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:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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?
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.”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...
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 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).
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.
“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.
“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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.)
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?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.”
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.
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.”
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.)
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?
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.)
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.
“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.”)
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.