Re: reading a book

From: Bill Spight (
Date: Sat 23 Apr 2005 - 19:24:37 GMT

  • Next message: Scott Chase: "Re: reading a book"

    Dear Kate,


    >> If a meme purist recognized a case where transmission occurred
    >> without replication, could they still label this fragment a "meme"?
    >> If so could they be considered consistent? At what point are we
    >> departing from the truly memetic?


    > I'd hesitate to describe myself as a purist of any sort, but I
    > certainly don't see any threat to meme theory from the claim that
    > some cultural information may not be memetic. After all many people
    > would want to describe many animals as having culture, without being
    > willing to label it as memetic.

    Why not?

    > Similarly human culture, if it is
    > memetic now, must have evolved from a point at which it was not
    > memetic.

    *Must* have? Again, how come?

    > More generally the challenge to memetics is to be able to present a
    > convincing account of any given instance of cultural tranmission, in
    > a way that is both consistent with meme theory (including talk about
    > replication) and also trumps alternative, non-replicative accounts in
    > explanatory utility. I haven't yet come across an element of culture
    > that has defied description in a way that's consistent with meme
    > theory; it's the explanatory superiority that has yet to be proved I
    > think.

    Well, psychology, for one field, is full of alternative ways of looking at phenomena. These are not necessarily competing theories, first, because they are not always fully developed into theory, and second, because they are not necessarily competing. An aerial view does not normally compete with a ground-level view. They are complementary.

    I think that the main value, so far, of memetics is that it offers a complementary view of cultural phenomena. It may never be superior, but still may be useful, nonetheless.

    Physics provides a good example, I think, in the principle of least action. An example of this principle is that light takes the shortest path. The principle of least action is inferior in explanatory force to the principles of conservation of energy and momentum, which explain the same phenomena. They are also part of the fully developed theory of Newtonian mechanics. They also explain things in terms of efficient causes, while the the principle of least action smacks of final causes, which seem more mysterious. How does light know which path is the shortest before it takes it? Still, physicists find it useful to think in terms of least action and apply the principle to certain types of problems.

    >>> The content of the text may be recombined with these existing
    >>> memes to produce new memes - which we then incorrectly assign to
    >>> the text. (And then when we go back to the text later we are
    >>> surprised and a little humbled to find that our recollection is
    >>> not justified by the text!) But this doesn't mean that it's not
    >>> *possible* for the information contained in the text to be
    >>> replicated in our minds. If a child wanted to know what his
    >>> teacher had meant by "Einstein's famous equation", and her parent
    >>> showed her a book in which was written "E=mc2" - and if later she
    >>> proudly tells her grandparent that she knows what Einstein's
    >>> famous equation is, and repeats it correctly - then in what sense
    >>> has the information in the text not "really" been replicated in
    >>> her mind?
    >> Would she be doing any better than a parrot? At what point does
    >> what Einstein *meant* by this formula or what the formula entails
    >> become grasped? By a high school physics student? By an undergrad
    >> physics student? By a PhD in physics?
    > Well, the example was about information contained in a text, which a
    > parrot would struggle with . . . but yes of course there is a
    > difference between knowing the formula and understanding its meaning.
    > These are two different pieces of information, and the child has
    > proved herself to have grasped one of those pieces of information
    > even though she may never grasp the other. Even though she doesn't
    > understand what it means, she has adequately grasped the information
    > that "Einstein's famous equation is E=mc2". *This* piece of
    > information has been replicated in her mind, even if the other
    > information (about its meaning) has not.

    FWIW, in the same class in which I learned about the principle of least action, I learned that what Einstein really derived was

       delta(e) = delta(m) c^2

    I. e., the *change* in energy is equal to the *change* in mass times the square of the speed of light in a vacuum. A fine point, to be sure, but it does matter in some contexts.



    > The important question still revolves around the utility of any
    > explanations that are generated. As I've said above, I haven't come
    > across a purported example of transformation/recreation that couldn't
    > consistently be redescribed in terms of memes and their replication.
    > The real test of these alternatives, though, is how far any of them
    > advances our understanding of what happens in human culture.
    > Unfortunately for memetics many of the explanations that have thus
    > far been offered (e.g. Dawkins's own rather predictable but
    > nonetheless unconvincing "memes vs mental viruses" attack on
    > religion) have not done much to advance the cause!

    I was once asked by a friend, a trumpet player, to play clarinet in a performance of Dixieland jazz. (Neither Dixieland nor jazz is my thing, but I said yes.) At the break during rehearsal the trumpet player came over to me and said, "You have to play with swing. Don't play the eighth notes as eighth notes, play them as quarter note-eighth note triplets." Well, I didn't play them that way, but that description did enable me to play with swing. I got it. :-)

    I am not satisfied with the usual memetic explanation of how I learned swing. Yes, I had heard Dixieland before, and could be said to have learned it via imitation. However, I do not feel that imitation is enough. In my mind I did not imitate anybody. There is more to it. As Fats Waller said to a reporter who asked what swing was, "If you gotta ask, you'll never know." This knowledge is found in the self. Another jazz saying: "If you haven't lived it, you can't blow it."

    Not that there is no transmission. As with Zen, there is. But is more a process of recognition, awakening (satori), evocation, not a process of imitation.



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