The Myth of the Computer

The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul

composed and arranged by Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett
Basic Books, 501 pp., $16.95

Our ordinary ways of talking about ourselves and other people, of justifying our behavior and explaining that of others, express a certain conception of human life that is so close to us, so much a part of common sense that we can hardly see it. It is a conception according to which each person has (or perhaps is) a mind; the contents of the mind—beliefs, fears, hopes, motives, desires, etc.—cause and therefore explain our actions; and the continuity of our minds is the source of our individuality and identity as persons.

In the past couple of centuries we have also become convinced that this common-sense psychology is grounded in the brain, that these mental states and events are somehow, we are not quite sure how, going on in the neurophysiological processes of the brain. So this leaves us with two levels at which we can describe and explain human beings: a level of common-sense psychology, which seems to work well enough in practice but which is not scientific; and a level of neurophysiology, which is certainly scientific but which even the most advanced specialists know very little about.

But couldn’t there be a third possibility, a science of human beings that was not introspective common-sense psychology but was not neurophysiology either? This has been the great dream of the human sciences in the twentieth century, but so far all of the efforts have been, in varying degrees, failures. The most spectacular failure was behaviorism, but in my intellectual lifetime I have lived through exaggerated hopes placed on and disappointed by games theory, cybernetics, information theory, generative grammar, structuralism, and Freudian psychology, among others. Indeed it has become something of a scandal of twentieth-century intellectual life that we lack a science of the human mind and human behavior, that the methods of the natural sciences have produced such meager results when applied to human beings.

The latest candidate or family of candidates to fill the gap is called cognitive science, a collection of related investigations into the human mind involving psychology, philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, and artificial intelligence. Cognitive science is really the name of a family of research projects and not a theory, but many of its practitioners think that the heart of cognitive science is a theory of the mind based on artificial intelligence (AI). According to this theory minds just are computer programs of certain kinds. The main ideological aim of Hofstadter and Dennett’s book is to advance this theory.

The book consists of twenty-seven essays “composed and arranged” by the two editors, all but one of them followed by “reflections” written by the composers and arrangers. The book’s aim, they tell us, is “to provoke, disturb, and befuddle its readers, to make the obvious strange and, perhaps, to make the strange obvious.” The result is a very heterogeneous collection, almost a hodgepodge, in which such well-known works as “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” by the British logician Alan Turing and Thomas Nagel’s “What Is It Like to Be…

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