Book Review: Gödel, Escher and Bach

This is an old book review written from 2016.

The Setup

Are you someone who has intellectual curiosity? Do you wonder about the nature of intelligence and whether robots are going to take over the world? Do you have masochistic tendencies? If so, congratulations. Gödel, Escher and Bach is your perfect book.

How do I describe this book? It’s over 800 pages of raw intellectualism, covering topics as wide as Number Theory, Zen, DNA replication, M.C Escher’s drawings, Bach’s musical fugues, recursion and just about everything else. All in an attempt the following question: how can a sense of Self arise from objects that we don’t consider having a sense of Self?

The quick answer most people would rattle off would just be to say “the brain” and leave it at that. But that doesn’t actually solve our original question. If a sense of Self, an ego, arises in the brain, how exactly does this happen? How is intelligence born?

The book hits at this question from many different angles, slowly building up the case that our sense of Self comes from multiple levels in the brain all acting on each other. It’s a strange, self-referential infinite loop.

I wasn’t exactly sure what I would get out of reading this book, but when I saw my roommate owned a copy I had to borrow it from him. It took me almost half a year to finish, but we’re finally here.

Half of this book is written in the form of a Dialogue between imaginary characters. So in the spirit of writing this review, I’d thought I do the same. Only the characters will me Me and Hofstadter himself. So without further ado, let the Dialogue begin.

The Dialogue

AUSTIN KOURAKIN, the writer of this blog, has invited over to his apartment, DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER, the author of Gödel, Escher and Bach, to check out his latest writing.

AUSTIN KOURAKIN: Douglas, thank you for making it. I’m really in a bind here.

DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Of course. Getting to Miami at this time a day was no easy feat though, with all the traffic. I hope you have good reason for summoning me.

AUSTIN KOURAKIN: I do. Come take a look at this. (shows Hofstadter his open laptop with a word document pulled up)

DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Ah, you’re reviewing my book, Gödel, Escher and Bach on your blog! I have to say I’m honored. I’m assuming it got your highest rating?

AUSTIN KOURAKIN: Um, sure it did. But there is just one problem.

DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: And what’s that?

AUSTIN KOURAKIN: I didn’t understand any of it.

DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: What?! How could you not understand my book? It’s as clear as a Zen Koan! Sigh, this is why I had to write the preface to the anniversary addition.

AUSTIN KOURAKIN: Well, I understand much of it, especially the parts about Zen. I’m pretty well versed in that area. But this idea of a self-referential consciousness confuses me greatly. And I don’t see what Gödel, Escher and Bach has to do with Gödel, Escher and Bach.

DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Gödel proved that mathematics is incomplete, Escher drew pictures that defied logic and Bach wrote recursive musical pieces. Honestly, it can’t be more simple.

AUSTIN KOURAKIN: And what does this have to do with a Self?

DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Still can’t figure it out? They are all ways of realizing the self-referential nature of consciousness.

AUSTIN KOURAKIN: I think I get it. For instance, in meditation, they tell you to “watch the thinker”. You can see thoughts simply pass you by without having to believe they are true. But this leads to a sticky problem.


AUSTIN KOURAKIN: If you’re watching the thinker, who is watching that? And if you’re watching the watcher, who is watching you watch the watcher? So on and so forth. An infinite regress problem.

DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: A conundrum indeed. And If I was the real Douglas Hofstadter and not the fiction of the real Austin Kourakin, I’d expect I would give an answer that suggested that this is exactly what I’m talking about. You aren’t “watching the watcher” in the first place, the watcher is watching itself. Your sense of Self is self-referential.

AUSTIN KOURAKIN: A brilliant explanation for a fictional character. Actually, technically that was the answer coming from the real Austin Kourakin, so it isn’t the answer of a fictional character. But it’s my dialogue so I’ll allow it. This is making my head hurt, I think I’ll stop.

DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Mine as well, let’s forget about the book. How’s the review coming?

AUSTIN KOURAKIN: The review is excellent. I’ve decided that because you use dialogues so much in your book, that I’d do the same for the review.

DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Genius! You’ll give me credit I suppose? Your reviews usually don’t follow this format.

AUSTIN KOURAKIN: Oh yes, it’s all there in The Setup. Would you like to read it?

DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: (reads the review) Ha, how amusing! You’ve included fictional versions of you and I having a dialogue. And the premise is that I am coming over to talk to you about you reviewing my book, having this exact conversation? That’s quite meta.

AUSTIN KOURAKIN: Actually, it’s infinitely meta. My created versions of You and I create another version of you and I, which create another version of you and I, which create another version of you and I,which create another version of you and...

DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: Yes, yes, I think I get it. I did write the book you know.

AUSTIN KOURAKIN: And the real Austin Kourakin essentially represents the “inviolate level” you talk about in your book.

DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER: You’ve done me proud. How do you think you’ll finish the Dialogue between us?

AUSTIN KOURAKIN: Oh, I don’t know. I suppose I’ll just cut it randomly.

Why it’s Awesome

In true Hofstadter style, we now are going to go into more depth about the Dialogue.

I’ve been railing against the limits of rationality on my blog for quite some time. I had no idea that in the field of mathematics, someone had already proven many of these same general ideas. His name was Kurt Gödel, and he was the author of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem.

Here’s the watered-down, five second version of Gödel’s conclusion. Any formal mathematical system that is consistent will automatically be incomplete. As an extension, a consistent system cannot prove its own consistency.

What does it mean to say a system is consistent? It means that there cannot be any direct contradictions between statements in the system. In other words, a mathematical system where 1=1 is true and 1=1 is false would be inconsistent because we have a very obvious contradiction.

To be incomplete means that for every statement made in a system, it must be able to be proved true or false. So if in our hypothetical mathematical system we derived 1=1, then we must be either to prove 1=1 is true or 1=1 is false. Same goes for all statements.

The fact that Gödel showed that every consistent system was incomplete was a major blow to the mathematical community, who hoped that mathematics was the key to answering all questions. This hope disappeared in a flash.

The secret to Gödel’s Theorem was self-referentialism within a mathematical system. At a certain point, Number Theory became so “powerful” in its ability to express theorems that it was able to make theorems about itself. This self-referencing is inherently paradoxical, and so Gödel was able to show that Number Theory must be incomplete.

If you didn’t understand that, it’s okay. Hofstadter goes WAY more in depth in the book.

Escher also used self-referentialism in his drawing. My favorite one from the book that shows this most clearly is of two hands, drawing themselves. Here it is:

Here we have what Hofstadter calls a Strange Loop. On one level, the hands are drawing themselves. Which is the author of which? Which one came “first”? Obviously we cannot answer this.

On another higher level, the hands are being drawn by M.C Escher. Thus, Escher himself is what Hofstadter calls the “inviolate level”, or invisible level of the loop.

In the above Dialogue, I am the invisible level of the Strange Loop I have placed them in. Or at least, I would be if I hadn’t made our fictional characters partially self-aware for amusement.

So this may be all very interesting to you. But what does this have to do with consciousness? Didn’t we say we were going to be analyzing how the Self is created?

We’re getting there. Let me quote what I see as one of the central paragraphs of the whole book:

My belief is that the explanation of “emergent” phenomena in our brains-for instance, ideas, hopes, images, analogies, and finally consciousness and free will-are based on a kind of Strange Loop, an interaction between levels in which the top levels reaches back down towards the bottom level and influences it, while at the same time being itself determined by the bottom level. In other words, a self-reinforcing “resonance” between different levels-quite like the Henkin sentence which, by merely asserting its own provability, actually becomes provable. The self comes into being at the moment it has the power to reflect itself.

This is huge. Our sense of Self “emerges” when it becomes complicated/powerful enough to be self-referential. These different levels of the brain all work together, using symbols as a way to create complex meaning out of seemingly meaningless objects.

Gödel showed us that once a system (in this case our brains) reaches the ability to self-reference, it automatically is either inconsistent or incomplete. I think it’s safe to say that’s exactly what’s happening in our brains. I’ve yet to meet anyone with anything interesting to say that hasn’t contradicted themselves. In fact, the best ideas are always paradoxical on the surface.

This is a self-development blog though. So if you’re wondering how you can apply any of this practically to your life, here we go.

If you’re a rationalist, Gödel, Escher and Bach should shake your faith in reasoning and science in general. I see way too many people who have made science their new religion, and the next step for them is to loosen their grip on that belief structure.

Second, the fact that meaning and thoughts are just symbols being layered on top of each other should get you curious that maybe there’s a deeper reality going on here. If we think of everything in terms of symbols, including our sense of Self, then what would it be like to experience reality without using symbols? Would that be significant? If everything is symbols, what’s the actual thing the symbols are trying to capture?