Book Review: Gödel, Escher, Bach

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
by Douglas Hofstadter

There seems to be a great deal of confusion about what the book GEB is about, as the author alludes in the preface. This is understandable, since there are a great many ideas (and ways of presenting them) in the book, ranging from formal systems and theories of computation to genetics and Zen Buddhism. At its heart, GEB seems to be about how unthinking components can combine to create thinking systems, with human beings made out of proteins over here and computer programs made out of logic gates over there.

It would be absurd to try to list all the different kinds of things the book talks about, since the joy in reading the book is its playfulness. In fact, the best part (I think) are the dialogues that intersperse the chapters with the characters Achilles and Tortoise and their friends (my favorite part of the book are the combined dialogues Prelude and Ant Fugue). Mixed in deeply are the works of the composer Bach (with each dialogue’s form being based off of one of his works) and the artist Escher (many of his works are showcased), though the title-featured Gödel and his successors like Turing takes precedence.

In a way, GEB could be considered a celebration of the some of the 20th century’s intertwined intellectual revolutions: modern logic, computation, genetics, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence. While that would be interested in its own right, what makes GEB special and why it has garnered so much praise is how the subjects of art, music, philosophy, etc are seamlessly interwoven throughout the whole work, not just bridging but smashing The Two Cultures divide. While I personally feel it gets a big bogged down in places, overall what it accomplishes is both beautiful and unique and worth anybody’s time to read at least once.

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