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am 31. Mai 2000
When GEB was first published,the reviews and enthusiasm were endless. It's a brilliant introduction to recursion, said many. No, it's an introduction to, and demonstration of Godel incompleteness, said others. It's a demonstration of the commonality of art and science, said others. And there's something about ants near the end, but we're not sure why.
Readers today echo the same sentiments. They're all right, in their own way- but none of these views really get at what Hofsteader was trying to do. Yes, GEB is a tuorial on Godel, Bach, ants, recursion and a dozen other esoteric topics, and it's a heck of an intellectual entertainment, but Hofsteader didn't just write GEB to show prove what a clever book he could write. At the core, GEB is, first and formost, a theory of Artifical Intelligence; all the bits on Godel, recursion and combinations are just a tutorial to bring the reader up to speed for what's about to follow.
When GEB was first published, the dominant paradigm in AI was top-down; you built inference engines, programmed them with high-level knowledge about systems, and tried to get them to generalize from their. To a small minority- including Hofstader- this begged the really important questions: Where did the ability to make inferences come from in the first place? How was knowledge represented?
A few pioneers then- people like John Holland- were looking at bottom-up models in which one posited the simplest levels of an organization- the individual elements and the rules of interconnection and communication. They reasoned that that's what the brain was, so if you couldn't derive AI from a model that echoed the brain, you weren't really proving anything. It was from this perspective that GEB was written, and given the state of AI at the time, it's not surprising that most readers- even the most enthusiastic among them- totally missed the point.
Today, the bottom-up, or connectionist paradigm is gaining new respectability, and the work over the last few decades in complexity theory has given us more insight into the mechanisms of connectionism. Reading GEB in that context, not only is Hofstader's thesis much clearer, but the book appears that much more brilliant and prescient, given when it was first written.
If you've never read GEB, read it it now, and then read George Dyson's "Darwin Among the Machines", Waldrop's "Complexity", Resnick's "Turtles, Termites and Traffic James", and John Holland's "Hidden Order". If you've read GEB before, take a look at those same books and then go back and reread GEB. You'll see it in an entirely new light.
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am 2. Juni 2000
I'm here to witness that even people as seriously math-challenged as I am can participate in this wonderful book. It took me a *long* time to read-- I flipped back and forth, beat the pages up, asked my more math-oriented friends for help. I spent forever trying to solve the MU exercise. It was worth it. I still feel like I understood parts of it only in intuitive flashes, but those flashes showed me a room more interesting than most of the well-lit chambers ordinary books provide.
Reading Godel, Escher, Bach is like joining a club. People who see you reading it will open spontaneous conversations and often gift you with unexpected insights. (I had a fascinating conversation with a total stranger about Godel's theorem.)
Wish I could give more than five stars.
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am 14. Juli 2000
When I got to the part where he fully explains the Incompleteness Theorem, my brain melted a little. You will learn many new concepts from this book even if you've been in the sciences for a long time. The mix of Achilles and Tortoise stories, the biography of Bach and the technical explanations of his compositions, communication theory, formal grammars, word play, Escher art... this book truly is "an intellectual Grand Tour of hacker preoccupations" as the Jargon File describes it! A must read for anyone interested in a layman's book on cognitive science and machine language. And did I mention it's FUN!
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am 25. Juli 2000
I first tried to read GEB aged about 24. I did stunningly badly at maths and science in school (failed Maths, Physics *and* Applied Maths) and had never taken an interest in that kind of thing - but I did like Bach, and had just met my first computer geek friends. It has to be said that for the utter novice, Hofstadter is wonderful at making his subject matter seem not just interesting but vital, accessible and beautiful. He leads you into the knotty topic of logic via some brilliantly conceived exercises, and his explanations of how all this stuff knits together are dense but totally clear. If any book made me ashamed of not knowing more about maths, logic, computer science and AI, and yet also enabled me to find out, it's this one. And for somebody who had always been allergic to such topics, that has to be good. It's truly an incredible feat of thought and imagination.
So why didn't I give it five stars? Cause, in many ways, I'm a small, mean-minded individual. My quibble with Hofstadter - and I *know* this is pathetic, given the kind of creative leap necessary to conceive a volume like this one - is that his sense of humour, exemplified in the, erm, humorous dialogues that punctuate the discursive chapters, is, well, sort of, ponderous. I'm well aware that he wanted to make the book *show* what he meant as much as *say* it. But I find the dialogues clever, rather than genuinely funny or illuminating (Borges would have understood that it's better to *describe* this kind of textual game-playing than actually carry it out). I'm not entirely convinced by some of Hofstadter's theories about the nature of consciousness (particularly after having read Andrew Hodges' wonderful biography of Alan Turing) and hence I find some of his propositions about AI a bit dubious.
But what do I know? I'm a lit guy poking around the edge of a subject I know very little about. The only thing I feel qualified to speak out about loud and bold are the literary qualities of the book. There's an excess of cuteness. I could've used more salt. (I also don't really buy Hofstadter's reasons in the preface to the new edition about why he didn't bother to revise the text - surely a few hundred footnotes would have been a great boon, but then I speak as a lover of footnotes.)
Don't let that put you off. If you're a professional scientist, philosopher or musician you *might* be disappointed. If you're none of these things, then this is probably the ultimate popular science book of the past 30 years. It deserves a place on the coffee table of every thinking person.
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am 29. Oktober 1999
I think Steve Keppel-Jones has missed the point of the previous reviewer.
Steve says self-rep and self-ref depend not an outside observer but on the properties of the system itself. But that's an example of the same sort of hand-waving the earlier reviewer was talking about: an isomorphism (a mathematical version of 'resemblance') isn't the same thing as a reference. (In some respects Kilamanjaro resembles Everest, and Everest Kilamanjaro; do the two mountains therefore *mean* each other?)
Hofstadter and Keppel-Jones are implicitly relying here on a thoroughly discredited 'picture theory of meaning' dressed up in mathematical language. Isomorphisms do indeed require minds in order to count as references, and - as the earlier reviewer said - there must be a mind in the system already in order for this to occur within the system itself. Otherwise the 'meaning' is imported from an observer outside the system.
By the way, if Hofstadter claims that consciousness doesn't require simulation of the neuronal level, then doesn't that mean self-rep and self-rep *are* sufficient conditions for consciousness to occur? Or is he speaking only of 'simulated consciousness' (whatever that might be)?
What, in short, does Keppel-Jones mean in saying that 'mind can be *represented* by symbol-manipulating systems'? Is this more hand-waving?
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am 16. November 1999
'Anyone who disagrees with the contents of this book must be distraught because Hofstatder stepped on someone's philosophical toes.'
This sort of sophomoric argumentum ad hominem (and perhaps ad baculum as well) is innuendo, not a defence of the ideas contained in this volume. Such nonsensical remarks about the *motives* of those who disagree with Hofstadter are more worthy of cultism than of genuine philosophical enquiry.
Hofstadter's contentions about the origins of mind are highly debatable to say the least. Moreover, the 'picture theory of meaning' has indeed been 'discredited' in the only way philosophical ideas are ever discredited: by reasoned argumentation. It was revived earlier this century by the tyro Wittgenstein, who seems never to have read a work of actual philosophy in his life. Had he done so, he would not have offered his remarkable naive theory.
The theory becomes no less naive when it is couched in the language of 'isomorphism'. Even if Hofstadter were using this term in its mathematically precise sense (which he most assuredly is not), it would still be false that the existence of a mathematical mapping from one set to another is sufficient to create *meaning* if mind is not already present. But this is the view to which Hofstadter is committed if he intends his work to support the contention a reviewer has quoted below, regarding the origins of consciousness and 'selfhood'.
That reviewer was too kind. Hofstadter's reductionist 'explanations' of mind belong next to those of his comrade Daniel Dennett - in the trash bin.
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am 1. Juni 2000
I found this book to be too distracted to be good science, too unpersuasive to be good philosophy, too cute to be good math, and too annoying to be good poetry. With no disdain or contempt for the many people and prize committees who have found their lives or minds enriched by this book I have to say I found nothing here that helped me.
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am 29. Oktober 1998
Godels' Theory is just that. Theory. Nothing is proven although some enlightening mathematical juxtipositions are called into play. It is highly entertaining. But I would not call it life changing. I would be very malicious if I did not maintain a skeptical view of this work.
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am 12. Mai 2000
Perhaps Hofsteader's method (or is it madness) is best explained with an example. One of the chapters, contrapunctus (or something like that) opens with a dialogue where some of the "characters" are discussing the greatness of acrostics and J.S. Bach. One character remarks that he wonders whether an author would include his own name or Bach's name, should he just happen to be including an acrostic work. As it just so happens, the first letters of each line in the dialogue spell "Hofsteader's Contrapunctus Acrostically Backwards Spells J.S.Bach, which, acrostically backwards, spells J.S. Bach. Wow! This is not to say that the work is not serious though. Through analogies such as the attempt to create a record player(logical system) that could play(prove/disprove) any record(statement), Hofsteader attempts to explain 300 years of process in formal systems and theory. Escher and Bach are just some of the ideas he brings together in this history. Be forewarned, the math/small print can get a bit heavy at times (especially in the sections on 1-2 specific formal systems). If you're willing to slog through it though, it is well worth it. The entire book is like a pleasant little exercise for the mind.
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am 1. März 1999
I first read this book when I was 14. To me, the underlying theme is summarized as follows:
"Logic and Intelligence is something understandable by humans, living creatures. At what point does information leave the "mechanical" state of what is right and wrong, and enter the 'intelligent' state of logic? When does 'logic' then, become 'unintelligent'?
The book is an unasked question. As we strive to achieve higher levels of Artificial Intelligence, we learn more and more about our own intelligence. Not only do we not always have the answers, we discover more questions as we go. The book shows, in an underlying way, how using one type of logic to understand that same type of logic, invariably causes chasms. However, using a second type of logic to understand the first, has huge communication gaps.
Now as I begin to read the book again a couple things come to mind, 1) I didn't realize how much this had to do with AI the first time around. 2) It might not necessarily be about "AI" as it is about "I" in general. 3) I would love to know what the author would change if he was writing it for the first time today.
So read up, enjoy, and goodness, it's not as hard as you all make it out to be!!
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