Archives - Consciousness: Page 3
Author: paul carson (Tue Apr 17, 2007 3:12 pm)
Title: I am a Strange Loop
Interview By DEBORAH SOLOMON with Douglas Hofstadter
Q: As a professor of cognitive science at Indiana University who spends his time thinking about the process of thinking, what do you make of Descartes’s famed pronouncement, “I think, therefore I am”? Who knows what that means? It’s a tiny, little aphorism. You can interpret it any way you want and say, “What a wise man he was!”
You first became known in 1979, when you published “Gödel, Escher, Bach,” a campus classic, which finds parallels between the brains of Bach, M. C. Escher and the mathematician Kurt Gödel. In your new book, “I Am a Strange Loop,” you seem mainly interested in your own brain. This book is much straighter. It’s less crazy. Less daring, maybe.
You really know how to plug a book. Well, O.K., I don’t know. Questions of consciousness and soul — that is what the new book was motivated by.
You write movingly about your wife, Carol, who died tragically in 1993, and suggest that her soul remains embedded in your consciousness. You can imagine a soul as being a detailed, elaborate pattern that exists very clearly in one brain. When a person dies, the original is no longer around. But there are other versions of it in other people’s brains. It’s a less detailed copy, it’s coarse-grained.
You make it sound as if a soul can be Xeroxed. You can’t duplicate someone exactly. I didn’t say exactly. I said coarse-grained and approximate. Lower-resolution.
Aren’t you just putting a clever gloss on the phenomenon of memory? Many people believe that our lives end not when we die but when the very last person who knew us dies. Memory is part of it, yes, but I think it’s much more than memory. It’s the fact that my wife and I, for example, became so intimately engaged that her essence was imported into my brain.
Why do you think you are still in mourning after all these years? She died when our children were so young. The chance to watch her children grow up was taken away from her, and that was the thing that absolutely destroyed me.
In your book, you also discuss the souls of animals and your conversion to vegetarianism. I don’t feel I have the right to snuff the lives of chicken and fish.
What about mosquitoes? If a mosquito has a soul, it is mostly evil. So I don’t have too many qualms about putting a mosquito out of its misery. I’m a little more respectful of ants.
Your father, Robert Hofstadter, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1961 for his efforts on behalf of neutrons and electrons. I was 16 when he won. It was a good boost for my shaky ego. I was worried about whether I was a bright person or not.
Did you feel reassured when you yourself won a prize — the Pulitzer, in 1980, for “Gödel, Escher, Bach”? I don’t like the idea of prizes, which make too much of a binary distinction between people. But in this case, the prize did me some tangible good. What I gained was academic freedom, the respect of my university.
Your entry in Wikipedia says that your work has inspired many students to begin careers in computing and artificial intelligence. I have no interest in computers. The entry is filled with inaccuracies, and it kind of depresses me.
So fix it. The next day someone will fix it back.
You don’t have any interest in artificial intelligence? I’ve taught a course called “Hype vs. Hope in A.I.” Why does this field inspire such nonsense? People who claim that computer programs can understand short stories, or compose great pieces of music — I find that stuff ridiculously overblown.
What does a computer lack that a person has? It has no concepts.
I know some people who have no concepts. They do have concepts. People are filled to the brim with concepts. You don’t have to know what a concept is in order to have one.
grow and be kind