Douglas Hofstadter on Love and Death

This weekend I read a short fragment from Douglas Hofstadter’s book I Am a Strange Loop at my friends James and Lucy’s wedding.

James is the person who initially introduced me to Douglas Hofstadter’s earlier book – Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid – first published 40 years ago this year. GEB quickly became my favourite book; an irresistibly playful tapestry of mathematics, art, music, programming, artificial intelligence, language, logic, and philosophy.

I Am a Strange Loop, written almost 30 years after GEB, was a sort of reinterpretation of that book. Hofstadter felt that the technical and subtle approach led many readers to miss the point of GEB, so he decided to write a less technical, more accessible, and more explicit treatment of the nature of self and machine consciousness.

Strange Loop is a deeply personal and emotional book, covering the death of Hofstadter’s wife Carol, and exploring Hofstadter’s moral basis for his vegetarian diet, among many other things. It speaks of love and death in intimate detail, in Hofstadter’s signature style. I’d highly recommend reading this book if you’re not attracted by the idea of the maths-dense GEB.

For the reading at James and Lucy’s wedding I edited a few paragraphs for brevity and context (and to remove references to death!). These are those paragraphs – I think they give a good introduction to Hofstadter’s views on human relationships:

What is really going on when you dream or think more than fleetingly about someone you love? In the terminology of Strange Loops, there is no ambiguity about what is going on.

The symbol for that person has been activated inside your skull, lurched out of dormancy, as surely as if it had an icon that someone had double-clicked. And the moment this happens, much as with a game that has opened up on your screen, your mind starts acting differently from how it acts in a “normal” context. You have allowed yourself to be invaded by an “alien universal being”, and to some extent the alien takes charge inside your skull, starts pushing things around in its own fashion, making words, ideas, memories, and associations bubble up inside your brain that ordinarily would not do so. The activation of the symbol for the loved person swivels into action whole sets of coordinated tendencies that represent that person’s cherished style, their idiosyncratic way of being embedded in the world and looking out at it.

As a consequence, during this visitation of your cranium, you will surprise yourself by coming out with different jokes from those you would normally make, seeing things in a different emotional light, making different value judgments, and so forth. Each one of us has a brain inhabited to varying extents by other I’s, other souls, the extent of each one depending on the degree to which you faithfully represent, and resonate with, the individual in question. But one can’t just slip into any old soul, no more than one can slip into any old piece of clothing; some souls and some suits simply “fit” better than others do.

Douglas Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop (edited)

In discussing an appropriate portion of the book, James and I also agreed to read the following at each other’s funeral, if either of us were ever to die:

In the wake of a human being’s death, what survives is a set of afterglows, some brighter and some dimmer, in the collective brains of all those who were dearest to them. And when those people in turn pass on, the afterglow becomes extremely faint. And when that outer layer in turn passes into oblivion, then the afterglow is feebler still, and after a while there is nothing left.

This slow process of extinction I’ve just described, though gloomy, is a little less gloomy than the standard view. Because bodily death is so clear, so sharp, and so dramatic, and because we tend to cling to the caged-bird view, death strikes us as instantaneous and absolute, as sharp as a guillotine blade. Our instinct is to believe that the light has all at once gone out altogether. I suggest that this is not the case for human souls, because the essence of a human being — truly unlike the essence of a mosquito or a snake or a bird or a pig — is distributed over many a brain. It takes a couple of generations for a soul to subside, for the flickering to cease, for all the embers to burn out. Although “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” may in the end be true, the transition it describes is not so sharp as we tend to think.

It seems to me, therefore, that the instinctive although seldom articulated purpose of holding a funeral or memorial service is to reunite the people most intimate with the deceased, and to collectively rekindle in them all, for one last time, the special living flame that represents the essence of that beloved person, profiting directly or indirectly from the presence of one another, feeling the shared presence of that person in the brains that remain, and thus solidifying to the maximal extent possible those secondary personal gemmae that remain aflicker in all these different brains. Though the primary brain has been eclipsed, there is, in those who remain and who are gathered to remember and reactivate the spirit of the departed, a collective corona that still glows. This is what human love means. The word “love” cannot, thus, be separated from the word “I”; the more deeply rooted the symbol for someone inside you, the greater the love, the brighter the light that remains behind.

Douglas Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop