June 12th, 2007


Godel, Escher, Bach - An Eternal Golden Braid

Douglas Hofstadter is the author of a book which tries to find out how `consciousness' arises from inanimate matter. In his own words:

What is a self, and how can a self come out of stuff that is as selfless as a stone or a puddle? What is an "I" and why are such things found only in association with, as poet Russel Edson once wonderfully phrased it, "teetering bulbs of dread and dream" - that is, only in association with certain kinds of gooey lumps encased in hard protective shells mounted atop mobile pedestals that roam the world on pairs of slightly fuzzy, jointed stilts?

The answer lies in what the author describes to be `strange loops' - certain mysterious patterns arising in particular types of systems of meaningless symbols (GEB slowly builds an analogy between `meaningless symbols' and inanimate molecules). Such strange loops are found aplenty in the works of the musician Bach, the painter Escher and the logician Godel. In trying to make the reader appreciate these strange loops and their relevance to the formation of consciousness, the author touches upon a fantastic range of subjects - philosophy, logic, maths, language, literature, biology, physics, computing ...

It is unfortunately this book which I took with me to Vellore - and I am as usual finding it flying way above my limits of comprehension. But no, even if you find it difficult to comprehend the book in its full glory, understanding bits and pieces here and there is not too tough - that's how I am reading it now. And I am getting some idea as to the meaning of `formal systems' and `isomorphisms' and stuff like that. Good going ... but next time, I will keep in hand a Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie or Wodehouse.