Hofstadter and Zen

I’m well through Godel, Escher, Bach.
(Started Hofstadter’s “GEB” here.)

Hofstadter is almost apologetic in his introduction about his apparent espousing of Zen philosophy, almost distancing himself from it to maintain credibility with serious scientific peers. It’s actually pretty clear in the book that he is not ultimately sympathetic to it anyway, but he does provide a good summary of where it fits as a world view, which for me suggests he does really “get it”.

His baffling “MU Offering” dialogue does not itself actually provide much enlightenment on the Zen koan and string folding stuff, but the following chapter “Mumon and Godel” is excellent.

“Zen is holism, carried to its logical extreme. If holism says that things can only be understood in wholes, not as sums of their parts, Zen goes one further in maintaining that the world cannot be broken into parts at all” [by the duality of the words we subjects use to name distinct objects within it.] “Zen, eg in its koans, is trying to break the mind of logic.”

Zen breaks this logical comfort zone, but doesn’t itself provide any real alternative. To study it is to miss the point of it. The “way” is unattainable, to name it is to lose it.

As well as drawing parallels in subject matter and ways of looking at reality between Zen and Escher, he also draws on frequent examples of Magritte and I notice also that “The Mind’s I” has Magritte’s “The False Mirror” on the cover. Magritte is a recurring theme.

[Post-note : If M hade been a note in post-Bach musical notation, as is E, my guess is Hofstadter could just as easily have named his book Godel, Magritte, Bach with no loss of meaning. Ultimately, he makes almost as much reference to the work of Magritte as he does Escher.]

It’s becoming apparent that GEB is mainly about languages, mathematical and typographical, the communication of information, and the properties of encoding on multiple levels, patterns within and upon patterns. ‘There is no such thing as an uncoded message. There are only messages written in more or less familiar codes; when familiar it ceases to appear like a code.” Reminded me very strongly of all language being metaphors, just that some metaphors are so long established they are dead, are no more, ceased to be, fallen off their perch, pushing up the daisies, gone to meet their maker. (Pythons, with apologies to Lakoff)


[Post Note: Hofstadter takes his linguistic, syntactical, algorithmic ideas to the extreme in the creation of semantics here “Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies. Some things do get “created”. Recommended.]

3 thoughts on “Hofstadter and Zen”

  1. This incesssant drive to explain….I think it comes, as I have said before, from our commputational brain.

    We have learned through the eons that we do better if we understand. First it was “mere” instinct. “That smells bad and makes my stomach lurch, I won’t eat it.” (without the words). But then we needed to transmit that information to others in our circle.

    Life has developed the clues through trial and error, trial and error which we are not aware of. My dog has instincts also and is not aware of them and further doesn’t care.

    But we care. Is what you want to know “why”? Or are you satisfied with the mere fact that we do?

    We are born and we die. i think that can be safely called objective reality. All that we do in between those two events can be called killing time.

    It is an incredibly beautiful day in my part of the planet. I could work, but I’ve decided to take this day and experience it. I want to do some drawing. I have to figure out an artistic way to make my new kitchen countertops out of all of the scrap wood, which I would otherwise throw out before I move to our new home. I think that is a worthy enterprise and a great way to kill time. And it only matters to me. But it will one day be admired by others and it will be a testament to this beautiful day in June (hopefully).

  2. “Killing time”, I like that concept.

    The question in the middle … Why do I care about the question ? Obviously my experience already tells me that we “do” work like that, In a sense I want to know “why”, but in an explanatory way, not a purposeful (teleological) way. Why do I want to know why ? – In order to suggest better ways of looking at the world in order to make better decisions about what to do next.

    Should we do this ? Should we do that ?
    (It’s my manifesto, yes ?)

    (PS – and note that “better” and “should” have at least as much to do with value (ethics) and quality as it does with numbers and logic.)

    Good luck capturing June.

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