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Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid [Paperback]

Douglas R. Hofstadter
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (195 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Feb. 5 1999
Douglas Hofstadter’s book is concerned directly with the nature of “maps” or links between formal systems. However, according to Hofstadter, the formal system that underlies all mental activity transcends the system that supports it. If life can grow out of the formal chemical substrate of the cell, if consciousness can emerge out of a formal system of firing neurons, then so too will computers attain human intelligence. Gödel Escher and Bach is a wonderful exploration of fascinating ideas at the heart of cognitive science: meaning, reduction, recursion, and much more.

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Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid + Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions + Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman
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Twenty years after it topped the bestseller charts, Douglas R. Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid is still something of a marvel. Besides being a profound and entertaining meditation on human thought and creativity, this book looks at the surprising points of contact between the music of Bach, the artwork of Escher, and the mathematics of Gödel. It also looks at the prospects for computers and artificial intelligence (AI) for mimicking human thought. For the general reader and the computer techie alike, this book still sets a standard for thinking about the future of computers and their relation to the way we think.

Hofstadter's great achievement in Gödel, Escher, Bach was making abstruse mathematical topics (like undecidability, recursion, and 'strange loops') accessible and remarkably entertaining. Borrowing a page from Lewis Carroll (who might well have been a fan of this book), each chapter presents dialogue between the Tortoise and Achilles, as well as other characters who dramatize concepts discussed later in more detail. Allusions to Bach's music (centering on his Musical Offering) and Escher's continually paradoxical artwork are plentiful here. This more approachable material lets the author delve into serious number theory (concentrating on the ramifications of Gödel's Theorem of Incompleteness) while stopping along the way to ponder the work of a host of other mathematicians, artists, and thinkers.

The world has moved on since 1979, of course. The book predicted that computers probably won't ever beat humans in chess, though Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in 1997. And the vinyl record, which serves for some of Hofstadter's best analogies, is now left to collectors. Sections on recursion and the graphs of certain functions from physics look tantalizing, like the fractals of recent chaos theory. And AI has moved on, of course, with mixed results. Yet Gödel, Escher, Bach remains a remarkable achievement. Its intellectual range and ability to let us visualize difficult mathematical concepts help make it one of this century's best for anyone who's interested in computers and their potential for real intelligence. --Richard Dragan

Topics Covered: J.S. Bach, M.C. Escher, Kurt Gödel: biographical information and work, artificial intelligence (AI) history and theories, strange loops and tangled hierarchies, formal and informal systems, number theory, form in mathematics, figure and ground, consistency, completeness, Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry, recursive structures, theories of meaning, propositional calculus, typographical number theory, Zen and mathematics, levels of description and computers; theory of mind: neurons, minds and thoughts; undecidability; self-reference and self-representation; Turing test for machine intelligence.


"Even without the contemporary relevance lent the book by the specter of global warming. The Little Ice Age would be an engrossing historical volume."

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful read for all aspiring thinkers July 9 2004
The Atlanta Journal Constitution describes Gödel, Escher, Bach (GEB) as "A huge, sprawling literary marvel, a philosophy book, disguised as a book of entertainment, disguised as a book of instruction." That is the best one line description of this book that anybody could give. GEB is without a doubt the most interesting mathematical book that I have ever read, quickly making its place into the Top 5 books I have ever read.
The introduction of the book, "Introduction: A Musico-Logical Offering" begins by quickly discussing the three main participants in the book, Gödel, Escher, and Bach. Gödel was a mathematician who founded Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, which states, as Hofstadter paraphrases, "All consistent axiomatic formulations of number theory include undecidable propositions." This is what Hofstadter calls the pearl. This is one example of one of the recurring themes in GEB, strange loops.
Strange loops occur when you move up or down in a hierarchical manner and eventually end up exactly where you started. The first example of a strange loop comes from Bach's Endlessly rising canon. This is a musical piece that continues to rise in key, modulating through the entire chromatic scale, ending at the same key with which he began. To emphasize the loop Bach wrote in the margin, "As the modulation rises, so may the King's Glory."
The third loop in the introduction comes from an artist, Escher. Escher is famous for his paintings of paradoxes. A good example is his Waterfall; Hofstadter gives many examples of Escher's work, which truly exemplify the strange loop phenomenon.
One feature of GEB, which I was particularly fond of, is the 'little stories' in between each chapter of the book.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant and *still* misunderstood! June 30 2003
I've been reading reviews of GEB for years, and the most fascinating thing about them, aprt from the near-uniform enthusiasm of the readers, is that almost none of the enthusiatic readers have any idea of what the book is actually about! The typical reader seesm to think of GEB as a jouyous romp through any number of fascinating bits of logic, math and science without any idea as to what Hofstader's actually doing.
Yes, it's about Goedel, and recursion, and "strange loops", and linguistics Bach and ants and all that- but only trivially. The bulk of the book is taken up with what amounts to a very entertaining tutorial that sets the reader up for the real thesis of the book. What Hofstadter has attempted in GEB is nothing less than a concise, bottom-up theory of mind. You can read it as a theory of AI, or a theory of human intelligence, but either way he's telling you how to construct an intelligent entity.
True, he doesn't really have a theory of *how* a self-aware being should arise from his metaphorical anthill, but then, neither does anyone else. But he does have a very good story as to how intelligence does arise in such conditions.
If you've read this book before without understanding what his aim was, read it again, with that notion in mind. And if you haven't read it, and you're the sort of person who enjoys mathematic and scientific amusements of any sort, well, read it and discover how much fun a speculative theory can be.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars overrated, but still very good Feb. 28 2004
By A Customer
No book could live up to this hype and praise, but still very worthwhile. It is best when describing difficult concepts of logic and computer science, weak when dragging in Zen and a tedious detour into molecular biology.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars My third copy May 25 2002
By A Customer
I have just purchased my third copy of this book. I bought the first copy when it first came out decades ago.
Why, you ask 3 copies -- because I lent my two previous copies out to people who lent them out to people who ...
They never came back.
The book is that good that I'm willing to buy another copy.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars literary style demonstrates book's themes Nov. 28 2001
a cursory glance at a random passage of godel, escher, and bach, will likely appear to be jabberwocky, with its unapologetic, evolving vocabulary and sparkles of inside jokes based on such, this is ironic, because the right arm of this book is recursion, which implies that the whole is implied by each part, far from while reading, one most certainly must read godel, escher, and bach in its sequential order, too funny
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5.0 out of 5 stars A readable Mobius strip June 24 2004
If you have never read this book, then I'd like to say that it has a lot of the most greatest knowledge out there. It doesn't just deal with math, art, and music, but also with zen, philosophy, self-ref, self-rep, holism, reductionism, and everything else that is considered pure knowledge of cognitive science and general intelligence. I don't know why some of the people rating it have no idea of what's it about; it's not about Godel's theorem like many think it is, it's about consciousness and how the power of the mind and the "I" comes out of the inanimate matter that creates us. That's not it, the second part of the book talks about computer programming and AI. Can a computer program ever have a sense of self or compose meaningful music? Hofstadter's response to the second one was: "Only if that AI could go through the maze of life on it's own, fighting it's way through it and feeling the cold of a chilly night, the longing for a cherished hand, the inaccessibility of a distant town, the regenaration after a human death, the...and only then can it be considered to do so."
This book really has more than that. I can't say all of the things mentioned in it, not in this tiny little review, but I can say that you should probably read it and hopefully understand it because it truly is a masterpiece.
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Most recent customer reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Not for me right now
Highly regarded book that I wanted to try out. Though the quality of the physical book is superb, as a general read, it wasn't what I expected nor want to read right now. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Kevin Lyons
1.0 out of 5 stars Is over rated.
Many people see it as a holy grail and Hofstader has no writing skills. His ideas are mixed in a very wierd way and he try to explain very simple thinghs in a very complicated way. Read more
Published 10 months ago by arjuna solis
5.0 out of 5 stars Super Merci !
I haven't read the boook yet, but the shipping was great and the book is in mint condition :)

Published on March 2 2012 by Thomas
4.0 out of 5 stars Brings back memories.
I bought this because I remember browsing through it when i was a teenager, and found it intriguing, even though I didn't understand most of it at the time, and didn't even come... Read more
Published on Dec 4 2009 by Aeonian
1.0 out of 5 stars Pseudo-science at best
I quite agree with the reviewer from East Hartford. Maybe I am not extremely eligible to comment on the portions dealing with Escher and Bach, respectively (I have no appetite for... Read more
Published on June 23 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars A book that is about more than Godel, Escher, and Bach
This book is an excellent introduction to several ideas in cognitive science, biology, mathematics, linguistics, computer science, art, and other fields. Read more
Published on June 17 2004 by underwater girl
5.0 out of 5 stars Pretty good book!
I haven't really heard any hype about the book (a lot of the other reviewers are saying the book doesn't live up to its hype). I'm about 2/3 through, and it's really interesting! Read more
Published on May 24 2004 by Jordan Bell
3.0 out of 5 stars I didn't read this book,
and I'm probably not going to. However, after reading many of these comments, I thought I should point out:
If you want to understand Godel's incompleteness theorem, go pick... Read more
Published on May 24 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading
GEB is a great jumping point into issues of the philosophy of the mind, the underpinnings of mathemetical logic and the possibility of artificial intelligence and... Read more
Published on April 8 2004
5.0 out of 5 stars An epic intellectual journey
This book tries to explore several interrelated and complicated questions. These are "what makes a self? Read more
Published on Feb. 24 2004 by Frikle
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