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Book Review: Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter, is not really a programming book, but is a worthwhile book for those interested in math, logic, intelligence, patterns and recursion. The book is one worthy of reflecting on, and is thick with examples and clever insights, thought provoking questions and enough content and puzzles to make it worthy of a re-read later in life.

The book is broken up by dialogues between chapters, of conversations between the Tortoise and Achilles (a homage to the philosopher Zeno) , in which the Tortoise is usually teaching Achilles some paradox or life lesson, and allows the reader to both enjoy the wit and wordplay that goes on between the characters, and also learn the lesson alongside Achilles. There are other characters introduced as the chapters go on, each one bringing something new, or introducing a new topic or idea (just wait for the Crab).

Those who get stuck on the title, the book is not about a comparison of math, art and music, but rather examines the strange loops, patterns and paradoxes that exist in the universe. You may have heard of one of the most famous quotes when estimating deadlines, “Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law”. The self-referencing nature, and recursive elements play a large theme of the book, and lead towards one of the main themes of the book, that of consciousness and self-awareness, existing from complex neurological mechanisms. The idea of some form of complexity built upon different forms of complexity, suggests the building blocks of conciousness stem from the underlying mechanics.

The main example of the theme of consciousnessis is Hofstadter’s example of the ant hill. The ants themselves exist as individuals but are also part of a much larger network, were each individual ant becomes part of a larger collective “consciousness”. The ant hill as a whole is able to adapt to conditions in ways that an individual ant could not, and allows for better survival of the entire group. The ant hill, in essence is a consciousness made up of a collection of other consciousness, in some ways similar to the human brain is made up of neurons which have simpler functionality than the brain as a whole.

Do not let the book size be too daunting, I think those who start reading the first couple chapters will likely want to see it through, it will take some time, as the book is large and thick with examples and thought provoking content, if you don’t think you will like it now, come back to it in ten years and try it than.

Recursion is a wonderful thing,

Michael Hubbard

https://michaelhubbard.ca

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