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Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (wikipedia.org)
65 points by kudu on May 16, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 72 comments



Don't quite know why this is here, but if you haven't read any Douglas Hofstadter, this is probably where to start. This is a book that will A: change your life, B: require a pencil and paper to read with, C: Introduce you to Bach's genius, and D: will probably give you a greater appreciation of social interactions and language if for no other reason than it boils all of consciousness down to, essentially, language.

I'm so over simplifying it, and there's a lot more here than this. But I still found it extremely interesting to read this and contemplate just how intricately tied to our inner-narratives we are. Without that never-ending dialog in our heads, we're not really sentient, and without a language, we can't have that dialog...

Again, way more here, but this was the big thing I took away. I am a strange loop, after all.


Without that never-ending dialog in our heads, we're not really sentient

Stealing from Feynman here (edit, or more accurately his childhood friend Bennie), but most conscious thought is not verbal:

"Thinking is nothing but talking to yourself," said Feynman. "Oh yeah?" said Bennie. "Do you know the crazy shape of a crankshaft in a car? How did you describe it when you were talking to yourself?" http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi1079.htm

I don't think that complex language is required for conscious thought, we can reason without language. Complex language is however required for storytelling and storytelling is required to transmit technologies without physically demonstrating them, hence it is required for technological development to spread beyond the limits of "monkey see, monkey do".


Comprehending a crankshaft is not conscious thought. Most conscious thought is language.


Spatial reasoning is absolutely a form of reasoning (it's right there in the name!). I don't have any references handy, but I've read a few accounts of musical and math prodigies who have a form of synesthesia that allows them to "see" notes and numbers, respectively, which allows one to reason about abstract concepts as easily as you or I could spot the difference between a circle and a square. Very interesting stuff.


I think it is. The actual process of comprehending a crankshaft uses conscious thought as a conduit to transfer the idea into memory.

However, I think lotsofmangos in the Feynman quote was referring to the process of visualizing a crankshaft, which is most definitely conscious thought. Visualization is often not language in the mind.


Visualization is language, but of a different kind. Take those who are born deaf and think in signs.


> it boils all of consciousness down to, essentially, language.

Really? I'd have said that it boiled consciousness down to the idea of self-reference (what he calls "strange loops").

EDIT: Perhaps you mean Le Ton Beau de Marot? That one definitely deals with the relationship between language and consciousness.


Yeah, that's the one. I said I simplified it greatly. And we wouldn't even be able to understand that we were strange loops without a language with which to define the terms.


I think you're going a little too far with A: change your life. It's definitely an entertaining read, but that's as far as it goes for me.


It changed my life as well -- along with other great books he wrote:

"The Mind's I", a collaboration with Daniel Dennett, is a more light read than Gödel Escher Bach which also talks about consciousness, emergence and cognition.

"Metamagical Themas" is a collection of fascinating articles he wrote for Scientific American after Martin Gardner stopped publishing his "Mathematical Games" (do you see what he did here?)

I can perceive the influence his ideas have in the way I raise my child, relate to people and act in the world. I would go as far as to say that my spirituality was sparked by his texts, specially those related to Zen and consciousness.

Sure, YMMV -- this is entirely subjective (as everything in life, really).


>It changed my life as well -

Lots of people are saying this here. May I ask how it changed your life?


It introduced me to cognition as a emergent phenomena (specially the chapter "Prelude ... Ant Fugue" [1]).

It made me think about various philosophical topics such as holism vs reductionism and syntax vs semantics, the meaning of "meaning", intelligence, cognition...

...and then absolutely blew them all with the Zen approach to life.

[1] http://themindi.blogspot.com.br/2007/02/chapter-11-prelude-a...


GEB was one of the single biggest influences on me to leave the religion I was raised in. In short, GEB gave a sensible, intuitive, and non-magical explanation to things that I would have previously ascribed to a mystical soul that Jesus made.

This book set me down a line of really thinking and investigating and filling in the gaps that god was hiding in. Now I'm nonreligious.

This book might not change the median person's life, but it changed mine


Just a minor personal nit-pick; I still find the simple, base fact that we exist in this farking incredible reality to be magical and mystical AND with the benefit that we have the potential for literally fully grokking what the exact nature of "being" and "conscioussness" is at some point in the future.

That as we evolve our understanding and discover the next great secret that the universe holds for us, we will be continually and profoundly affected by how beautiful and blessed we are to simply have the opportunity to exist!


I would say that it changed my life. However, I read it when I was 18, at that point where any number of books have the ability to change your life.


Do you mind me asking how it changed it your life?


I was at the perfect level of education to appreciate the information in GEB. I was a young programmer and math enthusiast with an average high-school education. My knowledge of Boolean logic went as far as De Morgan's law. I knew next to nothing about classical music, functional programming, meta-mathematics, propositional calculus, Dadaism, or molecular biology.

Reading GEB felt like reading the Cliff Notes to an entire college education especially tailored for the kind of person I didn't yet realize I already was.


Add me to the chorus. I first read it in high school and it fascinated me from the first page. Living in an isolated small town, I instantly knew this was the sort of thing I'd been yearning for. I've read it a few times since.

Thomas Pynchon's "V." had the same effect.


It can definitely change the way you think about consciousness (and about software). Anyone who doesn't have their mind significantly altered by it is either a genius, extraordinarily well educated going in, or just doesn't get it.


That's a bit patronizing ... disclaimer - the book is sitting on my shelf, but I haven't got round to reading it.


You should totally read it! It's a good read. It made me realise a math book could be written in that way and actually be "rigorous".

For me, at 17 when I read it, math was just a bunch of symbols and exercises. It introduced me to logic and reasoning, made me think about the world differently.

It's like the real red pill in the matrix that's not just something you swallow. You think about it, and you start wondering what else you think you knew about math and the world can be challenged.

It made me a braver man. In that sense, it did change my life.


Also, mentions of genius is not unwarranted when you think about the 3 names mentioned: Godel, Escher, Bach. The book ties things back to how these three people thought about the world, and how their art and thinking can be tied into math.

I think if your mind isn't changed after reading about these figures, then you haven't really gotten it.

Hofstadter isn't necessarily the main attraction here. He created a framework (ie the structure of the book) where these subjects can be reasoned about.


Not to mention Lewis Carroll!

Admittedly, I read it in formative years, but until I read GEB, I didn't really grok what "genius" meant. Understanding strange loops in context of great thinkers who expressed it, and seeing strange loops as the nature of consciousness, and wondering how it could be expressed in software... blew my mind, in several senses of the phrase.


It's not patronizing, it's honest. Read the book, and you'll agree with me. (And it's hardly the only book that gets this credit - something like Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason", or Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! trilogy, or any number of other books will fundamentally change how you think.)


It changed my life.


Spot on, I have the exact same sentiments about the book. It was such an incredible read, albeit a bit dry at times, it is defiantly worth reading if you haven't already.


This is probably the only physical book I've purchased in the past several years and felt was a good investment, because of the lack of a decent e-book version. I haven't actually worked my way all the way through it yet; I had started about a year ago, made it about a third of the way through before getting distracted, and now I'm starting it again because it really is the kind of book that you have to build up piece by piece as a reader. I feel like my Web-browsing-Stack-Overflowing approach to reading over the past several years has hurt me and I hope working through GEB can help me get more experience in really working with a text deeply.

I've also found it helpful to consult the MIT OCW video lectures on this book: http://ocw.mit.edu/high-school/humanities-and-social-science...


This seems like a cool lecture, thanks. I've read it maybe halfway through before getting distracted also. It was one of the maybe 5 out of over a 100 books I brought with me when I moved.


After you're done reading GEB, I highly recommend moving on to the rarely mentioned "The Mind's I", Hofstadter and Dennett's 1981 collection of essays and stories about self/mind by themselves, Alan Turing, Richard Dawkins, Stanislaw Lem, and others: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mind's_I


Great book! See also "Ask HN: Is "Gödel, Escher, Bach" still worth reading?"

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7014299

where I answered:

  It is a timeless classic which will draw you in if you give it
  the chance it deserves. If you find parts to be a bit heavy,
  you can speed up or slow down per your personal preference. I
  chose to slow down and read all the more carefully. I feel I
  was truly rewarded for the effort but believe that hurrying
  through such parts would be a viable alternative -- certainly
  better than abandoning the book as often seems to happen.

  It's my favorite book. I recommend you do try it.


'Its great just read it' is not a convincing at all. Why is it your favorite book?


My own answer is that it is the most readable and entertaining text on the actual nature of consciousness - and a marvelous introduction to the processes of actual geniuses as well.


Sorry for being a pest. If a cutout the hyperbolic adjectives 'most readable', 'entertaining' , 'marvelous introduction' from your sentence. It leaves me with 'text on the actual nature of consciousness'.

How did it change your view of human consciousness. How do you define consciousness now after reading this book? Just a couple of lines summary of about consciousness in this book would be good a motivation for me.


I'm sorry, but I simply can't give you a neat summary of one of the most profound books I have ever read in a sentence or two. It'd be like saying Hamlet is a play about some dude whose dad died.


I loved it because it fed my curiosity about how we think while introducing me to related ideas in math, art, and music which have extended my perspective in surprising and entertaining ways.

As an undergraduate computer engineering student who aspired to understand intelligence and apply AI, I was delighted to find such an approachable, yet profound, treatment of fundamental ideas that mattered not only to my field but to music and art as well.

Decades later, it remains my favorite book.


I have read the first 20% of this book 5 times... Each time I get a little further but still a long way to go!


This is a fine book, a sort of mind playground and one of those you cherish in the shelves of your memory. My Philosophy teacher at high school (hi Faustino) recommended it to the class and it led me to read later in college the collected works of Gödel, and never repented it.


This book is fantastic as a tool. I have used it in many classrooms to teach students about how to identify pseudoscience. This and "Quantum Learning" are excellent examples of the work of well-read blowhards contributing nothing to human knowledge (aside from a very stylish series of handwaving and cargo cults).

Like most popular gibberish of this ilk, the most valuable part of the book is the reference list; most pseudo-philosophers are very careful to make as many references as possible to really excellent works, probably in an attempt for 'success by association.'


I'm curious what particular claim you think Hofstadter is pushing that is unwarranted -- I don't see how a book of wandering musings could earn the label "pseudoscience" when it doesn't claim to be scientific in the first place (as far as I recall -- it's been about 15 years since I read it). It's a bunch of interesting ideas he ties together in clever ways.

The best I can come up with is that you're talking about his idea that self-reference lies at the heart of consciousness, which I think an intelligent reader can see is just a guess of his. Whether or not it's true, we can still see how it's useful to think of ant colonies as organisms, and we still learn about the incompleteness theorem, and we now understand what a fugue is and how it has textual and visual analogues, etc.

Maybe there's a group of people who treat GEB's claims differently than I do that I'm unaware of?


What exactly is your job that entails you teaching nonsense to students in classrooms? If GEB is the best example of pseudoscience you can come up with, I'd venture to guess you're a piss-poor educator. Very disturbing.


Eh. I started reading his book "I am a Strange Loop", and it became obvious that the author is an enormous blowhard. Is it really worth reading despite the pretentiousness?


I really liked GEB (as well as The Minds' I, and Fluid Concepts And Creative Analogies, the later being a more CompSci book) and was looking forward to I am a Strange Loop because it had been a while since Hofstadter had published anything. I was very disappointed and never finished it.

It never gave me the impression he was a blowhard or pretentious, but it was something of a 180 from his other works in that there seemed to be much, much idle speculation on minds and souls and such without out suitable rigor.

Basically it's his personal philosophic musings, and it felt a bit too "Deepak Chopra" to me.


Why do you consider him pretentious? Expressing in interest in mathematics, classical music, cognitive science, etc., isn't pretentious if you have a legitimate interest in those things and it's relevant to what you're discussing.


Perhaps, it's not the author who's pretentious.


Are you accusing the copy editor of something?


Well, you never know... People are strange.


Started reading this book in mid-February and I'm about halfway through today. Fantastic thinking, and still relevant despite its publication date.


Great thinking doesn't rely on publication date. One could argue that anything that only works in a certain short period of time isn't great thinking. There are things written thousands of years ago that are still relevant.


Whenever I see GEB, I always chuckle thinking how Steve Martin turned me on to Hofstadter. https://prelectur.stanford.edu/lecturers/hofstadter/images/s...


I don't understand any of the words used to describe Bach's music, and I don't know any of the pieces. Is there an accompanying audio track I could listen to that shows the examples the book is referencing, and explains the words used to describe them?


Wikipedia has a nice glossary of terms used in music theory and lots of linked articles: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glossary_of_musical_terminolog...

You can find a lot of recordings on YouTube and, in twenty or so years, all of them on http://allofbach.com

If you can read sheet music at least on a basic level, there's a huge repository on IMSLP: http://imslp.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Johann_Sebastian_Bach

Also, if the piece is particularly significant, it's likely that there'll be a Wikipedia article about with some more detail. There may be some books dedicated solely to the work of Bach, but I don't think they're necessary for this purpose.


This book had a big influence on me. I bought it right when I started university, and it contributed a great deal to my decision to switch study program from software engineering to physics/math after the first year. I never regretted that decision.


I always thought it was interesting that apparently Hofstadter isn't into geek computer/tech culture (from what I remember reading on his Wiki page, IIRC). Its ironic considering who his biggest fans are.


I actually started reading this a week or so ago. It's very interesting but every now and then I get the feeling that everything in it is really beyond me. I've sort of dismissed that thought because it's probably how everyone feels when first reading it, and that eventually it'll start making sense.


Oh yes, wonderful book sofar, only started recently. The mini assignments are great and I get a small smile if I have one correct in one go, only to be completely cranky if I don't get one.

Absolute recommend-er for AI people, linguistics. Actually, everybody should read this.


I think there's definitely some programming mindset stuff in it too, I remember the chapters about building your own set of instructions to do multiplication with only loops and earlier axioms (adding numbers together). I thought it was really fun to think about the problems.


See also my previous thread on whether it's currently relevant (in summary, yes, it is, but with a few caveats): https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7014299


For those might get discouraged when struggling to read this book (of which I am one), don't forget that Hofstadter struggled quite a bit to write it.

So it's not just you.


Not only the mathematical content gets hard, but the book is full of puns, metalinguistics, crossreferences, good enough to make you laugh out loud and subtle enough to not become saturated.


Yeah, what's striking is that the book itself is an example of what the book covers. For example, read the last page, then go to the first page.


Has he talked much about his writing process for this book? Would be really interested to read his thoughts on it.


He talks in length about his writing process in the preface to my edition. I think it's the 20th.


This book changed my life in High School. I eventually worked out Gödel's theorem. I felt good. I've forgotten it now, it's hard.


Oh, it basically proves that computers can't think!


Current computer programs do not operate the way human brains operate. But ... Given that human intelligence is a capability of matter arranged and operating in a certain way, isn't it possible that different arrangements of matter (computers) might eventually be capable of "thinking" in a way similar to human intelligence? Even if not, won't we learn more about ourselves in trying to write AI programs?


Thanks for reminding me. I just went and found my first edition to re-read. It's been more than a few years, I will enjoy this.


This has been sitting on my "too read" pile far too long. That changes this summer.


[deleted]


Maybe ask on Twitter, or perhaps get your philosophy through a reaction Gif.

tl;dr you should read the book.


tl;dr This comment [1] cannot be proven to be a comment within HN's commenting system.

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7756444


....not sure if troll or not....


Without any doubt one of my favorites ever. Few books had so much impact on me


I don't read a lot of books and this one is enormous but I did read it cover to cover. In its best moments it's genius, in its worst moments it's either dry or over my head. But it was a combination of delightful to read, educational, and mind blowing in parts.




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