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10/21/10

Douglas Hofstadter on his book I Am A Strange Loop


Here is an interview with Douglas Hofstadter on his book I Am A Strange Loop. (See sidebar, this page.) He makes comments on the soul that are relevant to the post, "Weighing The Soul," just below this one. The interview is translated from the Hebrew in the magazine Haayal Hakore.

Interviewer: 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?

Hofstadter: 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.

Interviewer: 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.)

Hofstadter: 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.

Interviewer: Scientist and inventor Ray Kurzweil (The Singularity Is Near) 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”?

Hofstadter: 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. More of the translation at Tal Cohen's site.

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