Belarius's Reviews > Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas R. Hofstadter
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Oct 03, 09

bookshelves: nonfiction-finished, literature, reviewed
Read in October, 2009

Having just completed Gödel, Escher, Bach (or GEB) thirty years after it was originally published, I am astonished at how well it has aged. I am not in the least surprised, however, that the book remains widely misunderstood, particularly among those who sing its praise. In a sense, it having won the Pulitzer is a prime example of a monumental work winning for the wrong reasons.

What every reader can agree on is that GEB is tremendously clever. Despite being nominally a work of "nonfiction," author Douglas Hofstadter has woven a host of fictive and literary elements into the work in both obvious and subtle ways. Because these maneuvers (chiefly found in the "Dialogs" between Achilles, a Tortoise, and others that serve to embody certain principles under discussion) have a necessarily pedagogical objective, they lay out their cleverness for all to see. They are, in a sense, something like a clock that reveals its inner workings to the viewer and invites them to work through how it tells time. And, like such a device, the answers are often difficult. GEB is not an easy book, in that it politely requests that the reader not only follow the argument but be able show their work.

But these tricks (which is all they are, for all their delightful cleverness) are not the meaning of GEB - they are only the tools Hofstadter employs to convey that meaning. The underlying message of GEB is far more nuanced and subversive. Hofstadter builds a meticulous foundation linking formal logical systems (such as basic arithmetic proofs) to the far more slippery concepts of language, thinking, meaning, and self-reference.

I won't attempt to summarize Hofstadter's argument(s), as doing so in such a confined space will inevitably fall short of his own exhaustive (and exhausting) methodology. I will, however, highlight the two conclusions he draws that speak more powerfully to me:

(1) Any conceivable non-supernatural intelligence will necessarily be unable to fully understand itself.

(2) Any formal system that is sufficiently robust to make indirect self-reference is a foundation upon which intelligence may be represented.

The first conclusion, a consequence of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, is the logical instantiation of that clever paradox "This is a false statement." Applied to the brain and to computers, it serves to demystify the positivist notion that complete knowledge is possible through technology. In fact, it is nothing short of a demonstration that omniscience is logically impossible. This 'pessimistic' (or 'realistic') message is plainly evident.

The second conclusion, however, is far more important. It argues, effectively, that intelligence as we know it (as well as intelligence as we cannot know it) can be achieved by systems that are composed of small, simple, "mindless" pieces. It is nothing short of an argument for the epigenesis of meaning, from which stems beauty.

The following passage, from the book's final chapter, captures the interplay of these two notions:

My feeling is that the process by which we decide what is valid or what is true is an art; and that it relies as deeply on a sense of beauty and simplicity as it does on rock-solid principles of logic or reasoning or anything else which can be objectively formalized. I am not saying either (1) truth is a chimera, or (2) human intelligence is in principle not programmable. I am saying (1) truth is too elusive for any human or any collection of humans ever to attain fully; and (2) Artificial Intelligence, when it reaches the level of human intelligence - or even if it surpasses it - will still be plagued by the problems of art, beauty, and simplicity, and will run up against these things constantly in its own search for knowledge and understanding.


For my part, finding this gem atop the Hofstadter's now-immortal ziggurat of reasoning is an empowering conclusion to a very elegant argument.
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message 1: by Richard (new) - added it

Richard Needham Yours is the most perceptive of the many (and mostly very thoughful)reviews I have been browsing through. I have started this book more than once, (over the last 10-12 years)but this time I mean to finish it. Thanks for a great review, which I will keep in mind when reading this book.


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