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 [Book Reviews]


 

I Am A Strange Loop

by
Douglas Hofstadter

This is a mind-numbingly boring book. It is carelessly, clumsily, hastily written, plodding, and filled with unsubstantiated statements and assumptions[1], ignorant distortions and outright errors[2] as well as being nasty in places when it comes to the author's opinions of ideas that he cannot claim for himself. He 'gently mocks' according to himself. He believes he knows himself but does not see that his sense of humor and style of ridicule is vicious. He does not see that this is inconsistant with his claims to be of a higher order of being.

Doc Hofstadter makes his case for his 'dear readers' a thousand times and then argues it with his imagined adversaries another thousand. Then he summarizes for another thousand. It is a real page-turner. That is, I could not wait beginning at the upper left of a left-hand page to get to the bottom right of a right-hand page so that I could turn the page and slip in a bookmark and put the book aside before I fell asleep, my self-punishment for the day done.

The man is the very archtype of the arrogant, condescending, self-satisfied, superior, derisive, falsely humble, pretentious academic. He is a master of the straw dog[3]. He is so delighted with his wit and persona that it comes embarasingly close to outright exhibitionism. An adolescent playing with himself in public.

So why review the book at all? Take a look. This is his basic premise in a few of his own words:

'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.

'...the truth of the matter is that there is no thing called "I" ...'

That last is virtually identical to the words used here to define 'anatta': There is no thing there that is the self of one.

So the value here for us is that at the very least we get a lengthy exposition of one of the fundamental points of view that trap men into rebirth. And it is a point of view that is widely shared in the U.S today and we could hope that by pointing to it's shortcomings the Geeks who idealized the author in the 70s might see in the ideas of Gotama an escape from his influence in their 60s.

Gotama speaks of three types of individuals: one who is under the surface and remains under the surface; one who is under the surface and rises to the surface and then falls back under the surface; and one who is under the surface who rises to the surface and remains at the surface. Dr. Hofstadter is of the middle sort. In his thousands of presentations of his argument he continually rises to accurate perception and a line later descends again into debate the essence of which comes down to arguing a position with regard to existence or non-existence — his position is that of the one who postulates that the being both exists and does not exist, is conscious after death and is not conscious after death.

This is the problem: It is not enough to see the truth of the statement that 'All things are not the self'. Sabbe dhamma anatta. There must also be an understanding of the issues that truth raises, namely: 'This is Dukkha'. Pain. All things change, to the extent one identifies with and grasps hold of a thing that changes when that thing changes one will experience the pain of ending and further, the 'abstraction' that is 'I', being an abstraction from a base of flowing raw data that is essentially a feedback loop, has no problem at all just looping into another abstraction. Looping round and round forever and ever and ever.

One needs to perceive that that forever and ever and ever is the experiencing of a more or less unbroken flow of pain associated with ending: old age, sickness, suffering and death, pain and misery, grief and lamentation, and despair.

But Dr. Hofstadter, focused on gains, favors and flattery, takes delight in the lowly pleasures of the senses, and does not seek the freedom of utter detachment.

 


[1]Examples: pp. 43. 'As I put it in Chapter 2. "Our existence as animals whose perception is limited to the world of everyday macroscopic objects forces us, quite obviously, to function without any reference to entities and processes at microscopic levels. No one really knew the slightest thing about atoms until only about a hundred years ago...'
In two lines he quotes himself from the just previous chapter (something he does repeatedly), states we are limited in our perceptions to the macroscopic, states that this forces us to function without regard to entities and processes at microscopic levels (whereas c 500 bc ascetics were using filters to screen out microscopic beings from drinking water, sweeping the paths before them to avoid injuring microscopic beings, etc.), states this is obvious (how could the truth of a false statement be obvious?), and states that nobody knew about the atomic structure of things until a hundred years ago when in fact it was quite well known two thousand years ago by Indian ascetics. Dr. Hofstadter is simply ignorant of this entire culture.

[2]For example: pp. 295. (in an hypothetical dialogue with himself — as we note, the temptation to see this man as playing with himself is overwhelming, and, of course, his opponent in the dialogue is the perfect straight-man): 1: Sometimes the strict scientific viewpoint is hopelessly useless, even if it's correct. That's a dilemma. As I said, the human condition is, by its very nature, one of believing in a myth. And we're premanently trapped in that condition...
2: Taoism and Zen long ago sensed this paradoxical state of affairs and made it a point to try to dismantle or deconstruct or simply get rid of the "I".
1: That sounds like a noble goal, but it's doomed to failure. Just as we need our eyes in order to see, we need our "I"'s in order to be!'
Put asside the fact that his own thesis is a deconstruction of the self. He assumes the goal of Zen is a state of 'being' which is not correct, and states that it is a goal that is doomed to failure which is also not correct, and further, makes the mistake of not understanding that Zen is a misstatement of the teachings of Gotama and that the goal, really, of the system behind Zen is not to dismantle or deconstruct or get rid of the "I" at all, but for the mind to become free from any attachment to it.

[3] Perhaps the proper term is Straw Man, but since the origin of this term is in doubt and I believe it comes from straw dog, I will let it stand. Straw dog, as defined, serves well enough, though it is the idea that Dr. Hofstadter sets up the propositions of his imagined adversaries in ways that distort their meansings and make them simple to defeat that is the criticism here.
Wikipedia: A straw man is a component of an argument and is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent's position. To "attack a straw man" is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by replacing it with a superficially similar yet unequivalent proposition (the "straw man"), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.
Straw dogs were used as ceremonial objects in ancient China. Chapter 5 of the Tao Te Ching begins with the lines "Heaven and Earth are heartless / treating creatures like straw dogs". Su Ch'e comments "Heaven and Earth are not partial. They do not kill living things out of cruelty or give them birth out of kindness. We do the same when we make straw dogs to use in sacrifices. We dress them up and put them on the altar, but not because we love them. And when the ceremony is over, we throw them into the street, but not because we hate them."
As for an example see: (again in a dialogue with himself):
pp 297. 'And why can't we get rid of our hallucinations? Why can't we attain that pure and selfless "I"-less state that the Zen people would aim for?
We can try all we want, and it is an interesting exercise for a short while, but we can't turn off our perception machinery and still survive in the world.'
Survival in the world is not the goal and speaking conventionally we can turn off our perception machinery and function in the world (unconventionally, the machinery of perception is not 'ours' to start with) it just takes most people more than 'a short while' to master the trick.
For another example note [Ch. 23] the way the idea behind the 'problem of the inverted spectrum' is ignored and the flawed example of the inverted spectrum is used as the whole argument. I don't know who came up with the inverted spectrum as the example, but the issue is that of the inability of the individual identifying with his senses to see beyond his senses to any 'real' world out there. The result is that there is nothing that can be proven to one locked into his senses that cannot be seen to be simply a product of his own imagination. Dr. Hofstadter defeats the inverted spectrum idea with proof of identical physical reactions in varying individuals. The response should be: 'but these individuals of course are responding that way because that is the way I imagine they should respond.'

 

§

 

To see the danger in Dr. Hofstadter's point of view, examine the stand he takes with regard to eating meat. He takes a moral stand that states that whoever contributes to the general market demand for a meat-food is ethically responsible for the deaths that involves. He is then forced to spend many many pages discussing the relative worth of creatures (the amount one needs to feel guilt at one's responsibility for their death) based on the size of their souls which he roughly equates to their size. He misses altogether the notion that it is killing that is the bad thing ethically, not eating something that is already dead, killed on speculation by some businesman-butcher. For more on this see The Archives: On Eating Meat.


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