Re: selfishness, buddhism, and memetics

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Thu, 15 Apr 1999 12:01:57 EDT

From: <>
Date: Thu, 15 Apr 1999 12:01:57 EDT
Subject: Re: selfishness, buddhism, and memetics

In a message dated 4/15/99 9:38:13 AM Central Daylight Time,

>>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<<

If they are, that might explain a little bit why they didn't reign her in on
this point or at least attempt to distance themselves from her in regards to
this issue. I never really imagined what Dennet's and Dawkins' religious
beliefs are - I had always sort of assumed that they were more western
secularists - and Dawkins I believe has stated that he is an atheist. I
never would have guessed that they were privately Buddhists, but now that you
mention it - I imagine that wouldn't be necessarily incompatible with a lot
of their other ideas.

I think it is impossible for someone's religious/spiritual attitudes to not
effect their thoughts and positions about memetics. Me personally, I am
definitely a western secularist. I have grown up around a lot of eastern
mysticism, and it does not impress me. The three things that come closest to
the cultural/spiritual universals for me, are 1) the constitution of the
United States and its attendent culture of individualism, human rights and
freedom of expression. 2) capitalism and market economies. That one is
almost a love/hate thing, but ultimately I think capitalism is responsible
for a lot of our level of acheivment in the west. 3) We put a man on the
moon. Really a feat of collectivism so it creates some conflict in my mind
with #2. But undeniably the world and the way we look at it can never be the
same once we put a man on the moon.

So whatever all that loosely means - that is my "religion". I am sure that
might explain to some people why I simply can't contain myself when somebody
starts suggesting that self is an illusion. Aside from the apparent
absurdities of that position, self is a very important reference point for
our culture - even if not clearly understood.

Even ignoring my cultural prejudices if that is possible, I also think that
self is a very reasonable and compelling thing to talk about from the
viewpoint of emergent materialism. I think that dismissing it as an illusion
is a mistake of greedy reductionism, something that Dennet ought to be
familiar with. Certainly we need to avoid the skyhooks that traditional
western religious attitudes try to connect to ideas about self - but that
doesn't doesn't mean that we should then necessarily fall for greedy
reductionism by declaring self is an "illusion" once the skyhooks are gone.

Furthermore, obviously having selves is a highly functional aspect of ours
and all human cultures. I wouldn't say that it is the hallmark of being
human as opposed to being a chimpanzee (I think they probably have some basic
template of social selfishness as well). But clearly trying to treat self as
ontologically invalid is absurd though I understand and appreciate that some
religious traditions have encouraged it. Certainly our epistemological
relationship with self can use improvement, but that doesn't make it
ontologically invalid.

I think that the traditional function of religious attitudes encouraging
people to envision the self as ontologically invalid has been to
intellectually encourage the stifling and suppression of selfish agitations
of a larger social collective order. Just try convince the intellectuals
that self is an illusion, and suddenly they become more managable within the
otherwise stagnating and oppressive societies that have prevailed in the far
east. Probably most intellectuals didn't believe it, but if they thought
that was "enlightened" they would probably try to believe it and say that
they believed it, and that is good enough for any religion. Those forces
that would have otherwise dashed the system apart become neutralized, and
those very large and and claustrophobic social orders that couldn't have
survived in the "unenlightened" and "barbaric" west, could last for centuries
in the "spiritually enlightened" far east.

The Communism of China today is a very natural cultural heir to the religious
delusions of the ontological invalidity of self that has permeated its
spiritual atmosphere for centuries. The meaning of Communism to them has a
completely different context than we share in the west. Even though
Communism was "invented" in the west, it is almost as if it was "meant" for
China, and it will always appeal to them in ways that it can never appeal to

I don't doubt that Zen has developed some useful meditation techniques. But
I don't endorse the philosophical conclusions and non-conclusions that seem
to emanate from the tradition and its pracititioners. I think the
Zenification of memetics would be huge mistake for the effort, and though it
may raise some initial curiosity with such exoticism, it would probably
ultimately doom it for cultural and philosophical rejection and flakiness -
in addition to being just plain wrong.


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