Hofstader & The Qabalah: The Meaning of Meaning

The philosophy of mind is a very difficult subject to write about. After all, the words have to come from the mind, so the mind must analyze itself. But how does it do that? Is it even possible for a “thing” to fully understand itself? On what levels can the mind discover itself? And where does consciousness fit into all this? These are the kind of questions that give Douglas Hofstader (and me) the brain-tingles. And, because everything is stored in our brains, does that mean the study of the mind is a study of everything? Despite the natural difficulty of the subject, Hofstader writes about these questions in a very relaxed and easily-understood[1] manner. His most popular book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid (or just GEB), is a slow-paced walk through all the fundamental questions that arise when considering how intelligence might operate. One of the most load-bearing ideas is that of the “strange loop”, a system that can modify itself.

I don’t mean to replicate Hofstader’s thoughts and findings here. If you are interested, I highly recommend just reading one of his books. However, for what I want to talk about next, I will give some impressions I got from the early content in GEB. I’ll lead with a simple question, but it’s a toughy. What does “meaning” mean?

Looking at the question directly, we immediately fall into an infinite recursive loop, like telling an evil robot to “disobey this command.”[2] To know what “meaning” means, we have to know what meaning “means”. If we don’t know one, we can’t know the other, because they’re the same thing! It seems like a question that is totally impossible, or perhaps, meaningless. That leads us to an interesting alternate question: What does “meaningless” mean?

This, to me, feels slightly easier to answer. Not in a strictly logical sense, but in an intuitive one. “Meaningless” is something like this: hfikirhvgsvivdzhzxgfzoobnvzmrmtrmgsrhksizhv. Reading it gives you no information to work with. You could try to really dig into it, looking for information to “mine” out of it, but there isn’t any there. In a sense, “meaningless” things don’t really add to our collection of knowledge.[3] We can’t “map” that random collection of letters into something that does give us information, so it’s meaningless. Therefore, meaningful things do add to our internal information banks.

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