted and transcribed with a bit of poetic lie-sense)". Since this article was the basis of a lecture given by the author in February of 2006, while still at work on this book, you get to peer into the inner workings of a great thinker.

At the outset, Hofstadter argues that analogy-making is far from the "special variety of reasoning and problem-solving ... cliché‚ in the cognitive-science world" which traditionally renders it "but an itty-bitty blip in the broad blue sky of cognition." He views it, rather, as "the very blue that fills the whole sky of cognition."


But what of the fact that, even the daylight sky——at the risk of running his analogy into the ground——is not always blue? What of the edges of clouds that can be so inexact, or that atmospheric light refraction (at dawn or sunset) create so rich a spectrum of beauty beyond the mere blue?

Lest we dwell too long upon——or stray too far from——the central thrust of his over-arching theme, we must remember one underlying fact. Most of Professor Hofstadter's brilliance, indeed what accounts for his success over the course of the last quarter of a century, comes from his being an unabashed philologer. Here an analogy from Mark Twain is in order, "The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is like the difference between the lightning bug and lightning!"

Although Hofstadter provides graphic illustrations of nonverbal perception (sun shadow as opposed to the far less familiar "rain shadow" and "snow shadow") his love of the word——spoken, written, printed, translated, punned upon, (one imagines even cruciverbalistic, jumbled, etc., in a multiplicity of languages)——might, however unintentionally, lead to his failure to note that most thought is abstract rather than verbal.

When quoting the Epimenidean self-referential loop as "the pearl" of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, in 1979, Hofstadter felt the need to add, "Actually it was in German and perhaps you feel that it might as well be in German anyway ..." before paraphrasing the passage "in more normal English." And when Escher created the implied self-referential loops of endless waterfalls, did it matter that any verbal thoughts he may have had were probably in Dutch?

Or what of Bach? With pen to paper, while writing most of the same notes and orchestration that went with both "Gratias agimus tibi" and "Dona nobis pacem" was any thought of hunger or anything unrelated to the task at hand in Latin, rather than German as one might imagine on the occasion these same notes and instrumentation were coupled with the title chorale of the cantata, Wir Danken Dir? Of course not!

While non-verbal cognition was not really covered in the lecture itself, (viewable in RealTime or QuickTime ) the topic came up in the discussion session. Hofstadter replied that he "would hardly call 'hunger' a cognitive phenomenon."

Fair enough. So visceral a perception as hunger might not require verbal thought any more than any of the countless Pavlovian reflex impulses that cause, for example, one to reach for the phone when it rings.

Too bad the obvious follow-up question was not posed. Would playing a game of chess fall into that same category? Few people think the words (in whatever language) "If I move this bishop to attack that knight my queen is open to that castle ... " My own informal, brief, random sampling of a couple dozen people——roughly 50/50 split between male and female——shows that most just visualize pieces moving to and fro weighing options without thinking words. If chess requires no verbal thought, is the level of reasoning less than cognition?

Another of Dr. Hofstadter's obsessions is the minor matter of climbing the metaphorical Tower of Babel. Translation——even transcription——at best, lends little perspective to the importance of analogy at the core or periphery of cognition.

Even Longfellow's analogy, "Music is the universal language of the arts" is fatally flawed. Yes, music is affected by the same perceptual phenomena noted by as early an auditor as Pythagoras in his so-called "Music of the Spheres" which led Leonard Bernstein, amongst many others, to note how toddlers anywhere on the globe taunt one another with an interval of a minor third while singing the syllables, "Nyah, nyah!" The natural yearning for certain resolutions (dominant-to-tonic and the like) is the means whereby such musical ambiguity as Wagner's Tristan Prelude or Debussy's Faun is effectively exploited.

The actual notes used (diatonic scales in the west, pentatonic in much of the east and quarter- and eighth-tones in India, etc.) are mere human attempts to actuate the abstract for transmission between crania. Sculpture, painting, dance and all other non-verbal expression are much the same.

Alan Turing, Allen Newell, Herb Simon, Frederick Brooks and those earliest pioneers in what would be termed "computer science" (for a while "mathematical psychology" before eventually becoming "artificial intelligence") paved the path for later generations, including Hofstadter, leading to the study of cognitive science. This seeming nit, the role of nonverbal thoughts in cognition, is not one that can be leveled legitimately against Professor Hofstadter. If anything it is just a symptom of the reality that, in purely practical terms, cognition gets you only so far. Cognition -- so steeped in theory -- in and of itself without consideration of the syllogistic reasoning side of the equation makes any study of how otherwise-brilliant minds can put the "idiot" back into "idiot-savant" problematic if not impossible.

Psychiatry suffers from the same drawback. Look at Paul Morphy, Wilhelm Steinitz or the fugitive ex-champion, Bobby Fischer cited by psychiatrist Charles Krauthammer as "the poster boy for the mad chess genius". How plausible is the theory of intensely focused monomania -- protecting one's king from earliest youth and seeking ways to checkmate the opponent -- producing symptoms of nervous stress and unreality that could explain Fischer's seeming paranoia? Or what of the obvious brilliance in the field of mathematics that did nothing to prevent Theodore J. Kaczynski from becoming the Unabomber?

A brief personal note on analogy and Hofstadter is in order here. In this space——this "Siberian" sector of cyberia——the year before last, a footnote was included in a review of a commemoration of Merce Cunningham. Recalling how C. S. Forester saw Puccini as the "Wagner of opera", I went on to say that one could plausibly update this pronouncement to "David Del Tredici is the 'Doug Hofstadter, of music!'" This analogy took root upon my first reading in late 1979 of GEB.

Having viewed a telecast of Final Alice three years earlier, the question of what each of these two would think of how the other had treated the dialogues of Lewis Carroll became inescapable. What I could not have known was that the opportunity to obtain an answer to both parts of the question would take nearly another twenty years.

In late 1997 Hofstadter responded that he had been asked the question before but that, with his frenetic schedule——teaching, speaking, writing and the demands of being a single parenthe never had opportunity to hear any Del Tredici work. The counterpart answer would only have to wait another two years.

David Del Tredici, in a handwritten note after seeing the LDR piece on Onegin, replied he had never read GEB. He continued, "it's too intellectual for me. Composers are not necessarily 'head smart.' Composing is an affair of the heart."

Wow! Now I had what appeared to be two twin non-answers. The mathematical "mental gymnastics" involved in the structural foundation of any Del Tredici piece would surely have Charles Dodgson sit up in awe. Even setting that aside, I knew the "intellectual" argument to be a canard as an intellectual has aptly been defined as one who can hear Rossini's William Tell Overture without thinking of The Lone Ranger and since I flunk that test but could read GEB ...

But only upon reminiscing here a few moments ago did the thought finally occur that this was hardly "two twin non-answers" but, rather, valid answers to a far more subtle question. What neither of these two individuals saw was that they were viewing opposing sides of the same coin.

The essence of Hofstadter's position, with its reliance upon "chunking" of countless smaller component concepts enabling the higher-level of thought, could best be bottom-lined "if it ain't happening in words you don't have cognition." The opposing point of view is Del Tredici's trepidation that "over-thinking" obstructs the torrent of creative juices. His notes to the "Ecstatic Alice" aria of his 1980 In Memory of a Summer Day explain, "In fact, the music emerged with such urgency——so fearful was I of losing the melodic flow and inspiration——that until it was almost all written, I dared not even glance at the text to see whether the words fit properly!"

So what will be the eventual shape of the next great work on a scale of GEB or Ton beau? Nobody, of course, knows; probably least of all Hofstadter himself. The trigger might be anything or set of things such as his finally having opportunity to hear any of the Alice-related works of Del Tredici. Or, perhaps, given the deep passion Hofstadter has for both musical and mathematical matters, maybe even something along the order of the work of Dmitri Tymoczko on the "Geometry of Music" might unleash the unstoppable flow of yet another torrent of creativity.

The good news is that this next "sprawling book encompassing [his] many interests" will most likely not be the last such work. The scenario whereby such output might come about is not at all hard to envision. A few decades from now, when attending the ceremony where one of his eventual grandchildren is honored by the Nobel Committee, some luminary will exclaim something eerily reminiscent of Frederick the Great a quarter-millennium ago, "Old DugHof is here!" The creativity of Hofstadter is nothing at all analogous to the old proverbial question of how much juice can be squeezed out of the lemon. Rather, it is more like tapping the endless depth of beauty of an ocean.

RICERCAR, indeed!



Updated 1st September 2007

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

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