Metamagical Themas


Douglas Hofstadter by Gilles Esposito-Farèse

Metamagical [met-uh-maj-i-kuhlThemas [thee-muhs] is an eclectic collection of articles that cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter wrote for ‘Scientific American’ during the early 1980s. The title is an anagram of Martin Gardner’s ‘Mathematical Games,’ the column that preceded Hofstadter’s. The anthology was published in 1985. Major themes include: self-reference in memes (ideas that spread within cultures), language, art and logic; discussions of philosophical issues important in cognitive science/AI; analogies and what makes something similar to something else (specifically what makes, for example, an uppercase letter ‘A’ recognizable as such); and lengthy discussions of the work of political scientist Robert Axelrod on the prisoner’s dilemma (a game theory problem).

There are three articles centered on the Lisp programming language, where Hofstadter first details the language itself, and then shows how it relates to Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. Two articles are devoted to Rubik’s Cube and other such puzzles. Many other topics are also mentioned, all in Hofstadter’s usual easy, approachable style. Many chapters open with an illustration of an extremely abstract alphabet, yet one which is still recognizable as such. The game of ‘Nomic’ (in which the rules of the game include mechanisms for the players to change those rules) was first introduced to the public in this column, in June 1982.

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