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Stormtrooper in stilettos

Figments of Reality: The Evolution of the Curious Mind

Cambridge University Press: 1997. Pp.344 £16.95, $24.95

The lives of many impressionable graduate students (myself included) were enriched by Douglas Hofstadter's baroque confection Gödel, Escher, Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid, a self-styled fugue on the subject of mathematics, intelligence and consciousness. Hofstadter argues (I think) that any logical system that can encompass the human mind will, of necessity, contain undecidable propositions. That is why we will always be able to outsmart a computer.

But what I remember most about the book is its interludes — dialogues between Achilles and the tortoise of Zeno's paradox, placed to illuminate the text. The pair are occasionally joined by other characters such as Aunt Hilary, the emergent group-mind of an anthill, whose thoughts are encoded by the seemingly aimless movements of individual ants.

Figments of Reality owes a large (and acknowledged) debt to Gödel, Escher, Bach. (It also contains a lot about ants.) The fruit of a continuing complicit collaboration between the mathematician Ian Stewart and the reproductive biologist Jack Cohen, both also avowed science fiction buffs, it aims to show that human consciousness is as evanescent as any of Aunt Hilary's musings. The mind, they say, results from the complicit continuing interaction between human beings and culture.

The word ‘complicit’ is deliberate. More than a neologism, it is a central theme of Figments. Complicity is what happens when two systems interact to produce a third system, often superficially simple, whose behaviour tends to change the two interacting systems in a continuing process of feedback — the results of which cannot be predicted from a simple sum of the first two systems. The complicit Stewart and Cohen first set this out in their earlier and less elegant Collapse of Chaos. In many ways, Figments is the stiletto to Collapse's blunt instrument.

Complicity stands in contrast to reductionism, the notion that, ultimately, everything can be explained by an equation printable on a T-shirt. Moving upwards from the ‘theory of everything’ rapidly leads to an unresolvable confusion of specifics. Conversely, moving down from the ‘real world’ in an effort to find universal generalizations leads to a fragmentation into individual subsystems.

The two never meet — in between lies what Stewart and Cohen call “ant country”, the region where the complicit interaction of systems produces emergent phenomena that cannot be predicted by reductionist methods. The ‘ant’ business comes from a cellular automaton called Langton's ant, which has inexplicably complex behaviour, entirely unpredictable from the moronically simple rules by which it operates.

Pomposity is the peril likely to afflict any book of this sort. The casual chat of Gödel, Escher, Bach goes too far the other way. Figments, by contrast, is alarmingly, almost full-frontally, direct. Stewart and Cohen assault (that is the right word) all the big questions (the origin of life, the nature of progression in evolution, the mind-body problem, the origin of consciousness and so on) with gleeful expedition. For example, their debunking of Roger Penrose's idea of quantum consciousness as hopelessly reductionist is the literary equivalent of being taken round the back of the pub and mugged.

Figments even has its own version of Achilles and the tortoise. These are the Zarathustrans, amusing bird-like aliens who operate through an eightfold group-mind. “Octimality” is the watchword of the Zarathustrans: they even have their own theory of everything that fits on a Z-shirt (the equation is E=8). Stewart and Cohen's sidelong looks at life, the Universe and everything are paralleled by interludes in which the eight crew-members of the Zarathustran survey vessel Watcher of Moons, orbiting Earth, consider the same points — and reach intriguingly different conclusions. Amusement turns to terror as the Zarathustrans consider, seriously, whether humanity should be destroyed on the grounds of unoctimality.

At every step, Figments questions our placidly received wisdom. Its metaphors often come from science fiction. It is sad that many scientists dismiss science fiction as juvenilia. Ninety per cent of sci-fi is daft, naturally — but so is 90 per cent of everything in the end. And the best sci-fi raises the most scientific questions in readers' minds, questions that always start “What if⃛?”.

Like all books, Figments has its faults, mainly that the authors tend to get carried away by their own metaphors — something that leads them into a view of evolution that looks suspiciously orthogenetic. Again, if life on Earth is monophyletic, using morphological analogues as a way of predicting alien morphology is suspect. Finally, the word ‘oops’ has no place outside cartoon speech balloons. Such niggles are unoctimal, as ultimately (and fittingly) Figments is a great deal more than the sum of its parts.

Figments will not appeal to everyone. It will hold few charms for anyone homozygous for the humourless mutagene, or without much imagination. But science without humour and imagination seems rather pointless — just like books without pictures or conversation were to Alice. We need imagination to frame hypotheses, to wonder what is round the next corner, to ask “What if⃛?”. And anyone without a sense of humour should be a merchant banker, not a scientist — the pay is better, for a start.

For the rest of us, Figments is frighteningly readable, and a worthy successor to Gödel, Escher, Bach.

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Gee, H. Stormtrooper in stilettos. Nature 389, 452–453 (1997). https://doi.org/10.1038/38938

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