Re: selfishness, buddhism, and memetics

Aaron Lynch (
Wed, 14 Apr 1999 18:59:00 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Wed, 14 Apr 1999 18:59:00 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: selfishness, buddhism, and memetics
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At 12:51 PM 4/12/99 EDT, wrote:
>In a message dated 4/12/99 8:54:12 AM Central Daylight Time,
> writes:
>>>>user-illusion", but Blackmore disagrees, claiming that the
> >illusion isn't even benign - it's pernicious in that our
> >memes are deceiving us into thinking we have control.
> That is to say that the memes too have bought into the illusion that we
> exist and therefore try to control us? And this despite the fact that the
> memes are really the ones in control!<<
>Bill, I love your characterization of this conundrum. And yes, I still
>that Blackmore and others have gone a little too extreme on this "self is an
>illusion" bend. Yesterday, I bought her book, however, after browsing it
>a while in the bookstore. I do think that she is giving the subject some
>vigorous treatment, and I look forward to finishing it. I am sensing that
>she may have a lot to say that is not entirely erroneous.
>But I think I may have sensed the point at which she tends to go off the
>tracks a bit. In the first chapter she has a sub-heading called "What Makes
>Us Different".
>She seems to dwell on what it is about humans that makes us different from
>animals, which is really as I see it a distinctly different philosophical
>issue than memes and memetics, though when we have a better undertanding of
>memes and memetics, I think we may be able to formulate better questions
>about humans as animals.
>Apparently she thinks that most people would answer that the thing that
>us different is that we have "selves" and such. She may be right about
>though I personally don't see that as terribly important as many others
>might. Her thesis is that the thing that makes humans different is our
>capacity for imitation - hence leading into memes and so forth. On that
>point I am prone to agree with her as well. However she feels she must
>stretch on a little further and say something about "selves" since she
>percieves that most people would see that as the hallmark of humanity.
>So she conlcudes "the self is an illusion". THAT conclusion was totally
>unnecessary IMO, however I can see the provocative responses that asserting
>it brings. And I think that hooking that in with Buddhism and whatnot
>guarantees an audience that her book might not have recieved without such
>provocation. As provocative as it is, I think making this assertion is a
>little irresponsible toward making the case for memetics.
>Assuming that this book will be the first in a series of various efforts to
>make the case for a science of memetics, this provocateur stance may be no
>real problem in the big picture, and there is always the possibility that it
>helps by drawing attention (though sometimes the wrong KIND of attention can
>be more dangerous than much less attention). On the other hand, should this
>not take off relatively soon, I think this provocation is going make the
>look a little too flakey in the future for people that might otherwise
take a
>second look at the subject after the party is over. So anyhow, since the
>deed is done, I hope the trick works, but I think that I will continue to
>view that stunt as very intemperate - and of course I may be wrong.
>My personal view of the treatment of self, although I don't personally think
>that "self" is necessarily the sine qua non of humanity, I do think that it
>plays a VERY important role in the hardware that underlies the things which
>we see as our highest cultural achievements - ideas about individual
>and rights, free speech, human rights. I don't think that Buddhism was very
>successful in promoting these kinds of cultural achievements.
>If the cultures of China and India bears the cultural tatoo marks of the
>flowering of Buddhism's spiritual "enlightenment", then I certainly wouldn't
>reccomend these world views replace our own "selfish" ones that seem to be
>functioning capably in the west. Quite frankly, to the extent that Buddhism
>ever suggested that the "self is an illusion", in otherwords that self was
>ontologically invalid, then it was always wrong. Perhaps that meme
>flourished well in the socially claustrophobic empires that relied on that
>kind of thinking to stifle "selfish" irritation from the grassroots.
>the western equivalent was encouraging people that their eternal souls would
>be rewarded in the afterlife if they nobly endured the suffering and
>sacrifice that was expected of them in THIS life (perhaps a fleeting view of
>self rather than an illusory one).
>Certainly western culture has augmented this basic template of selfishness
>considerably, and in general to very great cultural achievement (that may be
>an after the fact assessment on my part, but it is still one that I think
>many would agree is valuable). I agree that some of these augmentations may
>border into delusion and fantasy. But there is a very real and basic
>template of selfishness, an innately emerging pattern of thinking and
>underlying both the realities and delusions that people may have about their
>"selves". Acknowleging this situation, in no way compels the conclusion
>"self is an illusion". Though SOME of the things that we say ABOUT the
>"self" may indeed be delusional, that doesn't mean that there is no self.

These are good points, Jake.

In particular, I think that the Zenification of memetics is a mistake. Zen
has evolved and spread through a selection process drastically different
from what is well suited to science. (See my comments in the Zen thread. I
view Zen as a topic to which to apply memetics theory, not something to
incorporate into the theory.) On reading in the preface that Dawkins and
Dennett gave guidance to Blackmore's project, I am actually rather
surprised that they did not steer her away from incorporated Zen in a major
way. I would have expected them to recognize the risk of Zenification
making memetics look flaky to skeptical, critical scientists. So I would
have thought they would exert a more scientifically conservative
influence--even if they themselves are privately Zen Buddhists.

--Aaron Lynch

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