Saturday, September 26, 2009

A strange loop observed

Here the whole world (stars, water, air,
And field, and forest, as they were
Reflected in a single mind)
Like cast off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hopes that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,
In lenten lands, hereafter may
Resume them on her Easter Day.
-Epitaph of Joy Davidman, by C. S. Lewis

I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter and A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis are two very different books that I want to review here.

First let me explain what brought me to reading these two books in tandem. Several years ago I read a review of I Am a Strange Loop in a math magazine. The book details Hofstadter's philosophy of mind. One thing that caught my attention is that the reviewer mentioned that the book is a soliloquy lamenting the untimely death of Hofstadter's wife and how he believes she lives on in his own mind as his memories of her. It sounded mildly interesting, but Hofstadter's world view is very atheistic and in the end he believes that each of us is really just some extraordinarily complex software running on the extraordinarily complex hardware of our brains. This contrasts sharply with my own belief in the Mormon doctrine that "Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be." (see Doctrine and Covenants 93:29). So at the time, I was not very interested in reading I Am a Strange Loop.

I've always loved C. S. Lewis since reading his Chronicles of Narnia. I've seen both versions of the movie Shadowlands, which is about Lewis's marriage late in his life to Joy Davidman. Davidman was on the brink of death at the time of their marriage and the movie ends with Lewis trying to come to grips with her death. I was interested in reading more about Lewis's marriage. I picked up his autobiography Surprised by Joy, but to my surprise, it was written before Lewis was surprised by Joy Davidman. I was afraid that Lewis had never written about this part of his life. Then, recently through a totally unrelated jaunt through the pages of Wikipedia I stumbled upon the entry for the director Richard Attenborough. I discovered that he had directed Shadowlands, and upon clicking that link I found out that A Grief Observed is Lewis's account of dealing with his wife's death.

So I went to the library and got A Grief Observed. But as I was reading it, my mind went back (completely-unanticipatedly) to that review of I Am a Strange Loop. So I looped back to the library and picked up that book also, so that I could compare and contrast them. This is the result:

A Synopsis of I Am a Strange Loop

I Am a Strange Loop addresses what the consciousness or the "I" is. I'm probably over-simplifying this, but I'm going to take a stab at explaining the main thrust of Hofstadter's view of things. Hofstadter claims that the consciousness, what we call "I" or "myself", is a strange loop. Fine, but what does Hofstadter mean by the phrase "strange loop"? I'll use an example from C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. In The Last Battle [WARNING: spoiler alert] the heroes make it to Aslan's country, which is like Narnia, only more-so. That is, Narnia is a shadow of Aslan's country. In Aslan's country (as in Narnia) there is a walled garden. Enter this garden--this tiny part of Aslan's country--and within it you find a Narnia that is even more-so than Aslan's country. Aslan's country has a copy of itself within itself, but the copy is more real (as well as bigger) than the thing it is contained in. In this copy of Aslan's country, go to the walled garden, enter it and again, you will find a bigger and more real Narnia-Aslan's country. Well, that's how Hofstedter sees consciousness. There you sit, a mass of cells. A bunch of membranes, fluids, etc., but within your brain there are representations of things in the real world. You have some picture of your computer in your mind, your shoes, stars, water, air, field, forest, and yourself. This representation of you that is inside of you, you call "I". Somehow, that "I" is the real you much more than the you sitting in front of your computer. The representation of you within you is the real you. That's what a strange loop is. In Hofstadter's words:

We are powerfully driven to create a term that summarizes the presumed unity, internal coherence, and temporal stability of all the hopes and beliefs and desires that are found inside our own cranium--and that term, as we all learn very early on, is "I". And pretty soon this high abstraction behind the scenes comes to feel like the maximally real entity in the universe.

A Synopsis of A Grief Observed

Lewis took the death of his wife very, very hard. He questioned the most basic of his beliefs and struggled to interpret the universe in the wake of his loss. A Grief Observed is his journal kept at the time of his pain as a relief valve. Aside from being a relief valve, the main theological argument that Lewis seems to be making is that we each have within ourselves an image or representation of God (the atheists too, though to their thinking it is the image of an imaginary being). The events of our lives (the lessons God leads us through) happen largely to shatter that image, so that we may rebuild it to look more like what God actually is.


The initial reactions of these two men to each of their wives' deaths were very different, but in a surprising way. Hofstadter, who believes in no after-life, had a sense that his wife went on, as he says in these quotes:

My friends kept on saying to me (oddly enough, in a well-meaning attempt to comfort me), "You can't feel sorry for her! She's dead! There's no one to feel sorry for any more!" How utterly, totally wrong this felt to me.

I found myself ceaselessly haunted by the mystery of the vanishing of her consciousness, which made no sense at all to me, and by the undeniable fact that I kept on thinking of her in the present, which also confused me. p. 228

Lewis, the firm believer in the after-life, had only a sense that his wife had totally vanished (he refers to his wife as "H."):

After the death of a friend, years ago, I had for some time a most vivid feeling of certainty about his continued life; even his enhanced life. I have begged to be given even one hundredth part of the same assurance about H. There is no answer. Only the locked door, the iron curtain, the vacuum, absolute zero. p. 20

One thing that both of these men still had was their memories of their wives. These memories they viewed completely differently. Here is Lewis:

Already, less than a month after her death, I can feel the slow, insidious beginning of a process that will make the H. I think of into a more and more imaginary woman. Founded on fact, no doubt. I shall put in nothing fictitious (or I hope I shan't). But won't the composition inevitably become more and more my own? The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real H. so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me.

And here is Hofstadter:

I keep trying, though, to figure out the extent to which I believe that because of my memories of her (in my brain or on paper), and those of other people, some of Carol's consciousness, her interiority, remains on this planet. Being a strong believer in the noncentralizedness of consciousness, in its distributedness, I tend to think that although any individual's consciousness is primarily resident in one particular brain, it is also somewhat present in other brains as well, and so, when the central brain is destroyed, tiny fragments of the living individual remain -- remain alive, that is.

Though neither Carol nor I was religious in the least, there was something that to me rang so true in this naive image of her purest essence leaving her mortal remains and soaring up, up, forever up, even if, in the end, it was not into the sky that her soul was flying, but merely into this guy...


The major parts of both of these books I haven't even hinted at. I just found it interesting that these two men reminded me so much of each other in these brief passages, yet were so different in their interpretations of the deaths of their wives. I originally considered doing this post as a dialogue between the two authors, but decided against it since 1) I am not half as smart as either of them and so would botch it. 2) If these men were actually brought together I don't think that they would jump into a debate, at least not a heated one. I think they would respect each other's opinions and mostly leave it there. 3) Finally, I would be be unfairly biased toward Lewis and wouldn't give Hofstadter a fair shake.

I do have several bones to pick with each of these authors, but I will leave that to another time and probably another place.

1 comment:

Evelyn said...

Have you ever heard of Radiolab? It's a show on public radio. I'll leave it at that because I don't think of a better description. Their September 18 show was on "afterlife", and one of the segments was a reading of a short story about the idea of living on in others' consciousness. I don't want to give anything away, but this post reminded me of it. The story is from a book called Sum by David Eagleman, and you can listen to the episode at


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