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Books

Le Ton beau de Marot by Douglas Hofstadter and Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies by Hofstadter and the Fluid Analogies Research Group

Danny Kodicek explains why Douglas Hofstadter thinks analogies are important. Loop is to pool as rich is to…

Hofstadter, begatter of these books, chiefly looks at translation. It may, (when not firm) be the germ of a clue to how you can relate, in the great way we do, conceptually far concepts. Are there many (God, any!) words in French you can mention which give an equivalent in English? Bin your ideas because here’s Mad Hatter Hofstadter.

About twenty years ago, a staggering book was published called Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. It was a head-spinning mix of maths, logic, music, art, wordplay, minds, machines, molecular biology and even Zen Buddhism, all glued together by a fundamental passion for patterns and synthesis. The author was Douglas Hofstadter, an American who began as a mathematician, took a PhD in theoretical physics and is now a professor of Cognitive Science, the study of the mind and how it works. Many cognitive scientists, Hofstadter included, work in the field of artificial intelligence, trying to model aspects of thought on computers. Hofstadter’s own thesis, (and it had better be a good one as he has been pursuing it for two decades) is that the key to understanding creative thought is to understand how we perform analogies.

These two books come from opposite ends of Hofstadter’s public spectrum. Fluid Concepts… is an anthology, with linking chapters, of Hofstadter’s previous writings on the technical aspects of his work on analogies. How do people effortlessly make creative connections between disparate areas of their experience? Hofstadter calls this the ‘Me too’ phenomenon, as in “‘I always find myself humming the music when I come out of a film’. ‘Me too! I keep doing imaginary headers when I’m coming back from a football match’.”. The second speaker has made a huge creative leap between two very different activities, and yet such a conversation seems entirely unnoteworthy. Could such fluidity of thought be reproduced on a computer?

Hofstadter’s projects are all based in ‘toy domains’, simple systems where all the information is clear and well-defined, in which his programs try to make analogies (I should point out that almost all these programs were in fact implemented by others, under Hofstadter’s supervision, and they deserve much of the credit, which he is happy to give). ‘Copycat’, the most successful program to date, tackles analogies in the world of alphabetical letters. Take the following analogy, couched in the familiar terms of your old IQ tests:

aabb is to aaxbb as pqrstu is to …

Here are some possible answers, all in some sense justifiable:

pqxrsxtu, pqrxstu, pxqxrxsxtxu, pqxrstu, aaxbb, aaaxbbb, ppxuu, pppxuuu, pqxtu

This shows how even in such a simple domain, issues of aesthetics can occur. Why should the first two be so much better than the others? And do you prefer one to the other? Copycat looks at analogies similar to this with a fair measure of success.

Analogies may seem an artificial field to some, not as fundamental to thought as, for example, logical reasoning. Many researchers in Hofstadter’s own field would agree, espousing what Hofstadter refers to as the ‘Boolean Dream’, that thought can be broken down into a simple linear chain of reasoning upon a stored base of facts. But our own minds do not work in this way, as anyone who has looked back upon a train of thought will agree. Instead we think by means of associations on a very abstract and fluid level, thoughts sparking off one another in a way which sometimes we ourselves find hard to fathom. These free associations, analogies, are what fascinate Hofstadter, and in this book, for the first time, he explains the means by which he has tried to model them.

Le Ton beau de Marot, by contrast, is much more the kind of material that Hofstadter fans expect, a sprawling book which begins with a simple but subtle French poem and asks ‘What would be a good translation of this?’. From this beginning it leads outwards in a spiral, examining the ramifications of translation and what it says about our minds and cultures.

Le Ton beau is a joyfully sorrowful book, where rich puns and wordplay mingle with memories of Hofstadter’s wife, who died four years ago and for whom he is still mourning deeply. Perhaps the most beautiful moment is his musing on the way our identities spread through the people we know and the things we create, and how this can provide a materialist answer to the ‘why bother?’ of existentialism and the ‘soul’ of the dualists.

There is a sense in which both of these books are about the same thing, and curiously, this is the question of what it means to be ‘the same thing’. Could the opening paragraph of this review be said to be the same thing as the lesser-known poem by a sixteenth-century French poet on which it is modelled, the poem which forms the basis of Le Ton beau, with which it shares almost all structural features (three-syllable rhyming couplets) but only the germ (one might say) of the content? What about the closing paragraph, which shares a great deal of the content of the poem with only the barest milli-meter (one might say) of the form? Or, looking at the title of this review, would you say ‘Poor’ or ‘Hcir’? Can some things be more equal than others?

In both books I found there to be also an underlying sense of bitterness and frustration. He devotes much time to rubbishing other views on analogy and translation, and though this is usually with some justification, it can occasionally feel that he goes too far. Hofstadter has never been particularly fond of open-mindedness on issues for which he sees a clear dividing line; he is a regular contributor to the Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine devoted to debunking the paranormal, and has written outspoken articles on gender-specific language and nuclear proliferation. However, at times it seems that he feels like a lone voice crying in the wilderness and a note of desperation comes in. This mars both books in my opinion, and dims them in comparison with Gödel, Escher, Bach. Hofstadter has not yet to my mind come up with a book to equal that one. On the other hand, as Joseph Heller replied when asked why he had never written anything as good since Catch 22, “Who has?”

This minor quibble aside, these books, in their different ways, are both extremely intriguing and thought-provoking, and I warmly recommend them to anyone interested in minds, thoughts and what it means to be a human.

Dear reader, it’s no good closing your mind away behind bars, it will sicken and waste away. I, and Clément Marot, urge you to gorge yourself on the delicacies in these books. Be a feeder, dear reader!

© D. Kodicek 1998

Danny Kodicek is a misplaced mathematician who lives in South London and is currently writing a novel.

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