Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Rationalizing abrupt change and Chautauquas:
A friend asked me recently on what my favorite book was and I remember telling him that among others, a book that was one of my favorites but least understood was the one by Douglas Hofstadter (a physics Ph.D who won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize), the author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid.

From a Time magazine article:
The book was called ‘Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid’ -- Gödel being the Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel; Escher, the fantastical Dutch artist M.C. Escher; and Bach, the Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach. It was a very odd book, a rattlebag of art, mathematics, music, philosophy, symbolic logic, computers, genetics, paradoxes, palindromes and Zen koans among many, many other things.

Hofstadter's unique intellectual makeup is rooted in his childhood. His father was Robert Hofstadter, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1961. Hofstadter might have grown up to be a straight-up physicist like his dad if it hadn't been for his younger sister Molly. When Hofstadter was 12, it became clear that she had grave neurological problems--she never learned to speak or understand language. "When Molly's unfortunate plight became apparent, it all started getting connected to the physical world. It really made you think about the brain and the self, and how the brain determines who the person is." says Hofstadter


I also know just from reading about Douglas and the thoughts expressed in this book that he is a hard nosed realist/pragmatist with his feet firmly in the ground as regards the validity and veracity of the truth as expressed in the formalisms set out in music theory, art and mathematics. Imagine my surprise when I read that after his wife's death (Carol Hofstadter) he now believes that she continues to live on in him, with her mind persisting in his brain like software running on his hardware. I was equally shocked to read that Robert M. Pirsig author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, (that cult classic that spawned so many metaphysical journeys into the definition of the word ‘quality’) recently came to believe his murdered son was reincarnated and lives as his daughter who was born later.

It is surprising to think that some of the cornerstones (pragmatism, reason, logic) by which these people live their lives are suddenly turned 180 degrees around when intense personal loss affects them. On a similar vein, people who are deeply religious have been known to eschew their gods when they lose something that is deeply deeply personal. It is almost as if people believe in a doctrine as long as the good times continue. At the instant the favorable times end, they tend to rationalize the abrupt change with a complete rearrangement of their most basic tenets. All this seems inexplicable now, but I am sure that brian research of the future will have an answer, but for now it does remain fascinating...

Hofstadter sees in Gödel's work a structural parallel to the mystery that is the human mind. The brain, which is merely a squishy agglomeration of madly firing neurons, shouldn't by rights be able to think--it shouldn't be able to wake up, twist around, become aware of itself, and in doing so become an "I," but it does. Just like Gödel's mathematics, the mind is a strange, self-referential loop--it's a mirage, Hofstadter writes, but "a very peculiar kind of mirage ... a mirage that perceived itself, and of course it didn't believe that it perceived a mirage, but no matter--it still was a mirage."

Hofstadter has written a new book (out last week titled "I am a strange loop") that expands upon the theory of the self and the mind and also the contributions that Carol (his late wife) lent him emotionally. Time magazine called it not just a work of rigorous thinking but also an extraordinary tribute to the memory of romantic love.

7 comments:

Vinod said...

Nice picture of Robert Pirsig and his son Chris on their Honda 305cc CB77.

Speaking of other mysteries of the mind, I read an article today on how some people "remember" "previous lifes" ..check it out here

http://scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?articleid=A430214C-E7F2-99DF-3EEED6B0410A5114&chanId=sa017

Vinod said...

Ooops---here'sm that link again:

http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleid=A430214C-E7F2-99DF-3EEED6B0410A5114&chanId=sa017

Hungry Hyaena said...

Very interesting. Given my longterm preference for rationalism and the scientific method, I've found it curious how, as of late, more mysticism has become a part of my world view. All of it can be tied to accepted scientific tenets, mind you, but if I were to tell a 25 year old me that natural pantheist would be a label I think fair to attach to myself, my head would have been set spinning! ;)

Ana Banana said...

Hello, Sunil. It was a pleasant surprise to see a blogger from NJ...my homestate (Trenton). It's been a long time though since I've been back. Your blog is a very interesting one and I will come back to read some of your posts. I especially like the combination of neurology and the arts...introspection and how that relates to art is an interesting subject, especially for me -- a very introverted person. Thank you for stopping by and for your lovely comment. I also will be back.

Cheers from California,

Ana

Sunil said...

Vinod,
Thanks for the link. It was a great read!

Sunil said...

Chris,
How we age as the ragaves of time roll on...
Yes, you are right.

Sunil said...

Ana,
Another New Jerseyite...

I enjoy your paintings and will keep coming back.