Godel, Escher, Bach

Review of Gödel, Escher, Bach (Golden Eternal Braid) by Douglas Hofstadter.

This is an intellectual tour de force, a sweet confection of themes. Ultimately though it disappoints; he attempts to bind his thematic threads into a tightly structured fugue or rope, but achieves only candyfloss. As the title suggests, the writing pans across mathematics, the arts and music. On the way it takes in logic, philosophy, Zen Buddhism, linguistics and artificial intelligence. Indeed so extensive and brilliant are the references and insights that one suspects a touch of narcissism on the author’s part. He is certainly clever, and as a survey of thought this book is a must-read, however his final conclusions are just plain inconsistent.

One fundamental premise is that our material world is constructed around paradox and infinitely self-referential loops. The “Gödel” of the title is Kurt Gödel, a mathematician who proved that our knowledge must always be incomplete. We can not know all things. But, the link from that “voice” to the Escher and Bach of the title is not clearly formed. Rather these are separate themes which Hofstadter weaves into his “Golden Eternal Braid”, rather than inversions of the same theme which forms a satisfying fugue. The Escher leitmotif – that perception cannot be trusted, is illustrated by the manipulation of self-referential loops. Bach is recruited as a master of fugue, where the theme is woven together in different voices to create a new experience. In other words from individual threads he creates new – emergeant – reality. An epiphenomenon.

Though not appearing in the title, the concepts of Zen Buddhism are woven into the braid – pointing up the essential duality of existence and encouraging us to UN-think as a route to perception and integration. (see Karl Jung).

So in summary, Hofstadter’s braid is shaped from:

Gödel, all knowledge must be incomplete – definitively.
Escher, reality is not what it seems and comprises an infinity of self-referential loops.
Bach, threads are woven to create an epiphenomenon; whose sum is qualitatively different from its parts.

Given these premises he nevertheless concludes “I have no doubt that a totally reductionist.. explanation of the brain exists” (and he equates brain with mind and consciousness).

With all of these fascinating themes, the false logic of this eventual conclusion shocks. His statement is a axiom or belief, but is presented as a theorem (he has this in common with Dawkins and many other materialists). Having established that the great thinkers in different disciplines have all demonstrated a fundamental limit to our ability to know via thinking, he then goes on to state that he has “no doubt” that we will eventually completely understand the mind and consciousness in terms of materialist reductionism.

He would have been wiser to end with these, his own, words:

“By the way, in passing, it is interesting to note that all results essentially dependent on the fusion of subject and object have been limitative results. In addition to the limitative Theorums [eg Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorum], there is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which says that measuring one quantity renders impossible the simultaneous measurement of a related quantity. I don’t know why all these results are limitative. Make of it what you will.”

For a truly penetrating (and consistent) philosophy of the link between mathematics and reality I would urge you to turn to Alfred North Whitehead – Process and Reality.

The Problem of Evil

What constitutes evil? In fact does it exist, or is it an absence. The result of separation from common connection? In any case if you believe as I do that unconditional love underlies the world of material and spirit, then evil is a problem. A riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma (Churchill on Russia).

I have a statement of the problem, but I don’t have an answer. Perhaps one doesn’t exist and this is simply a paradox, something unknowable by definition like the liar paradox (All Cretans are liars, Parmenides), Gödel’s mathematica proof that all things cannot be known or Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, again all things cannot be known.

So stated, then;

All things are potential until observed. Observation (I would restate this as – witness) crystallises out actual from potential. This is the most tested scientific fact in history, though the implications have not been commonly absorbed. In addition all material is at the same time quantum -bits of matter (when thus crystallised) and wave – continuous. Light can be characterised for instance as photons – discrete particles, and wave with particular amplitude and wavelength. Consider the implication of the famous equation e=mc2. Simply energy and mass are the same thing (except mass is hugely dense form of energy because of the multiplier of the speed of light squared). All matter is energy in wave form.

Einstein linked space and time as spacetime. Whitehead linked matter and time, characterising existence as a process rather than an event. (He arrived at theory of relativity independently of Einstein). In his explanation the past is concrete, the future is potential and it is at the boundary of both – the present – the we experience existence. We, as observers, actively work in experience/existence to form the strand of reality in time from the potential, but working with the memory of the past. In other words – material is always in the past, the present – existence – is immaterial.

This, for me anyway provides the link between spirit and material. We exist as observation engines with the purpose of creating reality in time. The sum of our choices together forms the path that existence takes as it builds.

But to what end? There is a direction of travel and there is travel itself – evolution. We are together creating the future by crystallising it out via our choices. To what end evolution? The start of what we can know appears to be the Big Bang – 14 billion years ago or so. Material has evolved since that point – first through a set of physical states ( from nothing to plasma to atoms) then chemical states (atoms to molecules of increasing complexity) then through biological states (sets of molecules with cell boundaries through plants and animals of increasing complexity) then through social states (organisms living in community of increasing complexity) and now through idea or thought states (ideas of increasing complexity interacting). Pierre Teilhard de Chardin characterised this as a continuous growth of consciousness, and the driving force being love. I buy that, especially since…

the discovery of quantum entanglement ( matter is entangled at it’s deepest structure) shows that there is a deep connection underlying all things. All things are one and we are all connected in a evolutionary journey toward increasing awareness or consciousness. In fact there is intense comfort in the knowledge that the self or ego is in fact a construct of the material world, the past. Somehow we have to be separate to weave existence from potential, but this is only a story – a mirage. We take form via our boundaries, like droplets of water – but our nature is that of water and the boundaries disappear when we fall back to the ocean.

So – for me anyway – all is well, good. Love powers the universe. Everything is connected. The ego in this life is simply a chimera, a construct or story. God is the Word existing beyond time, and we are one with that Word. With death will come reconnection and the loss of loneliness as boundary falls away.


what then about Evil. Why evil, why separation if unconditional love underlies all?

That’s my problem….