This is something of an achievement for me as it’s the first time I’ve actually read all of one of his books – I’ve read most of Gödel Escher Bach, Metamagical Themas and Le Ton Beau de Marot, but never quite all of ’em. Anyway, that’s enough italics for now.
It’s a funny sort of book – essentially it rehashes the core argument of GEB, and forms a defence of epiphenomenalism, which is not exactly a new position nowadays (and GEB itself was written in the late 70s). It’s as much an ‘intellectual autobiography’ as anything, bringing in many personal tales, particularly the death of his wife, albeit with a big and slightly confusing chunk in the middle about Gödel’s revolutionary overturning of Bertrand Russell’s endeavours to bolster the foundations of mathematics. DRH makes the same points over and over again, sometimes superfluously: that we work at the abstract level of patterns and defining physical phenomena in terms of tiny little particles is no hope in our quest to understand ourselves – but that ‘we’ emerge from those nonetheless; and that consciousness is a ‘strange loop’ of self-reference inevitable when a pattern-obsessed organism has a sufficiently broad range of categories identifiable by it.
Although this is far from as dazzling a book as GEB, and is really an oldish man now saying ‘yes, but you weren’t listening the first time’, the way he tells things – anecdotes, analogies, allegories – is what makes him so much more interesting than most ‘philosophers’. (Though next time the publishers really ought to stop him thinking he can design the book as well – the pictures in here are pretty bad.)
Let’s hope he doesn’t get interviewed by Jim Naughtie, though, who was bumbling his way through whether a restored Cutty Sark is still the real one this morning…