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Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
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on November 9, 1999
I thank my critic for his comments, but I am afraid I shall have to stand by my points. Here is Hofstadter himself on p. 709 of this very book: "My belief is that the explanations of 'emergent' phenomena in our brains -- . . . [including] finally consciousness and free will -- are based on a kind of Strange Loop, an interaction between levels in which the top level reaches back down towards the bottom level and influences it, while at the same time being determined by the bottom level. In other words, a self-reinforcing 'resonance' between different levels . . . . The self comes into being at the moment it has the power to reflect itself. This should not be taken as an antireductionist position. It just implies that a reductionistic explanation of a mind, _in order to be comprehensible_ [Hofstadter's emphasis], must bring in 'soft' concepts such as levels, mappings, and meanings. In principle, I have no doubt that a totally reductionistic but incomprehensible explanation of the brain exists; the problem is how to translate it into a language we ourselves can fathom." In short, Hofstadter has indeed done exactly what I said he did: speculated that consciousness and "selfhood" arise when a system acquires sufficient power to represent itself. And not because anything causal happens at that "higher" level; on the contrary, the "higher" level serves only the purpose of making a completely reductionistic explanation "comprehensible" _to us_. Hofstadter argues, then, that consciousness comes into being when a system becomes sufficiently complex to represent itself. (And yes, in strict consistency he is committed to believing this condition sufficient to render _any_ system conscious; as my critic has helpfully noted, Hofstadter does indeed argue that the "substrate" is irrelevant.) Shortly before this passage, Hofstadter has suggested that "Godel's theorem offers the notion that a high-level view of a system may contain explanatory power which simply is absent on the lower levels" [p. 707]. And the discussion immediately following this citation makes clear that Hofstadter has in mind not what Godel's theorem _shows_, but the _method_ Godel used to show it: the "Godel-numbering" technique by which the "undecidable string" is generated. In fact Godel's own understanding of the theorem in question would have precluded Hofstadter's speculation as cited above. Godel himself thought he had shown that mathematical "objects" were _real_ in some Platonic sense, and that the mind possesses a sort of mathematical intuition which is not reducible to formal operations (and therefore the mind itself cannot be). But, as I said, the _conclusion_ is not the aspect of Godel's theorem that is of interest to Hofstadter. I continue to see a bit more than "hand-waving" in this criticism. Again, though, Hofstadter's book is brilliantly engaging on some of the very points noted by my critic.
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on September 21, 1999
Douglas Hofstadter's imaginative and engaging GEB:EGB asks the question, "Can machines be conscious?" and answers in effect, "Certainly, because we ourselves are such machines." And there is no doubt that he earned his Pulitzer Prize for this fascinating book.
But watch out! His reliance on imagination actually masks the real problem.
The "real problem" is this: mind can't arise _simply_ from self-reference and self-representation, because reference and representation presume the existence of a mind to begin with. Only minds refer and represent; _resemblances_ (even fancy ones like "isomorphisms") aren't references/representations.
And in Hofstadter's undeniably well-presented examples, his reliance on imagination serves to distract from the absolutely crucial fact that the reference and the representation are always provided by a mind _outside_ the system in question: the reader. A formal system complex enough to "represent itself" doesn't become conscious; it takes a mind _outside_ the system to "see" the isomorphisms in question as references/representations. The system _itself_ can't do so unless mind is _already_ there -- so Hofstadter's bootstrapping "explanation" fails.
As an _argument_, then, GEB:EGB is a tremendous begging of the question. Invoking Godel's Theorems and waving one's hands about "strange loops" doesn't alter the fact that Godel's Theorem itself delivers a killing blow to "computational" theories of consciousness: semantics is _not_ reducible to syntax; truth is not reducible to provability within a formal system; reason is not reducible to purely formal logic; meaning is not reducible to isomorphism; and mind is not reducible to computation. (And indeed, this reading has much more in common with what Godel himself thought he had shown than does Hofstadter's attempt to reinterpret Godel's work in favor of strong AI.)
But GEB:EGB is still a remarkable intellectual accomplishment and a joy to read. Just be careful!
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on December 11, 2000
I can only warn you of this book: It might give you a nervous breakdown if you are a spiritual person. The sickly intelligent author has a devilish and almost violent joy in convincing you that you don't have a soul, that your mind and self is a product of the complexity of your brain, and that is the ideology that pours out of every sentence in this book! He believes so strongly that everything can be objectified and symbolized that he kind of neglects his very own existence ...The thrill is: you have to hand it to him: he's real logical! It took me some time to get over it, but I felt he was wrong... and he is wrong, but it's not easy to put in words, because words are just words. No matter how you try to cover up the truth... someday it will prevail, because it IS! What traumatic experience made this author so loveless, cynical and blind?
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on December 17, 1999
If you're new to computer science, then this book introduces you to some interesting topics in decideability and recursion. These ideas have implications for people who contemplate the possibility of intelligent computers or the design of intelligent systems.
Since most of the computer science theory is over 50 years old, none of it is new to anyone who is familiar with the subject. That said, the presentation is a rather weak play on Lewis Carroll combined with the cloying childishness of A. A. Milne.
Most readers claim to find the book fascinating. They're either genuinely fascinated by the AI topics, which are great - just not the author's own ideas. Or they're faking it because you're supposed to say you like stuff that sounds clever. Or they're faking it.
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on April 8, 2002
Don't be fooled by the title. The three named figures are not represented equally is this book! It is essentially about Godel's Incompleteness Theorem - a result only genuinely interesting to professional mathematicians - with the occasional reference to Bach and Escher. As someone who loves music, and happens to have a math degree, I was disappointed about this.
Surely what makes Bach's music interesting is not its mathematical nature, but that it is heartfelt and passionate. Compared to it, Hofstadter's child-like world - unarguably impressive as it may be - is tedious, hair-splitting and oddly asexual. No offence, but I was glad to escape from it.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on February 4, 2002
I first started reading G, E, B at the recommendation of a friend. I did not start at the conventional beginning, but instead with the TNT chapter. I took my time, insisting that I at least tried to understand everything said. Finishing this chapter with a huge sigh of relief, I read on to the next, and the next. Having finished this outstanding book, I thought about what I had learnt. The Answer? Absolutely nothing useful, except that nothing is definitive, and that there are an infinite number of perceptions. I will read this book again in a year or so, not to understand more, or to learn anything of "real" value, but to be swallowed again and again in the thoughts, and ideas of some of our greatest, most contraversial minds. Don't try to disprove what is said in this book, or you could well succeed. Just allow yourself to be swept away by the magic of the mind.
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on August 12, 2001
I would certainly have been facinated by this book if I had read it soon after it appeared but not 20 years later. There is a lot inside to stimulate the imagination of a teenager. Unfortunately, for anyone with a formal education in some of the subjects touched upon, it is too clear that the work was written by a passionate dilettante.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 4, 2002
An engaging book - Hofstadter does well to link Bach and Escher to Godel, and to illustrate difficult concepts such that average readers can gain an appreciation of them.
Hofstadter is at his best in the dialogues, as well as when he treats Bach, Escher and Godel. He is at his worst when he treats the elusive concept of meaning.
Indeed, his treatment of meaning is a very simplistic version of psycho-physical reductionism, and, worse, he does not argue for his position, but assumes that it is indeed true.
When reading his first chapter explicitly treating meaning, I was forced to look ahead to the index. To my dismay, there is no mention of Kant, no mention of the empiricist/rationalist debate, and no nuance in his hasty generalization regarding the identical states of people's brains, or an argument that would suggest that 'brain' and 'mind' have anything to do with each other.
Entertaining, for the dialogue, penetrating in the treatment of Bach, Escher and Godel, but simplistic in its treatment of what intelligence actually is - disappointing . . .
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on October 25, 2002
"The Eternal Golden Braid" is apt to inspire wet dreams in adolescent techno-nerds with little exposure to fiction or philosophy. Very clever it is; great literature it ain't. I've owned a copy for about 15 years and keep it for a curiosity and as a glimpse of the profound ideas whose surface it scratches. But I blushed reading that some of the other reviewers think Hofstadter reinvented the book. What he did was borrow a little from the three title characters, plus a lot more from Lewis Carroll.
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3 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on May 24, 2004
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 up "Godel's Incompleteness Theorems (Oxford Logic Guides, No 19)" by Raymond Smullyan. Someone mentioned that Hofstadter's book is the best introduction to Godel, while others have mentioned that the book obscures Godel's meaning with unnecessary, misleading, and often outdated material (as a student of both philosophy of language and Asian philosophy, i cringe when i hear of Western authors throwing in needless references to Zen).
Smullyan's book plainly deserves the distinction of "best introduction to Godel". It takes some acquaintance with logic, but why would you care about Godel if you don't care about logic? Perhaps the answer to that question is in Hofstadter's book, but it shouldn't be; if you care about Godel you should care about logic. Wrap your head around that biconditional.
While I cannot make too educated an evaluation of the book that I'm presently "reviewing", I can say that it doesn't take a tome to explicate Godel's simple theorem (Smullyan gets it done in about a chapter, and the metatheory course I took my last year in college got it done pretty concisely as well, albeit with about 400 pages worth of background). Godel may inspire one to write a big rumination on "how things are", but that's an odd thing to want to read. I hope a lot of people do however, as I'll probably write such a thing some day. It's a wonder one can be paid for self-indulgence, but the world works in mysterious ways...
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