Re: On Gatherer's behaviourist stance - previously Xtra!: Brodie defends Lynch

Paul Marsden (
Sat, 5 Sep 1998 11:09:47 +0100

From: "Paul Marsden" <>
To: <>
Subject: Re: On Gatherer's behaviourist stance - previously Xtra!: Brodie defends Lynch
Date: Sat, 5 Sep 1998 11:09:47 +0100

A Brief Reply to Derek Gatherer's Behaviourist Stance.

Ok Derek, I hope to have the chance to answer more fully in a commentary on
your stimulating and provocative paper but I'd like to make a couple of
points partly because both Richard and Aaron (in an aside on software
authorship) have weighed in on this one, but mostly because I think you have
touched on THE critical issue currently facing memetics - how to
operationalise the paradigm - i.e. stop talking about it, and start doing

First of all, it seems to me that you are objecting to only one part of the
thought contagion metaphor - the THOUGHT part. The contagion metaphor
remains central to your (and most other memeticists, I believe)
conceptualisation of the paradigm. Let's not throw out the baby with the
bath water. The contagion metaphor is good.

Your key point is to restrict memetics to behaviour - which renders memetics
SYNONYMOUS with behavioural contagion research is social psychology. (This
is not necessarily a bad move, there's a wealth of empirical data to exploit
out there - but a critical one.) This is implicit in your paper but not
underlined as THE "take home message".

Your reason for restricting memetics to behaviour appears to be due to a
healthy scepticism of homuncular cognitive psychology which attempts to
explain behaviour in terms of putative internal states. Whilst
deconstructing REAL homuncular intentionality is entirely laudable (I'd hope
nobody on this list believes in real irreducible individual intentionality),
it doesn't stop us from using intentionality as a heuristic device, or a
Dennett puts it taking the Intentional stance (because the evolutionary loop
of the Darwinian algorithm will give behaviour an "as if" intentionality.)
The best way for me to accurately predict your behaviour, (or that of a
chess computer) is to posit intentions, either by asking you what they are,
or by simply assuming the chess computer "wants" to win - but of course
there is no such thing as REAL, OBSERVABLE INTENTION THINGS in your brain -
it is just a STANCE that helps me understand, explain and predict your
behaviour. Now my point is this: Rather than adopting the intentional
stance for individuals (X did Y because X wanted to do Y), memetics adopts
the intentional stance for the intention itself (X did Y because Y wanted X
to do Y). Natural selection operates on these heuristic devices "as if"
they want to spread. Now, granted this is taking a representational theory
of mind to a second order - but we should not confuse *real* intentionality,
with as if *intentionality*. Representational theory of mind is a heuristic
device for explaining behaviour and nothing more, your intentionality is my
construct, not the other way around.

The proof of the memetic pudding will be in its eating, if memetics can
explain and predict certain aspects of, and yes you are right, HUMAN
BEHAVIOUR better then homuncular psychology. The whole point of positing
internal states in psychology is to predict and explain behaviour - nothing
more. But these internal states are heuristics and NOT REAL in any naive
sense. We just posit intentions with intention. To reiterate - for me, the
beauty of the memetic stance - as I call it, is to explain human behaviour
not be positing intentionality (historically and forecast) to individuals
but to intentions themselves. Of course there is no such thing as a thought
contagion, but if it helps me predict your behaviour then all well and good.
Thus a meme is not a REAL object itself, it is a heuristic device, that we
use to explain behaviour. In other words it is a functional object, not a
real object.

One way to keep every body happy in this debate would be to use not the
behavioural contagion metaphor, nor the thought contagion metaphor, but the
SOCIAL CONTAGION metaphor - which implies neither bare-foot behaviourism or
universally rejected 19th century introspectionism. The SOCIAL CONTAGION
metaphor would include the spread of both internal states (beliefs,
thoughts, attitudes and intentions, and, critically, their resultant
behaviour between individuals i.e. it is a social process. I know this
seems a wishy washy middle point between you, and that happy couple Aaron
and Richard - but I think by looking at memetics as an explanatory framework
with an innovative heuristic device might prove to more useful, rather than
becoming to pre-occupied over the unanswerable question over the ontological
status of a meme.

I know I have not addressed all the important points you raised - but I
wanted to add my thoughts for what I think is THE central debate in memetics
at the moment.

Paul Marsden
Graduate Research Centre in the Social Sciences
University of Sussex
tel/fax (44) (0) 117 974 1279

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