For the first installment of the Armchair Squid's free-for-all blog book club, I've been aiming to profile the new book by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander, Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking. Problem is... I haven't finished this sucker yet! It's almost a running gag that Hofstadter's books are long; this one clocks in at 592 pages and I've really only gotten to 135. I considered switching from reading to skimming, to get further by now, but I don't want to short-change it.
I'm still thinking this book will be important in my ongoing quest to build a real-world version of Hesse's Glass Bead Game, so I'm intending to do a mini "progress report" with today's post, and just keep reading at my own pace. The full review will come at some point. :-)
Ah, Douglas Hofstadter. He's becoming an internet meme for being the patron saint of "meta" (i.e., self-referentiality taken to the Nth degree).
His books have been considered difficult, but mind-expanding if approached with effort and earnestness. Gödel-Escher-Bach (1979) won many awards for its mix of musings on intelligence (natural and un), complexity theory, and deep connections between far-flung fields. G-E-B gave me an important weapon in my arsenal of Glass Bead Game concepts: it showed that the idea of "rising tension, followed by release" is central to a huge number of different kinds of human-created works of art and science -- especially sequential works that one experiences linearly in time. I've blogged about that here and here.
Surfaces and Essences may be just as long and involved as G-E-B, but I think it's central thesis is much simpler to communicate: Hofstadter and Sander claim that just about every step in a human being's thought process is governed by the making and manipulating of analogies. They use a pretty broad definition of an "analogy:" any way of comparing something to something else, or noting that an idea has some commonality with another idea. (They talk briefly about the formal logical kind of analogy -- sometimes known as the SAT analogy -- but these "jewels of precision and elegance" are only a tiny subset.)
The early chapters are full of interesting linguistic examples that show how we use words and phrases to help us define mental categories. Once we have these (usually fuzzy-edged) categories swirling around in our brains, they help us approach new and unfamiliar situations. When we see something new, we search our storehouse of categories for something similar to compare it to -- i.e., we search for apt analogies -- so we can make sense of the new data. This is usually done unconsciously, all the time, as we navigate through life. In some cases, the new data cause us to refine or redefine our categories; this happens much more frequently when we're very young and still learning to speak and understand others.
Above I mentioned "words and phrases," but it goes beyond that, to full stories. Those can be useful categories, too. If you see a colleague at work whom you know wanted to get a big promotion, then didn't get it, and then feigned relief at not having to go to boring meetings with all the higher-ups, you may recognize that immediately as an example of Aesop's fable of the fox and the sour grapes. But making that connection is a very subtle thing. Nobody can figure out how to teach a computer to recognize that kind of non-surface similarity, but our minds do it constantly. Hofstadter and Sander go further to actually define sentient intelligence as the ability to size up a new situation quickly by identifying concepts that get to its core (i.e., that separate the relevant wheat from the useless chaff). In other words, intelligence is the ability to come up with strong and useful analogies!
Like I said, I'm only through the first few chapters. There will be many more examples to come, and I'm especially excited to get to the chapters about how scientists, mathematicians, and artists have created super-insightful analogies that have rocked their fields to their foundations. I'm also looking forward to the chapter titled "How We Manipulate Analogies," because I'm really wanting to know how I can exploit this knowledge to create a better Glass Bead Game!
More on this later! :-)