Dear Patrick Wilken, & other Extropians,
> I like Dennett too, but I am not sure I am sold on the ideas of memes.
> Certainly from the perspective of the conference. How do you think memes
> would resolve any of the binding problems?
> I am sort of curious: people talk about memes as this really groovy
> explanation, but I can't see them as being an improvement over the ideas
> associated with cognition. How is 'memetics' a more powerful tool for
> understanding thoughts, emotions, or consciousness, than those developed in
> cognitive neuroscience (which lack any mention of memes).
Okay, that's an excellent critical reply. I feel I should be able to explain what these memetics people are so 'groovy' about.
(Sorry if the reply below is too long, too much brainstormed, and contains some redundant repetitions.)
--- Conceding immediately that I am not a specialist in psychology or in any of the psychological cognitive sciences (I'm just a programmer with an interest in machine learning), I do think that memetics gives a clearer, that is, more objective/materialistic/reductionistic, view on many issues studied in psychology and the cognitive sciences, relying less on hard-to-define concepts like 'consciousness', 'feeling', 'emotions' etc. Memetics just observes that humans copy around among themselves, and sometimes mutate, bits of information (fashions, behaviour patterns, theories, etc.); arbitrarily calls a 'unit' of such copied-around information a 'meme'; and then observes that this copying-around and mutating process which memes are undergoing is just exactly the process of EVOLUTION. That's all that's needed as basics in memetics. I think these basics are very observable and hard to dispute.
> How is 'memetics' a more powerful tool for
> understanding thoughts, ...
I think that thoughts *are* memes. The set of things qualifying as 'thoughts' comprise e.g.: theories about how the world functions, moral ideas and beliefs about how a person should behave in certain circumstances, etc. Anything capable of being expressed (verbally) as a 'thought' is capable of being copied around between humans as a 'meme'; therefore, thoughts equal memes. A human is a thought-processor, i.e., a meme-processor. The process by which the brain processes memes does not have to be 'conscious' at the bottom level; it can (probably is) hard-wired in at that level. Built on top of that level you can have 'conscious' thoughts, i.e. you can consciously process and reflect on memes. I think that the kind of conscious meme-processing (reasoning) we rationalists do really is the execution of 'semi-unconscious' reasoning hehaviour which we rationalists have (semi-unconsciosly) absorbed and copied from sources in our surroundings. (The meme for cold rational reasoning, the meme for suppressing base emotions, the meme for disrespect of sloppy emotionality, the meme for loving self-control and being in charge of yourself, the meme for believing in individuality and personal freedom, ...) How 'thinking' can 'feel' conscious can be explained, I think, by the observation that associations between 'feelings/emotions' and memes is probably also *learned*. That is, when picking up a meme (say, the meme for honesty) you also pick up the things that associate the recipe for honesty that can be expressed in words ('you should be honest') with all kinds of emotions: e.g. associating being yourself not honest with the feeling of fear (of becoming punished or unmasked by others), of pride (of persisting in your honesty despite difficulties), or hope (of future rewards for your honesty), etc. Maybe this is an aspect of what the brain does when processing memes: managing and storing these connections between memes expressed through language and the 'feelings' which are also 'used' instinctively. Thus explaining how 'memes' could have a (learned) emotional aspect and how 'thoughts' and the process of 'thinking' can feel conscous to the person who does the thinking.
> ... emotions, ...
Emotions are, by definition, instinctive things which are genetically hard-wired into a human. There is nothing emotional per se about memes; however, I think that memes are definitely associated by any human individual with a *lot* of emotions (see above). So that's where in my opinion memetics does fit into the picture in the 'integration' of consciousness.
> ... or consciousness,
'Consciousness' is a *very* hard-to-define concept. What *is* 'consciousness' ? I think that maybe there are a lot of different concepts which have become sloppily aggregated under the common name of consciousness, and that the term 'consciousness' is rather unwieldy entanglement of concepts. Everyone seems to have his own definition of consciousness. Cognitive psychologists seem to view consciousness basically as a 'feeling' thing. If you can feel a thing (like pain), then you are conscious of it, they say. But that leaves open the question: what *is* ''feeling'' really ? Why does feeling gives a persion the idea that he is ''consciously'' feeling a thing ? Memetics per se has little to do with this view of consciousness. If you see consciousness as a person's outook on life, as his world-view, then that means you say that consciousness equals the culture of a group of people. But culture equals the memes stored in that group of people. I think that there are many different kinds, ''tastes'', of consciousness. A child of 3 years old, a rationalist of 40, a deeply religious orthodox believing in heaven and hell, all have (I think) a diffent 'consciousness': they not only 'think' differently, but they also have different emotions associated with the events occuring around them to which they respond -- that is, they also 'feel' differently. I have this suspicion that when you make a thing (machine) that exhibits behaviour that is in any way 'intelligent', i.e. behaviour that seems to be aimed at actively enhancing the thing's survival, then that thing will automatically be 'conscious'. Is a bacterium conscious when it has this behaviour of actively grabbing food particles it bumps into ? Does the bacterium have any 'feelings' when it grabs the food particle ? If you define 'feeling' as "an instinctive and automatic bodily reaction, working probably chemically, triggered by events in its environment, inducing the organism to be disposed more to certain kinds of action and less to other kinds of action", then I think the only honest conclusion is that the bacterium DOES feel; and also, therefore, that it does have (a kind of) consciousness. I think consciousness comes automatically, inevitably, in any organism or machine that exhibits behaviour aimed at its own proliferation. In a 'higher' organism (like humans), this automatically gets you the kind of complex 'consciousness' that we humans 'feel' in ourselves. I think any organism is automatically 'conscious' about anything in its environment that is of importance to its survival/proliferation and to which it is capable of reacting (either by hard-wiring and/or by programmed/learned behaviour). In a species that does many things with memes, like us humans, memes are a part of that individual's environment with which he interacts; therefore, how he interacts with memes determines a large part of his consciousness. Note that behaviour patterns that are never or seldom expressed verbally (e.g. clothes fashions, the behaviour pattern of answering when someone asks you a question) are also copied around between humans, and therefore are also memes. I think the main way memetics can help in understanding 'thinking', 'consciousness', etc. is to brush off a lot of traditional, emotional, irrational stuff in our thinking about these things. Lower animals are just dumb machines reacting entirely intuitively to their environment; humans are the same machines, but equipped with an organ (the brain) which executes a dumb machine-like process which copies, stories, and sometimes (randomly) mutates memes and connects memes with lower machine-states (the intuitive 'feelings'). Thinking and the generation of new ideas is just the evolutionary process with memes as replicators. Evolutionary means mechanical, without inherent intelligence, and 'driven' by dumb 'random'. That's all. Everything mechanical, and and the basic operation of it does not need the concepts of 'emotion' or 'consciousness'. Instead, I think that exacly *because* it does not rely on the concepts of 'feeling', 'consciousness' etc., this mechanical explanation of things can help *explain* what 'feeling' and 'consciousness' really are. With this mechanical point of view, you kind of look at these things from the other side, from the outside (as any scientist should try to do), instead of from the inside as an organism that is itself trapped in its own 'feeling' and its own experience of its consciousness and using its own feelings of consciousness as basis of its reasoning. It is, I think, precisely this 'looking-from-the-outside' viewpoint that makes these memeticists so 'groovy' about memetics. ---- Best regards, Menno (email@example.com)