H2 Commentary: Godel, Escher, Bach and Rick and Morty

In H2: The Essentials Dan tells Jay about the time his Dad jumped out a window. Just before his death, his father gives Dan some books and claims they hold the secrets of reality. He calls these books the Essentials, and says they’ll help Dan understand that all religions are prescriptive and reality is what you make of it, and what you make of it will be in line with the inescapable Supreme Plan. Then he jumps out the window. Bummer.

Let’s examine the books he recommends to Dan. We’ll start with Godel, Escher, Bach because I can comment on popular sci-fi cartoon Rick and Morty, and that’s sure to drum up some page views.

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid is a book by Douglas Hofstadter examining, among other things, mathematical theorems by Godel called the Incompleteness Theorems. The Incompleteness Theorems, in layman’s terms, if I understand them correctly, state that no formal logical system can be both complete and consistent. For any useful system of logic there will exist statements which cannot be proven true or false. For any system of logic in which any statement may be declared true or false, that system is useless because it contradicts itself. (Think about the phrase “This sentence is false.” Attempting to assign a truth value to that phrase—especially in some formal mathematical way—would just be a headache and a half.)

Hofstadter approaches the examination using allegorical interludes of dialogue, self-referential artwork like that of Escher, and self-similarity featured in musical fugues, in addition to theoretical computer science. The work as a whole comments on the nature of consciousness, although Hofstadter admits this commentary on cognition isn’t as clear as he’d like. (His book I Am A Strange Loop is much more direct.) I interpret the subtitle, An Eternal Golden Braid, as indicating that the views of Godel, and Escher, and Bach, and likewise works are all circling the same idea. If people have lifelines, history is the braid they make.

One of the later allegorical interludes (starting on the page labeled 630 of the pdf linked above) features dialogue from the warrior Achilles, a turtle, a sloth, and a crab watching football on television. The crab’s television picks up mysterious channels which broadcast every conceivable hypothetical situation for viewing. They watch a football game in a reality with four spatial dimensions, where the touchdown line is actually a 2D plane. Eventually it turns out crab had no such TV after all; the scenario was a hypothetical situation. I mean, of course it was: the whole dialogue was a hypothetical situation. All fiction is. That’s Douglas Hofstadter for you.

I’d like to compare that to the Inter-Dimensional Cable episodes of popular sci-fi cartoon Rick and Morty. In these episodes, Morty’s mad-scientist grandpa Rick uses a fancy cable-box to watch snippets of TV from different dimensions. They’re usually short, improvised nonsense.

In contrast to Godel, Escher, Bach, Rick and Morty don’t seem to have any control over what they watch. They watch a channel until they get bored and then they flip to another at random. Meanwhile Hofstadter’s Crab can show off pretty much any reality he’d like, and the group uses the chance to check out the epistemological foundations of reality. I suspect that if the characters in Rick and Morty had the option to watch anything they wanted, they’d find a way to ruin it for themselves. Nevertheless, I always wonder if R&M creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon knew about GEB when they planned these episodes.

Even if they didn’t, depictions of infinite TV demonstrate the different ideological perspectives of Godel, Escher, Bach and Rick and Morty. Rick and Morty uses the infinite TV to tell us how pointless reality is: it’s just one pointless distraction after another in a random order. There are infinity universes and they’re all dumb, and ours is the weirdest (by virtue of containing all the universes of Rick and Morty but also Szechuan-Sauce-based riots). Godel, Escher, Bach uses the TV to show how the mind’s ability to simulate situations doesn’t allow the mind to conjure impossibilities from ether. If we could really imagine a TV which displays literally anything, we would close our eyes and instantly discover the secrets of the universe; the closest thing we can achieve is our own stream of consciousness, the ‘surround-sound television’ we can never turn off and only marginally influence. The end of the dialogue in GEB mocks the reader for expecting a satisfying answer to the question of consciousness:

Achilles: I’m all confused. If you didn’t win the Subjunc-TV after all, Mr. Crab, then how can we have been sitting here all afternoon watching it? It seems as if we ourselves have been living in some sort of hypothetical world that would have been, had circumstances just been ever so slightly different …

Announcer: And that, folks, was how the afternoon at Mr. Crab’s would have been spent, had he won the Subjunc-TV. But since he didn’t, the four friends simply spent a pleasant afternoon watching Home Team get creamed, 128-0. Or was it 256-0? Oh
well, it hardly matters, in five-dimensional Plutonian steam hockey.

Anyway, Dan’s Dad also gives him The Inferno, a sci-fi twist on Dante’s Inferno by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. This is honestly a great book; I’ve told people about it who scoff and say it’s a travesty to use the greats as a springboard like that, but I think all writing is written on the shoulders of giants.

Dan’s Dad says the book demonstrates that religions are just written down, giving it the legitimacy of ‘real’ religious texts. People who believe the content of certain religious texts would disagree, because those religious texts claim they are the only legitimate texts. But that’s the point: Dan’s Dad is observing that any old thing can be written down and called legitimate. That doesn’t make it true, false, or even something else, because GEB points out such labels are fundamentally ill-defined. The sci-fi retelling of Dante’s Inferno is just as ‘true’ as the ‘real’ Inferno because they are experientially true in the duration they are read and imagined, just like all texts.

Dan’s Dad gives him a physics textbook. This is the book which an atheist might say is ‘true’ in the most fundamental sense, but we’ve established there is no such thing as being true in a fundamental sense. Things can only be true in the mind, and the mind is illusory.

Finally, Dan’s Dad gives him books from Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. I mention them in the same breath because, first of all, the reflected initials CJ and JC might remind the reader of the initials of Dan Jones and Jay Diaz-Jackson, DJ and JD-J.  At the same time, Campbell’s idea of the monomyth (a story-structure which occurs in many cultures’ most important stories) relates to Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious (the idea that archetypes appear in every culture and even dreams because they serve some purpose in cognition). Dan’s Dad argues that understanding these ideas is the key to real freedom.

Then he jumps out a window. Dan blames himself, but all the books his father gives him are meant to absolve him of that guilt. His father tells Dan that reality is an illusion with no absolute or objective meaning. ‘Don’t feel bad for what I’m about to do,’ he says. ‘I’m a drop in a cosmic ocean and my death is irrelevant, as are all phenomenon.’

That’s pretty bleak. Now maybe readers can understand why Dan acts the way he does, self-destructive and constantly in need of self-cleansing. Readers might also be more forgiving of Dan’s transgressions in the next section.

Either way, see you next week. Wubba-Lubba-Dub-Dub, keep eating your worms.

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