Galatea 2.2, by Richard Powers
Both David Lodge’s Thinks . . . (2001) and Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2 (1995) involve writers who are guests at prestigious cognitive neuroscience centers, and both deal with the clash between the scientific and humanist worldviews.
In contrast to Helen, Richard Powers, the protagonist of Galatea 2.2 and namesake of the novel’s author, becomes a convert to the neurological vocabulary and is exhilarated to realize that reading has changed the “physical structure” of his brain and thus “deformed the cell map of the mind” (Powers 1995, 56). After some hesitation, Richard joins an artificial intelligence project whose goal is to assemble a device capable of passing the final exam for a master’s degree in English literature. The goal of the project is to emulate the workings of the human brain through “Implementations” based on neural networks. Richard then spends months reading literary classics to Helen, as the computer is called, until he believes it can mimic selfconsciousness and has become not only “operationally equivalent” to a human mind but actually “indistinguishable” from it (52).
At the same time, however, the novelist-protagonist asserts that “knowledge is physical” and that embodiment is crucial for personal identity (Adams 2008). Words and their neural representations do not suffice for personhood: the crucial element is not “what your mother reads you” but “the weight of her arm around you” as she reads (Powers 1995, 147). Even the computer Helen comes to realize this and to desire full human embodiment. Neuronovels thus problematize the belief that humans are essentially their brains; films, as we shall see below, do very much the same.
About the book
After four novels and several years living abroad, the fictional protagonist of Galatea 2.2 — Richard Powers — returns to the United States as Humanist-in-Residence at the enormous Center for the Study of Advanced Sciences. There he runs afoul of Philip Lentz, an outspoken cognitive neurologist intent upon modeling the human brain by means of computer-based neural networks. Lentz involves Powers in an outlandish and irresistible project: to train a neural net on a canonical list of Great Books. Through repeated tutorials, the device grows gradually more worldly, until it demands to know its own name, sex, race, and reason for exisiting. - Goodreads
The relationship between the novelist Helen and Ralph the cognitive scientist in Thinks . . . as well as the writer Richard Powers’s conversations with the scientist Philip Lentz in Galatea 2.2 function as vehicles for conveying knowledge on cognitive neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and connectionism.
Music, art, and bioterror: an interview with Richard Powers (PDF)Here’s to Unsuicide: An Interview with Richard Powers (PDF)