A Rationalist’s Bookshelf: The Mind’s I (Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett, 1981)

When the call to com­pile a read­ing list for new ra­tio­nal­ists went out, con­trib­u­tor djcb re­sponded by sug­gest­ing The Mind’s I: Fan­tasies and Reflec­tions on Self and Soul, a com­pila­tion of es­says, fic­tions and ex­cerpts “com­posed and ar­ranged” by Dou­glas Hofs­tadter and Daniel Den­nett. Cut to me peer­ing guiltily over my shoulder, my own copy sit­ting un­read on the shelf, peer­ing back.

The book pre­sents Hofs­tadter and Den­nett’s co-cu­ra­tion of 27 pieces, some penned by the cu­ra­tors them­selves, meant to “re­veal” and “make vivid” a set of “per­plex­ities,” to wit: “What is the mind?” “Who am I?” “Can mere mat­ter think or feel?” “Where is the soul?” Two im­me­di­ate con­cerns arise. First, The Mind’s I’s 1981 pub­li­ca­tion date gives it ac­cess to the vast ma­jor­ity of what’s been thought and said about these ques­tions, but robs it of of any in­tel­lec­tual progress to­ward the an­swers made in the nearly three decades since. (This turns out not to be an is­sue, as most of the an­swers seem to have drawn no closer in the 1980s, 1990s or 2000s.) Se­cond, those sound sus­pi­ciously similar to ques­tions hazily ar­tic­u­lated by col­lege fresh­men, less amenable to “ra­tio­nal in­quiry” than to “dorm fur­ni­ture and bad weed.” They don’t quite pass the “man test,” an re­ver­sal of the for­tune cookie “in bed” game: sim­ply tack “man” onto the be­gin­ning of each ques­tion and see who laughs. “Man, who am I?” “Man, where is the soul?” “Man, can mat­ter think or feel?”

Hofs­tadter and Den­nett’s fans know, how­ever, that their analy­ses rise a cut above, en­gaged as they are in the ad­mirable strug­gle to ex­cise the navel-gaz­ing from tra­di­tion­ally navel-gazey top­ics. The beauty is that they’ve always ac­com­plished this, to­gether and sep­a­rately, not by mak­ing these is­sues less ex­cit­ing but by mak­ing them more so. Their clear, stim­u­lat­ing ex­ege­ses, ex­plo­ra­tions and spec­u­la­tions brim with both the en­thu­si­asm of the thrilled neo­phyte and the lev­el­head­ed­ness of the sea­soned sur­veyor. They even do it hu­morously, Hofs­tadter with his zig-zaggy pun­ni­ness and Den­nett with his wit that some­how stays just north of goofy. Thus armed, they’ve taken on such po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous top­ics as whether words and thoughts fol­low rules, how the an­i­mate emerges from the inan­i­mate (Hofs­tader’s rightly cel­e­brated Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eter­nal Golden Braid) and con­scious­ness (most of Den­nett’s ca­reer), on the whole safely.

But ob­vi­ously this is not a “pure” (what­ever that might mean) Hofs­tadter-Den­nett joint; rather, their ed­i­to­rial choices com­pose one half and their per­sonal com­men­taries — “re­flec­tions,” they ban­ner them — on the fruits of those choices com­pose the other. Nearly ev­ery se­lec­tion, whether a short story, ar­ti­cle, novel seg­ment or di­alogue, leads into an origi­nal dis­cus­sion and eval­u­a­tion by, as they sign them, D.R.H. and/​or D.C.D. They af­firm, they con­tra­dict, they ex­pand, they ques­tion, they veer off in their own di­rec­tions; the re­flec­tions would make a neat lit­tle book on the top­ics at hand by them­selves.

Ter­ribly in­el­e­gant a strat­egy as this is, per­haps I’ll cover the pieces one-by-one:

  1. The first sec­tion, on self and iden­tity, opens strong with Jorge Luis Borges, for my money the finest short fic­tion­al­ist of ideas… ever, prob­a­bly. His well-known “Borges and I” plays with the dis­tinc­tion be­tween Borges the man and Borges the pub­lic au­thor, treat­ing the two as on­tolog­i­cally dis­tinct. Even if that idea has passed into the realm of old hat, the story con­tain­ing it holds up by the ra­zor-sharp­ness of its lan­guage, even in trans­la­tion: “It would be an ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that ours is a hos­tile re­la­tion­ship: I live, let my­self go on liv­ing, so that Borges may con­trive his liter­a­ture, and this liter­a­ture jus­tifies me.”

  2. The mys­tic Dou­glas Hard­ing, in “On Hav­ing No Head”, re­counts the mo­ment he dis­cov­ered he had no head. As he de­scribes the var­i­ous con­se­quences of this re­al­iza­tion, ht es­say be­comes es­sen­tially a riff on the fact that it’s im­pos­si­ble for any­body to di­rectly see their own, phys­i­cal head and thus that they know of its ex­is­tence that much less defini­tively. At some point, this wears out its wel­come; Hard­ing stretches an in­tel­lec­tual snack into a din­ner, fol­low­ing the meal with a coda about how, aw, it’s all just se­man­tic con­fu­sion over the verb to see.

  3. Harold Morow­itz’s “Redis­cov­er­ing the Mind” has not, it must be said, stuck deeply in my own. My for­get­ful­ness may be due in part to the fact that re­duc­tion­ist ex­am­i­na­tion of the mind and the challenges such an ap­proach faces have en­tered, and re­mained in, com­mon dis­course since the ar­ti­cle saw Psy­chol­ogy To­day pub­li­ca­tion in 1980, so its ideas couldn’t strike me with what I as­sume to be the in­tended force of nov­elty. As a brief in­tro­duc­tion to the prob­lems of re­duc­tion­ism and the mind, though, I imag­ine it’s pretty effec­tive.

  4. Kick­ing off the sec­tion on the con­cept of the soul, Alan Tur­ing’s ground­break­ing 1950 Mind ar­ti­cle “Com­put­ing Machin­ery and In­tel­li­gence” pro­poses his now-epony­mous test for ma­chine in­tel­li­gence. One might as­sume the years have been es­pe­cially un­kind to Tur­ing’s (at least nom­i­nally) tech­nol­ogy-minded es­say and Den­nett and Hofs­tadter’s ac­com­pa­ny­ing com­men­tary, but no, ma­chine in­tel­li­gence re­mains elu­sive, and thus both texts merit con­tinued di­ges­tion.

  5. Hofs­tadter ex­tends the Tur­ing talk with “The Tur­ing Test: A Coffee­house Con­ver­sa­tion”, set­ting up an in­tel­lec­tual tri­an­gle be­tween “Chris, a physics stu­dent; Pat, a biol­ogy Stu­dent; and Sandy, a philos­o­phy stu­dent.” (The uni­sex names turn out to fold into one of the dis­cus­sion’s main points, though I found keep­ing ev­ery­one straight a tad difficult.) The three throw down their col­lec­tive six cents on the pos­si­bil­ities, im­pli­ca­tions and val­idity of the fa­mous test. While illu­mi­nat­ing, the piece spreads its con­tent way too thin, its 23 pages lit­tered with con­ver­sa­tional de­tri­tus: “That’s a sad story.” “Good ques­tion.” “How so?” But to be fair, these prob­lems ham­per most writ­ten di­alogues, as does the reader’s sneak­ing sus­pi­cion that they’re be­ing some­how led down the gar­den path. As di­alogues — tri­alogues? — go, though, this one serves a nu­tri­tional por­tion.

  6. “The Princess Inef­fa­belle”, the first of the col­lec­tion’s three imag­in­ings by Pol­ish sci­ence fic­tion writer Stanis­law Lem, en­vi­sions a sort of proto-vir­tual-re­al­ity de­vice that can load up an en­tire era and its peo­ple on punch cards (!) and simu­late it with find-grained pre­ci­sion. A king, seek­ing a princess ex­tant only within the ma­chine’s world, in­quires as to how he might go about hav­ing him­self digi­tized and in­serted into said world. But the digi­tal king wouldn’t re­ally be the king king, right? Or would that mat­ter?

  7. Ter­rell Miedaner’s eerie “The Soul of Martha, A Beast” en­vi­sions a court­room demon­stra­tion wherein a chim­panzee, wired to a de­vice that trans­lates its brain’s neu­ral pat­terns into a sim­ple English vo­cab­u­lary. A dis­cus­sion en­sues about whether the an­i­mal, “ut­ter­ing” strings like “Hello! Hello! I Martha Happy Happy Chimp,” truly mer­its the des­ig­na­tion “in­tel­li­gent,” af­ter which the re­searcher puts his charge to death:

    As the un­sus­pect­ing chim­panzee placed the poi­soned gift into her mouth and bit, Belin­sky con­ceived of an ex­per­i­ment he had never be­fore con­sid­ered. He turned on the switch. “Candy Candy Thank You Belin­sky Happy Happy Martha.”

    Then her voice stopped of its own ac­cord. She stiffened, then re­laxed in her mas­ter’s arms, dead.

    But brain death is not im­me­di­ate. The fi­nal sen­sory discharge of some cir­cuit within her in­ert body trig­gered a brief burst of neu­ral pul­sa­tions de­coded as “Hurt Martha Hurt Martha.”

    Noth­ing hap­pened for an­other two sec­onds. Then ran­domly trig­gered neu­ral discharges no longer hav­ing any­thing to do with the an­i­mal’s life­less body send one last pul­sat­ing sig­nal to the world of men.

    ”Why Why Why Why —”

    A soft elec­tri­cal click stopped the tes­ti­mony.
    The op­er­a­tive con­cept, dis­cussed in Hofs­tadter’s re­flec­tion, emerges as the de­ter­mi­na­tion of what de­gree of lin­guis­tic ev­i­dence, if any, in­di­cates the pres­ence of “in­tel­li­gence,” “con­scious­ness,” a “soul” — pick one or more of your fa­vorite fuzzily-defined con­cept and at­tempt to de­ter­mine what sep­a­rates them. All the book’s pieces pre­sent more ques­tions than an­swers, and Miedaner’s first es­pe­cially so. Still, it stays with you, as does his next piece...

  8. “The Soul of the Mark III Beast”, in which a lawyer in­vites a timid woman to “kill” a robot. The me­chan­i­cal crea­ture, a steely cross be­tween a mouse and a bee­tle, “eats” elec­tri­cal cur­rent from the wall, “flees” its pur­suer’s ham­mer blows and “bleeds” oil when dam­ages. Th­ese points of su­perfi­cial con­gru­ence with the an­i­mal king­dom se­ri­ously freak the woman out, and she’s re­ally got to main­tain to finish the job. In short: the fuzzy-to-nonex­is­tent bound­ary be­tween the sen­tient and the non­sen­tient, illus­trated (in prose).

  9. Allen Wheelis’ “Spirit”, which heads the sec­tion on the mind’s phys­i­cal foun­da­tion (also known as the brain), comes off as rel­a­tively in­sub­stan­tial but ad­dresses con­cerns cer­tain read­ers may har­bor. To wit: it feels as if we hu­mans pos­sess some in­ef­fable “spirit.” But it’s tough to pin down, though it may an­i­mate the rest of the nat­u­ral world as well. Hofs­tadter boils it down skil­lfully in the re­flec­tion: “Wheelis por­trays the eerie, di­s­ori­ent­ing view that mod­ern sci­ence has given us of our place in the scheme of things. Many sci­en­tists, not to men­tion hu­man­ists, find this a very difficult view to swal­low and look for some kind of spiritual essence, per­haps in­tan­gible, that would dis­t­in­guish liv­ing be­ings, par­tic­u­larly hu­mans, from the inan­i­mate rest of the uni­verse. How does an­ima come from atoms?” A Big Ques­tion in­deed.

  10. “Selfish Genes and Selfish Memes” is a se­lec­tion from Richard Dawk­ins’ The Selfish Gene. If you have not read this book, min­i­mize your browser and do so. I’ll wait.

  11. “Pre­lude… Ant Fugue” is a se­lec­tion from Dou­glas Hofs­tadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. If you have not read this book, min­i­mize your browser and do so. I’ll wait. (It’s the di­alogue com­par­ing the hu­man brain to an ant farm, which I still find ever-so-slightly mind­blow­ing to this day.)

  12. Our men­tal hard­ware un­der­goes the sever­est pos­si­ble part­ing-out in Arnold Zuboff’s “The Story of a Brain”, a fic­tion and thought ex­per­i­ment — in sev­eral senses of the term — where a group of sci­en­tists re­move the healthy brain from a young man’s oth­er­wise ab­nor­mally de­cay­ing body, stick it in a vat and give it “ex­pe­riences” by way of elec­tri­cal stim­u­la­tion. But then a drunken night watch­man ac­ci­den­tally sep­a­rates the brain’s hemi­spheres, dam­age the sci­en­tists at­tempt to re­pair with re­mote com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­vices al­low­ing neu­rons from one half to stim­u­late the oth­ers’. Over the next thou­sand years, thanks to wide­spread sci­en­tific-com­mu­nity in­ter­est, fiddly read­just­ment of the ap­para­tus and a gen­eral short­age of brains in vats, each of this brain’s in­di­vi­d­ual neu­rons finds it way, step by log­i­cal step, to a sep­a­rate lab­o­ra­tory, all sup­pos­edly linked to­gether. And the labs oc­ca­sion­ally re­place their neu­rons. It’s the brain as Abra­ham Lin­coln’s prover­bial origi­nal axe: the blade’s been re­placed once and the han­dle twice. At what ex­act point can we no longer call it a brain, as we nor­mally un­der­stand the con­cept? As with many of the other con­cepts on which the book touches, dis­crete bound­aries re­main elu­sive.

  13. Daniel Den­nett’s “Where Am I?” leads into the sec­tion on mind-as-soft­ware. (See also the video drama­ti­za­tion!) The story fol­lows a fic­tion­al­ized ver­sion of Den­nett him­self as he’s hired on to a se­cret gov­ern­ment pro­ject to dig up a brain-de­stroy­ing un­der­ground war­head. Speci­fi­cally, Den­nett’s meant to go down there and dig it up by hand. Re­mov­ing his own brain and in­stal­ling it safely in a vat, the gov­ern­ment dudes set it up so Den­nett can re­motely con­trol his own body, in a way, but feel, more or less — he com­pel­lingly de­scribes the newly-in­tro­duced lit­tle tech­ni­cal quirks — as if he’s still a brain and body or­gan­i­cally united. But who’s the “real” Den­nett? Shades of first-year philos­o­phy classes’ rhetor­i­cal ques­tions about who you’d be if your di­vided brain was split be­tween two bod­ies, I know, but Den­nett pre­sents it in a delight­fully en­ter­tain­ing way, as is his wont.

  14. With “Where Was I?”, David Hawley San­ford takes an­other an­gle on Den­nett’s con­cept, posit­ing a differ­ent gov­ern­ment op­er­a­tion — again, top-se­cret — to de­velop de­vices that trans­fer re­motely-gath­ered sense ex­pe­riences so ac­cu­rately to the lo­cal user’s body that the mean­ing of refer­ence to his ac­tual lo­ca­tion — and how one goes about de­ter­min­ing his ac­tual lo­ca­tion — grows mud­dled, ques­tion­able, a mat­ter of un­set­t­lable de­bate.

  15. The next chap­ter ex­cerpts Justin Leibler’s Beyond Re­jec­tion, a sci-fi novel about a mur­dered man who wakes up to find his brain loaded — via brain-backup tapes, a stan­dard piece of per­sonal tech­nol­ogy in Lie­bler’s imag­ined fu­ture — into a new body: speci­fi­cally, a woman’s. (More speci­fi­cally, a woman with a tail’s. The tail is not ex­plained, at least in the reprinted seg­ment.) The ten pages in­clude a suit­ably creepy se­quence wherein the pro­tag­o­nist wakes up, di­s­ori­ented due to in­com­plete brain-body syn­chro­niza­tion and dis­turbed by the two new “dead can­cer­ous mounds” of “dis­con­nected, nerve­less jelly” — breasts, in other words — he’ll have to learn to live with. While not es­pe­cially strik­ing tech­ni­cally or biolog­i­cally, the pas­sage definitely evokes the right set of feel­ings.

  16. A se­lec­tion from Rudy Rucker’s slightly goofy-sound­ing novel Soft­ware illus­trates, af­ter a fash­ion, the ques­tions of what spe­cific com­po­nent or com­po­nents, if any, drive con­scious­ness, and what self-con­scious­ness has to do with that con­scious­ness. And, as Den­nett’s re­flec­tion clar­ifies, if a sup­pos­edly con­scious en­tity’s con­scious­ness were to cease ex­ist­ing, how would we know?

  17. Christo­pher Ch­er­niak’s short story “The Rid­dle of the Uni­verse and Its Solu­tion” posits a com­puter pro­gram whose out­put, when viewed in full by a hu­man, forces that hu­man’s brain into an in­finite loop — “per­haps even the ul­ti­mate Zen state of satori,” Hofs­tadter re­flects — “lock­ing it up” for good. Be­fore slip­ping into this coma, each vic­tim ut­ters the word “Aha!” This analo­gizes the hu­man brain — and only the hu­man brain, since the pro­gram, “the Gödel sen­tence for hu­man Tur­ing ma­chine,” is shown not to in­duce the coma in apes — to an ac­tual com­puter in terms of op­er­at­ing with enough log­i­cal strict­ness to wilfully — loaded word, I know, and so do all the au­thors in­volved — in­ca­pac­i­tate it­self. Hofs­tadter ties this into the broader topic of self-refer­en­tial loops and what they might already have to do with the mind.

  18. The book’s sec­ond Stanis­law Lem se­lec­tion, “The Seventh Sally or How Trurl’s Own Perfec­tion Led to No Good”, opens the sec­tion on cre­ated selves and free will. I found it just slightly too weirdly-writ­ten to draw much from di­rectly, but Den­nett and Hofs­tadter’s much clearer re­flec­tion — no pun in­tended — drops a few in­trigu­ing thoughts about look­ing for “souls” in­hab­it­ing simu­lated wor­lds.

  19. The third Lem piece, “Non Serviam”, comes im­me­di­ately af­ter. Though the­mat­i­cally similar to its pre­de­ces­sor — the na­ture of simu­la­tion, the par­allels be­tween simu­lated world and the non-simu­lated world — it’s also slightly less opaque. (Slightly less.)

  20. Ray­mond Smul­lyan’s di­alogue “Is God a Taoist?” has a mor­tal plead­ing with his cre­ator to strip him of free will:

    GOD: Why would you wish not to have free will?

    MORTAL: Be­cause free will means moral re­spon­si­bil­ity, and moral re­spon­si­bil­ity is more than I can bear.

    GOD: Why do you find moral re­spon­si­bil­ity so un­bear­able?

    MORTAL: Why? I hon­estly can’t an­a­lyze why; all I know is that I do.

    GOD: All right, in that case sup­pose I ab­solve you from all moral re­spon­si­bil­ity, but still leave you with free will. Will this be satis­fac­tory?

    MORTAL: (af­ter a pause): No, I am afraid not.
    And it goes on like this, the mor­tal des­per­ately try­ing to rea­son with the god and find a means of be­ing freed from what’s both­er­ing him about moral­ity, good­ness, re­spon­si­bil­ity and choice. Even­tu­ally, mat­ters ei­ther evolve or de­volve, de­pend­ing upon how you look at it, to whether the god or the mor­tal ex­ists, how one can know the other ex­ists, whether the god is the mor­tal or the mor­tal the god, who’s on first, what’s on sec­ond and so on and so forth. In his re­flec­tion, Hofs­tadter refer­ences an apro­pos Marvin Min­sky quote: “Logic doesn’t ap­ply to the real world.”

  21. A sec­ond dose of Borges comes in “The Cir­cu­lar Ruins”, the story of an iso­lated wiz­ard who dreams up an ac­tual hu­man be­ing. When he’s imag­ined this po­ten­tial boy’s ev­ery pos­si­ble de­tail, he re­quests that the god Fire cre­ate him. Fire com­plies, in­car­nat­ing the wiz­ard’s vi­sion, but in such a way that he’s still not quit real enough to be burned by fire (the el­e­ment). When the wiz­ard walks into a fire, he find’s that he doesn’t burn — and thus is, him­self, some­one else’s dream. We’re back in In­tro to Philos­o­phy’s ter­ri­tory, in a way: are you dream­ing right now, or are you not? How do you know? “Is this philo­soph­i­cal play with the ideas of dream­ing and re­al­ity just idle?” Den­nett asks. “Isn’t there a no-non­sense ‘sci­en­tific’ stance from which we ob­jec­tively dis­t­in­guish be­tween the things that are re­ally there and mere fic­tions? Per­haps there is, but then on which side of the di­vide we put our­selves? Not our phys­i­cal bod­ies, but our selves?” The an­swers ap­pear to be “nah” and “we don’t know,” or maybe “mu.”

  22. John Searle’s “Minds, Brains, and Pro­grams” searches for the seat of in­tel­li­gence with what’s now called the “Chi­nese room” thought ex­per­i­ment, in which one imag­ines a hu­man sealed in a room un­der whose door an un­seen in­ter­locu­tor passes slips of pa­per with sen­tences writ­ten in Chi­nese. With no un­der­stand­ing of the Chi­nese lan­guage, the man in the room fol­lows a se­ries of mechanis­tic pro­ce­dures to write out a re­ply on an­other slip and pass it back un­der the door. Re­peat. If the fel­low on the door’s other side be­lieves he’s con­duct­ing a con­ver­sa­tion in writ­ing with a gen­uine Chi­nese speaker — the rule-fol­low­ing scrib­bler in­side hav­ing thus passed a sort of Tur­ing test — who’s to say that some­where in the man, the rules and the slips of pa­per, there is not a gen­uine un­der­stand­ing of Chi­nese? But of course we find that ridicu­lous, so there’s got to be some­thing within the brain that we can use as a line of de­mar­ca­tion. Noth­ing we’ve iden­ti­fied yet or that may be iden­ti­fi­able at all —, but some­thing. Den­nett and Hofs­tadter don’t find this line of thought con­vinc­ing, iden­ti­fy­ing a few sleight-of-hand points in their re­flec­tion, but I didn’t feel it a waste of time to hear the no­tion pro­posed. Pro­posed rather un­con­vinc­ingly, sure, but quite ar­tic­u­lately! (More so than my sum­mary gives it credit for, cer­tainly.)

  23. The brief but piquant “An Un­for­tu­nate Dual­ist” by Ray­mond Smul­lyan en­vi­sions a de­vout du­al­ist in great pain. Though he’d like to kill him­self, he fears hurt­ing oth­ers, com­mit­ing moral crime and/​or en­dur­ing pun­ish­ment in the af­ter­life. For­tu­nately, he finds a drug that de­stroys only the soul, leav­ing the body in­tact and op­er­a­tional as be­fore. A friend se­cretly in­jects him with the drug the night be­fore he goes out to pick up a dosage him­self. Upon in­gest­ing it of his own vo­li­tion, the du­al­ist, of course, feels no differ­ent: dis­ap­pointed, he be­lieves him­self to still pos­sess a soul and en­dure suffer­ing. “Doesn’t all this sug­gest,” Smul­lyan asks, “that per­haps there might be some­thing just a lit­tle wrong with du­al­ism?” In­deed, but who’s re­ally a du­al­ist any­more?

  24. Thomas Nagel an­swers his es­say’s ti­tle ques­tion “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” with the ar­gu­ment that we can’t know, be­cause we’re hu­mans, in­escapably, and they’re bats. So we could well ask what it would be like for a hu­man to be a bat — what it would be like to have our hu­man senses and per­cep­tions trans­formed into hu­man senses and per­cep­tions that more closely re­sem­ble what we think bats have — but not what it’s like to sim­ply be a bat. Hofs­tadter takes this pretty far in his re­flec­tion, ask­ing such ques­tions as “What is it like to hear one’s na­tive lan­guage with­out un­der­stand­ing it?” and “What is it like to hate choco­late (or your per­sonal fa­vorite fla­vor)?” Fans will en­joy his pun­ning of Nagel’s ti­tle, “What is it like to bat a bee? What is it like to be a bee be­ing bat­ted? What is it like to be a bat­ted bee?” (Illus­tra­tion of base­ball player and bee in­cluded.)

  25. Com­plet­ing the Smul­lyan hat trick, “An Episte­molog­i­cal Night­mare” de­picts a man’s con­sul­ta­tions with an “ex­per­i­men­tal episte­mol­o­gist.” In­fat­u­ated with his lat­est piece of in-office gear, a “cere­bro­scope” that sup­pos­edly reads the pa­tient’s ev­ery neu­ron, the episte­mol­o­gist puts the poor fel­low through the ringer by us­ing the de­vice to re­ject his ev­ery state­ment about his be­liefs, his be­liefs about his be­liefs, and his be­liefs about his be­liefs about his be­liefs. Like the book’s first Smul­lyan se­lec­tion, this di­alogue isn’t with­out its Ab­bott-and-Costello el­e­ments: the ab­sur­dity reaches such a height that the episte­mol­o­gist must even­tu­ally for­sake the ma­chine in or­der to break the loop he’s cre­ated, by virtue of the very trust he’s placed in it, be­tween the cere­bro­scope and his own brain.

  26. “A Con­ver­sa­tion With Ein­stein’s Brain” is a se­lec­tion from Dou­glas Hofs­tadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. If you have not read this book, min­i­mize your browser and do so. I’ll wait. (It’s the di­alogue, even bet­ter than the one about the ant farm, that pro­poses the “copy­ing” of a brain into book form, and then let­ting the books “in­ter­act.”)

  27. The re­flec­tion-less “Fic­tion” by Robert Noz­ick wraps the book. The piece at first seems to be nar­rated by a fic­tional char­ac­ter: in­deed, its first sen­tence is “I am a fic­tional char­ac­ter.” But this char­ac­ter goes on to as­sert that the reader, too, is a fic­tional char­ac­ter, and that this piece one fic­tional char­ac­ter reads and an­other nar­rates is, in fact, a work of non-fic­tion, as are all works — works within this fic­tional world in which we live, that is. But who, then, wrote (or cur­rently writes) our world?

As a book for new ra­tio­nal­ists, The Mind’s I would be best offered as a jolt, a set of mind-stretch­ing ex­er­cises that clear the road for the long, in­com­pletable jour­ney to ra­tio­nal­ity. A reader ex­pect­ing any sort of in­struc­tion on how to think ra­tio­nally will find a dry well, but that’s not the point; these 27 pieces and their com­men­taries illus­trate that it’s pos­si­ble in the first place to do some think­ing in the bor­der­lands of such ev­ery­day con­cepts like as brain, mind, soul, self, I, you, in­tel­li­gence, sen­tience, etc. Per­haps the same ex­pla­na­tion jus­tifies low-level philos­o­phy courses and the bull ses­sions stu­dents hold in the wee hours af­ter them, but Hofs­tadter and Den­nett man­age to use ma­te­rial a great deal more en­ter­tain­ing, more ex­otic and al­to­gether smarter. Would that we could get a re­vised and ex­panded up­date.