Re: JCS: Of memes and witchcraft

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Mon, 24 May 1999 14:18:40 EDT

From: <>
Date: Mon, 24 May 1999 14:18:40 EDT
Subject: Re: JCS: Of memes and witchcraft

In a message dated 5/22/99 1:10:56 PM Central Daylight Time, writes:

>>(b) Memetics might be responsible for absolving people of moral
responsibility for their actions. As Midgley put it : 'Memetic reasoning
decrees, then, that it is simply not their fault; they knew no better, they
could not help it.'<<

I am somewhat of a mind with Midgely on this, but her concerns are different
than my own. Apparently Midgely fears that if memetics becomes a popular
explanation that somehow people's responsibility for their actions will
cease. If mistating, or misinterpreting facts could this easily disolve
responsibility, then certainly memetics could not be alone to blame.
Numerous religious and cultural movements have spread through deluding people
about their lack or degree of responsibility, but people never the less
persist in realizing their own responsibility and acting accordingly despite
the confusing cultural messages on this issue. Certainly memetics would be
no more convincing than the others.

If the concern is over the scientific ring that it may have, that isn't new
either. Behaviorism has already been over these issues with even more
scientific "authority" (the proponents likewise overstating their claims)
than memetics currently holds. If our knowlege of responsibility can
obviously withstand the authoritative assaults of behaviorists overstating
their case - armed to the hilt with controlled experimental results that
memeticists could only dream of - , then certainly memetics is comparatively
a lightweight "threat" to reality.

My concern is strictly for accuracy. People are responsible for their
decisions and intentional behavior. Period. Whether we can trace all of the
ultimate causes of these decisions and behaviors or not, has no bearing on
whether control and thus responsibility and intentionality exists. Memes
have no capacity for conscious control by themselves without the actions of a
person - a self. The actual intentionality is attributable to people - memes
only have intentionality in the broadest "as if" philosophical terms, which
might be useful in clarifying their causal and replicative mechanisms but
should not be misunderstood to imbue memes with real control and

How people respond to the fact of this control in any particular outcome
(approval, condemnation, moral outrage, moral admiration, ambivalence or
indifference) likewise has no bearing on this state of affairs, though that
is a notoriously difficult issue to separate. Apparently in her compulsion
to condemn witchhunters (not a bad intuition IMO) she percieves anything
other than condemnation, such as discussions of the *ultimate* causes of
their behaviors (which indeed would include significant memetic factors), as
necessarily an argument that witchhunters are not somehow responsible for
their actions. They are.

But some of the recent opinions expressed in the memetics community seem to
confound issues of causation with issues of control. Midgely's response
seems to reflect this confounding.


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