Thursday, July 4, 2019

Jeff’s Books to Open Your Mind: Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

This book acts as the non-fiction capstone to the “Open Your Mind” series.  It has a great many similarities to the fiction capstone, The IlluminatusTrilogy.

A) It’s huge.

B) It took several readings for me to really get it.

C) It messed with my head- a lot!

D) I borrowed it off of my college roommate’s shelf the first time I read it.

There are advantages to rooming with a computer scientist.  Another one was my taking a Symbolic Logic elective at the same time he was taking an Artificial Intelligence course by the same professor.

The two classes covered very similar material, but in a different order.  Therefore half way through the semester, we could easily do each other’s homework. 

The reason I was taking this elective at all is- I’ve always been fantastic at, and enjoyed figuring out proofs and pseudo code. I never translated this to actual programming skill because I’d invariably figure out the logic of the program in short order...  
But then I’d spell “integer” wrong on line three and take six weeks swearing and debugging through giant error lists to find it before accidentally saving the compiled file over the source code rendering both unusable.  

Hence my focus on this stuff only as electives and recreational reading.

This 1979 tome by Douglas Hofstadter takes the scientific route to the fundamental interconnectedness of all things that was seen in One Two Three Infinity, and jacks it up exponentially.

It follows a similar path with mathematics and physical laws, but builds, through the self-reference of various systems, to intelligence and consciousness.  It also incorporates art, music and design, both as parts of the systems, and examples.

Full disclosure: the first time I read it, I didn’t understand a thing. Like most initial readers, I went through enjoying the clever, puzzle and riddle filled dialogues with Achilles, the Tortoise and their friends between each technically focused chapter, afnd skimmed through the rest.

However, I am incredibly stubborn when it comes to the fact that I don’t know everything yet, and have gone back to reread it multiple times.

The reads expanded from a few “aha!” moments, to constantly throwing a book mark in and pulling out pencil and paper mid chapter to execute the proofs and puzzles on my own.

It is a remarkable, if brain bending, tool that provides examples and theories as to how the complexities of thought and identity can grow from simple systems that follow set rules.  Analogies to the creation of art, math or music connect to the functioning of the mind itself.

Basic rules of physics govern atomic mechanics and electrical impulses, which lead to the laws of electrochemical reactions, which lead to firing of individual simple neurons that creates a free willed brain.

The book dances around other options: 

Following the same pattern, could the same laws starting with simple mechanical or electrical switches create a free willed electronic brain?

Could simple ants form a free willed “ant colony” brain?

Yes, it goes to some strange places.

Yet it takes an even wider look that the other stories I’ve mentioned to highlight the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.   It's the same building blocks of physical reality that lead to thought and creation.  It’s also the same basic logical rules that grow into complex systems that can be expressed in math, art and music.  The book takes some nifty leaps to tie them all together.

The mathematics of a tune-

Fugues in prose-

Logical hierarchies in art-

And the fact that recursive self-reference in all of them is somehow connected to building complex systems from simple ones.  

With the subject material, getting overly intellectual and pretentious is a given. That's where the dialogues come in to poke fun at the author and text itself whenever that happens.  Even there, self reference is key.

It’s an amazing, eye opening look at how similar many systems in the reality we inhabit are at a basic level.  His other books have similar themes and would be enjoyed by those who solved their way through this one.

Or for those just starting out, it's a set of cute and fun dialogues.

As a parting note, the quote brimming with self-reference I use the most often from this text is Hofstadter’s Law itself.

“It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.”

This is one hundred percent true in every aspect of my life: work, home maintenance and recreation.

I have also formed Jeff’s Corollary, which follows the theme for a specific instance:

“You will always need more bags of mulch than you think you need, even if you take into account Jeff’s Corollary.”

Many multiple trips to the Home Depot in the middle of yard work have provided empirical evidence for this Corollary.

I have no idea if the fact that we always seem to need mulch after the bags have been doused and made heavier by biblical level deluges is part of this corollary.  

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