On a philosophical idea in a book I am reading (Goedel-Escher-Bach)


Oct 15, 2003
The Dream
The book was written by Douglas Hofstadter, apparently published the year I was born.
It is essentially about Goedel, but with a very long introduction (the entire book is a little over 800 pages), and meant to be read by young people (or even gifted kids) as a way to make use of more intuitive/universal in humans patterns and concepts to acquire a familiarity with what is a logico-mathematical concept (Goedel's theorems).
Now, near page 200, one reads a brief series of thoughts of Hofstadter's on the human mind being an interpreting mechanism which allows for virtually any object to be seen as a message. This isn't a main issue in his work (at least thus far), but is related to the structure of messages (a message is also in this sense a general metaphor for sentences in a formal logic system). Hofstadter argues that the human mind doesn't need any special "trigger" so as to form the ability to assume an object contains a message, and so will (under specific circumstances) indeed attempt to decipher something which is cryptic. He argues that because he made a point about the following (which is an excellent sentence, in my view) :

“To find an explicit language in which to convey outer messages would
not be a breakthrough – it would be a contradiction in terms!”

By "outer message" he means the clue in a (cryptic; eg something in unknown ideograms) message (such as text) that a specific method is to be used to decipher it. Those "clues" cannot be in an explicit language (by this he means that they stand by themselves; don't require any knowledge of the actual "inner message", ie the cryptic text etc), because they could neither be in the same (cryptic) language of the message (imagine someone trying to help you read egyptian hieroglyphs, by writing above them, in egyptian hieroglyphs, that the message below is in egyptian hieroglyphs), nor be in some other language common to all (eg they could write, in english, that the message below is in ancient egyptian, but what if you don't know english either? And this will bring us to the philosophical question, since there is an infinite number of different deciphering means of an intelligent observer - they don't need to be human). Sometimes you can use the lingua franca (as with greek, in the case of ancient egyptian), but the point is that you cannot come up with a deciphering clue which is both independent of the text meant to be deciphered and not require itself an unrelated body of knowledge (eg english or greek, to read the note that egyptian stuff is actually egyptian) and in that moreover a type of knowledge which may itself be cryptic if the observer is too different (eg non-human).

The philosophical point he makes (or seems to be making), which I don't agree with, is that the human mind picks up something intelligible (in the message), instead of just projecting inner intelligence (from the mind) to the message. To use one of his own examples:
If the "outer message" was "1 (change line) 1 (change line) ...", and the inner message (cryptic text) was "1,1,2,3,5,8 ...", the human observer would notice the inner message as something specific (it is the Fibonacci sequence) but the outer message would be far more cryptic (vague, it could mean many things). But if you tried to make the outer message "explicit", you would find that it'd require something describing the Fibonacci series, also using numerals (you can't just say "the following is the Fibonacci series"; that isn't in the same language as the inner message and moreover refers to something external; books on what the Fibo series is), which would end up presupposing you already knew the Fibonacci series (since you would be reading an analysis of it, as a supposed clue...).

Hofstadter seems to be arguing that it is an emergent property of biological matter, to pick up patterns in objects, ie view them as messages. With this I do agree. However I imagine that this emergent property actually does break down (in some entirely labyrinthine and complicated way) to exactly what would have been a vast (possibly infinite, with repetitions and minor alterations) sequence of such outer messages/clues. In other words, I think that when you are looking at something and project meaning to it, you do so exactly because such a monumental (and unconscious) series of clues/pattern creation is rising up to meet the message. And, actually, not just one such series, but different ones, which get used according to circumstance. But I am of the view that none of those are about the message; the message itself seems to be a trigger for the rise of such deciphering sequences, and thus ultimately we are only projecting parts of our own mental codes on things.
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