Re: Terminology and Quantification (was Re: Meme Machine reviewed in

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Sun, 18 Jul 1999 20:37:52 EDT

From: <>
Date: Sun, 18 Jul 1999 20:37:52 EDT
Subject: Re: Terminology and Quantification (was Re: Meme Machine reviewed in

In a message dated 7/18/1999 12:26:44 AM, writes:

>> When memetics is presented to journals such as SCIENCE and NATURE, it is
necessary to do considerably more than just show that memetics works as a
philosophical stance consistent with materialism and "the evolutionary
algorithm." If we claim that some kinds of memes spread more than others,
we must be prepared to be very specific and tell just *how much* more they
spread and at what time schedule. That is, the theory needs to be stated in
dynamic quantitative and mathematical terms. Otherwise, we run into charges
of "superficiality," "circularity," "tautology," "cocktail party science,"
etc. <<

I agree. We certainly cannot submit philosophy alone as science.

However at the same time we cannot ignore philosophical issues when we choose
our terminology. We have to keep in mind why we call these things "memes" in
the first place rather than just using more established terms from cognitive
and behavioral sciences and cultural anthropology. Otherwise we run into
very understandable and expected accusations from these more established
sciences that memetics is just a faddish upstart that confuses things which
have already been studied empirically by using trendy new words like "memes"
for no better reason than fashion.

>>By these criteria, Dennett (1995) is utterly inadequate. In fact,
Dennett (1995) even claims that "The prospects for elaborating a rigorous
science of memetics are doubtful..." (p. 369) --a situation I see as
arising from his unfamiliarity in 1995 with quantitative population
memetics. He only defended memetics as a "valuable perspective," not as a
"rigorous science." (Indeed, this opinion about memetics may even account
for his long delay in reading more rigorous population memetics work.)<<

Yes. Though obviously Dennett is and always will remain the philosophical
godfather of memetics, memeticists should be ready and willing to part
company with him when he makes statements like this. As a philosopher
Dennett has no interest in defending memetics as anything more than a
"valuable perspective" -- i.e. a philosophically legitimate position. That
is all he needs to keep talking about memetics as a philosopher. It is of
less concern to him as a philosopher whether it turns into a rigorous
science. Indeed, it would be in his interest to hedge all bets on it being a
rigorous science at all until such a thing were to be imminently inevitable.
To do anything else would be to risk credibility as a philosopher. Though I
think he would as excited as any of us would be to see that actually happen,
I wouldn't expect him or any professional philosopher to lead the charge.
That's for people like you, Aaron.

All that said, however, memetics probably more so than any other rigorous
science that I can think of, cannot afford to ignore philosophical issues.
Because memetics deals with culture - OUR culture -- in a much more immediate
and direct way than just about anything else that aspires to be a rigorous
science. We aren't studying hunters and gatherers, we aren't studying just
an individual human's psychology, we aren't studying ancient civilizations,
or primates, or any other thing somewhat removed from our power struggles
that seethe at the heart of any dynamic culture. We are studying US and OUR
beliefs. Anything that you say about memetics is immediately and unavoidably
applicable to our culture.

Direct entanglements in our culture -- especially by anyone who wants to
claim the mantle of 'rigorous science' means entanglements with our
philosophy. Memetics must necessarily be a fusion of science and philosophy
if it is to survive. I think that to forget that is to be ignored, no matter
how empirical, rigorous, or technical your approach.

Considering how important philosophy is, we need to be ready to even disagree
with Dennett himself on other philosophical matters that would otherwise be
distracting to memetics should we treat him as philosophical gospel.
Specifically, I am thinking about Blackmore's recent book where she goes out
of her way to treat even the having-of-a-self to be a memetic illusion and
her "zenification of memetics." Some people suggested that this is a natural
extension of Dennett's position about self as being merely the narrative
center of gravity -- and that this isn't just zenification, but also
Dennettization. Considering Dennett's endorsement of her book, and the lack
of any forthcoming dissent on these issues, I think they may be correct.

Obviously I disagree with Blackmore and Dennett on this issue. While I see
Dennett's self as narrative center of gravity to be insightful (I don't
subscribe to homoncular selves either), I also think that he underplays the
importance of the embodiment of the narrative self, and the profundity of
narrative and language in human thought and embodied metaphysical
constructions. I think a good reading of Vygotsky, as well as Lakoff and
Johnson ("Philosophy in the Flesh" 1999, Basic books) would dispel a lot of
this silliness of selves as illusions, and leave the subject of memetics
every bit as intact if not more strongly so than when Dawkins and Dennett
first conceived it.

If Dennett remains our only philosopher, I think we may be at a dead end. To
some extent we all need to be philosophers even though some should aspire to
be rigorous scientists first and foremost. In addition we should be looking
to some other professional philosophers for guidance other than just Dennett.


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