Re: Structure of facts and opinions

Tue, 25 Aug 1998 12:18:37 -0400 (EDT)

Subject: Re: Structure of facts and opinions
Date: Tue, 25 Aug 1998 12:18:37 -0400 (EDT)

>It is not until the meme is instantiated in the mind of the host
>that something like structure becomes involved.In the mind of the
>host the meme is placed in a psychological context....

The notion of a meme being somehow instantiated in a human mind/brain
is commonplace in memetics, but is highly problematic. I've argued in
many previous posts that memes are best considered as external to the
mind, but I won't repeat those arguments all over again. The question
is: if you believe that memes are somehow instantiated in minds, then
how? I'm not disputing the reality of mental events and states, what I
am saying is that it is not mental events and states which are the
replicators in cultural evolution.

Take the following passage from Johnson (1991, p.184), in which George
Johnson rounds off a review of the current state of play (or the early
90s state of play) in cognitive neurosciences. I substitute the word
'memes' for Johnson's original 'engrams':

"One of the most perplexing things about neural networks continues to
be this problem of just what the [memes] look like.....Once they emerge
they are difficult to interpret.......with distributed representations
it is hard to know just what the activation of an individual neuron
means. Say you have a network trained to recognise one hundred
objects. Through careful study you notice that a single neuron lights
up each time ten of these objects are presented. There is something
all these things have in common, though it is not necessarily a quality
we have a word for."

Memeticists, by contrast, almost always refer to 'memes for...' things,
entities or qualities we have words for. We are making the mistake of
assuming that something like a statement of fact or an opinion will
necessarily have some neural correlate. But statements of facts and
opinions are mostly constituted as linguistic behaviour (or textual
artefacts if they get written down). Speaking or writing or reading do
of course require neural activity, but to place the neural activity and
linguistic objects in a one-to-one correspondence is a mistake. As a
colleague of mine said the other day, language is a fairly digital
means of encoding information, but there is no empirical reason to
assume that the brain encodes information digitally at all. Therefore,
whatever the difference in the logical structure of facts and opinions,
the issue of mental structure remains open.

So regarding your statement:

>It is not until the meme is instantiated in the mind of the host
>that something like structure becomes involved.

I would say precisely the opposite. It is only once the neural
events have 'emerged' (Johnson's word) as external behaviour that we
can start to talk about structure. And I would say that it is only
then that we see our memes, not before.

Johnson G (1991) In the Palaces of Memory: How We Build the World
Inside Our Heads. Grafton, London.

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