Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas R. Hofstadter

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, also known as GEB, by Douglas R. Hofstadter was the most challenging nonfiction book that I have ever read. Not including notes, my version of the book contained 737 very dense pages. The book was not only difficult, but its structure and content, though based on real science and technology, was very unusual. This work has something of a cult status with people who are interested in human consciousness, mathematics, computers, general science and popular philosophy. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for General Literature in 1979. 

Even describing what the book is about is challenging. Hofstadter looks at multiple natural and human-made processes involving loops, self-reference and copying and then relates these concepts to the human brain, thinking, our sense of self and consciousness.  He ultimately contends that loops and self-reference are the keys to human consciousness. Along the way, he examines loops, copying and self-reference in terms of mathematics, art, music, physics, DNA, computers and more. He delves into each of these subjects in great, and sometimes bewildering, detail. The mathematical sections are the most intricate. There are many pages that are heavy with formulas and number theory. The author actually gives the reader problems and puzzles to work on to help him or her to better understand it all. There are also very complex sections on the other subjects mentioned. 


Hofstadter is particularly interested in Kurt Friedrich Gödel’s Mathematical theorems, the artwork of M.C.Escher and the music of Johann Sebastian Bach as they relate to the topics explored in this book. It turns out the works and discoveries of all three are heavy with loops and self-reference. There are also a lot of words devoted to other mathematicians, scientists, philosophers and classical composers. 


Each section of the book is prefaced within an allegorical story involving the characters Achilles and the tortoise.  Hofstadter explains in the text that these characters were first used by the Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea and later by Lewis Carroll in "What the Tortoise Said to Achilles". These segments become longer and more intricate as the book progresses. These stories seek to explain the concepts of each section in parable form. I found these sequences to be charming and whimsical, but they also became complicated at times. 
  
The book is not all technical. In addition to the above-mentioned parables, there is a lot of philosophizing. The author tends to throw out curious ideas and concepts and not actually take stands on them. He is also a good writer who is usually very lively despite the technical nature of much of it.  Here, he ponders what it is to be human and our sense of self. 


"What is an "I", and why are such things found (at least so far) only in association with, as poet Russell Edson once wonderfully phrased it, "teetering bulbs of dread and dream" -- that is, only in association with certain kinds of gooey lumps encased in hard protective shells mounted atop mobile pedestals that roam the world on pairs of slightly fuzzy, jointed stilts?"

Hofstadter is also an exuberant writer. His love of math, science, Classical Music, art and more exudes through the pages of this work. 

When I say that I have read a book, I usually mean that I read every page and every word. However, with this work, I skipped sections. In particular, I passed over much of the math. I tried to read the early and late paragraphs of these sections in order to get the point that the author was trying to make. I read most, but not all of, sections on physics, biology and music theory. I know a little bit about all these subjects as I have taken classes and/or read about all of them. With that, all of these sections were challenging, and there was a lot that I did not understand. I think that had I given it a more comprehensive read, I would have spent the better part of a year on this book. I would have done all of the author’s problems and perhaps gone beyond the book itself to understand all the music theory, technical issues and science. I still would not have understood it all. What is puzzling is that this work is not presented as something for only mathematicians or scientists or experts in music theory to read. Even if it was, I suspect that experts in one of these disciplines might get in over their heads in the areas in which they are not specialists. The depths that Hofstadter plumbs in regards to these subjects are astounding. On one hand, such detail seems unnecessary. On the other hand, the very deep dives into these subjects make the book strangely attractive. This level of complexity seems to be what drives some of the cult status of this book. I should mention that Hofstadter is no crackpot and my understanding is that experts in the respective fields generally respect the information in this work.

My take on Hofstadter’s ideas is that I think that he examines some real phenomenon involving loops and self-reference that cut across both nature and human endeavors. Some of this does relate to the human mind. I am not sure if I agree that these things are central to consciousness and the human sense of self or not. Reading what people have written about this book online, it seems that many take in the grand tour of all of the covered subjects with joy while almost ignoring the author’s take on consciousness. 

Hofstadter has written a follow up to this book called I Am a Strange Loop. Perhaps it goes with the odd character of this book in that I read it in an odd way.  After reading about one quarter of this work, I put it down and read I Am a Strange Loop as the latter book presented Hofstadter’s ideas in an easier to digest way. I then returned to this work and finished it. I will be posting commentary in that later book soon. I actually found this odd reading sequence to be beneficial. The concepts in I am a Strange Loop were much easier to grasp, and reading that work helped me a lot here. 

No matter what, this is a really unique book. In some ways it is a crazy, unpredictable trip through a hodgepodge of ideas. It seems to have influenced many of today’s thinkers. I would only recommend it to those who do not mind a challenging read full of technical material, some of which they may need to skip or skim over. I would recommend it for anyone who is curious about the list of subjects referenced. People who are very interested in mathematics might enjoy this a lot, but only if they have an interest in the other subjects. Though written at a later time, it might be a good idea to read I Am a Strange Loop. In the end, a difficult and strange, but in some ways, rewarding read. 

38 comments:

Lory said...

One day, i hope I have the time and mental energy to sit down and read this book. I've known of it and been intrigued for many years, but am daunted. Your review gives me a good idea of the effort that would be involved, and also the rewards. I Am a Strange Loop also sounds worth checking out!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lory - This does indeed take effort. I think that, unless one is a mathematician, skimming is the way to go.

mudpuddle said...

suffice it to say, i started this once... i'm mega-impressed that you actually read it! BRAVO!!! but it did lead me into brain physiology, philosophy, zen, and helped congeal my readings in sci fi and geology. as a result i came to the firm conclusion that consciousness is an illusion (the brain recycling it's gestalts based on how it's constructed); needless to say, i've not found many who would agree with me, but to each his/her own, as they say... once more, congratulations! i'm inspired: i'll order a copy today!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Muddpuddle- I can see how this book could lead one down a lot of paths. The idea that consciousness is an illusion actually seems popular these days. But would not one need to be conscious in the first place in order to experience illusion?

Suko said...

This new-to-me book sounds extremely complex and challenging. I applaud you for tackling it so courageously. Thank you for sharing your honest thoughts.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - It took a lot of courage to take this one on :) Just kidding! Skimming and skipping was really the key to this one.

Sharon Wilfong said...

That was a terrific review, Brian! I appreciate your honesty because as I was reading I was wondering whether I should take on a book as challenging as this. Like you, I would probably skim the math parts, but I would very much like to read about Bach and Escher.

Thanks to you, I will look both books up (I'd like to know what "loop" means).

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon. I think that you would like the art and music parts of this. More on loops when I put up my commentary on I am a Strange Loop.

mudpuddle said...

Brian: consciousness IS the illusion... regardless of which layer one is referring to...

Ron Pavellas said...

I applaud your bravery and skill in presenting an excellent review of this most difficult book. I have also 'read' it, twice, and still have it. The thing I remember most from it is the explanation of Gödel's theory or finding (I believe I remember correctly): that the mathematics we employ and 'believe' is 'truth,' is just another human convention which we use in trying to make sense of the world. It is not 'truth.'

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ron - Some of the concepts here were indeed difficult. I took the interpretation of Godel’s theorem to mean that when using things like math, we will always find some truths unknowable. Or perhaps that is the same as saying that there is no truth.

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Muddpuddle - This line of thought may actually be an example of one of Hofstadter‘s Strange Loops. More to come in my next entry on I Am a Strange Loop.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, Really great review of a difficult book. I think it's important that we occasionally challenge ourselves and try out difficult books. I confess that books on science, biology, math, the cosmos are books I stay away from because I just don't have a scientific mind but I would like to find a book maybe on the universe that is written by a respected scientist for the general public. Never read Carl Sagan but would like to give him a try.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Cathy. I think that most popular science books are no where this difficult. I love Sagan. However I think that his pure science books are getting s little outdated. I have heard that Neil deGrasse Tyson and Lisa Randall have some really good books out.

thecuecard said...

Wow I am already lost. When you say loops -- what do you mean exactly? I haven't heard of this book but I'm wondering did he win the Lit award for a novel -- and if so, what was it? I congratulate you for reading much of this very challenging work. I do think the parts on human consciousness sound enticing or intriguing, but the book is likely way, way behind me. Thx for trying to wrap it up.

James said...

Your fine review brings back fond memories of this wonderful book. My interests in music, mind, and philosophy were often piqued by Hofstadter. I especially remember the way he interwove the work of Bach through both metaphorical and literal discussions as he built his hierarchically structured book. While there were moments of confusion and some math that was (and still is) beyond me, the use of humor and references to Lewis Carroll (and Zeno) were enough, along with Bach (and Escher), to keep me interested.
One of my favorite moments was when Hofstadter embedded a discussion of the structure of Bach's "Goldberg Variations" within the dialog of Achilles & the Tortoise about number theory. It remains one of the most unusual books I have ever encountered.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - The Pulitzer Prize for General Literature is given out to non - fiction so this book won it.

I should have done a better job of explaining loops. If you look at Escher’s Waterfall here:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waterfall_(M._C._Escher)

The path of the water is the kind of loop that the author is referring to. He finds similar patterns in music, math, etc. I will try to be a little clearer in my commentary on I Am a Strange Loop.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Janes - This was indeed unusual. It does also stimulate interest in so many areas. In looking through commentary on this book, so many people feel the same way.

Kat said...

Sounds fascinating. I've heard about this for years, but the minute I hear about math I know it would be beyond me. I do wish I could go back in time and study loops and all that: a friend told me it's like poetry. I did enjoy your review and that's as close as I will probably get.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kat - The math was indeed daunting. But as I did one can skip and skim. Hofstadter does try and to some extent, get to, the beauty inherent in loops and similar phonomina.

Marian H said...

Well-written and really useful review! I might start with that other book first. One of my computer science professors highly recommended this book, so I took a peek at this one once - gave up right then and there. However, I have a little more patience now, and the topic of patterns in science, nature, and art is really fascinating.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Marian - Some folks really into computers love this book. It does take patience but I found it rewarding.

Maria Behar said...

AWESOME REVIEW as always, Brian!!

As you know, I have recently purchased both of these books. I had heard of GEB some time ago, but had not given much thought to acquiring it. Interestingly, I have owned another work by this author, "The Mind's I", for several years now, but have not yet read it. Lol.

Recently, I came across "I Am A Strange Loop", and decided to buy it. Then I found out that it was a sequel to GEB, so I said to myself, "Heck, I should read that one first!" Little did I know what I was getting into.....LOL.

Well, I put "Strange Loop" aside, and waited for GEB to arrive (I bought both books on Amazon.) When it did, I flipped through it, looking for all the M.C. Escher illustrations. I LOVE this guy's art! It's so paradoxical and weird! :) I also enjoy listening to Bach's music. Now, Godel.....well, that's another matter. I've never liked math, except for Geometry. That's because I remember how much fun it was to draw circles and triangles in high school! Lol. But Algebra I LOATHED. I just didn't understand it, and thought it boring and totally pointless. That could be due, however, to the fact that the teacher would turn on the TV when we got to the classroom, and we would watch ANOTHER teacher, ON THE TV, mind you, teach the class. The teacher who was physically present in the room was just there in case we needed anything clarified, but she did not actually teach the class. Isn't that just CRAZY?! So anyway.....I never got to Calculus or Trig. Lol.

I did some skimming of GEB, and then put it aside. I think this book might have been a lot more enjoyable -- for math haters like me -- if Hofstadter had left out all the math! :) :) I think he could have made his point just as well. Or perhaps not. But I can see why you skipped much of this material. You really have to be a professional mathematician to be able to understand all that stuff!

I thought, from the skimming I did, that the parables about Achilles and the Tortoise were most likely the most enjoyable parts. Of course, I would love to read all the philosophizing, too! And I'm sure his discussion of the music of Bach, as well as Escher's art, must be fascinating. But then he had to go and spoil it with all that MATH. Lol, lol, lol.

I would love to be able to read this book in its entirety, but, unless and until someone invents a magic learning pill that will make it easier for certain brains to digest math, well, then I'll be doing quite a bit of skimming when I do sit down to read this very challenging book! As you have pointed out in your EXCELLENT review, "Strange Loop" sounds much more accessible. Critics do seem to prefer the first book, though. I've read reviews that state that Hofstadter sounds "tamer" and even boring in "Strange Loop". Well, I have to do some skimming of this one, too.

The overarching theme of both of these books is the nature of consciousness. I am DEFINITELY interested in this particular theme! I don't want to have to wade through all that difficult stuff to get to that, though. Hopefully, GEB will be somewhat comprehensible without having to read all the mathematical parts. But who knows? I might try my hand at solving one of the simpler problems. SIMPLER, mind you! LOL.

You know, I think that, in order to appreciate this book properly, one needs to take some college courses in math, music theory, and art! The latter two would be a breeze for me, but the first one would be more like a hurricane! :) :) :)

Hopefully, I'll get to GEB one of these days. And, like you, I will be dipping into "Strange Loop" pretty darn often as I read!

Thanks for another of your ALWAYS insightful reviews!! Hope you have a GREAT week!! <3 :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Maria. I think that even someone who is really good in math would find this daunting. Even the music theory, which I have taken a few classes in, was challenging for me. I wonder if anyone could really get every aspect of this book.

The Achilles and The Tortoise parts were at times so charming. I think that you will really like those parts and the philosophizing.

That teacher who played the videos sounds awful!

As you recall, I won a copy of I Am a Strange Loop from your blog giveaway. I will soon put up commentary on that.

Caroline said...

I would have skipped tha math parts too.
It's funny to see this reviewed. It was so fashionable once but I haven't seen it mentioned in a long time. That said, I had no idea it was this dense. It sounds interesting but challenging.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I understand that this book was all the rage for a few years after it came out. It still has a very devoted following in some quarters.

Tracy Terry said...

737 very dense pages and challenging pages? No thank you. Because I cannot start a book and not finish it I'm loathe to begin such weighty tomes so well done you on a great review.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy. This was weighty book indeed. I think thaf for this one it is imperative thaf the reader have an escape route.

Andrew Blackman said...

Wow, this sounds fascinating, Brian! I love a challenge, so maybe I'll pick this one up. On the other hand, perhaps "I Am a Strange Loop" would be an easier introduction. Even the title sounds a little more focused :) I enjoyed your review, anyway, and well done for making it through! I think I would have skipped the maths too...

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Andrew. I will be putting up a post on I Am a Strange Loop soon. It was much easier to understand but less creativity put together.

The Bookworm said...

GEB sounds like a challenging but worthwhile read and I am glad you enjoyed it. Anything math related is not for me, it was always my worst subject in school.
Fantastic commentary as usual!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - I think that most folks, even those pretty good at math would find the math here to be too much!

Whispering Gums said...

I looked at the title of this post several times, and thought "what is that book?" A novel? Non-fiction? Finally I found the brain-space to click over the read it and all was revealed. Wow, is all I can say. I think I'm a very prosaic person - I'm not sure that the subject matter of this book - human consciousness etc - is one that concerns mea nought to want to delve further. What is it that you'd need to be interested in to want to read this? Can you explain.

That said, Escher and Bach I love - and I know that their work has very analytical/structural underpinnings, but do I want to analyse their analysis?

Thanks though for introducing me to this book. I had never heard of it. In 1979 I was newly married and was probably interested in other things!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi WG - This one is an odd one for sure. I would say that an interest in human consciousness would lead someone to want to read this. Also someone who is interested in big science books. The kind of books that try to pull the big ideas of science together relating to physics, biology etc. and then relate it all to culture and history. Carl Sagan was very good at that stuff. With that, this book was different from anything else that I have ever read.

Whispering Gums said...

Thanks Brian for answering my question ... I think I could be interested in "human consciousness" but I'd want to read about it by someone who is an excellent science communicator for the lay reader. It sounds like this is an excellent book but for someone with more than a "lay" scientific/mathematical brain?

baili said...

I felt so inspired by the author Brain and i agree it was hard to review such thick and tough book but you done it brilliantly :)


if was reading it i also would have skipped the math section lol

it's totally beyond my limits and interest

book is difficult yet must be very interesting specially section which concentrate upon human nature ,this is my favorite part

being unique it is not easy to ignore such knowledgeable book ,if i get chance to read it i will definitely

Brian Joseph said...

Hi again WP - I have read a few books on consciousness. Though not as tough as this one they were all fairly challenging. They all touched upon philosophy and I recall that being the most challenging thing about them. I liked Danial Dennet’s From Bacteria to Bach and David Chalmers’s The Conscious Mind.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Baili - Human nature and the conscious mind is one of the most interesting subjects out there. With that, this was a tough one.