Re: the meme/brain problem

From: Dace (
Date: Tue 03 Feb 2004 - 20:11:10 GMT

  • Next message: M Lissack: "Re: the meme/brain problem"

    > From: M Lissack <>
    > Ted writes:
    > "Its [memetics]role as a social science is to help
    > clarify the mechanics of cultural evolution."
    > if this is the case then memetics has to have a unit
    > of analysis which can have a describable and
    > observable mechanics
    > if all we have is "black box" mechanics we have
    > clarified nothing

    The unit of analysis is any belief or idea that spreads across a group. Let's take an example. I subscribe to a list devoted to the creation of a
    "standard upper ontology." For years the members of this list have talked about nothing but the creation of an ontology that can provide a common language for researchers in diverse fields. While they often drift somewhat into related philosophical discussion, one thing they've never done is to start talking politics.

    Until now. All of a sudden, they've been swept up in a discussion of Bush and the environment. It started when the first Mars rover landed. Someone thought it was neat and posted something about solving our population problem by colonizing Mars. Naturally, numerous people on the list were astounded that anyone could be so naive. Predictably, someone else remarked that we could hardly expect to terraform other planets when we can't even maintain a livable environment on this one. Pretty soon we were getting lessons on global warming. What happened?

    A meme is what happened. When the first person posted on a political matter, it reflected his private belief that this was acceptable behavior on a list devoted to ontology. By the time a few others had posted on politics, a shift in attitude had occurred, and this behavior was deemed acceptable. One person's belief had spread across the list, thereby becoming a meme. Along the way, the culture of the list had evolved.

    Why was this meme successful? Because it was selected by its environment, which in this case happens to be the minds of the participants. This notion, that it's okay to post on politics, appealed to listmembers at that moment. Note that the people who took up the discussion may not have consciously thought to themselves, "It's okay to post on politics." They were just thinking, "Someone's got to respond to this rubbish." But in the process, the meme dug itself in.

    To repeat, environmental selection can act as a mechanism of cultural evolution. The environment in this case is the mind. We can indeed observe the mind. As self-conscious entities, we do so routinely.

    > From: Keith Henson <>
    > At 02:06 PM 31/01/04 -0800, Ted wrote:
    > snip
    > >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 =
    > >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
    > >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
    > >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
    > >from otherwise ironclad rules. Everywhere else A = A. But peer inside
    > >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.

    This is dualism. The mind is not an abstraction that must take material form to exist. The information and the brain matter do not exist independently. There is only one thing, and we can view it internally, through reflective thought, or externally, by examining our brains. Only when we look at it interally do we find memes or ideas. Otherwise it's just chemicals. While it's true that the electro-chemical pattern established in a brain should (theoretically) correspond to a particular idea that a particular individual is currently considering, this is not the case with memes, as memes exist in many different minds, and the neural pattern established in one brain can be totally different from the pattern established in another brain for the same meme.

    > 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.

    Are you saying that to recall a phone number, you have to somehow "read" the synaptic patterns in your brain? This would entail knowing the language your brain uses, so you would have to know not only English but brainese. Fortunately, the mind doesn't have to read the brain. What the brain does is simply the external perspective onto what the mind is doing.

    > >What gets us into trouble is our linguistic-based tendency to posit
    > >identities for "mind" and "brain." We think we're dealing with two
    > >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
    > >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,

    No, I'm a human person.

    > >Memetics requires the internal point of view and cannot ever be
    > >with a strictly external, physicalist understanding. It will never be a
    > >"hard" science in the sense of physics and chemistry. Its role as a
    > >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
    > do about memes?

    Not at all. The virus exists in the computer circuitry. However, nothing in a computer-- viral or otherwise-- has any meaning except in the mind of the person who interprets its activities. Unlike a brain/mind, the matter comprising a computer is not simply one perspective onto a greater whole. It *is* the computer.


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