(continued from part one)
Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter was published to acclaim in 1979, winning the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction and the National Book Award for science; it hasn’t been out of print since and is popular enough to be known by its initials, GEB. If you know the book already, you probably love it, and if you don’t, I despair of being able to properly describe it. The central conceit is the thematic overlap in the work of the mathematical, artistic, and musical geniuses who give the book its title. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, Escher’s drawings of hands drawing hands, and the endlessly rising tones of Bach’s canons are all demonstrations of self-reference and self-consciousness, which Hofstadter posits as the root of mental activity—thought isn’t thought without an awareness of itself. With that in mind, patterns of recursion and reflection start to appear not just in mathematics, art, and music, but everywhere, from computer science, formal logic, and philosophy, to physics, foreign languages, and cellular reproduction.
So many topics are treated that it may be easier to ask what the book isn’t about than what it is. It’s almost unbelievable that Hofstadter can hold all these concepts together as his book spins faster and faster, widening in scope as it goes, but he does. Though it may seem sprawling, at its core GEB tries to answer the most fundamental questions there are. In the preface to the twentieth anniversary edition, the author says his book “is a very personal attempt to say how it is that animate beings can come out of inanimate matter. What is a self, and how can a self come out of stuff that is as selfless as a stone or a puddle?” That may sound like heavy going, but reading GEB is a surprisingly uplifting experience, probably because its author’s tone is unrelentingly enthusiastic, even amazed by the rich complexity of his material.
The wonder of the book is that it doesn’t just present ideas, it embodies them. When Hofstadter wants to make a point about physical or intellectual systems that circle back on themselves, taking the output they produce and using it as their next input, he does so in a chapter that circles back on itself, ending in the same way that it began. Discussion of the intricacies of language and the alphabet abounds with palindromes, acrostics, and other wordplay. The fine points of applied philosophy are addressed through miniature dramas enacted by the figures from Zeno’s classic paradox, Achilles and the Tortoise. At every stage, the argument of the book is integrally bound up with its form. I don’t know another non-fiction book—in fact, I can’t imagine one—that’s more deeply (and properly) concerned with style. For me, this kind of literary sensibility, where ideas and their expression productively entwine, is essential in a science book if it’s to be considered among the best of its breed, truly noble in reason.
A book has just come out that’s making a fair bid to join that group (it’s what set in motion the train of thought that resulted in my last couple of posts). Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul was written by Giulio Tononi, an Italian-born neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, and it lays out his theory of human consciousness, a subject that he began exploring through extensive study of the mystery of sleep. How do we lose awareness each night and regain it in the morning? Tononi’s distinctive take on the problem eliminates the binary nature of awareness. Rather than determining whether consciousness is on or off, he argues that it’s possible to quantify different levels of consciousness, and he uses the twenty-first letter of the Greek alphabet to refer to that quantity. Increasing it is more complicated than just adding neurons, of course. From a New York Times article:
How the parts of a network are wired together has a big effect on phi. If a network is made up of isolated parts, phi is low, because the parts cannot share information. But simply linking all the parts in every possible way does not raise phi much…Networks gain the highest phi possible if their parts are organized into separate clusters, which are then joined.
Our brains are organized in just such a way. Actually measuring phi in humans is so far theoretical, since there are far too many neurons to track all their interactions, but in simpler creatures, Tononi has had some lab-verified success in at least approximating their phi. With the publication of his latest book, he’s well on his way to successfully seizing the popular imagination, too.
Just picking Phi up is enough to make its ambition clear. It’s literally weightier than a normal volume its size, printed on the slick, substantial paper that’s used in the finest art books. And there’s art galore within it. Almost every page includes a glorious image, ranging from intracranial scans to architectural photographs to Renaissance paintings and beyond. These accompany a text that elucidates Tononi’s thinking in narrative form, depicting an allegorical journey undertaken by one of the forefathers of science, Galileo Galilei. Three famous figures guide the bearded sage along the way—with Francis Crick, discoverer of DNA, he examines the morphology of the brain; with artificial intelligence pioneer Alan Turing he learns about integrated information and its relation to consciousness; and with Charles Darwin he ponders the ever-evolving role of self-awareness in history and culture. With the mind itself as the subject of their investigations, no topic or area of human endeavor is out of bounds, and they allude to law, poetry, religion, cosmology, matters of life and death, and more.
As is the case for Hofstadter’s GEB, no synopsis can do full justice to the range of ideas Phi expresses, certainly not mine. I’ve only had the book in my hands for a few days, not nearly enough time for it all to soak in. Fortunately, Giulio Tononi will be visiting Seattle on September 12th and available to answer all my questions, so I’m sure after that I’ll be able to integrate all the information and raise my phi higher than ever.