The MU Puzzle, Fight Club, and Getting the Most Out of Life


Last night, or rather early this morning,  as I tried to convince my brain that sleep was a great idea, an idea kept floating back to the surface of my thoughts.  There’s a puzzle from Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (GEB), which is a book by Douglas Hofstadter about human consciousness, computers, and a number of other related topics. I took it as an advanced course in high school, and I’ve never worked so hard to earn a B in my life–not even in Grad School.  Needless to say that, while I didn’t quite succeed in mastering certain aspects of the course, what I did understand has continued to have a deep impact on how I see life.  The thought that kept recurring last night was that a truly satisfying life was much like the meaning behind the MU Puzzle.  We’ll bring Tyler in later on.


MU and the Shadow of Consciousness

This puzzle is known as MU, and I’ll reproduce the rules for working the puzzle here before going on to explain why I brought it up in the first place.

Suppose there are the symbols M, I, and U which can be combined to produce strings of symbols called “words”. The MU puzzle asks one to start with the “axiomatic” word MI and transform it into the word MU using in each step one of the following transformation rules:

  1. Add a U to the end of any string ending in I. For example: MI to MIU.
  2. Double the string after the M (that is, change Mx, to Mxx). For example: MIU to MIUIU.
  3. Replace any III with a U. For example: MUIIIU to MUUU.
  4. Remove any UU. For example: MUUU to MU.

Using these four rules is it possible to change MI into MU in a finite number of steps?

The answer is, of course, no, with respect to the condition of finite steps.  If I had an eternity to do nothing but create ever changing strings of “words” using the four rules, who knows?  I might find that it can be solved in the same way that parallel lines will eventually intersect if you draw them out far enough.  That’s not how the human brain works.  It is, however, the way computers work.  On one level, the meaning of the puzzle is to help students understand the formulation of a mathematical proof.  On the other hand, it is to illustrate the barrier between computers and conscious intelligence–the puzzle can never be solved given the conditions.  Humans automatically discern this after playing with it for a bit, and either develop a negative proof or “cheat” by creating additional rules by which the puzzle may then be solved.main-qimg-4d034ffa4b31e711895ccb898593fbd4

Computers cannot cheat.  Unless they are programmed to do so, they will not stop applying the rules.  This seems like something rather small and unimportant–the ability to recognize a no-win situation or even the ability to accumulate and apply experience, which is essentially the brain writing code for itself.  It’s the ability to break rules, which is also an exercise in self-authored code. This, then, is Isaac Assimov’s “bitter mote of a soul.” Something so seemingly insignificant, a quantum gap that might as well be as wide as the entire universe for all the difference that makes.  Computers, for all their fantastical ability, these wondrous creations, cannot bridge the space between computing and understanding.


How Fight Club Got Involved

Fight-ClubThis afternoon, I sat in the hot shade, sweating and thinking about MU as I took a break from digging a vegetable plot in my parents’ back yard.  I was thinking about the gift of consciousness to leap the boundaries set out by society in order to “solve” our lives.  What I mean by that is I had a moment where I felt the idea before I thought it–we are given a set of rules by our parent culture, and if we never seek to push beyond these rules in a meaningful way, we never really understand ourselves or others that we meet.  At the same time, if we don’t break a few of these rules–some should probably remain intact, since murder is frowned upon in most societies–we never get to the good stuff.  Playing it safe is a downward curve.

And then, I thought of Tyler Durden.  Specifically, I thought of all the scene in which the Narrator is talking to himself in the person of Tyler.  The discussion is almost always centered on the making or breaking of rules and understanding a situation or an idea.  At the root, I have always drawn the impression that they were conversations about Control.  When we elect to break a social rule or even a personal one, we are attempting to assert control over a situation–particularly our Situation or life experience.  I’m not placing a valuation on the book, the characters, or any of their actions by this, simply trying to put into words a moment that was completely wordless.

“At the time, my life just seemed too complete, and maybe we have to break everything to make something better out of ourselves.”

The Value of Conscious Breaking

I’ve pretty much broken the standard rules of life achievement as determined by my culture.  I’m in my thirties, an unmarried woman, and I have no career, unless you call this scribbling thing I do my vocation.  But I think that for all that this is true, something is missing–and here again, I’ll invoke the themes explored in Palahniuk’s work.  There’s a crucial element of self-determination in the madness experienced by the main character–a schism that occurred precisely because the perfect life he had was ultimately hollow and unsatisfactory.

I have consciously acknowledged that I do not desire the established paths set out for me in society, but I have not made any decisive moves to select or create another.  There’s a curious sense of limbo, a numbness that I’ve been living with, which is at once broken and still functional.  I am lacking an element of motion, and chosen momentum that is essential for me to leave this numb and empty way of being behind.  I see this and I feel the urge to move, to make something, to become something else, but it does not translate in the 2:30 a.m. fluorescent soup of Now.  I ask myself, am I just breaking myself in geologic time or has stillness become such a habit I cannot even move to shake it off?


Since it is 2:30, and I’ve a full day ahead of me, I’m going to curtail this entry in spite of the fact that it feels incomplete.  I’ll come back to it another time, and finish what I’ve begun.




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