Re: _Religion Explained_ by Pascal Boyer

From: Dace (
Date: Fri 06 Jun 2003 - 20:57:09 GMT

  • Next message: Lawrence DeBivort: "RE: _Religion Explained_ by Pascal Boyer"

    > From: "Lawrence DeBivort" <>
    > Greetings, all,
    > There is yet a third alternative to 'understanding' and 'mimicry', and
    > is _influence_. Memes, in our PoV, is much more about influence than
    > (conscious, considered) understanding, or (reactive, unprocessed) mimicry.
    > If one only considers understanding and mimicry, it is not too surprising
    > that the notion of memes is disputed and seemingly inadequate.

    How is influence different from mimicry?

    > From: Keith Henson <>
    > At 02:19 PM 05/06/03 -0700, Ricard wrote:
    > >Dace wrote:
    > >
    > ><<Epidemiology provides a better model for memes than cognitive science
    > >precisely because memes are only a tiny subclass of transmitted
    > >that is not influenced by standard cognitive factors.
    > Memes, every single one of them, depend on "standard cognitive
    > features." Pascal Boyer makes this really clear in his book, which is
    > more on cognitive science than anything else.

    Okay, you've sold me. I will read this book. It'll be interesting to see how it stacks up against Barbara Ehrenreich's *Blood Rites.*

    > >While ordinarily
    > >information must be regarded in the context of speaker and listener and
    > >no self-existence outside their conscious minds, memes are discrete
    > >of information that change only through accidental mutation. Memes are
    > >ideas that have taken on a life of their own
    > *All* ideas that are spread around to a lot of minds have "a life of their
    > own." This is, of course, only metaphor.

    I have to disagree. Many ideas, including the ones we're exchanging now, have no life of their own, even metaphorically, and merely respond to the mental life of we humans.

    > From: Keith Henson <>
    > At 12:28 PM 05/06/03 -0700, you wrote:
    > > > From: "Ray Recchia" <>
    > > >
    > > > Unfortunately your narrowed definition is even more confusing. Why
    > > > call it a T-meme? Or a sub-meme, or an P-meme. sub for subconscious.
    > > > The problem you have is that the same objections you raise for
    > > > consciously aware memes are raisable for those that are transmitted
    > > > subconsciously. You've sited a "recreation" phenonoma. That a meme
    > > > not so much reproduced as created.
    > >
    > >Oh, no, I'm saying that memes are replicated from mind to mind, while
    > >typically ideas are recreated in each mind through the process of
    > >understanding. Replication involves mimickry more than genuine
    > >understanding.
    > Which would you say applies to a person who has internalized the baseball
    > meme and knows how to play it?

    If you grow up in the USA, baseball is a meme. If you grow up in a foreign country, it's an idea. Same goes for the English language. I never had to consciously make an effort to learn English. It all came through simple imitation. But if you're Chinese, you don't get English through cultural osmosis. You have to study it and learn it as a sequence of ideas. I had a philosophy professor in college who once worked in Japan. He said that after a few years of struggling with Japanese, one day it just "clicked." Suddenly he could speak fluently and never had to strain to understand people. He had become part of the culture and shared in the habit of thinking and talking in Japanese. At that point, Japanese ceased to function as an idea for him and became a meme.

    > > > In addition your example of religion points the necessarily arbritrary
    > > > nature of the distinction you are making. "Darwin's Cathedral" points
    > > > out that elements of Calvinism were intentionally created as a
    > > > to the Catholic church which the founders thought was bloated and
    > >
    > >Yes, what begins as idea becomes ingrained as meme. I'm saying that
    > >are simply culturally shared habits. Just as conscious thoughts become
    > >habitual and unconscious if repeated enough, cultural beliefs and
    > >and styles, etc., become memetic once they've been repeated enough times.
    > I don't buy that something can slowly shade over into being a meme.

    Do you agree that conscious intentions, when repeated, ultimately shade over into habit?

    > Just doesn't work as a way to define something that should be very simple.

    Memes are culturally shared habits as opposed to personal habits. I don't see what's so complicated about that.

    > > > Much of what I've been seeing from you has been of the nature of 'this
    > > > a subconscious meme' because the transmitters really don't know why
    > > > are transmitting it but you or someone else knows the real reason. I
    > > > submit that such evaluations on your part are subjective and
    > > > patronizing. Such evaluations suffer from the same flaws you use to
    > > > the beliefs of others. So for example I am among those who believe
    > > > your attachment to morphic fields is based upon a subconscious
    > > > to accept material determinism (even while failing to recognize that
    > > > morphic fields are just another version of it). Am I being subjective
    > > > and arbitrary?
    > >
    > >Yes, and the reason is that you haven't produced an argument that
    > >demonstrates conclusively that life is reducible to atoms and molecules.
    > >This is very important. *First* you establish that the belief in
    > >cannot possibly be explained according to rational thought. *Then* you
    > >engage in a psychological analysis. If the belief is *clearly*
    > >we may examine the unconscious reasons for its acceptance.
    > I can't deal with morphic fields, Scientology's space aliens, or
    > supernatural spirits. Sorry.

    No need to be sorry, you're just a bit confused here. "Morphic field" is shorthand for "morphogenetic field," a standard explanatory tool in developmental biology. The field concept is utilized to explain why one clump of cells becomes, say, an arm, while another clump of cells develops into a kidney, despite the fact that all the cells have identical DNA. It's generally believed that morphogenetic fields will ultimately be explained according to genes, but don't hold your breath. Many developmental biologists have given up this quest as a lost cause and are now fully committed to mathematical explanations of fields. (Morphogenetic fields can be described with the same mathematical precision as electromagnetic or grativational fields). The problem with this approach is that it seems to imply that organisms are governed by eternal equations. Of course, equations do not evolve. Thus Sheldrake proposed that fields are the product, not of genes or of equations, but of past, similar organisms. As organisms adapt, fields evolve. Ironically, Sheldrake's view is the most easily testable and therefore the most scientific of the three alternatives.
    (No one has ever devised a way of testing the hypothesis that organic form arises from DNA. It's simply assumed by those who believe it.)

    > >"The idea that one can examine the transfer of information without regard
    > >for the systems sending and receiving it has been challened on a number
    > >levels... Reddy (1979) argues that this inaccurate belief is based on
    > >way the English language has developed, and refers to the mistaken idea
    > >information is sent and received unaltered by the acts of sending and
    > >receiving as the conduit metaphor."
    > Memetics is based on the same model as genetics. It is *well* recognized
    > that memes are subject to more transmission errors than genes are. If a
    > meme (like baseball) is transmitted with extremely high fidelity, it is
    > because there is much redundancy and/or error correction applied to the
    > transmission.

    Polichak's point is that information is altered through a variety of cognitive factors having nothing to do with transmission errors. These factors need to be considered in order to understand culture.

    > Look, when you are concerned with mixing drinks you are not the slightest
    > concerned with the isotopic ratios of the atoms in the glass the drink is
    > being mixed in. Memetics is a way to view the spread and persistence of
    > cultural information. At the definitional level is it just not concerned
    > with details at this level.

    Memetics began as a way of avoiding social and cognitive psychology by simply reducing culture to its particulate elements-- memes. Cultural evolution, rather than being a product of human intelligence, results from the Darwinian competition of memes to replicate. The irony is that in order to understand why some memes are selected and others are not, we must study precisely the cognitive factors that Dawkins hoped to avoid. Of course, Polichak's critique is nearly five years old now, and the field may have matured in that time. Aunger appears to be interested in cognitive factors, and I'm glad to hear that Boyer is as well.

    > From: "Richard Brodie" <>
    > Keith wrote:
    > [Dace]
    > >Oh, no, I'm saying that memes are replicated from mind to mind, while
    > >typically ideas are recreated in each mind through the process of
    > >understanding. Replication involves mimickry more than genuine
    > >understanding.
    > [Keith]
    > <<Which would you say applies to a person who has internalized the
    > meme and knows how to play it?>>
    > Exactly. The fact of replication is indifferent to the mechanics involved.
    > Whether the meme is transmitted through brute force, like the Pledge of
    > Allegiance, or though guided inference, like someone figuring out the
    > of baseball by watching the game, the meme is still replicated. Or, to use
    > Dennett's Intentional Stance, the meme replicates itself.

    Let me give a simple example to illustrate my point. On another list I recently made an off-the-cuff remark about the 2003 Reith lectures, which concern neurology. These are truly amazing lectures that reveal, once again, the incredible explanatory power of pathological case studies. I wanted to express my gratitude to Lexie, who had directed us to the website, but I didn't express myself very clearly. Here's what I wrote:

    "Fascinating. Gotta love those wacky brain diseases."

    Needless to say, Lexie took it the wrong way. She thought I was being sarcastic. Now, I'm from Kansas, where sarcasm is regarded as something that only nasty, malevolent people from large, coastal cities engage in. To this day I often fail to recognize when people are being sarcastic, and it
    *never* occurs to me that others might interpret my own comments as anything but perfectly earnest and friendly, if not a little eccentric, which is really what Kansas is all about.

    My point is that I tried to get across a simple piece of information, but Lexie missed my meaning due to memetic interference. The sarcasm meme replicates from mind to mind because it endows greater fitness in social exchange (at least outside Kansas). If you realize someone is being sarcastic, you're much less likely to be embarrassed after having taken the comment literally. So, this is clearly a meme. But the comment I made was in no sense a meme. It was just a simple piece of durable information that would have been accurately recreated in Lexie's mind had it not been for the interference from the sarcasm meme. It's not as if my positive take on the Reith lectures is now a meme competing for survival against negative takes on the Reith lectures. When it comes to standard discourse, it's humans beings, not the information they exchange, that have agency.


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