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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none writes:
Mistaken attribution
Actually, Verner Vinge is credited with the Singularity concept, not Douglas Hofstadter.
[302] Posted on Friday, 13 June 2008 at 0:09 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Tal Cohen writes in reply to none:
Mistaken attribution
Indeed. Note that neither the questions nor the answers in this interview credit Hofstadter with the Singularity concept.
[306] Posted on Friday, 13 June 2008 at 8:23 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

marc writes in reply to none:
Mistaken attribution
I'm sorry, but I don't see the mistaken attribution you're trying to correct. Did we read the same article? Neither DRH nor the interviewer credits DRH with the concept.
[308] Posted on Friday, 13 June 2008 at 8:44 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

a former student of DRH writes:
narcissism and self-reference
I recognize that I have a choice in analyzing your review between making observations upon DRH, upon the interview questions, the answers thereof, or the new book.

Let me say this: twenty years ago all of the same indications in his personality (about his viewpoint's supremacy above all others) were present.

Now, that sounds a bit mean. And in truth it is meant to be a little bit, but there is important truth underneath: Where _does_ the study of one's self and the workings of one's own intelligence (and thus AI for those of us who are not anatomists pursuing the wetware as opposed to the 'software') end and the hubris of narcissism begin?

As a na?ve student I merely assumed, along with many of the professors in the department, that DRH's ego was the size of a small planet and that it was his way or else. But stepping back (through the use of time and growing up a bit, myself) and ignoring his comments herein about science fiction and computer scientists, I see that he really was studying himself.

My observation at the time was that he not trying so much to create AI, but rather create something (copycat) that emulated himself. I just didn't understand the full extent of the problem as most of us did not, nor the impossibility of either solution.

So let me apologize for being mean. I think he was doing his very best to tackle an immensely difficult subject and field and laid some important groundwork.

It doesn't really matter if I liked him or not. And I'm sure the feelings were mutual, assuming he even has the slightest clue who I was.


As you were the interviewer, let me ask you a question back: Did he insist upon editing this review so that the commas and other punctuation were all in the proper position?

*I thought so.*
[303] Posted on Friday, 13 June 2008 at 1:05 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Tal Cohen writes in reply to a former student of DRH:
narcissism and self-reference
I'll only comment on your postscript: no, he never did.
[307] Posted on Friday, 13 June 2008 at 8:26 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

a former student of DRH writes in reply to Tal Cohen:
narcissism and self-reference
Wow. He has changed.

Yeah. I was wrong about him.
[335] Posted on Tuesday, 17 June 2008 at 3:43 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Nobody who stumbled upon this writes in reply to a former student of DRH:
narcissism and self-reference
Yes, I am sure in the few years his personality completely reversed itself and it just *seems* like he is still a self involved prick.

That question hit it right on the mark, about him wanting to let his soul survive by injecting his personality into different mediums, even if he denied it.
And even tho he denied it, he is very much like kurzweil in wanting to live forever just like him.

I like how he ended it by cherry picking his verse and comparing it to the other guys. Shameless.
[746] Posted on Friday, 22 February 2013 at 6:42 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Daniel Bigham writes:
Fascinating stuff, I'll have to pick up a copy of this book
Ever since I was a teenager, I was captivated by the mystery of consciousness. And when I was in university, I was even more struck by how amazing and unexplained this phenomenon is.

I get excited when I read the thoughts of others who have grappled with this issue. For me, consciousness remains the only ''apparently physical'' phenomenon for which scientific explanations fall completely flat. It seems like most people don't appreciate how bizarre it is!

Something in this article that I love is D. Hofstadter's comment that he's glad that humankind's progress in AI hasn't been quicker, and that that is a reflection on how amazing humanity is. Great observation.

One more thought: The idea that a person's conscious being is software that can be uploaded onto silicon hardware: It's great in theory, but I'm willing to bet all my chips that it's a wrong.
[304] Posted on Friday, 13 June 2008 at 1:20 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Lucia writes:
This man -and certainly his work- becomes boring after a very short while. He's set on explaining something very simple with the stupidest words possible and in the slowest possible way. G?del's work is available in formal notation for everyone to see and understand and I find the latter much more enjoyable than reading the inane ramblings that pepper I am a Strange Loop. He goes on and on and on until it hurts on every possible little point. Granted, he's mapping mathematical -formal- issues to natural language but in doing so he only adds complexity to a subject that's intuitive to every person on earth, mathematically inclined or not, if he or she gives it a fair bit of thought. All of it can be explained to anyone able to not poop on himself over the time it takes to have two cups of coffee.

Commenting on the article, there is no need at all to understand a brain before it can be replicated. Hell, are all mothers congnitive scientists able to oversee for their babies' brain construction? Stars, planets, supernovae, life, intelligence and consciousness arise spontaneously in this universe due to blind forces. it will happen again and again provided the preconditions are met. Intelligent machines? definitely will happen. Our present, n-way algorithmic, computers may not cut it, but something will, there's simply too much time and energy available to us. We will have intelligent machines, that's a given. Whether we'll like them or scrape them is a different issue. I wouldn't want the Enterprise computer to be human, go thorugh adolescence, experience love, be angry, have a bad day once in a while, etc. I'd prefer a tool (although a smart one) to drive my car or a spaceship en route to Mars or the Moon but I definitely don't want a *copy* of a human brain doing so.
[310] Posted on Friday, 13 June 2008 at 9:58 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Jack writes in reply to Lucia:
Quote: ''This man -and certainly his work- becomes boring after a very short while.''


You could be a complete dick with no appreciation of one the finest intellects in the last 100 years...

Mmmm - well it's possible....
[311] Posted on Friday, 13 June 2008 at 12:56 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Lucia writes in reply to Jack:
No, I don't think I am. I didn't mean anything about his intellect, DRH is smart and I'm complaining about this book (that's what I meant here by 'his work') which is just a reenactment of truly groundbreaking work by others, put out like 'Conscience for dummies' in slow, painful, inaccurate metaphores. Nothing he says by himself is revolutionary, the book is a best seller because it presents fascinating subjects like Chaos theory, recursion and G?del's work about undecidability and uncompleteness, all three fields truly revolutionary stuff, in a way that appeals to someone who has never pondered these subjects. English is not my mother tongue so I may not have conveyed exactly what I wanted to say but basically it's quite obvious to me he's not doing any groundbreaking or revolutionary work here. G?del and others are to credit (and indeed he gives credit where credit is due). Lastly, you've got to be kidding me if you think DRH is 'one of the finest intellects of the last 100 years' unless of course your definition of 'one of the finest' is 'anyone who researches something and writes a hefty tome about subjects 40 years old', or your definition of '100 years' could be shorter than mine.
[324] Posted on Friday, 13 June 2008 at 21:47 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

tom123b writes in reply to Lucia:
His idea of ''strange loop'' is original. What a lot of readers seem not to have realized is the ''strangeness'' comes from the idea of downward causality, when the apparent cause-and-effect relationship in a system is flipped upside-down. Hofstadter is the first to take this idea from Godel's Incomplete Theorem and apply it to understanding consciousness. (see pg. 169-170 in the book.)
[360] Posted on Saturday, 24 January 2009 at 0:06 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Bob Morlock writes:
Hofstadter calling Kurzweil's predictions of immortal soul repugnant and greedy because it's all based on fear of one's own death is quite ironic considering that life and greed are really two sides of the same coin.

The second irony is that this sort of ''evolution'' (the singularity) isn't artificial or unnatural at all since it's all coming from our very own intellect, i.e. the result of million of years of evolution.

So, if you hate those ideas, well, blame humankind itself.

Maybe Hofstadter's real fear is that machines will someday have more soul than he does...
[312] Posted on Friday, 13 June 2008 at 13:29 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

kyb writes in reply to Bob Morlock:
He probably just hopes that those high huneker AIs will be vegetarian.
[315] Posted on Friday, 13 June 2008 at 14:33 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

abdulhaq writes in reply to kyb:
ouch! how to tear apart a lifetime of analysis in one sentence...
[402] Posted on Friday, 17 July 2009 at 16:19 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

ari writes in reply to Bob Morlock:
Although there are evolutionary progressions that occur all the time I doubt that this will be the case with humans and technology. I maintain that technology is just a tool and not an evolutionary step. In fact, I resent the idea that humanity can be encapsulated by humanity. I see it as a rather self-absorbed notion that anyone could truly believe that the 'soul' as referenced here could be replicated in a machine. After all at its best would it not just be an echo incapable of unique expression?
[624] Posted on Thursday, 14 October 2010 at 10:49 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

(anonymous) writes:

Kurzweil is wrong and this guy is right. A mere hardware is not enough to simulate a proper 'soul' with a high huneker score. It is enough to make semi-intelligent tools but it will never be close to the real deal.

Only when people start looking the human as a complete, holistic system will there be progress. There's more to it than just your brain - your blood and your organs contain a lot of the information that makes you you. Sure, the soul can connect to other bodies, but it will never be the same without the same body (blood and organs).

Scientists always ignore the big picture too much. Solving little details in isolation from the whole will not improve things in the long run.
[314] Posted on Friday, 13 June 2008 at 14:32 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

(anonymous) writes in reply to (anonymous):

Your definitely correct, blood contributes to your personality. All the chemicals that can pass the blood brain barrier are going to affect your personality, and of course there's more examples.

We will not be able to perfectly copy a person, but we might be able to copy what we consider the important aspects of personality. It wouldn't be the same person just a similar person. However, if you want to get nit picky, we are also different people moment to moment, because the matter in our bodies is changing.
[317] Posted on Friday, 13 June 2008 at 15:20 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Che writes in reply to (anonymous):

Quote: ''Kurzweil is wrong and this guy is right. A mere hardware is not enough to simulate a proper 'soul' with a high huneker score. It is enough to make semi-intelligent tools but it will never be close to the real deal.''

Never say never dog. It's just not smart.
[327] Posted on Saturday, 14 June 2008 at 3:56 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Luke Armstrong writes in reply to Che:

Never Say Never Dog? It's just impossible to say that and sound smart dog.
[672] Posted on Sunday, 06 March 2011 at 23:32 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Dani Blance writes in reply to (anonymous):

Have you read 'Embodiment or Envatment? Reflections on the Bodily Basis of Consciousness' by Diego Cosmelli and Evan Thompson? If not, I think you may like it... Although, I suppose it doesn't quite fit with what you said about hardware not being enough. They just argue that the hardware is more than the brain; that brain and body are ''reciprocally coupled and mutually regulating systems''.

[It's in J. Stewart, O. Gapenne & E Di Paolo (eds.), Enaction: Towards a New Paradigm for Cognitive Science. MIT Press. (2007)]
[330] Posted on Monday, 16 June 2008 at 0:33 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

anonymous writes:
How will the transplanted soul evolve
If nanobots can map the ''wiring'' of the brain and that map can be executed in hardware that is still not enough.

The hardware needs to know how to vary the wiring or the soul becomes static, which is certainly not a human trait.

So I don't see it being possible to transplant a soul without understanding at least how the mind evolves.
[316] Posted on Friday, 13 June 2008 at 15:02 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Bob Morlock writes in reply to anonymous:
How will the transplanted soul evolve
That is a very valid point.
The brain constantly creates new connections, that's how we memorize and learn, even without absolutely no input from the outside (as I come up with this sentence, connections in my brain are modified).

Without that it would just be a snapshot, a memory box.
[318] Posted on Friday, 13 June 2008 at 15:57 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

(anonymous) writes in reply to Bob Morlock:
How will the transplanted soul evolve
If one is willing to allow that ''nanobots'' might copy the ''wiring'' of our brain, it seems only a little step to extend that wiring to the ''wires'' that connect the brain to the outside world, whether that be through the optic nerve or through the bloodstream.
To put it another way, why only simulate the brain? Technology of that level should be able to (indeed [i]might as well[/i] simulate the rest of the body. Human holism is certainly not at risk... at least not until we understand the brain well enough to disentangle it from the body, should we want to.
[319] Posted on Friday, 13 June 2008 at 17:10 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Beepoh writes:
Totally unsatisfying!
It seems to me that consciousness and AI are fascinating subjects which lie outside the current scope of our conceptual 'equipment'. As research advances in these domains we will no doubt build the kind of ideas and notions that will enable us to tackle these fields scientifically. I hope this happens in my lifetime because I am genuinely keen to understand 'what it's all about'.

I'm also genuinely fed up with the kind of speculative nombrilistic nonsense such as that found in DRH's interview. I'd like to hear a bit less about souls and Chopin living on forever in the Matrix and a bit more about how the brain works. Yes it's all fascinatingly tantalizingly complex stuff and I'm sure the temptation to throw in poetry and piano-concertos is irresitible. But I think we all suspect that what we really need right now is a whole lot of experimental science and a mathematical revolution which will give us a proper insight into how the brain works. What are they doing about it? I'm speaking both as an amateur philosopher and full-time tax payer.
[320] Posted on Friday, 13 June 2008 at 17:22 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Mike A. writes in reply to Beepoh:
RE: Totally unsatisfying!

Frankly, I think it is a huge mistake to be speaking of ''souls'' in a serious discussion of intelligence and consciousness.

We have no reason whatsoever for asserting that consciousness has any ''magic'' component that isn't a consequence of the operation of the nervous system. Brains are 3.5 pounds of matter doing what matter does. As such, while we may not know how to construct a ''strong'' artificial intelligence, there is no basis, IMO, for baldly asserting that only our squishy brains can support sentience.
[326] Posted on Saturday, 14 June 2008 at 0:38 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Understanding writes in reply to Mike A.:
RE: Totally unsatisfying!
You've completely missed DRH's point in his discussion of the 'soul'. He, in Strange Loop, explicitly says that when he speaks of the 'soul', he does not refer to the orthodox meaning of the word (that is, the religious, ''magic'' essence in people), but refers rather to an embodiment of what separates the human consciousness from a fly's consciousness.

Hoftstadter's 'soul' is the 'I' he mentions in the title; it is the you that is unique to you, the me that is unique to me, and the sentience shared by all human life, as opposed to the seeming lack of sentience that exists in a tree.
[381] Posted on Thursday, 30 April 2009 at 17:19 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Keith writes in reply to Mike A.:
RE: Totally unsatisfying!
I think Beepoh and Mike A. are having a little trouble seeing the Simmballs through the Simms.
[461] Posted on Saturday, 19 December 2009 at 15:17 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Dani Blance writes in reply to Beepoh:
Totally unsatisfying!
Well, sure, understanding the brain would be great, but the task of understanding how and why the workings of the brain lead to/are identical to the workings of the mind is called 'the hard problem of consciousness' for a reason! The real problem isn't knowing more about the brain, it's knowing the bridge laws, if there are any, between the physical, functional workings of the brain and our experiences. Without understanding these bridge laws (having solved the hard problem) we couldn't make sense of multiple realisability; we would only be able to speculate about the mental properties of any artificial brain that wasn't merely a molecule-for-molecule copy of a biological brain. (Does it meet the conditions for consciousness or is it just close enough to have superficially similar but contentless functional states?). So I have to say, I disagree with your view that hard science could so easily do away with speculation.
[331] Posted on Monday, 16 June 2008 at 0:44 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Beepoh writes in reply to Dani Blance:
Totally unsatisfying!
You're right, there is room for speculation and it is an important part of the process. I suppose what I do find frustrating though is the fact that these kind of debates are 'speculation heavy'. Moreover, I'm really not sure that this speculation is getting us anywhere right now.

I'm not diminishing the importance of the hard problem either. The hard problem is ultimately the nut that we all want to see cracked. But remember, the distinction between the hard problem and the easy problem is a coined-in concept which may or may not turn out to be helpful in the end, a kind of Cartesian divide in disguise. At this point there is really no reason to believe that the 'easy' problem is simpler to solve than the hard problem. And who knows, maybe on the way to solving the easy problem we will find clues on how to solve the hard one. I think this is our best shot at this, and I also believe that this is exactly what DRH is doing in the lab when he's not writing books about Chopin's soul-shards.
[332] Posted on Monday, 16 June 2008 at 9:57 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

(anonymous) writes in reply to Beepoh:
Totally unsatisfying!
Oh god. Who cares whether any practical application comes of this thinking? For me its enough to understand what I am in a new way without it being used for some technological purpose.

Amateur philosopher is right... Its people like you who have this relentless need for everything to be useful and manipulable even in the very short term that have brought Western society and more to the point, the entire planet, to the horrific state that its currently in.

We need a departure from this type of rabidly scientific/technological worldview
[372] Posted on Thursday, 02 April 2009 at 10:47 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Adam A. Ford writes in reply to (anonymous):
Totally unsatisfying!
How can you say that we need to depart from the ''rabidly scientific/technological worldview'' when you are sitting around reading forums and replying to them via the wonderful technological medium of the internet? (If you are a luddite, you're not a very committed one)
Please specify what your alternate worldview is? And does it include science/technology at all?

I care whether there will be practical applications coming from this thinking (that is understanding the human mind,its application to AI etc).
At what point of humanity's development of science and technology do you think we should have stopped at? Plow shears? Clocks? Telescopes? Trains? The germ theory? Industrialization? Computers?
I think that around 10,000 years ago people cared about ways to grow crops more quickly and easily, and later on to know what time it is, to get from one place to another more quickly, to have less infant mortality.

It is not the need to find usefulness in everything that you describe as ''bringing the entire plannet to the horrific state that it is currently in''. Science and Technology, or peoples appreciation/persual of it does not ''cause'' _badness_. It is really just human minds -> perhaps greed and lazyness. Which is also why I believe we need a unbiased and rigorous scientific/technological approach to understanding how things work, and IMO, especially ourselves and how the mind works - and yes, I think that science and technology have a key role in this.


Douglas Hofstadter said ''If there are creatures more moral... than we are, wouldn't we want them to have the future...wouldn't it be better if the altruistic beings just survived and we didn't?''
- http://crazymotion.net/douglas-hofstadter-a-living-p...
[378] Posted on Thursday, 16 April 2009 at 2:33 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Ken Magel writes:
Comments on Brain Evolution
One could imagine a million experiments each using different mechanisms for evolving the artificial copy of the soul. The vast majority of these mechanisms (perhaps all of them) would not be the same as how our own brains and souls change, but all of these souls would evolve. Many, perhaps. would change in interesting ways. Some, perhaps. could change in more interesting ways than our own souls change.

You could use a genetic algorithm or something like it to cull and modify these mechanisms every few minutes.

What would be the ethics of such experiments on similar but not identical to human brains and souls?
[321] Posted on Friday, 13 June 2008 at 17:41 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

James D. Newman writes:
I am struck, on reading the comments, by how much more interesting DRH is than most people, and how justified he would be in his arrogance if he were arrogant. Although I don't believe that he is.
[323] Posted on Friday, 13 June 2008 at 18:13 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Ryan Dean writes:
Very cute how some of you seek to raise yourselves up by tearing someone down. Pathetic.

If your thoughts are worth hearing on the subject-write a book-and people will vote with their dollars.

Armchair quarterbacks-the lot of you!
[325] Posted on Friday, 13 June 2008 at 22:54 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Beepoh writes in reply to Ryan Dean:
>> If your thoughts are worth hearing on the subject-write a book-and people will vote with their dollars.

Of course this kind of metric would rate John Grisham's cultural contribution higher than that of Isaac Newton and William Shakespeare combined. There's no harm in respectful criticism, the alternative is blind idolatry.
[333] Posted on Monday, 16 June 2008 at 10:07 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Tracy writes:
Harmonic resonance
I thoughrally enjoyed this review and find so many of Hofstader?s ideas ring true with my thoughts. One of the main ones being how the depth of our existence has been trivialized by science. For example, biology can provide a fairly comprehensive classification of a plant. Society accepts the scientific classification of a plant and it is written off as having been explained. But there is a whole sub-microscopic world within the plant that is overlooked. I use a plant as an example, but this is the case of all living things classified by science. There is so much depth within the planet and universe that we have missed just by accepting science?s shallow classifications. I do find science a very useful tool which has gotten us quite far. But I still believe the stage of science that we are at is equivalent to looking at neutrinos through coke bottle lenses, or we are only 1% successful in explaining the world and existence with science so far.

In a similar way of science being accepted as a comprehensive abstraction of life, I see how mind is accepted as soul. I personally see mind and soul as 2 very different entities. Another concept to be added to this equation is instinct versus behavior that drive our actions. I believe that instinct is our link with a life force or energy that resonates within us, while behavior is a learnt set social programs passed down through generations. I feel that mind, behavioral programs and science share a commonality, where they are very close to the source of life but are an abstraction of it and are tools to harness it. They are often mistaken for the real thing, at which point we lose the depth of the magic and mystery of this complex cosmic concoction.
[334] Posted on Monday, 16 June 2008 at 12:28 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

(anonymous) writes in reply to Tracy:
Harmonic resonance
Harmonic resonance
I thoughrally enjoyed this review and find so many of Hofstader?s ideas ring true with my thoughts. One of the main ones being how the depth of our existence has been trivialized by science. For example, biology can provide a fairly comprehensive classification of a plant. Society accepts the scientific classification of a plant and it is written off as having been explained. But there is a whole sub-microscopic world within the plant that is overlooked. I use a plant as an example, but this is the case of all living things classified by science. There is so much depth within the planet and universe that we have missed just by accepting science?s shallow classifications. I do find science a very useful tool which has gotten us quite far. But I still believe the stage of science that we are at is equivalent to looking at neutrinos through coke bottle lenses, or we are only 1% successful in explaining the world and existence with science so far.

You had me up until you mentioned ''life force'' and ''cosmic'' something. If you didnt mean those words to have the type of new agey connotations that they have unfortunately acquired then I apologise. Words like ''life force'' really need to be qualified somewhat like Hofstadter had to qualify the word ''soul'' as something areligious before it had any kind of justification to be in such a book as I am a Strange Loop.

What your saying is absolutely right apart from that though. Science is extremely valuable as a tool for engaging and dealing with the world. And while the classifications which it inevitibly makes in order to render the world comprehensible are necessary for our day to day existence, the idea that we are reaching ''the truth'' or that the scientific mode of description is adequate to fully understand the world is an entirely false one. What is most harmful about the prevalence of this one-mode-among-many of describing the world is the fact that a tool (as this worldview is), through its use, makes tools out of the entirety of the rest of the world. Instead of looking at the brain and learning about it and wondering about how amazing it is, we are busy trying to dismantle it in order to rebuild it artificially in order to transfer our ''consciousnesses'' if such a thing exists so that we can live in some absurd digital utopia
[373] Posted on Thursday, 02 April 2009 at 11:04 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Corwin writes in reply to (anonymous):
Harmonic resonance
Maybe you should've stopped reading at ''I believe''.

What other qualification do you need than the statement that the following is a belief and not purely based on data or studies?
[569] Posted on Thursday, 04 March 2010 at 3:21 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

dr knowitall writes:
conversation ender
Once the topic of the ''soul'' enters the discussion, no matter how much one says it isn't religious, it becomes another rant with one foot in religion and the other on a banana peel. Religion can take many forms, but it cannot take rational form and be open to real argument. If it could, it would no longer be religion and no longer concerning the ''soul.'' As soon as one feels legitimately qualified to discuss the ''soul'' they are in the realm of religion, spirituality, or, at its LCD, faith. Scientific inquiry would do well to avoid that pitfall.
[336] Posted on Wednesday, 18 June 2008 at 2:51 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Tracy writes in reply to dr knowitall:
conversation ender
If this were the case then Science could never be allowed to venture closer to discovering the unexplained mystical aspects of ourselves or the universe. The huge field of Psychology has sprung out of looking at mystical-like aspects of the human being from the 'soul' to the unconscious.

The 'soul', in whatever format, is an unexplained entity by science and a large chunk of who we are. If one were to define one's terms clearly I think one could venture towards empirically addressing this entity.

I personally see religion as an entirely man-made concept that serves to interpret the metaphysical universe that we are aware of. Religion need not enter the equation, since in this case we are not interested in the man-made concept but rather the unexplained metaphysical part of ourselves. The concept of 'soul' is available outside of the context of religion and I believe it is the best possible word for the context that Prof. Hofstadder could have used.
[338] Posted on Thursday, 19 June 2008 at 14:15 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

(anonymous) writes in reply to dr knowitall:
conversation ender
C.J. Ducasse was an atheistic philosopher who thought there was an afterlife. Peter van Inwagen is a professor of philosophy, a physicalist about the mind, and a practicing Anglican who wrote a book called ''God Knowledge, and Mystery,'' where he defends the dogma about the Trinity. For van our afterlives begin after Jesus resurrects our bodies. Van Inwagen doubts that anyone has an immortal soul, but he does believe that someday, human people will be immortal.
[345] Posted on Thursday, 23 October 2008 at 6:44 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

ireadthebook writes in reply to dr knowitall:
conversation ender NOT
dr knowitall in the book he defines what he means by 'soul' very much apart from religion, there's no banana peel, he doesn't slip, it's all well out of the realm of religion and faith.
[352] Posted on Saturday, 15 November 2008 at 8:20 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

mst writes:
thank you drh!
Thank you DRH for your books, and also to Tal for this interview, and for giving us much to think about.

I wonder if the discussion of copying the soul is premature, and whether we shouldn't be discussing whether a soul, or indeed anything, can be copied at a meaningful resolution. Is not the copy a separate and different entity? Every pattern, every instance has, at least at some level, a uniqueness that cannot be replicated elsewhere (starting at the subatomic level: we don't know where an electron is, just an area where it is likely to be). If matter is a pattern of energy, and if people are patterns of patterns of patterns, are they not a unique occurrence in a unique (system of) locations. Perhaps Heisenberg and Godel could team up to show a complete copy cannot be made, but that is beyond my mathematics...
[351] Posted on Thursday, 13 November 2008 at 13:32 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Keith Ackermann writes:
He's getting older
This is the first time I have seen him express intolerance. It is not uncommon that successful people become impatient with what they perceive as drivel as they get older.

He has probably thought long and hard along many of the same avenues as those he dismisses. It becomes old after a while. What is craved is something new and riveting.

He is immensely talented and I enjoy his work very much, but I do think he is wrong about a few things.

The field of AI, in its present form, is laughable as a model for human thought. It's not a matter of scale either. The Turing Test is a joke too.

You show me an AI that engages in hubris, maybe cruelly kills a dog for no good reason and then lays low, completely sated for a couple of weeks, and then we can discuss human AI. Until then, its all about designing wind-up toys.

I think Kurtzwiel should take off from the ground first instead of jumping off a cliff. He should first build something 1/4cm long that flies around a person's head while avoiding being swatted, and then lands on the ceiling to emit a couple of larval self-replications before it recharges for the day by eating a tiny fleck of poop or whatever flies eat.

Life is life, and I'm sorry, Doug, we may be able to whip it up in a blender some day, but we will never understand it. It's the reason the biosphere employs random mutation as a strategy to fill up all the nooks and crannies, and not some deterministic algorithm.

I think Penrose, with his one-graviton threshold is a bit warner in the quest, and he stopped after the firing of a neuron. That's a lot of brainpower put toward a most tentative supposition of the non-determinism that might be involved in firing a single neuron.
[358] Posted on Thursday, 25 December 2008 at 2:44 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Alain Bernay writes:
No I
Interesting to see DH rediscovering the no-self that has been exposed for at leasr 2500 years out of India.

When will the West stop believing in the cartesian duality of body and soul?
[367] Posted on Monday, 09 March 2009 at 7:21 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Bethany writes in reply to Alain Bernay:
No I
I'm with Alain here. There's a lot of stuff here that is tied up effectively and conclusively in Buddhism. And I'm sure DH wouldn't deny this, since the Zen influence has always been right to the fore in his work.

The point about going on about the SOUL has been missed by a lot of these commentators who say that for heaven's sake it's just a few pounds of BRAIN and so what's the fuss about? The crux of it is that we *behave* as if we are completely convinced we had a precious, unique, personal soul or essence to carry around, honour and protect. In (Mahayana, Tibetan) Buddhist terms, we have 'self-grasping'. If you genuinely thought you 'were' just a lump of squishy brain and some stuff to carry it in, you'd behave differently from a normal person - either oddly, robotically, or selflessly, depending on your nuance of the situation. But we all 'protect our patch', 'fight our cause', 'look out for no. 1' and so on, as if we *were* something - the brain-identified among us usually at least as much as anyone.

The strong contribution of Buddhism is to challenge us to live our beliefs, or at least become thoroughly aware of them and bring them closer together with our actions. This subjective impact - the only outcome that brings any benefit to humanity - is sadly completely missing from most of hard science... and I think Hofstadter bridges that gap a little (ie the gap which might be construed as between the objective sense of brain and the subjective sense of soul or essence) and THAT is his contribution.
[374] Posted on Wednesday, 08 April 2009 at 8:50 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

mb writes in reply to Bethany:
No I
completely agree with everything you said. great comment
[383] Posted on Monday, 11 May 2009 at 9:33 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Paul Wolf writes:
Recursion and the soul
I read Godel Escher Bach when I was about 18 years old, and did not realize until recently, more than 20 years later, how much it influenced my idea of what consciousness is. Hofstadter is taking on the question ''why do I feel like I'm me?'' which is the basis for religions. It is more fundamental than, say, how can the world, or all living things, have come into existence? He has identified the core question of religions, one identified neither by David Hume (man believes in God because his brain is wired to demand an explanation for everything) nor Richard Dawkins, who battles the creationists on their own turf. Man resorts to religion to explain consciousness because there is no science that tries to explain consciousness.

I'm sure I got this idea from Dr. Hofstadter, that the feeling of consciousness must result from some mathematical property of a system that is modeling itself. This is why the concepts of recursion and infinity, allusions to fugues and MC Echer, seem so apt. It goes to infinity and this fits into our natural inclination to believe in the divine.

Yet Hofstadter has not really answered the question. Why would a system that models the world, that has at its core a model of itself, one that is continuously updating itself with real time feedback loops, ''feel'' like it has a ''soul''? How could I be one of those? Infinity and recursiveness seem to be pointing in the right direction, but has Hofstadter tried to answer this?

One concept tied up in all this, that I don't believe is given enough weight, is the importance of language and words. Our self-image is intimately tied up with the stream of words always running through our heads, which is the highest level process occurring in our brains. Imagine the kind of consciousness you would have if you had no language and no thoughts of this kind. I am not sure what kind of consciousness I would have if I had no language. And of course, the words and language are not restricted to one brain - just by reading this post, your brain is running a top-level consciousness program written by me.

On of the earliest philosophers was Pythagoras, who believed that mathematical concepts had a kind of mystical and transcendental existence of their own. Could the ultimate nature of our feeling of existence arise from some property of mathematics? This is what Hofstadter appears to be saying. Perhaps it sounds strange, but let anyone try to explain ''why I feel like I'm me'' and sound more rational.

There are many things about this world that my own brain will simply never be capable of imagining. One of them is relativity, another is quantum mechanics. Godel numbers too, although I have not really tried to work through it. Maybe someday someone will solve the consciousness equation, and show how a recursive modeling system is self aware. There would be no prerequisite that it would be comprehensible, on an intuitive level, by a human brain. Even if one could never really visualize a mathematical explanation of consciousness, such that it provided a satisfactory answer to the question ''why do I feel like this?'', it could be a breakthrough no less than quantum mechanics or relativity.

But until someone comes up with that, at least for me, Douglas Hofstadter has done more to explain consciousness than any other philosopher I have ever read. Thanks for your work and I hope that someday, these mystical and religious ideas will lead to a real science of being, much as astrology and alchemy led to the real sciences of astronomy and chemistry.
[388] Posted on Monday, 18 May 2009 at 5:07 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

spinoza writes:
He's so close...
DRH is so close. Here's an important idea missing from his thought process in the book:

The feel of ''I'' lies only in the ''middle'' of the spectrum of what it means to be conscious of one's self, and is not the ''peak'' or highest level of it. By ''level'' I mean the intensity or clarity of attention upon itself.

When the parietal lobe participates in our ''feel'' for extension in time, this gives rise to the distinction between ''I'' and those things which appear as ''Not I''. As the parietal lobe ''quiets down'' through long periods of intense focused attention, the feel for ''I'' begins to fade, and is replaced by a feel of ''everything is I, and I is everything''. Another trick of the spatial\temporal functions of the brain, based on how skillfully we learn to use it.

This new ''non-self'' feeling is achieved only when the mind nears the ''top'' of the attention spectrum (long intense focused attention is usually required). This state is rarely achieved by populations, and so we all just culturally assume that the ''I'' is the best or ''real'' notion of what it means to feel conscious.

DRH is right to say the ''I'' is a kind of necessary hallucination, but he fails to wonder if the illusion of ''I'' may actually be part of a spectrum of conscious-type notions. And that if the processes which give rise to ''I'' were themselves given a ''boost'', that the mind may actually perceive a qualitatively different picture of itself (perhaps a more accurate one).

What I'm saying here doesn't help explain the main problem of how we come to have these experiences, but it does suggest that the feel of ''I'' may only be a less skilled, and therefore incomplete (rather than illusory) view which could be improved with practice.

Furthermore, to improve the conversation we must sub-divide the unhelpful encapsulating labels of ''consciousness'' or ''I'' statements into more helpful ones, like ''attention'', that can be used to discuss conscious-like states in their varying degrees.

For example, as I wake in the morning, I get a ''1'' on the ''conscious attention scale'', and after I've had my coffee, I get a ''3''. Riding my motorcycle on the way home gets me to ''5'', and focused mediation on DRH's ideas about myself gets me to a ''7'' and so forth...
[397] Posted on Wednesday, 17 June 2009 at 0:40 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

StanislawStapledon writes in reply to spinoza:
He's so close...
May I suggest reading the works of American Philosopher of Mind/Consciousness KEN WILBER, who tries to map out the Full Spectrum of Mental States of Consciousness - from subatomic vibrations to mystical experiences of Enlightenment/Epiphany/Oneness/Absolute Causality and the like. WILBERS lifetime-work is deeply rooted in (Neo)Platonims (Plotin especially) and German Idealism of the Early Romantic type like Fichte & Schelling. It all comes down to this:

A = B(D(H(...) + I(...) + ...) + E(J(...) + K(...) + ...) + C(F(...) + G(...) + ...) + ...

<=> A = A or just A.

() means Holarchic Order.
+ means Aggegration on the same Holarchic Level.
= means Identity as in Sameness.

A Holarchic Chain of Being, which is at the lowest and highest level all the SAME. It is completely unknown how deep and wide this Holarchic Order really is.
[842] Posted on Saturday, 04 January 2014 at 23:59 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Eric writes:
Soul of a Robot
The robot soul will be for sure a different creature. Just imagine if you are talking (or rather communicating) with a AI of a similar or superior intelligence. What are you going to talk about? Almost nothing to talk.. - sports? women? good food? weather? vacation by the beach? cold martini? For AI these are all irrelevant concepts, which might be learned about, but never truly appreciated. The key (an correct me if I am wrong) is all these things we enjoy are part of our interaction with the 'outside world' in which we have to survive. AIs being stationary objects and consuming electric power (why would they need to move around in search of food??) will have much more limited 'experience' than humans and therefore topics of real 'mutual interest' will be very limited.
[408] Posted on Wednesday, 26 August 2009 at 3:32 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Archer Krantz writes:
Ah, Hofstadter! This interview was a joy to read. I read Mind's I when I was in junior high, and being infatuated with the mystery and wonder of consciousness it filled a great hunger. That said, I was totally disappointed when I got the ant-colony chapter and they failed to see what I saw at the time as a huge philosophical gap yet to be addressed... but I haven't thought about it much in recent years so I wonder if I'd see that same gap now?

Okay, thinking about again now I remember the problem I had. The explanatory gap was this: how do individual primordial minds (ants, neurons, whatever) make the discrete transition to one unified mind? Some argue that our minds are not unified, but I hallucinate myself as unified, my experience is all I can know from, and I cannot help but need an explanation for my unification.

It is the same question as: When does consciousness ''start'' in the development of a prenatal human or other animal? At what point? And what is so special about this moment, physically? My answer has been that an individual consciousness never does begin--it simply always has been. In the development of animals we must amplify or expand self-hallucinations which have always been. So the leap doesn't have to be made! All right then, I'm satisfied for the moment with a new conception of the world as abundant, perhaps infinite, information recursions which are amplified in the development of organisms, espcially the animals. Little soul-seeds.

Maybe DRH and Dennet saw it like this when they chose that ant-colony chapter. I wish I could know how they'd answer this question.

P.S. I'm going to read Strange Loop now, with the express intent of comparing it to the Radical Constructivism (a philosphy, sort of) of Ernst von Glasersfeld. He draws on cyberntics (recursion, computation, perception) as well as linguistics, with references to translation. His philosophy deals with the process of knowing and the cognition and should be of interest to some DRH fans.
[426] Posted on Friday, 16 October 2009 at 14:14 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Phil Ballla writes:
good indebtedness to you & Hofstadter
Thank you for your gowd work putting Hofstadter in such condensed form so I can see such lovely parts in him from where I live in the mountains of Kyushu, Japan -- without books, without access to them -- but with access to computer.

I like Hofstadter's reverence for and celebration of humanity for the ineffable thing in it that I'll call ''context.''

I like his translation of Eugene Onegin for its rhythm and musicality -- surpassing Falen's for same bit shown.

Hofstadter reminds me of the key to genius in the poet Joseph Brodsky -- the love of what the Russian-American called ''loose ends.''
[446] Posted on Saturday, 05 December 2009 at 22:21 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Metzinger's Ego Tunnel
Thomas Metzinger: The Ego Tunnel
Has any one seen a thoughtful review. Metzinger talks less about the mechanics of how the neural representations come to be experienced as self. However, overall it followed more clearly for me and I was especially interested in his discussion of societal implication down the road, good and risky.
[577] Posted on Tuesday, 20 April 2010 at 19:06 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

(anonymous) writes in reply to martinc2@aol.com:
Metzinger's Ego Tunnel
Learn something new everyday, excellent insight.
[578] Posted on Thursday, 29 April 2010 at 17:17 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

darren writes:
GEB is about the possibilities, I (Me & You) choose the perspective.
[600] Posted on Monday, 05 July 2010 at 12:35 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Adelbert Shah writes:
Current influence on research
I don't see any problems, for none of the different parties...

Nowadays just every single theme and/or subject is forged down into hard rock lyrics (I am speaking in the year 2010).

Please, all of you competitors (and as alleged), back-up your sincere own minds right now, and all instantly get in cryo.

You won't even have to wake back up - for no single reason at all - since Philosphy will do it for you; and best of all, with no more censorship around.

Very non-american greetz.
[621] Posted on Monday, 30 August 2010 at 16:43 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Jose_X writes:
A ''hardware'' body might not do
To me soul/mind/sensation is an unexplained effect (how do you explain a sense) that is intertwined with something physical. It is not the digital abstract knowledge but the physical sensation living out what we abstract as ''knowledge''. We experience sensation ''through'' chemical and electrical effects along neurons, I figure. The higher the level of consciousness, I will guess, the greater the number of neurons and charge (or some other physical phenomenon) participating. Knowledge is the association of a very conscious sensation (eg, as mental words) with another and very particular conscious sensation that effectively means to us ''this is knowledge; it is correct; I can reproduce it''. We also can try to effect the knowledge in some way physically (eg, as our minds trigger into physical action) or by looking up more ''knowledge'' sensations (eg, think and reason) to try and confirm it. To ''confirm'' is to energize or whatever more of these knowledge linkages, re-affirming existing connections and ultimately creating or strengthening other connections (the ''conclusion'') or else a ''contradiction'' is reached as the implied neural action through one path would require that one or more past established paths be undone and we are able to recognize this (keyed in by pain sensation from being unable to easily enough uncement too many nearby connections near that section we want to undo to effect our implied change/contradiction), stop the uncementing from happening completely and tag the initiating ''knowledge'' as ''false'' for the time being or invert those connections to suggest the ''inverse'' knowledge. Our consciousness becomes these existing ''knowledge chunks'' linked to each other and being traversed; this is us ''thinking''.]

If the earth has a mind, I don't see why I would ever know. If that mind can lead to the movement of mountains or anything else in some time frame or other, I may or may not study sufficient recorded data points to deduce that is going on. And it might just be that every single event we experience and all physics and science which we deem to be predictable or to follow laws of nature (including the unpredictability from complexity we can't measure and from probabilistic mechanisms as we have attributed to QM) has a mind behind it somehow. Yes, even our minds are likely but forces of nature working predictably but allowing our minds, through sensations, to go along for the ride. The body is just an object of sufficient mass, physical rigor, and ability to exert controlled forces coordinated with other physical parts (nerves, etc) closely tied to the physical stuff through which we experience consciousness.

What defines the focus of consciousness? Ie, why would there appear to be a mind in control here and by ''reasoning'' another over there? Likely if we combine our neurons and what not, our consciousnesses will meld a bit. I'm not sure but something biological, chemical, and/or physical within our brains likely offers the answer (it might just be the proximity of so much neural action.
[631] Posted on Wednesday, 17 November 2010 at 14:17 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Jose_X writes in reply to Jose_X:
A ''hardware'' body might not do
I forgot to add. A major part of having sanity is being able to deal with potential mental conflicts in a way where you are a more fit organism. Ie, it's not to be taken for granted that we can identify the paths that would have to be uncemented and handle that properly or to return to the initiating knowledge and find its ''inverse''. Strength comes from many reinforcing linkages but we cannot use mere reinforcement to make a given theory/knowledge be correct if we can't resolve the pieces or conclusion experimentally (ie, with our physical bodies, including eyes, hears, and other sense organs). So the key and luck is to come up with a good model (set of knowledge chunks) before we go insane or give up on the topic.

Each knowledge chunk is but neurons, I gather, linked/triggered in a way from which we can eg utter the words and visualize the statement (or some other reproducible sensation if we are mute, blind, deaf, etc). Ie, we can trigger the sense/motor organ work in a consistent manner to/from these neurons. ''Consistent'' in the sense that the neurons representing ''hello'' both are energized when we hear that word and can lead to us speaking that when we start from those neurons and that we cycle right back upon hearing our own spoken word. This verification that the ''hello'' neurons are one and the same all the time under us hearing or speaking or seeing that word time after time is key to us maintaining those neurons for that purpose. A failure likely means we did not enunciate well or we have damage to our organs or we are in an echo or other type of chamber, etc, that we will have to learn to re-sync with at some point in time.

So life as a baby starts off by designation of neuron clusters to simple ''statements'' that relate to simple images and sounds. We associate sounds and visuals and reject or accept the simple ''conclusion'' based on pain/pleasure and/or (in)ability to effect. Pain/pleasure and physical (including hearing, seeing, etc) effectibility is what guides what we will accept as true or good vs not. We move up creating many chunks as necessary, eventually, a chunk for the words we hear and then for associations in logic and other abstractions related to these sounds and pictures. We learn that arm is a-r-m visually and aurally and as well that it can be used as a replacement for referring to this thing hanging off my shoulders. In time we associate arm actions and more complex associations and words. Everything new is attached to our existing neural net.

Under this model, ''neurons'' being energized is our sensations and consciousness that fairly quickly associate with simply phrase/word/letter clusters. A general neural cluster might not be 10 words, but rather be a concept, which based on immediate linkages and nearby linkages, we can then express quickly through some words.

Anyway, the magic to mental words is to have some group of neurons be able to serve as a place marker that can quickly lead to the physical sensation of those words (speak/write or hear/see them). So having paper and accidentally as a society coming upon particular symbols (pictures, eventually decomposable into letters from small alphabet) and rules (grammar, starting with just nouns) is what enables our brains to capture these tangible entities to use later on for anaelysis/reasoning/learning/etc that might be more advanced. Ie, we can use the neurons associated with a-r-m as it looks written on paper in place where we want to consider the actual arm. Letters might be more efficient than thinking strictly through pictures to the extent words are an abstraction (made tangible through the particular spelling of what the word represents) that can be designed to cover an endless number of concepts efficiently. Ie, instead of 1 trillion pictures, we can have a language with many words and concepts represented as their equivalent descriptive phrases. Digitalization is a way to remove unimportant detail to reduce the information storage requirements. A picture has much detail that might not be important. A picture might not provide a consistent way to label many different things without confusion as would be possible through sentence phrases using the digital alphabet of (eg) 26 letters. A 2-D language (rather than a linear language like English) might be possible and exist to some degree but apparently linear is sufficient or represents the point in social evolution where we find ourselves and perhaps this has to do with biological limitations, eg, neurons being connected efficiently and compactly when as linear strings of them rather than in 2D meshes.

That we can capture and save images is seen in earlier organisms since that is required to survive (identify good or bad food, good or bad situation, etc).
[632] Posted on Wednesday, 17 November 2010 at 15:25 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Jose_X writes in reply to Jose_X:
A ''hardware'' body might not do
Re-enforcement happens in part from many nearby linkages locked in a tight stable topology.. suggestive of a ''tight'' theory or related re-enforcing theories.

Also, using a more efficient (simpler) model to understand something implies fewer neurons used.

So we want the simplest possible theories but no simpler since too simple would then imply we could not interlock as well with other things in our head (eg, we could not answer certain questions posed and hence could not embed (or lock in or ...) this particular cluster into a wider strong context).

''Embedding'' a neural cluster within the existing net can be seen to achieve abstraction. It requires fewer neurons and the bits that identify the new context reinforce and are reinforced by all other things related to the particular abstraction.

A recent study claimed bees can solve the traveling salesman problem very fast. It might just be that we can very well assign a certain amount of charge to a region (the bee would have the neurons optimized in a grid/lattice layout) perhaps by ''tying down'' various neural points and then the neural path able to be energized with a given amount of energy or less would naturally arise from the physical electromagnetic potential forces. Thus traveling salesman solution would be effected (up to some limit) as the path energized with the least amount of charge. The bee would only have so much resolution (unit distance in world length implied by total distance to be covered and number of neurons in neural lattice). Perhaps over many fast reductions the amount of charge goes down and down. Why minimal charge? Well, that would involve lowest energy consumption, which might simply be a ''pleasurable'' state for the bee. Also, why so fast for a little bee? Because it would be solved with a neural model closely associated with the problem being solved. A computer or person would use higher level abstractions to simulate the problem components. This would be much more bulky and would not be solvable through a more direct ''anaelog'' physics.
[633] Posted on Wednesday, 17 November 2010 at 15:48 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Rich Falzone writes:
An Interview with Douglas R. Hofstadter, following ''I am a Stra
I just now (in 2012) discovered this website.
I notice the last post was in 2010, and I hope it's not too late now (in 2012) to add my own thoughts.
I read GEB, Mind's I & etc. in the 80's, Le Bon Ton and Strange Loop more recently.
I am very impressed with Hofstadter's writings, and his intellect which gives them such force.
I was very impressed with GEB at the time I read it, and was convinced that yes, the basis of conscious thought just had to be software - how could it be otherwise?
These days (in my 70's) I dunno.
The conceptual framework of H. Sapiens may not be powerful enough to capture the concepts required to understand consciousness.
Kind of like a parakeet trying to understand long division.
In any case, I think that to understand consciousness one must first understand the fundamental nature of physical existence itself.
This is not meant to be pessimistic!
Merely realistic.
[734] Posted on Tuesday, 15 May 2012 at 23:09 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Jonathan Gagen writes:
The impossibility of copying a soul and the definition of a soul
a ''soul'' cannot be defined as a loop rather it is a tao. in the tao te ching one of the first principles is that the origin of all particular things is naming or ''abstraction''. abstraction cannot be defined as a ''hallucination'' because such a process describes a complex chemical process but rather think of the original soul as a singularity which takes the existance of one of jung's architypes but this one is original in every meaning of the word it is self and self or ''i'' works by mapping out the entire non-existant-mathmatical construct of the multiverse as abstractions or jung's common archytypes the only difference is that the archytypes are secondary to one base archytype the ''i'' and they take the place of physical objects as abstract concepts in a mathmatical abstracted grid (or the abstraction of the multiverse) and this multiverse abstraction is filled with minor ''namings'' or abstractions which becomes a map that we contsruct as the ''hallucination of self'' and this ''hallucination'' becomes that strange loop and the loop if copied would reamain useless without a base archytype or true ''i'' because the loop itself is a constructed abstracted multiverse of the ''I'' (a world if you will in which the ''I'' lives in order to survive. therefore, AI would be completely useless without a base archytype.
[736] Posted on Tuesday, 05 June 2012 at 5:25 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Dylan Gillis writes:
soul as software
This is all very interesting and many great and profound ideas have been expressed. And I have read only part of all the responses. So I apologize ahead of time if I repeat something already brought up.

What has occurred to me to add to the discussion is the question: if one's self or soul can be recorded and transferred as a pattern through whatever medium (biological, technological or spiritual), wouldn't it also be able to be ''copied''? That is, I wonder where ''I'' would be if there were more than one copy of the pattern that makes up my ''self'' or ''soul''. Something about that conundrum makes me doubt that true existence of self or soul can actually be done by replication of a pattern, however complex, accurate and fine grained it is.

So, like maybe, there is something else involved, like a point of view, or a ''looking from'' that is fundamental to one's being, which cannot be transferred in the manner(s) being discussed.

Just saying.
[803] Posted on Wednesday, 06 November 2013 at 21:59 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

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