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Why Memes Are Stupid: The Short Version

In 1976, in his The Selfish Gene, a book which revealed that most of us are slaves to our genes, biologist Richard Dawkins “discovered” the meme which, in one definition, is any “cultural item that is transmitted by repetition in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.”

Dawkins snuck memes into the last chapter of The Selfish Gene, after readers had been softened up by edematous arguments of how “selfish” genes are responsible for (mainly) reprehensible or harmful behaviors; yet behaviors and actions—approved of by Dawkins—outside the iron grip of genes were also (somehow) possible. He spent the next several years defending this bizarre thesis (presumably with the cooperation of his genes), making sounds like the yip yip yip of a lapdog affixed with a studded collar under the delusion he is a pit bull.

Most of his efforts were expended explaining how “selfish” didn’t really mean “selfish“, but sometimes “selfish” other times “selfish.” Strangely, only devotees had the power (via genetic mutation?) to understand this amorphous word. In an infamous review article which demolished Dawkins’s ideas, the philosopher and true pit bull Mary Midgley seized Dawkins by the throat and rattled him until she bored of it.

Dawkins reacted to this attack just as a lap dog would: with sullenness. One imagines him sitting in a quiet corner, a single tear escaping from the welling in his eyes, as he wrote, “[Midgley’s paper is] hard to match, in reputable journals, for its patronising condescension toward a fellow academic.” This coming from a man who boasted he would jam a black hood on Pope Benedict and toss him in a dungeon.

So “selfish” genes had difficulties and were not universally accepted. But memes had an easier time, at least at first. Now, a “cultural item” that is transmitted from one human to another is anything: a name, a joke, racism (of course), even a theory like memetics. Memes spread by changing, even creating, the behavior of the “host” such that the host, well, is made to pass on its mind viruses. This is not facetious: Dawkins himself prefers this phrase.

In one sense, “memes” are just a re-labeling of a trivial truth: people pass ideas to one another. Calling this mundane process a “transmission of memes” isn’t wrong, but an unnecessary obfuscation, a bureaucratic complication. The word also means a short-lived asinine idea passed between a small fraction of the Earth’s population who have leisure and access to a computer.

But Dawkins and his acolytes mean more than these. The philosopher David Stove, quotes from one of Dawkins’s works1 (all markings original):

Memes are living “are living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind2, you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking—the meme for, say [Pythagora’s Theorem] is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men…”

Stove continues:

One might try saying to Dr. Dawkins: “Look, you are in the phone book, and they print millions of copies of the phone book—right? But now you don’t believe, do you, that you are there millions of times over ‘in the form of’ printed letters, or ‘realized in’ the chemistry of ink and newsprint?” But I would so afraid of being told by Dr. Dawkins that he does believe this that I do not think I would have the courage to put the questions to him.

Memes are also said to reproduce themselves, or to cause themselves to be reproduced, for their own “benefit.” But it is impossible for one copy of a meme to benefit from other copies. It is like saying a chair on sale as Walmart benefits by there being copies of itself for sale at other Walmarts.

Midgely asks

Why are we supposed to need the general word ‘meme’? It brackets together indiscriminately such mixed items as ideas, customs, beliefs, traditions, fancies, fashions, art-forms and art-works, tricks of the trade, opinions, doctrines, theories, images, concepts, attitudes, practices and habits. When we are actually trying to study culture, it is not helpful to blur these differences so grossly. Why do memeticists want to do this?

They do it because they think this simplification is scientific. They aim to explain changes in all these things by a single cause, and one of the same kind which is used to explain large-scale changes in evolution. This naturally has to be a cause quite outside our actual thinking. So they treat the various elements of culture, not as aspects of human life – ways in which people act and think – but as distinct entities, quasi-organisms or quasi-genes, substantial things existing on their own and somehow acting on people. These entities’ behaviour has then to be understood, like that of genes, in terms of their own supposed reproductive interests, their own competitive interactions with one another, bypassing all reference to human psychology.

Memes are often welcomed by those who want freedom from responsibility for their own actions. If a man can’t point to his “selfish” genes and say “They made me do it!”, then perhaps memes are the real culprits. People aren’t really racists, they have racist memes. Criminals rampage because of memetic influences, not because they are evil. Yet some of us (like Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and of course yours truly) have the ability to “move beyond” the influence of these pernicious mind viruses. We can will our minds to do other than what the memes (or genes) would have us do.

These arguments are identical with those saying there is no free will. “We must not punish the criminal! He has no free will, no choice to have done what he has done.” If you cannot spot the fallacy here, chances are good you will remain convinced memes are a viable scientific concept.

——————————————————————–

1Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity, and Other Fables of Evolution pp 194-195.

2Oh, baby!

55 thoughts on “Why Memes Are Stupid: The Short Version Leave a comment

  1. I’ve always had criticisms of memes in general as a serious scientific concept, but I do think that they’re useful in explaining Internet behavior and the way that jokes and ideas are passed around. Even if the usage of the word online isn’t strictly “correct,” it’s useful as a descriptive word for what’s going on.

  2. Ari,

    There is of course a science how networks communicate (which is partly statistics), and of course dozens of sociological mechanisms with which to study these phenomena. We can call this “memetics”, but it’s not necessar and it is not what Dawkins et al. have in mind.

  3. I tend to agree with Ari. There are some ideas that catch on then spread like wildfire. It’s as if some ideas require a special environment or the ideas are adapting to it. Zeitgeist if you will. Dawkins is a bit overboard though.

  4. It’s more than an interconnection. People have to agree with each other for an idea to spread. Some jokes, for example, don’t make it. The same with some ideas. What is considered a “good” idea or joke depends a lot on circumstance. The environment which will support certain jokes or ideas and cause others to wither an “die”.

  5. DAV,

    All true, but this is still not what memeticists have in mind. Their theory is a deeper (and more nonsensical) one. You would not say you repeated a joke because you had no choice, that your memes made you do it, that the meme for the joke “wanted” to reproduce, etc., etc.

  6. I have been working on the human memome project, that will break down all ideas to their component memes.

    When completed, we expect to be able to use this to develop a machine that will write every joke that can be written and unabigously rank all jokes by relative funny.

  7. The obvious truth that you don’t have a free will does not constitute sufficient justification for the lack of responsibility.

    I’m always amused at those who ridicule other’s points of view for being “ridiculous”, while defending otherwise undefensible positions, just like stating that we are both animals, living in a material world, and that we have “free will”.

    Free Will, even accepting the “possibility” of a higher “spiritual” dimension (whatever), is a self-contradictory concept, since you cannot be free from yourself. If you cannot be free from yourself, it means you are doomed to behave as is your own nature. And it couldn’t be otherwise: how can I be free to do something that I actually end up doing? I will always do whatever I will always do, and “Free Will” is nothing but a social concept to place responsibility upon the “decider”, so that he will measure well the consequences of his own actions before making stupid things.

    IOW, “Free Will” does not “exist” per se, but it exists as an ideology that works. Now, if you still want a reasonable society, even after realising that Free Will is as stupid a concept as it gets, you will not desresponsabilize people for their actions. For even if they were “doomed” to do what they ended up doing because the universe just goes its way, the behavior of a conscious agent is totally different if one believes that he is responsible, and the society that is built is a completely different one, a self-regulating, cohesive and working one.

    IOW, I don’t believe in FW, but I do believe in the belief of it.

  8. Briggs,

    Now that you should mention it but there is a joke than I’m compelled to relate … ummm … there must have been a cosmic ray mutation or an evil meme infection or something because I simply can’t remember the joke. Just as well I suppose. For all I know Doug M/’s relative, funny, might say it was unambiguously rank. Or maybe he’s just plain meme.

  9. Luis,

    Nyah nyah nyah.

    I had no choice but to say this. There was no way I could stop myself. There was no “I” to stop! Pure determinism, baby.

  10. Luis Dias,

    You presume the “free” in “free will” means freedom from reality which implies freedom from identity. Then you use the idea that we cannot be free of our identity to destroy your notion of “free will”. A Straw Man argument if there ever was one.

    If we look at our identity (what we actually are), we must choose to focus, we must choose to think, we must choose what to think about, AND we must choose how to think and to discover our errors of thought. Then finally we must choose to act or not. While this process can become automatized it is not automatic and beyond our choosing. THAT is the meaning and substance behind the concept of “free will”.

    We have the power to chose but we do not have the power to avoid the consequences of our choices. That we cannot chose and act successfully counter to what actually is permitted by reality does not eliminate our power of choice. It is because we can and must choose is why we are moral agents responsible for ALL of our choices. We have the power of choice.

  11. Dawkins should have named them “miruses” — really stupid ideas that get into people’s brains and eventually causing them to explode, but not before spreading the infection to other people. Sort of like bubonic plagues of the mind. Which technically is a bacteria, not a virus. Macteria? Marasites?

  12. Uncle Mike,

    That’s the best neologism I have seen in ages! Not memes, miruses. Just like out of Night of the Creeps.

  13. Matt,

    It’s odd though, when you look at a site like knowyourmeme.com, and you notice that some sorts of memes are “better” at spreading.

    There are certain traits that allow things to spread. Not that I apply any sort of magical “science,” to it, but there is definitely something in the sociology there that’s fascinating.

    Again, not agreeing with Dawkins, but just sort of pondering why it is that certain ideas spread online better than others. For example, why did “lolcats” take off so readily, while “loldogs” didn’t? I like dogs better than cats, myself, and I think most people are the same way. But for some reason, there’s something inherently funnier about cats doing stupid anthropomorphic things.

    I do think that the term is used far too cavalierly. But I also think it somehow describes the behavior on the Internet a hell of a lot better than “people pass ideas to one another,” because there is something inherently different between the passing of an idea, and the bizarre self-producing humor of the internet.

    The funny thing, though, is that I doubt that Dawkins had any of this in mind.

  14. Katie,

    Any time a meme makes it into the mainstream media, it’s probably dead. Or so my internet sources tell me…

  15. Damn it Briggs! First you resurrect that damn pocket square meme from some Hollywood archive and start infecting folks with it; then you blithely argue there’s no such thing.

    Mirus? Isn’t that the pop-tart from the Disney Channel?

  16. Katie,

    A meme/mirus cannot die because it isn’t alive, just like a gene cannot die because it is not alive. There can only be one copy of a mirus/gene or many or none and that is it. Just as there can only be one or none or many Walmart chairs.

    One reason people are infatuated with memes is that they are small, hidden; tiny enough to be Gods in the machine. This is why Walmart chairs aren’t seen as controlling. They’re so big we can keep an eye on them.

  17. If Luis doesn’t believe in free will, why is he posting a comment then? (other than he can’t help it)

    It’s almost as if he’s attempting to persuade us via words to a adopt a position. But doing so would constitute free will.

    Thus it seems his post is self-defeating.

  18. Nate,

    At the really minute level, I’m not sure I believe in “free will” myself. Not that I think that we don’t make “choices,” but I think that we aren’t necessarily entirely “free.” We are born to our genes, the physical laws of the universe, our cultures, our legal systems, etc.

    I think we make choices. I chose to post a comment here instead of do more work. But I don’t know that we are “free” in the philosophical sense. There is a kind of determinism in the universe.

  19. Let’s plant a meme: from now on everytime I see a posting from Luis I’ll hear the opening bars of “Born Free” in my mind. Let’s see if you do too.

  20. Matt,

    Well, if we use the word “meme” and “die” strictly, perhaps you are right. But memes have a shelf life on the Internet. I remember in college when “All your base are belong to us” was very popular. It was the height of Internet funnies.

    I haven’t heard that meme referenced in months, maybe years. I’d say it’s pretty close to expired.

    Keep in mind, I’m coming at this from the perspective of an internet nerd. Everything I say is my view as a spectator of how the internet’s culture functions and evolves.

  21. Ah well: there is no God and Dawkins is his prophet.

    Memes, well a jone and a bad one.

    Genes now are important.

    Remember if you want to live a long and healthy life it pays to pick your parents carefully.

    Kindest Regards

  22. a jones,

    Well, I sure as hell didn’t pick the right parents if I wanted to be in the NBA. Or NFL. Or MLB.

    “Would you like something to read?”

    “Do you have anything light?”

    “Here’s a pamphlet about famous Jewish athletes.”

  23. Thanks for a great post. The silliness of Dawkins’ twin ideas, “selfish genes” and “memes” is pretty stunning. He is a decent writer, in terms of rhetoric and command of the language, but one has to wonder whether he even understands what he is espousing sometimes.

    I don’t mind the use of “meme” in the sense of an idea that is circulating about or currently in fashion, but it clearly doesn’t have the anthropomorphic, almost fantastical, qualities that Dawkins tried to give the concept. Pretty sad to write a book that is largely philosophy masquerading as science and then have to spend the next 20 years backpedaling.

  24. Memes have no survival value, and they survive themselves only through repetition. For example, the global warming mantra, “The Science is Settled,” is close to an oxymoron. But repetition by adherents gave it life — for awhile.

  25. Ari,

    You are free in that there are many choices you can make. One thing you cannot cannot choose is the consequence of any given choice. Another thing you cannot choose is that a particular thing is what it is not. That defines the extent of your and my free will.

    The best we can do is make our choices wisely and act upon them very carefully. You can choose to act differently but, once you have acted, the consequences of that action are totally determined by factors outside of your ability to choose.

  26. Meme theory grew out of the now discredited Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and relied upon it for Dawkin’s version to be correct. Sapir-Whorf is enjoying a new life based partially upon meme theory. That should give plenty of fodder for ridicule.

  27. Hey Matt: don’t use obsfucation – it just never rolls easily off the tongue. “Muddies the waters” on the other hand has a lovely gutteral flow to it. : )

    It is pretty simple – there are plenty of people who like to present themselves as smart, chic, hip, inteligent, and generally superior to you. When they use things like the word/concept “meme” (in the Dawkins sense), it instantly tells me I’m smarter. Then I get to be smug!

    Anyone remember when the word latte came into use? First time I heard it, I asked my friend what the h..l was that. After a long, “where the heck have you been” description from him, I replied, “Oh – coffee and cream”. Latte: muddying the coffee. So there you go with a new meme – use latte instead of obsfucation.

  28. At the really minute level, I’m not sure I believe in “free will” myself. Not that I think that we don’t make “choices,” but I think that we aren’t necessarily entirely “free.” We are born to our genes, the physical laws of the universe, our cultures, our legal systems, etc.

    I think we make choices. I chose to post a comment here instead of do more work. But I don’t know that we are “free” in the philosophical sense. There is a kind of determinism in the universe.

    I really don’t want to repeat myself here

    Free will means being able to make a choice – it doesn’t mean being able to make ALL choices. Your objection would the equivalent to saying “because I don’t have all the money in the world, money doesn’t exist”. No, you obviously have some money.

  29. I’m always impressed by the gullibility of people…until I realize P.T. Bachman’s (spelling?) that there’s a sucker born every minute (or was that W. C. Fields?).

    At any rate humans seem to have an innate desire to be fooled, hence the popularity of magicians. A ‘special case’ of this might be get-rich-quick-schemes, though that’s probably a different psychological beastie altogether as greed comes into play. But I digress…..

    Further, it seems that humans have an inherent need to believe …. in something. Religion is obvious, but in atheists & like-minded ilk invariably something else comes into play.

    Ayn Rand’s Objectivism — a very precisely defined special sub-class of the generally ill-defined Libertarianism, is one example.

    R. Dawkins’ “memes” is another.

    Over the years there have been many such constructs developed.

    In every case the “red flag” of silliness, that almost all overlook, is that experts in one area start developing (‘dreaming up’) jargon & so forth for another, very well-established, academic/scientific area.

    So when a biologist develops a model/construct for a sociological/anthropological/psychological matter — memes in this case — one can be absolutely certain its a superficial explanation…and undoubtedly inferior to the much more involved & rigorous work done by others in the appropriate fields.

    But, what’s really telling is who really latches onto the superficial models (including “memes”) as the preference over the appropriate & well established disciplines (sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists) after they’ve had a chance to think about it.

    In this case, the “meme-endorsing” crowd is heavily weighted to that bunch that is self-identifies themselves as “skeptics” — with their self-evaluations of their objective application of scientific objectivity & rationality. Which, if you think about it in broad context, shows their behavior is exactly the opposite of what they claim for themselves — their outlook is based, ultimately, on a set of cherished beliefs founded on beliefs linked to values & the maintenance of certain images … not objectivity or science, which are instead their banners.

  30. Nyah nyah nyah.

    I had no choice but to say this. There was no way I could stop myself. There was no “I” to stop! Pure determinism, baby.

    Poor mr. Briggs is confusing “free will” with choice. I can choose everything. To wit, I can do anything. But it just so happens that I won’t. It just so happens that whatever it will happen, only one thing will happen. I have the power to choose from the options I have, and this is part of the world.

    IOW, if the world was utterly deterministic, my “will” was just part of it.

    Wouldn’t it?

    Lionell,

    You presume the “free” in “free will” means freedom from reality which implies freedom from identity. Then you use the idea that we cannot be free of our identity to destroy your notion of “free will”. A Straw Man argument if there ever was one.

    Except that it’s precisely that notion that free will entails. You would be right if “free will” didn’t mean what you say it doesn’t. Alas, if you defend another meaning for free will, namely, that we can process information and determine the paths that we want to porsue, even despite the fact that you did all of that deterministically (for the sake of argument), then I’ve no qualms with that.

    But be aware. Whenever someone states that there is “no free will”, he is meaning what I mean, not what you are meaning.

    So the strawman is all yours ;).

    Nate,

    If Luis doesn’t believe in free will, why is he posting a comment then? (other than he can’t help it)

    It’s almost as if he’s attempting to persuade us via words to a adopt a position. But doing so would constitute free will.

    Thus it seems his post is self-defeating.

    You sir, have not thought this through. Because my attempt to persuade you is “determined” by the universe, it would have nevertheless have happened, and it does have its consequences, namely, that people may be persuaded to either accept it or to challenge it. I get the latter, I don’t mind ;).

    You are confusing free will with “choice”. I choose, we all choose. But we will inevitably choose what we will choose, and this is so obvious.

    Nomen,

    Let’s plant a meme: from now on everytime I see a posting from Luis I’ll hear the opening bars of “Born Free” in my mind. Let’s see if you do too.

    Hope. It is the quintessential human delusion, simultaneously the source of your greatest strength, and your greatest weakness.

    😉

  31. “I can choose everything. To wit, I can do anything. But it just so happens that I won’t. It just so happens that whatever it will happen, only one thing will happen.”

    Wait… THAT’S the definition you’re using for “not having free will”? Then I’m pretty sure everyone is in agreement here. LOL. We are all slaves, forced to make choices! Woe to be human: you cannot have your cake and eat it too!

  32. Nate,

    I tend to be a bit of a determinist, so you’ll pardon me for not agreeing completely.

    I’m not entirely sure we make “choices” in the sense that some ghost in the machine is making a decision to do x. It may be that what neuroscience I studied in college is woefully outdated (likely, even), but from what I remember, much of what we do is pretty hardwired, and the rest depends on the hardwiring at some level anyway.

    I know that Libet’s studies on the subject aren’t much in vogue anymore, but I do remember my cognitive science roommate telling me about studies his department was doing, and how strongly most people in his department leaned toward “free won’t.” What was interesting, at least at the neurological level, was that we don’t tend to make too many positive conscious decisions, but we are quite capable of vetoing unconscious decisions.

    That is, of course, a sort of free will. But I think it’s interesting to explore the nurture vs. nature aspects without worrying too much about what it “means.” Even if it turns out that I’m mostly pre-programmed in some way, I’m still pretty happy being me.

    Also, Twilight?

  33. Back in the early seventies, I remember my dad returning from work (he was a college professor) frustrated because his students were wasting a lot of time playing games on “play-dough.”

    I was very confused as to why college kids would be so fascinated with nursery-school toys. It was a few years later that I discovered my dad had not said “play-dough”, but rather this:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PLATO_(computer_system)

  34. Luis, your distinction between choice and free will is too subtel for me, and you yourself dissolve it in two lines. You acknowledge that you choose, and we all choose, but since we chose what we chose, we were going to choose it all along, and therefore we had no choice and no free will.

    That’s projecting the present into the past. It’s like saying that once you eat your lunch, your lunch is not there AND it was never there to begin with. Really? Then what did you eat?

    A choice is there ready to be made. Making it does not cancel it. On the contrary, making it is what brings it into being. Consumates it.

    Strict believers in the non-existence of choice or free will should be congruent with themselves and begin advocatng the elimination of all justice systems as well as all forms of planning. After all they are all based on the opposite assumption.

    I think the famous Doris Day song, what will be will be, is a popular but very week argument against free will, and more fiddleing has been done around this question than probably any other.

  35. Ari, you might have a point in that there are levels of degrees of free will. However, many phrase free will in a binary fashion – it is either present or it isn’t. Thus, even the smallest amount of free will, no matter how tiny, invalidates the naught position.

    However the mechanics work, even a “free won’t” is still free will. Don’t confuse the how with the definition. However I went from point A to point B (by car, by foot, by zip line, by wormhole, etc) does not negate that I went from point A to point B in the first place.

    Also, Twilight?

    Yeah… I do apologize for that. It is a bit of a project I’m doing for that site. Sometimes it’s almost depressing what gets published nowadays.

  36. What we need, and more importantly what the market needs, is a vaccine that protects the user/patient against catching any miruses.

    In other words, a maccine (TM, copyright, dibs, etc.).

    The best maccine would come in pill form or other “firmware” product that can be mass produced and mass marketed. Maybe a liquid that comes in a bottle.

    “Drink Mike’s Maccine and be forever innoculated against really stupid ideas.”

    All suggestions welcome. Stock shares will be for sale as soon as we can print some certificates up.

  37. “edematous arguments of how “selfish” genes are responsible for (mainly) reprehensible or harmful behaviors; yet behaviors and actions—approved of by Dawkins—outside the iron grip of genes were also (somehow) possible.”

    Erm no he did not.

    His point about selfish genes was that they could result in altruistic behaviour.
    He also makes it clear that we are not controlled by said genes.

    You really do have a blind spot when it comes to Dawkins and evolution. Midgley makes the same mistake.

  38. Luis Dias,

    You were free to argue with me or not. You chose to argue. Now if you could come up with a more interesting argument than “free will doesn’t exist because every thing is determined” I might continue the discussion. Until that time, I hope your straw man keeps you company.

  39. Nate, that’s very nice but that kind of thing doesn’t advance anything.

    Adam,

    I don’t know if “everyone” will agree with me on this one. I don’t see the word “freedom” the way you do it, perhaps. I see “freedom” as in “not obliged to do X because person Y, paper Z or rule W tells me so”. Free from other human beings.

    For me, “freedom to choose” is an equality statement that offers a worldview where no matter what anybody else tells you, you can always choose otherwise. This worldview however does not inform us about what we will do regardless of “the universe”, for such a thing I view as impossible.

    A nice redressal of what you and I agree could be stated in a query I’ve seen recently in the internet, when someone was asked:

    Do you believe in free will?

    I have no choice but to!

    And that paradox sums it up quite nicely ;).

    Francisco,

    I acknowledge the subtlety, and the lack of ability of expressing my views. Consider “Choice” as something that you do, an activity of the brain, emanating from the fact that you do not know the future, but are able to retrieve a lot of information. Given your state of mind and this information, you make choices, that is, you “compute” (for a lack of a better word, although I don’t like it myself – I’m no “Kurzweillian” ;)) what you think you’ll do next. This will probably trigger an action on your part, and then you’ll do whatever it is that you will do.

    Notice that in this deterministic tale of events, “Choice” still exists. It’s only the lack of omniscience on our part that creates the illusion of infinite possibilities (“Always in motion, the future is”).

    An example. Consider two computers playing a chess match with each other. If they start with the same openings (that are shuffled arbitrarily, usually, in the programs), they will choose a lot of moves, ponder a lot, etc. But they will inevitably make the exact same game, always.

    Strict believers in the non-existence of choice or free will should be congruent with themselves and begin advocatng the elimination of all justice systems as well as all forms of planning. After all they are all based on the opposite assumption.

    This assumes that free will is required to accept the notion of personal responsibility. Which I deny wholeheartedly. Even if it were impossible to conciliate the lack of free will with justice (which, again, I don’t buy in a single second), I’d rather have justice and the false religion of free will than what seems to me as what happens, and no justice at all.

    Lionell,

    You were free to argue with me or not. You chose to argue. Now if you could come up with a more interesting argument than “free will doesn’t exist because every thing is determined” I might continue the discussion.

    If you equate “choice” with “free will”, then we are talking past each other. Deterministic beings can choose as well. It just so happens that they will inevitably choose one thing only. When one speaks about “Free will” I do think they are speaking about the freedom of willing anything. That they “can” will “freely”. There’s no such thing, of course. Fortunately, the world is so vast in all the scales, that the illusion is perfect, and the experience of freedom does exist in our hearts. I, for one, welcome that feeling.

  40. Luis Dias,

    Of course it is true that if I will eat an apple tomorrow, I will eat an apple tomorrow. The same could be said of any proposition (having nothing to do with the future): If P, then P. I don’t think you can mean that the idea of free will contradicts this, so you must mean that all of my future actions are “determined” now. I take that to mean that, in principle, they could be known now, even if no human could know them.

    Leaving quantum mechanics aside, at least for now, I say that the only being that could know them would be larger than the universe, i.e., have more possible states than the universe (states in the sense of finite-state automaton). By the same token, a computer cannot predict the future state of its own computation. Only a larger computer could do so. So your argument says that if there is a being greater than the universe, that being could know my future actions. Yes, but that’s a conditional. In order for my future actions to be knowable, the being must exist.

  41. Luis,
    Personal responsibility can only be required if some kind of freedom of choice is assumed. I see freedom of choice as indistinguishable from “free will”. The subtleties of the distinction escape me. To demand responsibility, i.e. to demand the “right” choice, when you have just claimed the choice that was actually made was unescapable, is rather unreasonable.

    When you say “in this deterministic tale” I agree fully with the choice of the word “tale”. Meme could work too. Whatever it is, the mind is not a computer. Attempts to describe mind as a purely mechanistic-deterministic affair have not, to my mind, been satisfactory. They are wishful sketches at best. Mind may not exist as an object, but mental entities certainly exist as entities. These mental entities emerge from matter, or so it seems, and they get a hold of it, and how this happens is not understood, at least not by me. To claim for example that a mental entity, say the notion of “determinism,” is nothing but a specific “neural state” is so vague as to be totally useless. It (mind) must be a property of matter itself, but it’s a hell of a property that in some way anihilates its holder. Or maybe matter is a property of mind. Like that fellow said: the world is not made of atoms, it’s made of stories. He was on to something.

    Anyway, Dawkins cannot be taken seriously. Some reviewer once mentioned that he has the virtue of making many of his readers feel like geniuses; I can’t remember if the reviewer meant that as a compliment, but if it’s true, it may explain the popularity of his Selfish Gene and subsequent pamphlets. Legions of readers feeling like geniouses. When this reader attempts to read Dawkins, this reader feels smart *only by comparison with the author*, which is not a particularly satisfying feeling when you read, and it inevitably leads to boredom, impatience and shutting down the book. The only advantage of the word “meme” is that it rhymes with “gene,” offering a quick phonetic bridge between mind and matter that is pleasant to a determinist’s ear. Of course genes are not material objects either, in fact biologists, if you dig into it, have less and less of in idea what “genes” are, how to define them, let alone how to describe, beyond the trivial, the full chain of events that lead from these increasingly mental monads to a particular action or trait. But that is a different matter.

  42. Luis Dias,

    Perhaps this is more to your liking.

    “…and that shows that there are three hundred and sixty-four days when you get un-birthday presents—”

    “Certainly”, said Alice.

    “And only one for birthday presents, you know, There’s glory for you!”

    “I don’t know what you mean by `glory,’ ” Alice said.

    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t–till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”

    “But `glory’ doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,” Alice objected.

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.

    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean different things.”

    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master–that’s all.”

    Lewis Carroll: “Through the Looking-Glass and what Alice found there”, 1872, VI. Humpty Dumpty

  43. Nate, that’s very nice but that kind of thing doesn’t advance anything.

    Neither did either of your posts.

  44. Eric Anderson says:17 February 2011 at 5:26 pm The silliness of Dawkins’ twin ideas, “selfish genes” and “memes” is pretty stunning…Pretty sad to write a book that is largely philosophy masquerading as science and then have to spend the next 20 years backpedaling.”

    Er…Eric, There must be something wrong with your logic if Dawkins’ meme about genes and his meme about memes have both survived vigorously for 20 years.

  45. Noblesse Oblige says: 17 February 2011 at 8:22 pm: Memes have no survival value, and they survive themselves only through repetition. For example, the global warming mantra, “The Science is Settled,” is close to an oxymoron. But repetition by adherents gave it life — for a while.

    Sorry, but you appear to have missed the whole point! 

    You are making the assumption that only those memes that you consider to be “good” or “useful” should survive. But a meme that you might consider “useless” or even “evil” (such as the very example you mention) can survive for a very long time if it is replicated by a sufficiently large number of other people who support it. In other words, memes are not “you” centric or “me” centric but “group” centric. They have survival value only if they replicate well. Otherwise, they vanish. Exactly like genes.

    Dawkins has gone out of his way in his later publications to emphasise that he does not endorse the idea that human beings are automata, and insists that they are free to make choices. However an individual choice to replicate a meme ( e.g. my decision to write this blog entry) is of no consequence at all unless it is successful in stimulating other people, all of whom also possess free will, to replicate (and perhaps modify) it.  

    As an analogy, when we vote in an election, we individually exercise a free will choice. But the electoral mechanism, collecting and counting the votes and announcing the result, is value free (at least in non-corrupt regimes!) 

    So there is no conflict between the “selfish meme” idea and the concept of free will because the human being exercises the free will but the “voting” mechanism that propagates, or fails to propagate, the meme does so in a value-neutral way.

    This idea is of profound philosophical significance and explains exactly why Dawkins’ “Meme meme” still reigns supreme after 20 years, despite it’s many detractors.

  46. Luis,

    I have a hard time following your logic, mainly because it’s full of paradoxical statements and eye-twisting wordplay.

    I know you hated comparing a human mind to a computer, but ultimately that is what you’re doing. More specifically you’re stating that choice is a function f(x) where x is the state of the univerise.

    The problem with the argument choice=f(x) is that it requires x to be a repreateable state. In the case of the universe this simply is not possible in any way that would be measureable– in other words, while it may (and I use that word loosely) be possible, you could never know if it was (since it would all look the same!). Of course this assumes that a repeat somehow is the same, given that the first wasnt a repeate. x1 != x2?

    To accept your argument of determinism requires that you also accept all kinds of other pseudo-paradoxical wonkery. I’ll admit right here and now a great truth: I KNOW that the univerise is made up of magical fairies who live in a giant Boston Creme donut somewhere outside of the observable universe– and they’re playing a giant game of Snakes and Ladders, which is why everything looks so damn chaotic. Don’t ask me how I know because words are simply inadequate to describe it.

    My logic is just as sound as yours since I’ve offered an unproveable and untestable opinion under the guise of ‘logic’.

    Is the universe deterministic? Maybe. Did Manilla the Red Fairy of Galagorn just roll snake-eyes on her 7-dimenstional hypercube? Maybe. Am I going to press ‘Submit Comment’? Ask Schrodinger.

  47. Smoking Frog,

    That is irrelevant. What I am saying is that, independently of anyone knowing what will happen, it will nevertheless happen. And it will all happen due to the “laws of physics”. Or something like it.

    Thus this means that even when you think you “had” a choice, you really hadn’t. You chose what you were meant to choose, and nothing else. And yet, you did choose. Now, this does not mean that choice “does not exist”, it does, but it is determined physically. It is not “Free”, in the sense of free from its context, free from what is happening.

    IOW, the universe does not stop waiting for your “independent” choices so it can get going. No, your choices are just another physical phenomena as natural as the rythm of pulsars.

    Francisco,

    It is not unreasonable to make this demand of personal responsibility in the face of “inevitability”, since the very existence of responsability *will* influence the choices made by people. That is, if you know that there are consequences to your actions, then you will act in a different way than not. Even if you will act “deterministically”, you’ll act differently in those two situations.

    This is enough justification for me.

    Then you speak of mind as if it is in a way independent from the universe, albeit conceding it is not. I find your paragraph confusing in that respect. Either the mind works within the rules of the universe or it doesn’t. If it follows the rules of the universe, then it is deterministic in what matters. The “indeterministic” part of it (quantum whatevers) is just random noise by definition, which isn’t a very good base to found any “rational thought”.

    I won’t speak about memes. Never pondered too much about it ;).

    Lionell, that is quite funny.

    Nate, wtv. Have a nice day.

    Will,

    Of course that I was making the comparison, that is why I made the caveat. The thing is, I’m not making an hypothesis that choice is a function (x), rather acknowledging that I see no way of it being otherwise! Even if we accept that the mind is a high phenomena that emerges from multiple levels of “emergence”, it still is inevitably reducible towards simple physics. Now, you are right, I am probably stating something in the (sur)realm of metaphysics, but since I’ve yet to see any phenomena that doesn’t behave like this, I think I’ve got it well covered.

    Here’s a question to you. Imagine an incredibly sophisticated robot. He fools you into thinking that he is just like a human being. In fact he fools everyone. Now, is he a conscious being or not?

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