Re: On Gatherer's behaviourist stance

Mario Vaneechoutte (
Mon, 07 Sep 1998 08:38:17 +0200

Date: Mon, 07 Sep 1998 08:38:17 +0200
From: Mario Vaneechoutte <>
Subject: Re: On Gatherer's behaviourist stance

Aaron Lynch wrote:

> At 11:09 AM 9/5/98 +0100, Paul Marsden wrote:
> >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
> >it.
> >
> >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
> >e-mail
> >tel/fax (44) (0) 117 974 1279
> >
> >Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission:
> >
> Paul,
> Thank you for this thoughtful analysis.
> I would like to add that many other theoretical constructs in science could
> be labeled as "heuristics" and "stances" as well. Quarks, for instance,
> have not only never been observed directly, but the "standard model" of
> quantum chromodynamics (quark and gluon theory) implies that free quarks
> don't exist. One could thus argue that quarks are "heuristics" and quantum
> chromodynamics is a "stance." It is, of course, quite good at explaining
> and predicting vast classes of observations. But if there were a
> "behavioral school" of particle physics, we might hear members saying that
> there are no quarks, we should not study quarks, and we should only study
> particle behavior. The dispute might be rather calm, though, as there is
> less emotion connected to subatomic particles than there is to human social
> phenomena.
> Physicists use indirect methods of detecting quarks, electrons, black
> holes, etc. Likewise, universities use indirect methods, such as "exams" to
> detect the "knowledge" of students, including, for instance, the death date
> of Napoleon. They are specifically interested in drawing conclusions about
> lasting internal beliefs and ideas, not about mere behavior on a particular
> day. If you can show that your "poor" behavior in a particular exam was due
> to epilepsy, you might get a second chance exam to demonstrate "knowledge"
> as distinct from mere behavior. As imperfect as their methods may be, the
> instructors become quite upset if they catch people deliberately
> circumventing the correlation between test results and enduring
> "knowledge," as by bringing in an answer sheet that says "Question 1: A,
> Question 2: D, etc." They are interested in making inferences about when
> you *thought* Napoleon died, and only resort to "exams" as an instument to
> assist in making such inferences.
> Pollsters and cognitive psychologists also have their imperfect indirect
> methods of assessing "knowledge," "belief," etc. Indirect methods are used
> to detect "computer viruses" and other "software" on computers, too--though
> the brain and the PC have drastically different workings.
> --Aaron Lynch

I completely agree with these thoughts of Aaron. It is not because our methods
for discovering the workings of the brain are still limited (although far less
than Derek and possibly Paul claim: neuroscience is advancing rapidly), that we
should study only behaviours and the material artefacts which follow from this
behaviour.Imagine that biologists would have decided to consider bird nest
building and bird nests as genes, because it was too difficult to study the genes
theirselves. That is what Derek proposes: the brain is too difficult, so let us
call the artefacts the memes. Wouldn't we better work on methods to catalogize
ideas inside heads, than catalogize dead third hand objects (which has been done
already anyway). As Aaron says, there are a lot of methods to do so. How about
asking questions?

Derek's claims that genes could be presupposed to exist since their segregation
could be studied phenotypically, while thoughts (or mental memes) do not
segregate in such a manner and thus cannot be presupposed to exist, are not
valid. I keep repeating that finding analogies between memes and chromosomal
biology - the biology most people know of - are doomed to fail. When you consider
how plasmid genes in bacteria segregate you get a rather similar picture to that
of memes: random recombination of very different genes held on a plasmid is
possible, like there is free recombination of very different thoughts from very
different lineages inside our brains.

I am interested in memetics to understand how people's world views are
constructed. Maybe that is not what most other memeticists are interested in, but
after all, religion was one of the things Dawkins had under consideration when
mentioning meme for the first time. I want to understand: How are ideas
influenced by other ideas. How are attitudes towards these ideas formed and
changed. How are emotions influenced by ideas (why do people kill and torture or
want to die for abstract concepts like 'Nation' and 'God', why do they quarrel
about the word 'meme'?), etc. etc. A whole bunch of intriguing insights is within
Behaviours and material artefacts will learn us little about this.

Studying artefacts will learn us nothing if we can't look inside the mind. E.g.,
cave paintings of females by Cro Magnon people have been interpreted as being
part of fertility rites, while another more recent explanation says that it might
be just as well porn graffitti of male adolescents. What do artefacts learn you?

When there are so many intriguing questions to be answered about the workings of
our mind, counting artefacts simply looks boring to me.

Mario Vaneechoutte
Department Clinical Chemistry, Microbiology & Immunology
University Hospital
De Pintelaan 185
9000 GENT
Phone: +32 9 240 36 92
Fax: +32 9 240 36 59

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