I finished Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter the other day. In conjunction with Pinker’s How the Mind Works, it was absolutely perfect. Both of these books try to explain some part of how our upper levels of consciousness, perception, thought, and feeling arise from lower-level biological, physical, genetic processes. The two books have diametrically different styles and focus on different lower-level processes, but in the end, they are two sides of the same coin and are perfectly compatible with one another.
Pinker’s book focuses on broad genetics and natural selection and takes a straightforward approach of discussing various aspects of the mind and tracing how and why they might have been selected for at each stage of evolution. He gives detailed and convincing arguments for the evolution of visual perception and mental imagery; emotions such as fear, disgust, kinship, friendship, and love; and the common-sense, intuitive versions of logic, science, and probability (as opposed to the academic, formalized versions of these disciplines).
Hofstadter, on the other hand, focuses on the workings of neural hardware and actual, microscopic genetic transcription and cell development, rather than historical evolutionary processes. He begins by discussing formal systems (as in mathematics and computer science) and self-reference within these systems to show how creativity and intelligence can arise from something that is, at bottom, rigid and rule-governed. Throughout the book, he alternates whimsical illustrative dialogues with technical treatises integrating Gödel’s proof of the incompleteness of formal systems with Escher’s contradictory levels of reality, Bach’s self-altering fugues, Artificial Intelligence systems, DNA, Zen Buddhist philosophy, and finally, the hardware of the mind.
One of the central ideas of both books is that different levels of the mind must be discussed separately; i.e., just because evolution is about propagating genes, and genes are selected for based on traits or behaviors that favor propagation does not mean that the genes’ “desires” correspond to our conscious motivations and mental processes. Likewise, a detailed description of the neural state of the brain at any given moment will not give us any insight into the state of the person’s mind at that moment. There is a causal relationship between our genes and our minds, and between our neurons and our minds, but these relationships are extremely complicated, and there are many interceding levels, so that in the end it is literally impossible to draw lines, as it were, between corresponding parts. And of course, neither of these books claims to have unlocked all of the secrets of consciousness and thought.
I would recommend both of these books to anyone interested in the human mind, especially GEB. It is dense and contains a lot of concepts that are mentally difficult to process, but it was so fascinating that I flew through all 700 pages of it.
Now I’m done with the mind for a while. I brushed up on my German by reading a short Thomas Bernhard play, which I found unremarkable, and have now begun The Great Railway Bazaar, by the ever-condescending Paul Theroux, as a necessary prerequisite to my trip on the Trans-Siberian.