My Goodreads Rating: 4 of 5 stars
WARNING: If you’re reading a review of this book, then a friend or random stranger on the street has likely already fell to the ground before you and wailed that the geek prophet has arrived. Any attempt at a thorough description of this incredible (and incredibly strange) mash-up of thoughts on intelligence and meaning is bound to sound like the ravings of a newly-branded cult member, so I’ll just offer a few thoughts.
Come one, come all! for this book has something for everyone. Passages on musical composition, contemporary art, mathematical formalism, programming languages, molecular biology, linguistics, and neurons let musicians, artists, mathematicians, programmers, biologists, linguists, and neuroscientists each briefly take the stage and say, “Hey! I finally understand what’s going on!” This book is the literary equivalent of the board game Cranium; every team member with his or her unique disabilities and talents can have their time to shine. But be forewarned – the “literary egalitarianism” here is not that of Dan Brown’s work (each of us can see the bottom of its shallow depths!); instead, each of us can expect to spend equal periods of time in shifting states of inspiration and confusion (but at different times for each of us). That said, don’t be ashamed to skip a chapter, a hundred pages, or a good third of the book. Few mortals have the fortitude (or sadistic infatuation with abstract mathematics) to endure certain stretches of the book dealing primarily with mathematical formalism.
Yet, if you do endure, this book is an intellectual playground. Not only does Hofstadter pack about two genuinely new ideas onto every page (one per titled section), he also hides a cache of nifty thoughts in the structure of the book itself. The book alternates between fictional allegories introducing ideas and more direct attempts at explanations of them. There’s a lot of mind fuel here so take your time and treat this as a road trip (a meandering, unrushed adventure), not a morning commute (an unreflective race to the finish). [for the record, I spread this book over about 6 months:]
Lastly, two questions you might ask that would prevent you from picking up this 800-page behemoth:
I’ve heard this book is a bit fluffy and “hand-wavy” at times. Is it really the intellectual heavyweight some claim it to be, or is it merely philosophical musings that sound nice but don’t have any extendability?
Hoftstadter is certainly pretty free with his metaphors and analogies, but he’s also honest about his speculation. This book is not attempting to offer unified theories of intelligence or experimental evidence of hard scientific theories; its meant to introduce new ways to think about old problems. Yes, a big part of science is verifying ideas through rigorous experiment, but another equally important part is proposing structure where it is not superficially obvious. “Hand-waviness” is often a lazy and cowardly taunt by those unwilling to leap very far from the established assumptions of their field.
A 30-year old book on brains and AI – are you sure this is still worth reading?
Though Hoftstadter has skyrocketed to the top of my fantasy grandfather list, I can’t give a book 5 stars unless it significantly alters the way I act or perceive the world. That said, I’ll give this one 4 stars right now, note four of my favorite themes, and return in a couple weeks/months to see if these ideas are as interwoven into my worldview as I think they have been:
- multi-level meanings
- perversion of the data-program dichotomy (DNA-protein, LISP, etc)
- strange powers of recursion (quining, G-strings, bootstrapping, and Escher)
- meaning as isomorphism