Douglas Hofstadter is a researcher in cognition who dabbles in artificial intelligence in his research into what makes higher-level thinking work. His books include Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought, and (with Daniel C. Dennett) The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self & Soul. When Martin Gardner died, Douglas took over his Mathematical Games column in Scientific American, titling it with the anagram Metamagical Themas. The best of this column are collected in the book Metamagical Themas: Questing For The Essence Of Mind And Pattern. His latest book, I am a Strange Loop, looks afresh into the self-reinforcing illusion that is our individual consciousness.
In this Tal Cohen interview, Douglas talked about his decision to become a vegetarian, relating it to the problem that many people face, especially as they begin to explore ideas and techniques for fostering compassion, which tell us that our experience is - on a certain level - illusory. If indeed the way we experience our own minds - and therefore the world - is a kind of illusion, why should we care about anyone? Further exploration can help us avoid falling into nihilism, but in the meantime it can be hard to explain to ourselves and others why compassion matters.
Here is the section of the interview in which Douglas addresses the question. (By the way, "huneker" refers to the playful concept of a theoretical scale representing levels of awareness.)
You claim that an “I” is nothing but a myth, a hallucination perceived by a hallucination. Certainly, from this point of view, one can assume that there is nothing sacred about souls. Yet you seem to hold souls as sacred, being, for example, a vegetarian. Aren't those views somewhat conflicting? If a soul is not real, and is nothing but the high-level result of bio-chemical processes, why care about the survival of other souls (and in particular “low-huneker” souls)?
I can't explain this completely rationally. Sure, my brain falls for the universal myth of the “I” — the great hallucination, if you prefer — just as powerfully as does any other human brain. And this hallucination inevitably gives rise to compassion and empathy (yes, merely empathy for other hallucinations, if you will, but that's just how it is). At some point, in any case, my compassion for other “beings” led me very naturally to finding it unacceptable to destroy other sentient beings (or other hallucinations, if you prefer), such as cows and pigs and lambs and fish and chickens, in order to consume their flesh, even if I knew that their (hallucinated) sentience wasn't quite as high as the (hallucinated) sentience of human beings.
Where or on what basis to draw the line? How many hunekers merit respect? I didn't know exactly. I decided once to draw the line between mammals and the rest of the animal world, and I stayed with that decision for about twenty years. Recently, however — just a couple of years ago, while I was writing I Am a Strange Loop, and thus being forced (by myself) to think all these issues through very intensely once again — I “lowered” my personal line, and I stopped eating animals of any sort or “size”. I feel more at ease with myself this way, although I do suspect, at times, that I may have gone a little too far. But I'd rather give a too-large tip to a server than a too-small one, and this is analogous. I'd rather err on the side of generosity than on the other side, so I'm vegetarian. (However, I don't worry about the souls of tomatoes, as I point out in Chapter 1 of I Am a Strange Loop.)