Date: Tue, 6 Apr 1999 09:10:54 EDT
Subject: Re: A more "sciency"-sounding mysticism.
In a message dated 4/6/99 2:37:55 AM Central Daylight Time,
I agree that all concepts are abstractions. But your actual physical
business, its locks, stocks and barrels, is in Texas in the same whay that
the gene is in the nucleus. What I'm driving at is: some things are just
abstractions, just hypothetical entities, whereas other things are 'more'
real. Granted, the concepts used to describe them are products of human
imagination, but neverthless the 'realer' things can be pointed to. The
problem for memetics is whether or not memes are tangible in this way, or
whether they are 'just' abstractions.>>
At the most fundamental, abstractions are patterns that correlate with a
broader descriptions of real things. In this respect all concepts are
abstractions. However some abstractions take no conscious leaps to make,
therefore we don't generally think of those as abstractions - we are generaly
hard wired to make them. As William Benzon has said in his work - there is a
certain ontology implicit in our nervous system. Or there are some
abstractions that biology has already made reflexive for us. So we generally
don't see these abstractions as "abstractions."
So I guess we should be a little wary when people say "but its just an
abstraction". Taken by itself, that statement is no more profound than
invoking the existence of the universe.
The thing that we have to be on guard for is *floating*abstractions*. In our
high degree of cognitive evolution, we have developed a number of patterns
through our practices of abstracting that we find generally applicable to
large numbers of situations. And so instead of abstracting from the more
ontologically "real" to a valid abstraction - we often try to go the other
direction - apply a hypothetical abstraction to a situation, and see if we
discover something ontologically "real" through its application to support
the hypothetical abstraction. If, however, we are not as vigorous or
objective as we could be in this practice, we cease to make a connection
between the abstaction and our existing ontology. Then we have slipped into
a floating abstraction - a close cousin and frequent precursor to
Abstraction, as I understand it, means something drawn from something else.
In the physical sense this is obvious - vanilla extract is a concentrated
flavoring drawn from vanilla beans. In the cognitive sense - it is a
conceptual essential (not to be confused with Platonic 'essential forms')
drawn from something already accepted as ontologically real. Of course
conceptually we often do this backwards - but it remains valid as an
abstraction if a valid connection is established between the abstraction and
its proposed ontological basis.
If this connection is not made - it is not a valid abstraction. If the
connection is made and established, the abstraction is just as real as the
things that form the basis for the abstraction. If we are talking about
valid abstractions there are no "just abstractions". The important thing is
that they are valid - and if they are that is the end of it. They are just
as real as any other abstraction. In fact over time and use, they become as
real as any other ontological fact.
"Memes" remains a hypothetical abstraction, it is a pattern in search of an
ontological basis. The problem right now, is that we need to have some clear
patterns that we are seeking to apply. The next problem is that we seek to
apply whatever pattern as vigorously and objectively as possible. If we
don't do this, then there is no fashion in which we can claim that we are
seeking valid abstractions. We are instead talking about floating
abstractions - which in memetics would just be a more sciency-sounding
mysticism - not an abstraction at all but a supernatural entity.
Another problem with trying to build a memetics, is that we can't even seem
to agree on what is a valid ontology to begin with - what is a valid basis
for a valid abstraction. I haven't read S. Blackmore's book, but from what I
have seen in reviews and conversations about it, the consensus seems that she
is denying the ontological validity of "self" - it is "just an illusion".
That is simply ludicrous and mystical to me. It causes me to wonder whether
Blackmore has been listening too much to her "psychic" friends. Perhaps her
efforts to remain pleasantly agnostic for them, has paved the way for her own
Self is implicit in our very biological nature as social creatures, and in
the relational structures of all of our languages. To call it "just an
illusion", is nothing short of a mystical assault on language. I certainly
can't imagine this being the appropriate begining of a "science" of memetics.
I can accept efforts to find a better definition of self - a more accurate
abstraction if you will. But I cannot accept an effort that denies the
ontolgical validity of self.
Perhaps it is time for factions to form and split in the "memetics"
community. If we cannot even agree on basic ontology, not to mention
appropriate conceptualization for basic concepts, there is no hope to agree
on much of anything. I think the problem of ontological validity of self is
really a MUCH bigger problem than trying to decide where these memotypical
and pheMotypical process actually occur.
My concern is what I see as the misperception that if we aren't placing the
memes "in the brain" then we are saying that they are completely "out there"
outside of the brain. I don't think that is completely right either.
Yes, this is where I have failed to convince the memetics community as a
I think convincing the memetics community as a whole right now is a probably
not a worthwhile goal. Failure or success on that level cannot be taken as
an indication of anything.
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