Re: selfishness, buddhism, and memetics

Aaron Lynch (
Wed, 14 Apr 1999 22:42:15 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Wed, 14 Apr 1999 22:42:15 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: selfishness, buddhism, and memetics

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.

It should be noted, however, that Dennett has expressed doubts about the
prospects of a memetic science (Darwin's Dangerous Idea, 1995). Meanwhile
Dawkins's ambivalence on memetics is famous, and may partly arise from the
fact that selfish meme theory offers rival hypotheses to selfish gene
theory in certain areas. On some level, keeping memetics too weak for most
hard-core scientists may appeal to him.

Again, you are right not to respond obsequiously just because Dennett and
Dawkins have big names. I suspect that Dennett, Dawkins, and Blackmore
would all agree on this point.

--Aaron Lynch

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