Re: Stewart test

From: Bill Spight (
Date: Thu 24 Oct 2002 - 14:29:35 GMT

  • Next message: Grant Callaghan: "Re: I know one when I see one"

    Dear Vincent,

    > <Despite this lack of consensus, I think that many memes pass the
    > Stewart
    > > test. U. S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said, "I shall not
    > > today attempt further to define [pornographic] material but I know it
    > > when I see it." (>
    > >
    > This an insufficiently rigourous test for pornography let alone
    > anything else.

    I was not proposing it as a definition, or in lieu of one, from a theoretical point of view. I was proposing that, for scientific investigation, the definitions make little difference, since they focus on different aspects of strongly connected phenomena.

    > There are two problems with this, that apply equally to
    > memes.
    > First, comes the problem of differential definition. In the case of
    > pornography how can one legally regulate/censor it when people disagree as
    > to what it means (just as British Customs and the British Board of Film
    > Classification have done in the past, porn films passed by the BBFC for sale
    > have been seized by customs on arrival in the country for breaching the
    > Obsence Publications Act).

    I think that actually, it is not a problem, but part of the cure. :-) The differing definitions should not be used to exclude from memetics the aspects focused on by other definitions. (Nor, indeed, do they do so.) We do not want the analog of legal regulation or censorship.

    The assumption of critics of memetics, that there is no such thing as a meme without a standard definition, is incorrect.

    > Second, and possibly more important, definitions are directly
    > related to normative judgements and explanatory interpretations. This is
    > certainly true in pornography (e.g. some liberal feminists accept what they
    > call erotica but not what they regard as porn- which debases or abuses
    > women; radical feminists see no such distinction). What did this judge want
    > to do with what he interpreted as pornography- ban it, legalise it?

    This is of theoretical importance. The existence of competing explanations for nearly everything is undesirable. A major problem is that they will use the same terms differently. Kinematics may be explained in terms of energy and momentum (each is conserved), or equally in terms of action (it is minimized). For their calculations, physicists will use whichever is convenient. Each explanation is adequate for the phenomena in question. There would be a problem, however, if both momentum and action were called "motion". ;-)

    > For memetics this is major stuff, as the memes in minds lobby (or
    > those that see memes in minds as well as behaviours and artefacts) it allows
    > memes to exist without transmission, it allows religious beliefs to
    > potentially be memes and so on. Whole areas are either opened up or closed
    > off by such distinctions being made.

    I do not think so. Do those with neuro-cognitive definitions exclude the phenomena of behavior and artefact? Impossible, ever if some believe in telepathy. ;-) Do those with behavioral-artefactual definitions exclude the phenomena of memory and cognitive processing? Again, impossible, even if some believe in behaviorism. ;-)

    A purely external view cannot explain the memetic mutation of "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio," into "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him well." Not that a cognitive explanation is patent, but that's where to look. :-) The mutation is *not* random. Nor are memetic mutations, in general.

    > The other problem here is one of level: are catchphrases like those
    > you mention memes (in any sense of the word) or must it be the whole of Star
    > Trek? Does memeplex suffice for 'Star Trek' or 'Catholicism'? What, if
    > anything, lies between meme and memeplex?

    This question, I think, cuts across types of definitions. And, indeed, different people come up with different answers as to what should be considered a meme, so the Stewart test fails here.

    > So, unfortunately, although I sympathise with the sentiment, I don't
    > see any easy side-stepping of the issue of what memes are.

    The field of replicator dynamics in economics has advanced by avoiding such definitional dispute. I think that replicator dynamics is part of memetics. Replicators are memes. They are strategies in economic games. The economists did not get bogged down with questions of ontology, they forged ahead. If that is side-stepping, it is a good idea, IMO. :-)



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