Godel, Escher, Bach

Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid has a broad scope and an intricate construction. Author Douglas Hoftstader takes three different thinkers from disparate disciplines on a whirlwind tour of philosophy of mind, computation theory, and formal systems (math and logic), with Zen and genetics along for the ride.

Literally and figuratively, it’s a very heavy book. Some of it goes clear over my head (theoretical subatomic physics, arithmoquinification), but I also found much of the content familiar. I had learned pieces of it from many different places: last semester’s psychology class, a logic summer program five years ago, a Wikipedia article I stumbled upon a few weeks back. In particular, I’m glad I had read Simon Singh’s Fermat’s Enigma first. Despite (or because) of the myriad of topics covered in its 700 pages, the book is remarkably coherent. That structure reflects the underlying theme, namely how seemingly unconnected and trivial things give rise to meaning.

In many places the book shows its age. I had to wade through archaic pseudo-code syntax and thirty-five year old neuroscience. In the preface, Hofstadter  explains that he did not even correct typos in the 20th anniversary edition (itself now twelve years old). The book’s inability to account for Deep Blue, much less IBM Watson, makes for some comical moments in hindsight but also casts doubts on the book’s credibility. Accordingly, the book becomes not eternal fact but rather a dated artifact….from the seventies.

What makes the book memorable are the dialogues interspersed between chapters. If the smorgasbord of topics sounds intimidating, you’ll get the flavor of the book just be reading the dialogues, which are both more accessible and much shorter. Borrowing the characters Achilles and the Tortoise from the Greek philosopher Zeno (who were revived by Lewis Carroll), the author introduces complex concepts in whimsical, understandable ways. Sometimes the self-reference and multiple analogies in the dialogues are so intertwined that it feels like Hofstadter is not inventing but discovering the connections. I’m left wondering, after a particularly intricate bout of offbeat unexpected similarity, “how in the world did he do that?”

One excerpt, from a chapter:

Superficially similar ideas are often not deeply related; and deeply related ideas are often superficially disparate. The analogy to chords is natural: physically close notes are harmonically distant (e.g., E-F-G); and harmonically close notes are physically distant (e.g., G-E-B).

The book’s title abbreviates to GEB. By slipping in this self-reference, Hofstadter uses an analogy from logic to music to explain the book’s pairing of the three thinkers, i.e. analogies from logic to music, so once he’s justified the premise, he’s justified the premise. It’s just this sort of subtle wordplay and nuanced meta-creativity that make GEB a delightful read wherever it’s not dating itself.


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