I Am a Strange Loop

Here's a detailed but mixed review of Douglas Hofstadter's latest book, I Am a Strange Loop. The reviewer talks about two of the big ideas in the book, both of which Hofstadter discussed in a talk I attended four or so years ago:

The first big idea is that one person’s consciousness may live, in part, in another person’s brain. The second is that there is not a binary consciousness/no-consciousness switch; some consciousnesses are bigger than others. Hofstadter uses the word “soul” in this context for consciousness.

The first idea, especially in the personal context in which Hofstadter introduced it, I found to be quite compelling. The second idea I don't think was quite captured in the talk, so I look forward to seeing how he describes it in the book. I do know that when he gave the talk, he used the second idea to defend his eating of chicken (but not of red meat), but I guess by the time he wrote this book it drove him to vegetarianism.

I had fun reading Godel, Escher, Bach, his Pulitzer-prize winning first book, and while this one seems smaller in scope, I'll get to it at some point. If you're interested in puzzles, patterns, puns, and not-too-technical forays in cognitive science, but don't want to take on an entire book, I suggest grabbing Metamagical Themas and reading the segments that interest you. (via rwx)

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i think he also said something about feeling better about killing a mentally retarded human than a non-mentally retarded human and lost me about there.

Jon May | Thu, 04/12/2007 - 5:10pm

Did he say that? I don't recall.

crazymonk | Thu, 04/12/2007 - 5:37pm

Does he say that it's *acceptable* to kill retarded people? If not, and he's just reflecting on how upset he would be if he accidentally performed act X versus act Y, then I don't know, I might agree. But this seems like a (common) failure of empathy. I'm not sure I'm in the market for a theory justifying it.

Having recently gotten very into Daniel Dennett-- whom I ignored for a long time because I was fed up with Hofstadter and I associated Dennett mainly with the book they worked on together-- I'm disappointed that it sounds like Hofstadter missed the part of Consciousness Explained about how sense data is not 'directly' read by the brain. But I'm going to end up reading this anyway.

In fact, the last time he published a long book, I was getting ready to move, as I am now. It's tempting to once again read him instead of packing.

Aaron | Fri, 04/13/2007 - 7:46am

i don't think he made an absolute acceptability statement, only a relative one. as i recall (and i recall incompletely, but still) he started by saying since an ant has less consciousness than a mouse and in turn a cat he felt less bad about accidentally or deliberately killing one vs. the other.

i can agree with that, but then he extended the consciousness argument to different types of humans, specifically retarded vs. non, (and I think justified his saying that by mentioning he had a mentally retarded daughter or sister or something like that...but this part is really hazy so I shouldn't presume) but didn't mention the killing aspect. I believe I then specifically asked him about killing mentally retarded vs. non (I think it was in an executing criminal context) and he sort of wavered (understandably...this goes toward nazi-think ultimately) and I didn't press too hard.

I can't remember if I extended the argument to a child vs. an adult -- if you feel better about killing a mentally retarded adult with the brain functioning of a 2 year old than a fully functioning adult, do you also feel better about killing a 2 year old than an adult? -- but depending on his answer to the first question it might have been interesting. Then again, he wasn't discussing potential, so maybe it's an uninteresting question.

Ultimately my issue was with him putting different humans in different categories, not in the consciousness hierarchy per se. I can understand at least on an imaginary level what it would be like to be 2 or a victim of traumatic brain injury or in some other way have a reduced mental state but still be human, and thus I have a natural empathy for the whole category, but I can't imagine what it would be like to be a chicken or a rice plant, and thus I have less empathy for their deaths (plus chicken and rice tastes good).

Jon May | Fri, 04/13/2007 - 11:10am

so your mercy scheme is built on relative empathy (focused on yourself); while the Hof's moral compass revolves around brain compelexity/ability to comprehend pain/consciousness (focused on sufferer)?

how does a vegetarian kiss you regularly?

flea | Fri, 04/13/2007 - 4:50pm


crazymonk | Fri, 04/13/2007 - 4:54pm


liam | Fri, 04/13/2007 - 7:04pm

i should add, since my comment now seems so nasty in retospect, that i do not believe jon is an immoral human being because he doesn't feel good about killing retards.

flea | Sat, 04/14/2007 - 10:12am

i didn't say relative empathy was the only thing letting me eat chicken. i don't actually think i could kill a chicken. it's cognitive dissonance and commercialization's sanitizing that keeps me eating the meat. why, you got something better? or are you a death penalty advocate now?

Jon May | Sat, 04/14/2007 - 7:18pm

At the risk of invoking lots of cliches, I think you have to have some sort of hierarchy of which humans are most acceptable to kill if you're in favor of legal abortion. I suppose as a pro-choice vegetarian I'm a big hypocrite, but let's face it, it's a lot easier to avoid meat than it is to deal with an unwanted child.

Lorelei | Tue, 04/17/2007 - 8:45am

I don't know about that Lorelei. My vegeterianism, insofar as it's political, hinges on specific ethical considerations and not moral absolutes. Abortion and animal rights in my head are basically completely distinct problems.

Although it just occurred to me in a way that it hadn't before, that many pro-life people probably feel a similar sense of empathy towards the poor little foeti that I feel towards animals in cages. Surely there's gotta be a way to dispel this connection. I guess 'pigs and cows have bigger consciousnesses than tiny, gilled humanoids' might work. But actually I think I'm going to need something better. Probably more or less turns out that instead of thinking of the two issues separately, I'll need to just have an ethics that applies to both situations.

Jesse | Tue, 04/17/2007 - 10:13am

Just out of curiosity, vegetarians don't generally have a problem killing insects, right? This is a genuine question. There's no issue with killing ants in your kitchen, is there?

Ingen Angiven | Tue, 04/17/2007 - 12:06pm
Jon May | Tue, 04/17/2007 - 12:35pm

hmm, i guess angle brackets mess things up.

cue stories about chalk lines.

Jon May | Tue, 04/17/2007 - 12:36pm

buddhists do, ingen.

flea | Tue, 04/17/2007 - 1:45pm

eh, jesse, i don't think it's all that hard - for me, it's all about mercy. killing an animal is rarely merciful, although the only times that I have personally killed animals, it has theoretically been in the name of mercy. eating the dead ones involves the cognitive disconnect jon alluded to.

but w/ abortion, there are two lives at stake, i guess i'd side with the life that is able to make conscious decisions and feel pain. like, if a tapeworm's killing your cat, kill the motherfucking tapeworm. that's like abortion. because fetuses are killing my cat.

flea | Tue, 04/17/2007 - 1:49pm

no, it's not that hard, I just had this brief moment of pause where it dawned on me that someone other than me might actually, actively empathize with a fetus rather than just passively quoting god all the time, which is what they always seem to someone like me to be doing. It was actually beautiful, because I realized that those people are human too. unlike foeti.

I'm not a buddhist but I don't kill insects unless they are hurting me. I have, in a more private moment, attempted to let a mosquito feed and then leave in peace, but I've since decided that mosquitoes are like terrorists, and I'm like George W. Bush... although I guess I'm not not a buddhist... anyway, I don't actively decide to kill anything. But I'm not Jain either. But obviously every time the combine rounds up the grain, lots of little mice and other cute critters like chipmunks and moles and frogs and so on die horrible, grizzly deaths that involve multiple blades that slice and hurt. Probably foeti of ground-nesting birds are destroyed in the process too. So obviously just 'cause I'm a vegetarian it doesn't mean I'm not a killer.

Jesse | Tue, 04/17/2007 - 2:36pm

I think fetuses are people and that you're absolutely killing a person when you abort a fetus... but I also think it's the only realistically practical solution to a tricky social problem so I'm fine with it.

That attitude does make me something of a monster, though.

Ingen Angiven | Tue, 04/17/2007 - 4:43pm

i'm with you ingen. i believe abortion is justifiable homicide. but this opinion sort of negates my credibility in discussion.

speaking of abortion:


fucking hell.

liam | Wed, 04/18/2007 - 2:38pm

Yeah, we need a crazymonk post on this decision so I can vent my BURNING RAGE at Anthony Kennedy and his attempts to rationalize his bad decision by PATRONIZING WOMEN.

Lorelei | Thu, 04/19/2007 - 8:44am