Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Non-Review of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

I stopped reading this book after finishing the 3rd of its 20 chapters, hence the title of this post.

I first learned about GEB from a Slashdot discussion around 1999. Everyone praised it to the skies, so I added it to my imaginary pile of books to read some day.

The Escher of the title is the guy who drew pictures of this sort:

GEB seems to be mostly about bits of math that confound expectations in a similar way. Things that are true and false at the same time, things that are their own causes and consequences, things that get smaller as they increase, etc.

Now, I think of those pictures as mildly amusing tricks. Hofstadter considers them profound. He claims that mathematical parallels of such trickery can explain consciousness, the thing that separates human intelligence from the artificial sort. My intuition tells me that this is unlikely to be true.

I'd like to learn more math, but only of the sort that's useful in the hard sciences, in understanding the real world. Cute paradoxes for their own sake are boring to me.

I plead guilty to having engaged in some cutesy verbal trickery myself. But I don't think much of it. Hofstadter points out that Bach engaged in a lot of cutesy musical trickery. But that's not what made his music great. It was like Maradona juggling a football with his shoulders for the crowd before matches - a bit of showing off, but not what he was actually about, not why he was important within football.

It's possible that I'm dismissing GEB too easily, but life is short, and there's lots of books I'd like to read that seem more likely to contain interesting to me insights.


  1. Hofstadter's advocate: Once we delve beyond our immediate senses, reality will inevitably cease to make any intuitive sense (since what is commonsensical is evolved).

    So ultimately reality is likely to be very weird, even "paradoxical." Of course it's an entirely different question as to whether it will be parodoxical in precisely the sense suggested by Hofstadter.

    1. Yes, at the atomic and galactic scales reality goes against our expectations, but I don't think it does that in ways that maximize paradoxality. I got a feeling that Hofstadter likes trickery and paradoxality for their own sake, that he seeks to maximize their amount.

  2. I read the whole book about thirty years ago, because a silly-clever friend really praised it. My take was the same as yours. It doesn't get better as you read more of it. There was some sort of nihilistic message at the end, the details of which I've forgotten.