Re: the meme/brain problem

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Wed 04 Feb 2004 - 02:06:02 GMT

  • Next message: Keith Henson: "Re: what is a meme?"

    At 12:11 PM 03/02/04 -0800, you wrote:

    snip (about changing customs on another list)

    >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.

    Interesting example. I think what happened might even be considered a metameme. Metamemes are memes that affect the survival of other memes, classic one being the scientific method. In this case, there was a shift in the group metamemes.

    > > From: Keith Henson <>


    > > 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.

    No, of course not. But unless you are going to argue for disembodied spirits, minds are utterly dependent on brains. The situation is identical to the OS of a computer. It absolutely has to be running on hardware for you to interact with it.

    >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.

    That the detailed pattern is different from brain to brain is not enough to prevent us from saying brain A and brain B contain the same meme for (say) baseball. There is no commonality you can see in the bites of the same message encrypted by two different PGP keys, but in spite of that, there is no reason to consider them different messages.

    > > 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.

    No because the brain's deep hardware does this far below the level of our conscious awareness.

    >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.

    Heh, good rejoinder. None the less, minds run brain hardware like operating systems on computer hardware.

    > > >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.

    This is the tree in the forest argument. Some computer viruses, the ones not dependant on humans clicking to activate them, would continue to spread as long as the power stayed up even if every human vanished.

    >Unlike a brain/mind, the matter
    >comprising a computer is not simply one perspective onto a greater whole.
    >It *is* the computer.

    I am a hard line materialist. Minds and viewpoints of those minds emerge from really complicated evolved hardware (brains) but I don't consider them different in kind from the minds of cats and operating systems.

    Keith Henson

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