Re: the meme/brain problem

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Sun 01 Feb 2004 - 01:03:24 GMT

  • Next message: Joel.M Dimech: "memes, cause or effect ?"

    At 02:06 PM 31/01/04 -0800, Ted wrote:


    >An idea, whether remembered or just now learned, cannot exist in physical
    >form. The problem is that atoms and molecules, no matter how they're
    >arranged, consist only of themselves. The rule for matter is simple: A = A.
    >Ideas, on the other hand, involve "symbol" or "sign" or "representation."
    >The rule for representation is quite different: A = B.
    >You will never get a set of atoms, regardless of how complex the pattern
    >into which they're arranged, to represent another set of atoms. The pattern
    >of atoms is simply itself, nothing more, nothing less. This is the cruel
    >lesson of physics, and there are no exceptions.
    >We apply our naturalistic understanding to the farthest-flung reaches of the
    >universe, but when it comes to the contents of our own heads, we toss out
    >everything we know, finding in brains a mystical property that exempts them
    >from otherwise ironclad rules. Everywhere else A = A. But peer inside the
    >skull, and suddenly A = B.

    I don't understand this argument at all. Ideas, memes, culturgens or whatever are all information, *abstract* information, you measure it in bits and it is independent of the material form it takes but it must *be* in a material form. Now there is physical substance to a telephone number
    (information) written on a slip of paper.

    If a person memorizes that telephone number the information is encoded in the 1500 cubic centimeters of their brain tissue. I can't tell you exactly how it is encoded, but it is there. Once you bring in "mystical

    If you had a molecular scan of every molecule in a person's brain before and after they memorized the number (not theoretically impossible) I am sure you would find differences that are dependent on the structural changes memorizing the number made. From what we do know about brain tissue I would expect to find the differences in synapses because that's where the physical changes conditioning brings about has been located in sea slugs and evolution is really conservative about these things.

    >When we look at ourselves from the external point of view-- the way a
    >chemist would examine us-- we find no ideas and no memes, only atoms and
    >chemicals arranged in patterns. It's only when we reflect on ourselves
    >directly, from our own point of view, that we find minds and ideas and
    >What gets us into trouble is our linguistic-based tendency to posit separate
    >identities for "mind" and "brain." We think we're dealing with two things
    >here, one of which is necessarily illusory and therefore reducible to the
    >other. In fact, neither is reducible to the other because there's only one
    >thing to begin with. "Brain" is "mind" from the external point of view,
    >while "mind" is "brain" from the internal point of view.

    I don't know if you are a computer person, but most of them I know think about brains as hardware and minds as the OS software that runs in the brain hardware.

    >Memetics requires the internal point of view and cannot ever be reconciled
    >with a strictly external, physicalist understanding. It will never be a
    >"hard" science in the sense of physics and chemistry. Its role as a social
    >science is to help clarify the mechanics of cultural evolution.

    Computers are orders of magnitude less complicated than brains, but they are subject to infectious information in the form of viruses. Do you say the same thing about computer viruses in a computer being mystical that you do about memes?

    Keith Henson

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