Tal Cohen's Bookshelf: A Collection of Personal Opinions about Books
An Interview with Douglas R. Hofstadter, following ''I am a Strange Loop''
Reviewed by Tal Cohen Wednesday, 11 June 2008
Douglas R. Hofstadter is best-known for his book Gödel, Escher, Bach (GEB for short). In his latest book, I am a Strange Loop, he visits once again many of the themes originally presented in that book.

The interview below was conducted in September 2007 and was originally published, in Hebrew, in the online culture magazine Haayal Hakore.

The interview was conducted by Tal Cohen and Yarden Nir-Buchbinder.

The first part of I am a Strange Loop reads like a condensed version of GEB, by explaining the idea of consciousness as a strange loop. However, unlike in GEB, you do not discuss AI in this book. Are you disappointed with the way cognitive/AI research has advanced in the past three decades? Did you, like many other researchers of the time, believe that intelligent machines are “just around the corner”? And if so, do you still believe it will happen, eventually?

I certainly did not believe intelligent machines were just around the corner when I wrote GEB. [Chapter 19] of GEB makes that very clear indeed.

Am I disappointed by the amount of progress in cognitive science and AI in the past 30 years or so? Not at all. To the contrary, I would have been extremely upset if we had come anywhere close to reaching human intelligence — it would have made me fear that our minds and souls were not deep. Reaching the goal of AI in just a few decades would have made me dramatically lose respect for humanity, and I certainly don’t want (and never wanted) that to happen.

I am a deep admirer of humanity at its finest and deepest and most powerful — of great people such as Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, Ella Fitzgerald, Albert Schweitzer, Frederic Chopin, Raoul Wallenberg, Fats Waller, and on and on. I find endless depth in such people (many more are listed on [chapter 17] of I Am a Strange Loop), and I would hate to think that all that beauty and profundity and goodness could be captured — even approximated in any way at all! — in the horribly rigid computational devices of our era.

Do I still believe it will happen someday? I can’t say for sure, but I suppose it will eventually, yes. I wouldn’t want to be around then, though. Such a world would be too alien for me. I prefer living in a world where computers are still very very stupid. And I get a huge kick out of laughing at the hilariously unpredictable inflexibility of the computer models of mental processes that my doctoral students and I co-design. It helps remind me of the immense subtlety and elusiveness of the human mind.

Indeed, I am very glad that we still have a very very long ways to go in our quest for AI. I think of this seemingly “pessimistic” view of mine as being in fact a profound kind of optimism, whereas the seemingly “optimistic” visions of Ray Kurzweil and others strike me as actually being a deeply pessimistic view of the nature of the human mind. (I say all this much more poetically on p. 522 of Le Ton beau de Marot, by the way.)

We’ll return to Kurzweil soon.

You use the word “soul”, rather than consciousness. While you clearly qualified the term to remove any religious connotations, avoiding such connotations is not really possible; “soul” is a very loaded symbol in this respect. Why did you choose to use it, and not, for example, “mind” or “consciousness” or any of several other, less-loaded alternatives?

I used the word “soul” because, out of all the various words that one might use — “consciousness”, “intentionality”, “mind”, and so forth — it is the one that I think most evocatively suggests the deep mystery of first-person existence that any philosophically inclined person must wonder about many times during their life. But I think that the first-person pronoun “I” is just as evocative a word for the same thing. I could also have used the word “spirit”, I guess, but that, too, would have seemed loaded with religious flavor to many readers.

The point is, whenever one talks about what life is, from the inside, one gets very close to what religion itself is all about. It therefore shouldn’t be too big a surprise that I appropriated a religion-flavored word to talk about a deep mystery that is so close to the very core of religion.

One of the most surprising arguments in the book (it has in fact appeared in his previous book, Le Ton beau de Marot) is the idea that the soul outlives the body by having its copies, or “soul-shards”, exist in many brains — the brains of other people, who have known the deceased; perhaps a stronger variation of the idea that a person lives so long as others remember him.

You present a compelling argument for the notion of a soul surviving its physical body by being spread across multiple brains; the more a person is familiar to others, the better his soul is “present” in their brain, too. How will you respond to the claim that the “presence” of one soul in another soul’s brain is merely a simulation mechanism, developed by the evolution process as a means to improve survival? (Being able to predict what members of your clan are about to do can certainly be a powerful survival tool.)

My argument in I Am a Strange Loop is spelled out clearly. If a person’s soul is truly a pattern, then it can be realized in different media. Wherever that pattern exists in a sufficiently fine-grained way, then it is, by my definition, the soul itself and not some kind of “mere simulation” of it.

“Mere simulation” is a phrase that sounds suspiciously like John Searle when he is contemptuously deriding AI in his usual flippant fashion. However, as I see it, there is no black-and-white dividing line between “mere simulations” of a complex entity and full realizations of it — there are just lots and lots of shades of gray all along the way. This spectrum is pointed out in many places in my books, including the three marvelous short stories by Stanislaw Lem included in The Mind’s I.

We’ll get back to Lem’s books, too...

If indeed a soul can survive by being present in other brains, then certain souls survive for many centuries after their primary brain is gone. You provide an example with Frederic Chopin, saying that “Chopin, the actual person, survives so much in our world, even today”.

A common saying is that authors are “immortalized” by their books. Your notion of soul-shards casts a whole new light on this idea, suggesting that authors (and artists, such as musicians) truly extend the survival of their soul by making their works well-known. In this sense, it seems like your own books make a huge effort to familiarize the readers with your inner life, the making of your soul; for example, where most authors would have written “My fabric was greatly influenced by many people, from Niels Bohr to Charlie Brown”, you provide a detailed list of over 45 names. The book (and your previous book, Le Ton beau de Marot) is peppered with scores of anecdotes about your personal life. As a reader, I certainly feel like I know you much better than I know most other authors, certainly authors of non-fiction works. Can this be viewed as an attempt to entrench shards of your soul in the minds of your readers? Is this your shot at immortality?

I am not shooting at immortality through my books, no. Nor do I think Chopin was shooting at immortality through his music. That strikes me as a very selfish goal, and I don’t think Chopin was particularly selfish. I would also say that I think that music comes much closer to capturing the essence of a composer’s soul than do a writer’s ideas capture the writer’s soul. Perhaps some very emotional ideas that I express in my books can get across a bit of the essence of my soul to some readers, but I think that Chopin’s music probably does a lot better job (and the same holds, of course, for many composers).

I personally don’t have any thoughts about “shooting for immortality” when I write. I try to write simply in order to get ideas out there that I believe in and find fascinating, because I’d like to let other people be able share those ideas. But intellectual ideas alone, no matter how fascinating they are, are not enough to transmit a soul across brains. Perhaps, as I say, my autobiographical passages — at least some of them — get tiny shards of my soul across to some people. But such autobiographical story-telling is not nearly as effective a means of soul-transmission as is living with someone you love for many years of your lives, and sharing profound life goals with them — that’s for sure!

Scientist and inventor Ray Kurzweil presents a different take at immortality, a more physical one. Like you, Kurzweil views the soul as “software” that can be executed on different “hardware”. He further believes that in a relatively short while, we will have electronic hardware which is the equivalent of the human brain (which you eloquently characterize as a “universal machine”, capable as “executing” any “soul software”). Once such hardware is available, Kurzweil believes immortality would have been reached: by “downloading” our soul-software onto electronic brains (“Giant Electronic Brains”?), we will become immortals, able to create backups of our souls to be restored in case of disaster, and able to shift our physical location anywhere in the speed of a software download.

Do you share Kurzweil’s view of hardware being able to execute human soul software within the foreseeable future? Do you agree with his view of this being the equivalent of immortality — will the software running on the electronic brain be the same “I”?

I think Ray Kurzweil is terrified by his own mortality and deeply longs to avoid death. I understand this obsession of his and am even somehow touched by its ferocious intensity, but I think it badly distorts his vision. As I see it, Kurzweil’s desperate hopes seriously cloud his scientific objectivity.

I think Kurzweil sees technology as progressing so deterministically fast (Moore’s Law, etc.) that inevitably, within a few decades, hardware will be so fast and nanotechnology so advanced that things unbelievable to us now will be easily doable. A key element in this whole vision is that no one will need to understand the mind or brain in order to copy a particular human’s mind with perfect accuracy, because trillions of tiny “nanobots” will swarm through the bloodstream in the human brain and will report back all the “wiring details” of that particular brain, which at that point constitute a very complex table of data that can be fed into a universal computer program that executes neuron-firings, and presto — that individual’s mind has been reinstantiated in an electronic medium. (This vision is quite reminiscent of the scenario painted in my piece “A Conversation with Einstein’s Brain” toward the end of The Mind’s I, actually, with the only difference being that there is no computer processing anything — it’s all done in the pages of a huge book, with a human being playing the role of the processor.)

The cover of Kurzweil’s book.

Rather ironically, this vision totally bypasses the need for cognitive science or AI, because all one needs is the detailed wiring plan of a brain and then it’s a piece of cake to copy the brain in other media. And thus, says Kurzweil, we will have achieved immortal souls that live on (and potentially forever) in superfast computational hardware — and Kurzweil sees this happening so soon that he is banking on his own brain being thus “uploaded” into superfast hardware and hence he expects (or at least he loudly proclaims that he expects) to become literally immortal — and not in the way Chopin is quasi-immortal, with just little shards of his soul remaining, but with his whole soul preserved forever.

Well, the problem is that a soul by itself would go crazy; it has to live in a vastly complex world, and it has to cohabit that world with many other souls, commingling with them just as we do here on earth. To be sure, Kurzweil sees those things as no problem, either — we’ll have virtual worlds galore, “up there” in Cyberheaven, and of course there will be souls by the barrelful all running on the same hardware. And Kurzweil sees the new software souls as intermingling in all sorts of unanticipated and unimaginable ways.

Well, to me, this “glorious” new world would be the end of humanity as we know it. If such a vision comes to pass, it certainly would spell the end of human life. Once again, I don’t want to be there if such a vision should ever come to pass. But I doubt that it will come to pass for a very long time. How long? I just don’t know. Centuries, at least. But I don’t know. I’m not a futurologist in the least. But Kurzweil is far more “optimistic” (i.e., depressingly pessimistic, from my perspective) about the pace at which all these world-shaking changes will take place.

In any case, the vision that Kurzweil offers (and other very smart people offer it too, such as Hans Moravec, Vernor Vinge, perhaps Marvin Minsky, and many others — usually people who strike me as being overgrown teen-age sci-fi addicts, I have to say) is repugnant to me. On the surface it may sound very idealistic and utopian, but deep down I find it extremely selfish and greedy. “Me, me, me!” is how it sounds to me — “I want to live forever!” But who knows? I don’t even like thinking about this nutty technology-glorifying scenario, now usually called “The Singularity” (also called by some “The Rapture of the Nerds” — a great phrase!) — it just gives me the creeps. Sorry!

Another surprising argument in the book is the almost Zennish claim that the soul is nothing but an illusion; an illusion that exists because it hallucinates itself. Perhaps we can say that Hofstadter’s answer to the psychophysical problem is simply, “There is no problem, because there is no psycho. We just imagine it” — and the fact we imagine it is what leads, in fact, to the psycho’s existence. This is the heart of the strange loop that lends its name to the book. The illusion stems from the brain’s need to create an internal representation of its surrounding (for survival purposes), and part of this representation necessarily includes the brain itself, the “I”, a mechanism that represents itself and thereby leads to its very existence. Clearly, not every brain represents itself with equal level of detail; animals, for example, represent the world in their brain in an inferior manner, and hence their self-representation — including their “I”, or their “soul” — is inferior; perhaps one could say that they hallucinate less... (Before you criticize the idea, please bear in mind that this brief outline probably does it a disservice; you’ll have to read the book to fully understand this theory, even if you disagree.)

For the sake of discussion, Hofstadter came up with a “scale” for measuring the “soul level” of different brains: the Huneker scale. It is named after James Huneker, a music critic who said, in the early 1900’s, that “Small-souled men, no matter how agile their fingers,” should not attempt playing a certain piano piece by Chopin.

You claim that an “I” is nothing but a myth, a hallucination perceived by a hallucination. Certainly, from this point of view, one can assume that there is nothing sacred about souls. Yet you seem to hold souls as sacred, being, for example, a vegetarian. Aren’t those views somewhat conflicting? If a soul is not real, and is nothing but the high-level result of bio-chemical processes, why care about the survival of other souls (and in particular “low-huneker” souls)?

I can’t explain this completely rationally. Sure, my brain falls for the universal myth of the “I” — the great hallucination, if you prefer — just as powerfully as does any other human brain. And this hallucination inevitably gives rise to compassion and empathy (yes, merely empathy for other hallucinations, if you will, but that’s just how it is). At some point, in any case, my compassion for other “beings” led me very naturally to finding it unacceptable to destroy other sentient beings (or other hallucinations, if you prefer), such as cows and pigs and lambs and fish and chickens, in order to consume their flesh, even if I knew that their (hallucinated) sentience wasn’t quite as high as the (hallucinated) sentience of human beings.

Where or on what basis to draw the line? How many hunekers merit respect? I didn’t know exactly. I decided once to draw the line between mammals and the rest of the animal world, and I stayed with that decision for about twenty years. Recently, however — just a couple of years ago, while I was writing I Am a Strange Loop, and thus being forced (by myself) to think all these issues through very intensely once again — I “lowered” my personal line, and I stopped eating animals of any sort or “size”. I feel more at ease with myself this way, although I do suspect, at times, that I may have gone a little too far. But I’d rather give a too-large tip to a server than a too-small one, and this is analogous. I’d rather err on the side of generosity than on the other side, so I’m vegetarian. (However, I don’t worry about the souls of tomatoes, as I point out in Chapter 1 of I Am a Strange Loop.)

Near the end of the book, you discuss performances of Bach’s music. Are there any modern performers that you esteem in particular? How about variations on Bach? Playing Bach in jazz-style is very common, for example.

I don’t pay all that much attention to who is performing classical music, because for me most top-notch performers sound very similar to each other. There are of course subtle differences between great performers, but what counts most for me is the composer’s sequence of notes and harmonies, and that’s always there, just about perfectly. Small variations on how the notes and harmonies are produced can have small effects, but that’s all. Classical music is about the profound meanings put there by the composer, not about subtle tweaks on it brought out by the performer. At least that’s how I see it.

You know how much I love analogies — well, here’s one. To me, hearing lots of great performers perform the same piece (and I once had just such an experience — I was at a music festival in Aspen, Colorado where a whole bunch of stunningly talented young pianists performed the very beautiful first movement of the Schumann piano concerto one after the other, and I listened for a couple of hours, and it was fascinating) is like watching the greatest slalom-skiers in the world on television as they compete against each other in the Olympics. They’re all unbelievably great at what they do, and they all come down the very long hill within a second or two of each other, sometimes separated by only tenths or hundredths of a second! The differences between them are almost microscopic, in the end. They are all beautiful to watch but I can’t tell one from the other. If somebody told me that they were all the same person wearing different-color uniforms, I wouldn’t shout “Impossible!” Would you?

Mind you, this takes nothing away from such people’s enormous talent, but it just says that many different gifted people can carry out nearly indistinguishable marvelous feats that I myself could never aspire to do at all. What they do is hugely impressive, but the differences between the performances of these hugely gifted and hard-working individuals are not all that great. And as in skiing, so in performance of classical music.

Incidentally, to be very clear on this, I would say it’s a totally different ballgame when it comes to jazz and popular music, because in those cases liberties galore are taken by all performers — inserting one’s own personality is the name of the game! “The very same song” as sung by Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra can be unbelievably different (and of course this vast difference is also due in large part to the musicians in the bands accompanying the singers, as well as to the vastly different arrangements). In jazz and popular music, who is playing or singing counts enormously much for me. It makes all the difference in the world. But in classical music, who is performing counts for far far less, as long as we are dealing with a highly talented performer.

I have to add that literary translation is a lot more like jazz or pop music than it is like performance of classical music, because once again, the personality of the translator becomes an intrinsic and central part of the “voice” that is speaking. That is inevitable, and it is why translation is such a deep and important art.

Translation is another subject in which Hofstadter finds great interest, ever since he helped translate GEB to French. Translation is the key subject of Le Ton beau de Marot, and Hofstadter returns to it in this interview’s final question. In fact, he uses this question to tie everything together:

When presenting questions about the soul, I am a Strange Loop (like several of the articles in The Mind’s I) draws on science-fiction themes, such as teleportation. Yet the list of influential people in your life includes no SF authors, and the only SF character in that list is Captain Nemo. Do you read science fiction at all? What are your thoughts on this genre?

When I was around ten or twelve, I liked science fiction (I still vividly recall some aspects of the novel Red Planet by Robert Heinlein) and found it very stimulating, but after a while I grew tired of it. Nonetheless, I do admire a few science-fiction authors, such as Robert L. Forward (who was a professional physicist — he’s the author of Dragon’s Egg, to which I devote nearly a whole chapter in Le Ton beau de Marot) and Stanislaw Lem (author of The Cyberiad, among many other books, from which two wonderful short pieces in The Mind’s I are taken — and his separate piece Non Serviam is also included in The Mind’s I). But even Lem, despite all his scientific subtlety and philosophical insight, occasionally troubles me (I remember I once read some long novel by him that I couldn’t stand!). The problem is that too many liberties are taken and one can’t really believe in the scenarios any more.

I guess I am pretty old-fashioned in my literary tastes. I like a powerful, believable novel, such as The Kite Runner or A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini, which both take place in Afghanistan, and of course The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, and Vikram Seth’s wonderful novel-in-verse The Golden Gate.

That last novel, by the way, was inspired by Pushkin’s spectacular novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin. I was in fact led to Eugene Onegin by meeting Seth for a coffee some twenty years ago in a Palo Alto bookstore and learning on that occasion about how he had been deeply inspired by Charles Johnston’s English rendition of EO, and shortly thereafter I eagerly gobbled down several English translations of EO (including Johnston’s, of course), in the process falling deeply in love with James Falen’s intoxicatingly beautiful version of EO. That love affair then inevitably led me, a few years later, to tackling the Russian original — and to my utter astonishment, I wound up memorizing huge chunks of it (as do the Russians themselves), and then translating the entire novel-in-verse into English verse myself. That year-long adventure was one of the most wonderful episodes of my entire life, and I tell the whole story in my Translator’s Preface to that book.

Translating EO into my own style of English verse, and seeing it in other people’s styles in English, French, German, Italian, etc., gave me lots of metaphors for thinking about the human soul and how it can survive in other media — after all, here was the “soul of Russian literature” (for that’s truly how Russians conceive of Eugene Onegin, although non-Russians don’t generally know that) being transplanted into a radically different medium and yet surviving beautifully in, say, James Falen’s or Babette Deutsch’s anglicizations (and possibly in mine as well, but I can’t be objective on that score).

I often wondered about the hypothetical sci-fi scenario in which all traces of the Russian original were destroyed, so that all that was left of Eugene Onegin was, say, James Falen’s English version of it — would Eugene Onegin have survived? And my answer always was a categorical and unmitigated “Yes!” And that’s how I think about the survival of human souls in other human brains — it’s just that the “translations” of souls aren’t nearly as high-quality as Falen’s is of Pushkin’s original. That’s too bad, but it’s life. You take what you can get.

Pushkin puts it this way, in stanza 38 of Chapter II of Eugene Onegin, in my translation (he’s speaking of the young would-be poet named Lensky, who is in a cemetery standing near the graves of his parents and brooding poetically about life’s all-too-fleeting nature):

  And there he, on the the stark, dark marker
  Atop his parents’ graves, shed tears,
  And praised their ashes — darker, starker.
  Alas, life reaps too fast its years;
  All flesh is grass. Each generation,
  At heaven’s hidden motivation,
  Arises, blooms, and falls from grace;
  Another quickly takes its place.
  And thus our race, rash and impetuous,
  Ascends and has its day, then raves
  And hastens toward ancestral graves.
  All too soon, death’s sting will get to us;
  Aye, how our children’s children rush
  And push us from this world’s sweet crush.

Notice, by the way, the captial “A” at the beginning of each line — just a whim of mine that I indulged myself in (and which, I think, improved the stanza’s quality, since this extra self-imposed constraint forced me to pay incredibly close attention to each and every word choice in each and every line to make everything flow effortlessly despite the constraint).

And here, just for the sake of comparison, is James Falen’s marvelously mellifluous and lyrical version of that same stanza:

  And then with verse of quickened sadness
  He honored too, in tears and pain,
  His parents’ dust... their memory’s gladness...
  Alas! Upon life’s furrowed plain —
  A harvest brief, each generation,
  By fate’s mysterious dispensation,
  Arises, ripens, and must fall;
  Then others too must heed the call.
  For thus our giddy race gains power:
  It waxes, stirs, turns seething wave,
  Then crowds its forebears toward the grave.
  And we as well shall face that hour
  When one fine day our grandsons true
  Straight out of life will crowd us too!

I hope that by comparing these two English versions of the Russian original, you can get a sense for how “the same pattern” exists in them all — two of them in the medium or substrate of English, and one of them (unseen here) in the substrate of Russian. To me, this is a wonderful metaphor for soul transplantation.

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