I enjoyed reading this book, but it is difficult to read and frustrating. I am trained in cognitive psychology so I found the rather loose connection between this book and cognitive theories of mind rather perplexing. Hofstadter rambles and draws analogies that are often excessively obtuse. Better ways of explaining things could well be found. For example Pinker's idea of a horse race of parallel processes does a much better job at explaining how our brain uses mechanistic processes, but is not deterministic -- but more chaotic. In addition, I think an in depth examination of how the brain utilizes chaotic processes between parallel neural units in a horse race manner, would be a much much better way of understanding how the brain implements conscious thought. The horse race is a better explanation of how the brain can have will that is not predictable with very much certainty from what we have experienced before... we interpret this lack of predictability as free will. In fact the whole strange loop analogy is ultimately a poor analogy for what goes on in the human nervous system.
And that's the most puzzling thing about this book. He doesn't discuss the neurology of the brain and the neurology after all IS the thing that creates conscious thought; not a math formula. The nature of the brain as a computer is highly constrained by its neural architecture.
In addition, given his heavy focus on analogies I was puzzled by the fact that he doesn't cite any of the work by George Lakoff in understanding the role of analogical reasoning in the human conceptual system or the work by my colleague in cognitive psychology on metaphor comprehension.
But the weakest aspect of this book was its rather heavy handed moralism. His concept of a soul appears to be largely related to the creatures intelligence and links empathy and intelligence. He notes that criminals often have low levels of intelligence and a lack of empathy. While this is often true, he confuses psychopathic lack of empathy with criminality per se. Furthermore, he is ignoring the work by David Hare on successful psychopaths who are often excellent leaders precisely because of the combination of high intelligent and a lack of empathy... that is they have guts to make tough leadership choices. So the relationship between intelligence and empathy is more complicated than he lets on.
I personally am sympathetic to the idea of animal rights, but his valuation of an animal's right to life based on the size of its "soul" struck me as morally questionable. In one part he notes that its the small soul of the mosquito that allows us to swat it without agonizing over it. NO!!! First, there is no reason to suppose that the mosquito is actually any less consciously aware of its existence than a the pig and given that it usually tries to evade death, it certainly does not seem to wish to die. And Second, my reason for killing it is not because it has a small soul (and thus no right to life), but the fact that its a pest. If a creature with the brain of Einstein was flying around trying to drink my blood, I would feel no remorse in killing him (in self defence).
I felt something slimy about the notion that a right to life was directly proportional to the size of one's soul. Isn't that essentially the Nazi concept of eugenics. True, he sets the bar for rights really low and argues that pigs have a big enough soul to give them rights... and even has come to believe that chickens also have a big enough soul, but its a slippery slope that can slip both ways.
Philosophically my problem with this notion is that he seems to be trying to create an objective basis for the ethics of life; an objective basis for deciding which creatures are edible and which should have rights. But morality, is a human invention based on the pragmatic need to get along with each other and the attempt to find an objective basis of moral decisions about the right to life I believe is inherently misguided.
I found it totally out of place in a discussion of how the mind is implemented in the brain, but its placement near the beginning of the book suggest this vegetarian agenda is a particularly important thing to Hofstadter... It should be noted that he pretty much sets himself up as a "higher" soul by virtue of his pursuit of a vegetarian lifestyle. He lists a bunch of "big souled" people including Einstein and Gandhi and places himself in that group suggesting a degree of narcissism.
I should note that he doesn't actually believe in free will. He says the only free will in Free Willy. So one could argue that neither a vegetarian or a non-vegetarian lifestyle is a free choice. In Hofstadter's case he relates his choice to not eat pigs to a story he read as a child. If there is indeed no free will one cannot actually say a person who follows a vegetarian lifestyle can have a higher soul if he had no actual choice in accepting that lifestyle.
His book however IS very thought provoking and if you can get through the pages of obscure math analogies than it might be worth it. I suspect that his view on the ethics of meat consumption will strike a cord with those who already lean towards a vegetarian perspective and may pull a few people in that direction, but may not resonate quite so well otherwise.