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Gödel, Escher, Bach (wikipedia.org)
56 points by anonu on Nov 17, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 37 comments

I tried to read GEB once, but I had a hard time getting past the feeling that it was more about appearing clever than actually being clever.

I feel like it was an earlier attempt at something we are much better at now: multi-disciplinary storytelling about intellectual topics. The premise is interesting but it feels much more difficult to absorb than it should be. Or maybe its just over my head.

I wallowed in GEB while trying to tie together something called "Cognitive Science" in 1989. Which probably put me down in the "trying to appear clever" bucket, but I was confused by my first experience with academic Artificial Intelligence research. We all make mistakes at that age.

But yes, I believe we are better at telling such stories these days.

Easy to take for granted how transparent things become when we have the words, the vocabulary for telling the story.

And rather than a Thomas Kuhn paradigm shift, a sudden inflection point, we have a picture which slowly comes into focus, fifty years at a time.

I think the Tao Te Ching is more clever than Gödel, Escher, Bach. But, GEB is still fun-- I just don't think it completely deserves the "Holy Grail" status it has.

Tao Te Ching talks about good and evil and says that the Tao is older then god. Chinese mysticism doesn’t mix with western science or logic. For example western logic exposes the mysteries of the universe in a concrete way by telling us about atoms, fusion, relativity and more, while Tao te Ching talks about some vague mumbo jumbo while claiming only greater people understand the Tao while absolutely providing no concrete definition and no evidence.

Tao te ching is more comparable to works of fiction like lord of the rings or the Bible. I wouldn’t compare it to GEB which builds its foundations starting from axiomatic logic. One is concrete, the other is mythical. Do note that the Tao te Ching was written way back during a time when people were unclear about the reality of things and probability and the scientific method were not known. If anything Tao te Ching is a “fun” fictional work while GEB is genuinely trying to express something about the nature of consciousness.

Don’t be fooled by Chinese mysticism. It’s a bullshit industry where they sell false religions, bullshit herbal medicines, martial arts and bullshit philosophies in a genuine attempt to scam you. Some of it is practiced under a genuine belief but most are scams.

I would know I’m Chinese myself.

Don't be fooled by the concrete either, my friend. The Tao Te Ching is no different, in ways, to the Bible, the Quran, Lord of the Rings, Dune, Cat's Cradle, The Feynman Lectures... It's all what you take from it.

The lord of the rings and dune are works of fiction. Is that what you're saying Tao Te Ching is? I can assure you GEB is not a work of fiction.

Both are pretty great if you ask me. Different perspectives are critical and any work of literature is full of flaws if you closely enough.

Interviews with the author elucidate something interesting. He feels that GEB failed to convey his point so he wrote another book called strange loop. From what I recall he said that GEB is trying to express how a strange loop is what consciousness really is. GEB is grand in the sense that he wanted to convey this point starting from axiomatic logic. I think it ended up confusing a lot of people because almost any high level topic has foundations in axiomatic logic.

The title of GEB totally throws people off so they dive into the book not really knowing what direction the book is going to take them. But now you know, the book is ultimately trying to tell you what the author believes consciousness is... and he starts from axiomatic logic. All the clever ideas the author throws at you are foundational structures that are explained to you to eventually help you understand the authors idea of the true nature of consciousness.

I think it aims to be more of a fiction like experience than your typical nonfiction. Some of the clever stuff is delightful, imo. Also, I learned about the unsolvability of the word problem for groups from that book.

You aren't alone. I've tried twice to get through it, but have stopped fairly early on. I think what this means is there is another effective way to reach readers with the same "point" in another narrative.... maybe you can do that? I'd read it. :D

Unfortunate. You should have come away with an understanding of the Central Dogmap, as well as Gödel's and Tarski's theorems. If you have Tarski's Undefinability, then you learned enough.

I was super stubborn since I bought it and it started clicking for me on my fifth attempt but have no desire to read it again. YMMV.

Yep. The book club at work is reading GEB. I had it at one time, but after trying to go through it, I destined it to "Author trying to play moral superiority" card, and I destined it to the donation bin.

I'm sure that it's a literary masterpiece, just like the emperor's new clothes are so beautiful.

Same here. Tried reading it, but just couldn't connect the dots.

MIT had a course on the book with recordings on YouTube. They’re great to watch as you work through the book:


Ask HN: Has anyone actually read the whole thing? What did you think?

I read it cover to cover in high school (85-86, maybe) and another time through in college. I loved it. I don’t get the modern backlash against it.

Same here. Found it in high school and was blown away by the cleverness of the dialogues. Didn't understand everything else, but the chapter on TNT opened my eyes to how simple rewriting rules could be used to perform computation, and that insight was an important reason for my studying theoretical computer science later. It's a book that helped me dream.

I reread it years later. The dialogues didn't age well, but the rest of the book is still great.

My experience too, and I look back on it with fondness

Yes, read it in highschool. Was a game changer and made that time in my life bearable.

One Saturday I spent the one day of "in school suspension" I ever experienced during high school reading this book. (I was suspended for participating in "senior skip day", lol. "In school suspension" or "detention",... was kind of like what you see in The Breakfast Club, but much more boring, or at least it would have been, if you didn't have a good book to read to pass the time.)

I read it in college and plan to read it again! It blew my mind the first time and I'm looking forward to coming back to it 15+ years later.

Like _Manufacturing Consent_ it's one that I think I'll probably revisit in pretty wide intervals because of the commitment involved, but I think it's worth it.

I read it when it came out. I thought it was absolutely amazing.

At the time, I'd say that the vast majority of my computer-ish friends had read both GED and Lord of the Rings. I find it interesting that so many people here are saying they couldn't get through it.

Yes. It was fun and interesting. I recommend it to anyone interested in logic and metaphysics.

> "The One has variously been called the Good, God, the Cosmos, the Mind, the Void, or (perhaps most neutrally) the Absolute. No door in the labyrinthine castle of science opens directly onto the Absolute. But if one understands the maze well enough, it is possible to jump out of the system and experience the Absolute for oneself."


Loved it and own a copy. I often remind myself of Aunt Hillary when thinking about large organisations such as the military. There are quite a lot of topics in GEB that are simply fun to think about.

yes. A number of times.

A tremendously useful book that has the capability to blow open young minds that encounter it for the first time, and a book that can be mined for deeper insights many times around even after you decide you agree or disagree with his fundamental premises about cognition and consciousness, etc.

Hofstadter's wordplay may at times seem heavy handed or over the top but he is also doing something in his writing that allows you to experience something about consciousness while you read it that is pretty slippery. Reading his writing very seriously always has glimmers of experiential knowledge gained through psychedelics, meditation, etc that seem to go beyond the intellectual arguments he is making into the realm of the metaphysical.

which I suppose was always his point. I am always struck by the incredibly deep love of humanity and the human mind in his work, in how we work.

Le Ton beau de Marot is quite beautiful as well, and is in large part why I've owned the domain name lostinthetranslation since the early 2000s and why I think translation in general is one of the most fundamentally difficult, beautiful, and useful things a human can do :)

Yeah, Le Ton Beau de Marot is pretty good too. Lots of light shed on the art of translation (since it's about the translation of GEB, which at first glance would seem damn near untranslatable.)

Yes, I'm a repeat reader, once every 5-10 years.

As an introduction to formal systems[1], it's great. For a musician, it totally falls apart in the "Bach" section. The idea that the circle of fifths[2] (or any progression that ends where it started) is a "strange loop" is just silly. There's nothing strange about it. Traverse a sequence of (usually 12) integers that slice up the octave by using any integer for step size and bang! You eventually land back at the beginning of the sequence.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Formal_system

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circle_of_fifths

There's at least one strange thing about it: there's no perfect tuning for evenly-spaced chromatic-tone pitch systems. Whether you pick 12 or any other number of tones, the resulting circle of fifths (combined with analogous octaves) will witness the fact that it's not possible to tune the system perfectly.

As a musician, I found a lot of interesting things in GEB, even if it did not advance my music career.

I liked this book, but skipped the Bach, and most of Escher parts. They seemed like a stretch.

I found "I am a strange loop" to be fantastic. It is about Godel.

I think the Bach and Escher parts really drove it home for me. To see how actually completely different people from different disciplines came to understand and communicate the essence of the spurious loop and eventually the paradox.

Exactly. Reading it as "what does this book able to do." Instead of "what is this book doing for me"

I read that book, and I think that it is good. (I do think BlooP and FlooP can be reduced though; IF and comparisons and multiplications are not needed, since they can be implemented out of the other stuff.)

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