Re: The Meme Machine

Chris Lees (
Wed, 07 Apr 1999 21:00:54 +0100

Date: Wed, 07 Apr 1999 21:00:54 +0100
From: Chris Lees <>
Subject: Re: The Meme Machine

Bill Benzon wrote:

> The issue, it seems to me, is whether or not a person can operate without
> this self, whatever it is. But then that's me talking in terms of my own
> theoretical stance. I think of the self as a construct -- perhaps not too
> different from Dennett's notion of a narrative center of gravity (though I
> don't know, not having read Dennett) -- and, in my sense, both Blakemore
> and Dennett obviously are using their own instantiations of that construct.
> And, if that construct were obliterated from their minds/brains, I suspect
> that neither would be able to continue living coherent lives and making
> arguments about the non-existence or non-ultimacy of the self. This
> constructed self may not be really real, but living without one is really
> difficult.

I also think of the self as a construct. My feeling is, that a large complex
mobile multicellular organism would require some kind of executive
neural faculty, for want of a better term, to be able to function effectively,
and such a coordinating executive centre thus evolved, and we experience
it in people as something approximating to the self or agency.
I imagine also, that this executive faculty, like other bodily systems, could
be damaged or malfunction, in some instances, hence disassociative disorders
and so forth, which may well throw some light upon the matter.

My view is, that if self is lost or fragmented, by way of drugs, trauma, defects
or disease, that is likely to be distressing, confusing, for the individual, and
an impediment to normal functioning.
However, in zen training, one does not storm into loss of self, as in Huxley's
Doors of Perception, in one reckless leap. Loss of self is part of regular daily
practice, and usually first experienced whilst sitting doing the discipline
called zazen. One then goes about daily life 'as if nothing had happened'.
But gradually, with perserverance, one becomes totally familiar with the
topography of consciousness, and can enter or leave any level of consciousness
at will. Emptiness, or absence of self, can be a permanent condition, regardless
of external circumstances.

You say that living without a self is really difficult. Many people would be even
less receptive, and deny the possibility altogether. It is not something that is
easily understood by those who have not practised the zen training. But I can
assure you absolutely, that it is not only possible, but a vastly superior condition
from which to operate.One is liberated from so many things which had previously
caused anguish.

Drawing upon zen techniques, the Samurai trained themselves to live without
self. This was nescessary, because they had to live in a condition of constant
alertness, constantly expecting instant death. If they had any fear of those
four foot long razor blades, if they had any doubt, if they had any concern for
self-preservation, they would be much more likely to die. So they cultivated
a condition of absolute emptiness and serenity, sometimes called mushin, or
no-mind, as a permanent state.

> Dan Dennett may really believe that "Dan Dennett" is just an illusion, but
> I doubt that he'd agree to a phamaceutical regime that would free his brain
> from that illusion permanently. So there are limits to just how far he's
> probably willing to go with this. As long as he can write books, give
> speechs, cash checks, etc. as Dan Dennett, he's willing to say he's an
> illusion. But that's as far as it goes--unless, of course, he's finally
> decided that philosophical consistency demands some sacrifice and he's
> already taken up anonymous residence in an empty refrigerater carton
> somewhere.
> Now, though I am not a Zen practitioner, nor do I practice any sort of
> meditation, I have, on occasion, been in states of mind my self wasn't
> there. This didn't involve the ingestion of chemicals nor anything that
> got me involved with a shrink. On one occasion it involved playing music
> and on other occasions it involved writing undergraduate term papers (which
> I then turned in and got good grades on). So I have concrete experience of
> functioning at a high level without this self-thingy calling the shots.
> Though those experiences were both intriguing and disconcerting, I do not
> thereby conclude that the self-thingy is an illusion.

Yes, I understand what you are saying. As I mentioned, the experienced zen
student should be able to enter or leave the kind of states you describe, at will.
To be able to understand why some folk have concluded that " the self-thingy
is an illusion ", you really need to understand what the fundamental project
of Buddhism was all about, otherwise it makes no sense. The Buddha was primarily
concerned to comprehend why we suffer, what the causes are, what the remedy
might be, and so forth. So he analysed all the phenomena he experienced, to try
to understand who or what it is that experiences suffering. So, he looked deeply
into the origin and nature of the self-thingy. He resolved the problem that he
had set himself, and taught his followers. Since then, Buddhism has spawned
myriad schools and sects, often with divergent interpretations of the doctrine.
That which I favour, personally, (Soto Zen springing from Dogen) encourages
its adherents to experience the Buddhist quest and truths directly for oneself.
So there is no question of faith, or dogma, or 'mysticism'. You are bound by an
ethical code, but other than that, just sitting doing zazen is the central feature.

> >A *memetic* model of the mind requires that we give
> >up the concept of self. If we do not, then we will not
> >understand the processes of the mind any better than
> >we do at present.
> The fear that some of us have is that memetic fundamentalism is taking us
> three steps back.
> >
> >We, as scientists and philosophers put our trust in
> >ourselves and in our fellow rational people.
> How can we trust ourselves if those selves are illusions? What's there to
> trust? If the self is an illusion then that trust is quite meaningless and
> the rationality of our fellows is no doubt an illusion as well.

Well, some of the questions which are arising in this discussion are new to me.
I probably do not accept that a memetic model of the mind requires that we give
up the concept of self. We all need a self, zen buddhists, memeticists, included,
to interface socially and conduct our worldly affairs in a practical sense. However,
the zen buddhists self will probably be of a very different quality, because the
practise changes one's being at every level. That said, on a theoretical, philosophical,
scientific level, if we wish to understand the true nature of our human condition,
I think that we probably have to face up to seeing the self as something akin to a
fountain of appears kind of solid and structured and stable, but if you turn
the tap, it vanishes. Death turns that tap, but so can other things, including zen.
Realising that, by direct experience, tends to alter one's whole outlook. Comprehending
it merely intellectually, probably doesn't make much difference at all.

Can the ordinary person trust themselves ? Are they not simply propelled, hither
and thither, by impulses and appetites, reactions, desires, etc. ? I suggest that
freedom from the tyranny of the 'ordinary' self, leads to greater ability to trust
one's self, because one has deeper insight, inner peace, compassion, and is less
subject to blind emotional or instinctive forces, or indeed memes.


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