LogoHales, D. (1999). Belief Has Utility - An Intentional Stance.
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 3.

Belief Has Utility - An Intentional Stance
- a commentary on Gatherer's paper: Why the `Thought Contagion' Metaphor is Retarding the Progress of Memetics

David Hales
Deptartment of Computer Science
University of Essex

Gatherer (1998) makes a clear distinction between two definitions of the meme. As such it is useful in clarifying potential terminological confusion between what might be called the "internalist" or "cognitive" memeticists (using the Dawkins-B meme definition) and the "externalists" or "behavioural" memeticists (using the Dawkins-A meme definition).

The behaviourists want to operationalise memes in observable and measurable behaviours, acts and artefacts etc. Certainly anything that can't be observed or measured can not be a basis for direct empirical investigation. This, I think, is incontestable.

Gatherer attacks unconstrained theorising about "memes" that become vaguely and imprecisely equated with unobservable and unproved "neural entities". Memes then become so under-specified as to be meaningless, representing anything from sensory qualia to belief in the existence of god. Promises of a future golden age, when the neural structure of such "memes" will be revealed much like the genetic code are, as Gatherer rightly points out, no excuse for such imprecise use of terminology.

I do not agree however that from acceptance of this position we should necessarily infer that memes be seen as necessarily and always equivalent with observable and measurable phenomena. For sure, in empirical studies where memes are to be identified and tracked an operational definition based on observable and measurable phenomena must be made. Importantly however, I contend that this does not necessarily and always require us to suppose that the unit of cultural reproduction under investigation is equivalent to these observable or measurable phenomena.

It is often necessary for us to take an "intentional stance" (Dennett 1989) when observing human agents in order to make sense of their behaviour. I do not understand how we can talk about human society and individuals at a meaningful level of abstraction without reference to the "beliefs" that individuals hold. I can not make sense of why I am writing this without utilising some kind of intentional stance towards the memetics community who will read it. Presumably Gatherer believes that the Dawkins-A definition puts memetics on a more sensible footing and presumably I do not. From this abstraction a lot of things make sense. The conception of a "belief" is a powerful abstraction. Why should it be rejected a priori? Assuming that individuals have beliefs does not imply that individuals share similar neural structures and the "intentional stance" does not imply an ontological commitment to the concept of belief as such. In its weakest form we take such a "stance" to be no more than an instrumentalist device which gives the user enhanced predictive power or understanding of some particular observable or measurable phenomena. This "stance" currently gives you some handle on why you and others are bothering to read and write all this text about memes - or does it?

Given that at some level of abstraction and from an intentional stance we can observe behaviours consistent with the assumption that individuals can communicate and spread beliefs, I fail to see why memetic theory can not be meaningfully and soundly pitched at the intentional level. The prize is to generate theory that can enhance our understanding of observable social processes and phenomena. The challenge facing memetics is that of developing such theory and empirically verifying it. Both is lacking at present. One approach to theory construction is to use computational models (see Doran 1998; Hales 1997, 1998a, 1998b, 1998c, 1998d).

In the panel discussion at the end of the first symposium on memetics at the 15th International Conference of Cybernetics in Namur (Hales 1998e) my impression was of general agreement that precise definitions were less important than examples of good memetic work. Participants also expressed that as an emerging and highly inter-disciplinary area we should be tolerant of different approaches and terminology.

Gatherer concludes his paper, arguing that memeticists should adopt the Dawkins-A definition "for the sake of intellectual survival". It is still early days and we should be more optimistic. However, in the long run if memetics can not deliver new theory for the solution of problems which can not be solved in other paradigms then we should not mourn but welcome it's demise and move on to better frameworks.


Dennett, D. (1989). The Intentional Stance. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Doran, J. (1998), Simulating Collective Belief and Misbelief. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 1(1). http://www.soc.surrey.ac.uk/JASSS/1/1/3.html

Gatherer, D. (1998) Why the "Thought Contagion" Metaphor is Retarding the Progress of memetics. Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 2. http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/1998/vol2/gatherer_d.html

Hales, D. (1997). Modelling Meta-Memes. In Conte, R., Hegselmann, R. & Terna P. (Eds.). Simulating Social Phenomena. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Hales, D. (1998a), Selfish Memes and Selfless Agents - Altruism in the Swap Shop. In the Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Multi-Agent Systems (ICMAS'98). IEEE Computer Society, California.

Hales, D. (1998b), Stereotyping, Groups and Cultural Evolution. In Sichman, J., Conte, R., & Gilbert, N. (Eds.) Multi-Agent Systems and Agent-Based Simulation. Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence, 1534.

Hales, D. (1998c), Artificial Societies, Theory Building and Memetics. Proceedings of the 15th International Congress on Cybernetics. Namur: International Association for Cybernetics.

Hales, D. (1998d), An Open-Mind is Not an Empty Mind. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 1(4). http://www.soc.surrey.ac.uk/JASSS/1/4/2.html

Hales, D. (1998e). Report on the Panel Discussion that occurred at the Symposium on Memetics. Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 2. http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/1998/vol2/panel_discussion.html

© JoM-EMIT 1999

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