Books

Metamagical Themas by Douglas Hofstadter

While I am, in general, an obscenely fast reader, some books deserve to have an entire week dedicated to them. Metamagical Themas is one such book.

The book is a great philosophical work that spans many different subject areas, from language to artificial intelligence to Rubik’s cubes. It is an accumulation of Hofstadter’s columns written for Scientific American, along with a few lectures he gave on other occasions.

Hofstadter’s writing style is whimsical and peppered with his quirky sense of humour, which simultaneously makes the book enjoyable to read and also sometimes gets a bit grating. You know how when you first get into a relationship with someone the things they do are cute and fun, but after a few days months those same qualities seem tiresome? I had a similar feeling when reading this book: sometimes I appreciated the little humorous glimpses into the author’s mind; sometimes I found myself wishing he’d just made a serious philosophical point without couching it in whimsy.

I think the writing style makes the book more accessible to the lay reader, however those without any grounding in the areas Hofstadter talks about would probably find it difficult to read in places.

What I loved about Metamagical Themas was the way it drew together thoughts from all different disciplines and applied them to one another. This is something I enjoy doing: taking something from the field of philosophy, for example, and apply it to psychology or sociology or physics.

My favourite chapter was Variations on a Theme as the Crux of Creativity, which talked about how the mind must be allowed to roam freely in order to get the creative juices flowing, and how people who desperately try to be creative often end up not being very creative at all.

A mind follows its path of least resistance, and it’s when it feels easiest that it is most likely being its most creative… Trying harder is not the name of the game; the trick is getting the right concept to begin with, [then] making variations on it.

There were some refreshingly sensible chapters on quantum mechanics – refreshing because they gave a scientifically accurate description of the concept of observation interfering with effect, and other such concepts which are so frequently misinterpreted by people who aren’t physicists. I am so sick of talking to hippies who think ‘quantum physics’ is a synonym for ‘proof of all the woo crap I believe in’, and even some academic philosophy books fall into this trap. So it’s very pleasant to read a book that discusses questions such as quantum mechanics, artificial intelligence, Gödel’s theorem, and the philosophy of mind, without veering into ‘astral plane’ territory.

Hofstadter opens each section with an alphabet doodle.

In summary, I loved Metamagical Themas and I plan to re-read it in the future. I think it’s an excellent choice for anyone who’s into philosophy, and if there are chapters or sections you don’t understand you can easily skip these without it negatively impacting upon the remainder of the experience.

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