Posted by: Dorianne Cotter-Lockard | 13 December 2007

I’m a Strange Loop

strange-loop.gifI just finished writing a paper for my Human Development overview course and wanted to share some of it on my blog. I read I’m a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter for this assignment. I selected Hofstadter’s book for this unit on “human consciousness” because the title sounded intriguing and I vaguely remembered reading his book from 1979, Gödel, Esher, Bach. This was a most difficult reading assignment for me. Hofstadter dives deeply into mathematics, particularly number theory and logic in order to illustrate his theory of consciousness. He enters a deep and dense discussion of Gödel’s “strange loop theory,” which took several readings to understand, even though I have an affinity for mathematics.

I did not initially agree with Hofstadter’s ideas and conclusions, rendering it harder to stay the course. I was on the verge of giving up and switching to another book when I decided to meditate on my decision. My meditation surfaced the need to continue on; reading this text would help clarify my own beliefs about consciousness and might also change me in some fashion.

Hofstadter uses the terms “consciousness,” “inner light,” “I”, and “soul” interchangeably. He theorizes that each human is born with a blank slate of consciousness or essentially “no soul.” Over time, our brains categorize the phenomena we take in with our senses into symbols. Symbols are structures housed within our brain cells and they represent “concepts.” Symbols are then grouped into categories or successively more complex patterns of structures, ad infinitum. Eventually, the human develops a sense of “self” or “I” which is the sum of his or her concepts of “hopes,” “dreams,” “experience,” etc. According to Hofstadter, the “I” is an illusion; his entire theory of consciousness is built on the laws of physics. There is no “duality” of belief in some extraordinary, non-physical essence that makes each of us an “I.”

Hofstadter uses analogy and metaphor throughout the book to substantiate his ideas. His theory is not based on scientific evidence – it is presented as a logical argument – he even uses a dialogue format in two of his chapters.

Hofstadter defines a macro-level view and a micro-level view of consciousness. At a micro-level, the brain operates mechanically through a process of “squirting chemicals” through synapses, neurotransmitters and other physical components (p. 194). All activities of thought and consciousness come from these mechanical activities. From a macro-level perspective, symbols, which represent concepts, are housed in structures within the brain and combinations of these structures form “multilevel systems” (p. 30). Hofstadter says there’s no physical location for the “I” structure, it is somehow present across the entire brain, but he doesn’t link them to the micro-level view (p. 181). I see this as a flaw in his argument that we are essentially mechanical beings because he can’t describe the linkage between micro and macro views.

There’s a whole lot more to the book and my critical summary paper, but not appropriate for this blog space. In the last part of my paper, I enter into a dialog with Hofstadter. I’ll post that in my next blog entry. The book certainly fomented deep thought within my “I.”



  1. […] paper covers theories by Hofstadter and Sri Aurobindo, previously covered in this blog. And I’m including references to the works […]

  2. I like the way you are looking at both horizontal and vertical concepts being linked together to form “self” – my statement that the macro wasn’t linked to the micro was based on the fact that Hofstadter acknowledges that symbols and concepts reside in the brain, yet he professes to not know where or how. Brain science has a lot of discovery work to do still.

  3. Dorianne,
    I was surprised by the end of your post where you say : “but he doesn’t link them to the micro-level view”.
    OK, I did not read the book, perhaps I should, but in wat YOU wrote, namely “…grouped into categories or successively more complex patterns of structures, ad infinitum” and “a sense of “self” or “I” which is the sum of his or her concepts of “hopes,” “dreams,” “experience,” etc. ” I think I see your missing link. All along with the concepts that devolop in the brain there is also the concept of ‘self’ where each self-related concept is linked to. This can be in a horizontal manner, where the ‘self’ is on a similar hierarchical level of its linked concepts, or a vertical manner, where each concept is part of a hiërarchical higher concept and on top of one pyramids sits the ‘self’ whereas the concept ‘others’ sits on top of another pyramid. And I suppose there are a lot of other pyramids.

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