The tale of Zombie-Bach

This tale is, to some extent, a reaction to the latter parts of Douglas Hofstadter's latest book "I am a Strange Loop".


I was raised in a sea of Christianity. Montreal, in the 1950's, had two public school boards; Protestant and Catholic. When entering a child in a Protestant School you had to choose a denomination. (Jewish was an allowed choice.) Non-Judaeo-Christians were required to choose a Protestant denomination; in other words, to lie. Christianity was taught as "the truth". My parents sent me to Anglican High Church on Sundays, and all the neighbours were some form of Christian as well. Despite this homogeneous environment, I soon became an Atheist. I wondered if I was the only real one in the world. I felt quite clever to have discovered atheism by myself, and frustrated by the fact that I had to keep it secret. To reveal it would have been truly dangerous, and would have precluded many activities, including, possibly, continued existence.

This has very little to do with what follows, except to reveal a curious personality quirk, which may have influenced my musical tastes.

The school also taught that the only music worth listening to was Classical. Even Jazz, which now has some snob appeal, was then considered garbage. My parents, especially my father, agreed with this view. Only classical music was played in the home. I hated it. The sound of orchestral droning caused me physical pain.

I was more comfortable with the stuff played on the radio; in those days Elvis, Connie Francis, whatever... ...but it wasn't till later that I discovered the folky, old timey, and traditional music that is still my favourite audio pleasure.

An Aside on Pop and Classical (highly skippable)

In order to prove to us the greater "lasting power" of classical over Pop music, one teacher presented us with a daring challenge. She would pick a short classical piece, and we would pick a current pop hit; we would play them both every day, and see which one we tired of first!

We both made very bad choices. The class chose the current hit Bongo Rock, a simple blues riff and, well, bongoes; a rather lackluster performance, long forgotten. The teacher, however, made a worse pick, something from the odious Nutcracker Suite I believe. We were bored to tears by them both after several months, but Bongo Rock easily won, since the kids were able to "bongo" on their desks when it came on.

Alas, although Bongo Rock is justly forgotten, The NutCracker Suite lives on, to bore yet more generations of young folk.

About Douglas Hofstadter

Douglas Hofstadter is a philosopher and author of several popular books. Godel, Escher, Bach was a huge popular success, an engrossing and illuminating volume. His main theme is approached from many angles, with numerous entertaining asides. His latest tome, I Am a Strange Loop, is less ambitious, and attempts to restate the themes of GEB in a more direct, less convoluted fashion.

His major thesis is that the human mind, and/or soul, is a physical phenomenon, an emergent property of the brain. There is nothing supernatural about it; it is a product of well-understood physics and biology. He goes so far as to refer to the conscious mind as an "illusion". Self awareness is a logical, looping structure in the brain that can make reference to its own existence.

This is not an uncommon point of view, but he does spell out the manner in which the illusion is created; those wishing more detail will have to read his books. I also recommend Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained, for a similar viewpoint, with a witty but more academic style.


Some dualists (those who believe mind and matter are made of different stuff) believe in the possibility of a Zombie; that is, a soul-less creature that mimics all human behaviour, without any actual self-awareness. (Dualists generally don't really think there ARE any Zombies, just that they're not logically impossible.)

A corollary of Hofstadter's world-view is that there cannot be an actual Zombie. To put it simply, a being or machine that was complex enough to write a treatise on its own consciousness would, indeed, be conscious, and not just faking it!

I have no great disagreement with these views, but I'm an artiste, not a philosopher, and my job description does not call for consistency. I know that much of my own behaviour is pretty Zombiesque; driving to work while thinking about other things implies the car at least is being controlled by a Zombie. And the old, psychiatrist-simulation program Eliza demonstrated NOT that machines could think, but that psychiatrists probably ARE Zombies.

In my own early film Spinnolio, the hero lives a rather sub-zombie existence, although this might only be possible in a cartoon.

Hofstadter's Strange Loop takes an even Stranger Turn

The "mind", the "soul", "consciousness", and the "I"... ...these are all the same thing to Hofstadter, and all illusory. They are, however, important illusions, and everything valuable that has been done by humanity has been created by these illusions. In the latter half of Strange Loop, Hofstadter waxes eloquent on the soul.

He notes that some creatures probably have no consciousness (mosquitoes, whom he obviously dislikes, are his favourite example). Humans definitely HAVE consciousness, and souls. But in-between; well, to a scientific mind there are no real discontinuities in nature. So a Guinea Pig might have a tiny, dim self-awareness; a dog or a chimp quite a bit more. So far, so good; many people will find their intuitive view of the world coincides with this fairly well.

Hofstadter, however, plunges bravely (or foolishly) into more dangerous waters. Individual humans may have larger or smaller souls! For many people, warning bells are ringing! The concept of equality is part of our heritage, our sacred values. However, many people realize that these values are matters of principle, and privately believe that the principles may be at odds with the facts. Is the drooling dimwit who gets arrested while attempting to hold up a bank machine at gunpoint really equal to, say, Albert Einstein?

Most normal people would stop here; do we really want to weigh in judgement a kindly dolt, versus a cruel genius? Surely our personal prejudices will lead us astray, as they have often done in the past.

A case in point; when there were too few kidney machines to serve all those that needed them, committees were set up to decide who lived and who died. A strong religious conviction was considered the biggest plus, and atheists were usually discarded, at least the honest ones. To which I say "ouch"!

In Hofstadter's view, and to many people's intuition, the size of the soul determines the degree of moral consideration that we bestow on an individual organism. Thus, we swat the mosquito, eat the fish, pet the dog, incarcerate the thug, and reward our heroes. Most people will be justifiably nervous about going much farther with this, but Hofstadter plunges on. He even makes a list of his own choice for gigantic-souled humans. His first criterion is a cautious one: humanitarianism, and he lists a well-known group of do-gooders. Even here, I found myself at odds with a few of his choices, but there was worse to come.

His next criterion is musical taste! You can probably guess... ...BACH! Large soul equals Love of Bach! Good grief! I can't imagine what Hofstadter would make of The Holy Modal Rounders playing Low Down Dog; but if we were on a shrinking life-raft and he were in charge, I'm sure I would be fish food pretty quickly.

It turns out that the largest-souled individual he can think of is Albert Schweitzer, who not only founded a hospital in Africa, but played Bach on the Organ. A definite two-fer! And close behind Schweitzer is, well, someone who will sit in a darkened room and be spiritually moved by listening to Schweitzer on the stereo... ...turns out to be Hofstadter himself!

What Happened in 1979

Seventy-nine was an insanely rich year for me; I had a son, won an Oscar, got a staff position at the NFB... ...but also bought one of the first home computers, a Commodore Pet. And I read Science and Music by Sir James Jeans.

I had never thought of myself as musical, and tended to ignore music as a field that would ever remain a mystery. Prior to 79, I had no idea what a tonic note or an unresolved chord were, and my minimal banjo playing was intuitive. I'm not sure why I started Science and Music, but it was a revelatory experience. Suddenly I understood! Jeans had gotten to my right brain by passing through the left, which was always my "better half".

There was virtually no software for computers in those days; you were supposed to write it yourself, in Basic (which was provided) and, for the courageous, Assembler. Jeans had given me an impetus; and, translating his analytic understanding of music into 6502 computerese, I created a synthesizer, sampler, and sequencer which was able to play four-part harmony in real time. One remaining piece from this early experiment is the song "Getting to Know Her"; the voice, overdubbed, is my own.

Having done that, I decided to plunge into the world of composition. Here I was on shakier ground; Jeans barely touches on it. But by now I could understand what some of the old folky fingerpickers were doing; Mississippi John Hurt, Elizabeth Cotton, and Joseph Spence come to mind. So I went ahead, and created a simple zombie-composer. I say simple; it also wrote four parts, which were piped through the synth-sequencer. It could actually improvise and play in real time. Notes were chosen on the basis of their proximity and harmoniousness to notes that preceded and followed them, as well as notes played simultaneously. Parameters could be set which adjusted the "tightness" or "looseness" of the rules. At the tight end, the music was dull. At the loose end, cacaphony. Somewhere in between, it would, sometimes, play somehting interesting.

One day, was allowing it to rattle away in the background, when my Father dropped by. As you will recall, he was of the classical-only school of musical taste. He listened to the music for a while, and obviously thought he was listening to a record. After a minute or two he asked....

"Is that Bach?"

I roared with unkind laughter, and explained to him what he was listening to. He was flabbergasted, dumbfounded, flummoxed! After a long pause, and much spluttering, he said...

"Well, it does sound like Bach... ...on a Bad Day!"

Honour thy Father and thy Mother, but it's always feels good to get one back!

Okay, it Fooled your Dad, but surely not....

...someone truly large-souled. Surely not Dr, Hofstadter himself!

I recently contacted Dr. Hofstadter by e-mail on another matter, and invited him to visit my website. He did, and commented on some things he found there, notable a short piece of music called Rhythmosis, which he said reminded him of the music of American composer Conlon Nancarrow, whom I'd never heard of, but was a real person, not a machine. He did compose FOR machines, however... ...player piano.

Rhythmosis is one of the two remaining pieces composed by the software that fooled my Father. (The other is called Sunday Nap). It's clearly labelled a computer composition, and presumably Dr. Hofstadter noticed that; yet he chose to compare it to the creation of an at least medium-souled human!

Yes, it's absolutely unfair to be critical of Dr. Hofstadter for what was probably just a friendly remark. Who knows how closely he listened? But then, how could I resist?

Let's stick to my Father, who was believed by those who knew him to have a Very Large Soul.

Could a Small-Souled Human create a No-Souled Zombie that could fool a Large-Souled Human into thinking that the Zombie was a Huge-Souled Being? And would the Large-Souled Human then chuck... ...Elvis, say... the life-raft, to save an Eight-kilobyte (less than a mosquito, I suspect) Machine? Okay, I didn't achieve quite that level of cleverness in 79, but I was damn close. Just call me Dr. Frankenbach.

This is a cautionary tale. Many believe they have a handle on soul-size, and such a concept may even have a real-universe counterpart. A principle, such as "Equality" may not hold up well under scrutiny; it doesn't fit with common, everyday observation.
But we abandon it at great risk. A little knowledge can be dangerous, especially when the temptation is to supplement the knowledge with a LOT of prejudice.


The Composition Program I refer to is probably irretrievable; although digital, home computers in those days used audio cassette tape to store everything. There's still a box full of them in the back of an attic cupboard. However, if anyone were interested, my memory of how it worked is clear enough that I could recreate a "Plain English" description that could be translated into the computerese of choice.