The Extended Dawkins

I’ve been reading a lot of Dawkins lately. Here’s an idea for a new paper: “Arms Races Between Extended Selfish Cooperative Memes”. Memes get together in the battle of ideas using extensions of the mind to do so. You just have to put the theoretical pieces together. I invite someone else to write the paper.

25 responses to “The Extended Dawkins”

  1. Rick Padua says:

    Unless I misread this, Dawks ain’t no mysterian (from The Selfish Gene, Chapter 11):

    Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. … As my colleague N.K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter: ‘… memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically.(3) When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking — the meme for, say, “belief in life after death” is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.’

  2. Well that is consistent with mysterianism about consciousness and the brain. It’s odd that he hasn’t introduced the extended meme–books, musical recordings, altars etc.

    • Rick Padua says:

      He’s saying that specific impressions and concepts are physically embedded in the nervous system (including the brain) as identifiable structures. The concepts-impressions are, to be sure, communicated symbolically from one organism to another, but once received cause a physical structure to be created in the receiver. Memes have causal power. They “literally parasitize” your brain. Literally. The implication is that it’s only a matter of time before these physical structures can be located. Consciousness is no mystery: it’s something directly attributable to interaction patterns in the physical brain and these can in theory be mapped. Next case.

      • Rick Padua says:

        Memes are by definition simple. The baseball cap worn backwards. A couple of bars of a tune. Current slang. They’re their own referents so maybe the idea of extended memes is inappropriate. A question is: what differentiates a meme from a fad? Or, better yet: anatomize a fad; identify and define its origins, extent and durability. Why are, say, tattoos popular and socially acceptable to a degree not evidenced three or four decades ago? When does a fad become a custom? Answering all that might be beyond Dawkins’ (and his fellow memeophile Dennett’s) analytical capacity. Start thinking about extending memes and you may find yourself on a slippery slope. You might find yourself confronting issues not easy to resolve … things … well, mysterious. Dawkins and Dennett don’t do mystery.

        • Memes don’t have to be simple, e.g. religions. The extended meme is just the in-the-head part plus its external material support, like sound waves for tunes or books for creeds. This complex is what gets selected, not just the internal part–like beavers and dams.

      • I don’t see that: everyone agrees that ideas have brain correlates–Dawkins doesn’t have to be a reductionist about consciousness and in things of his I have read he isn’t.

        • Rick Padua says:

          We’ll have to disagree about Dawkins. There’s little daylight between him and Dennett on most fundamental issues and Dennett’s position on what some call “computational reductionism” (as distinguished from the “greedy reductionism” of obtuse physicists) is well known. Ref. specifically the first paragraph of his TLS review of Penrose’s “The Emperor’s New Mind” from back in the last century. The TLS text was published anonymously per custom, of course, but nobody was fooled and besides it’s even posted on Dennett’s website.

          You might be interested to know (if you don’t already) that you’re mentioned, along with Dennett and Fodor, in a fairly recent paper widely regarded among cognoscenti as cutting edge, “Is Consciousness Computable? Quantifying Integrated Information Using Algorithmic Information Theory” which, although undeniably technical, reaches a conclusion I suspect you’d recognize as mysterianist. Still you might want to check and see if they get the part about you right.

          http://arxiv.org/abs/1405.0126

          • Dawkins: “The evolution of the capacity to simulate seems to have culminated in subjective consciousness. Why this should have happened is, to me, the most profound mystery facing modern biology.” Selfish Gene, p. 59. Agree to differ?

      • I don’t think so. I agree with all that: the brain structures corresponding to memes can be located–just as we can locate the brain structures correlated with pain and memory and vision. But it’s a further question how these locatable brain structures give rise to consciousness: that’s the mystery.

  3. Rick Padua says:

    The Selfish Gene is not without its cognitive dissonances. And there’s plenty of opportunity to select text to one’s taste. For me the bit about “profound mystery” reads like pallid boilerplate compared to this ex cathedra stuff on page 192:

    “Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. As my colleague N. K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter:’… memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically.* When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking—the meme for, say, “belief in life after death” is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.'”

    I submit that the above is the more authentic Dawkins (Nick Humphrey has evolved somewhat). It seems pretty positivistic too. One thing it’s not is verificationist, since not a mote of evidence exists to support it.

    • Rick Padua says:

      Also Dawks doesn’t say the mystery is unsolvable, only that it’s profound. Maybe you read too much into that. You and I share the belief that it’s unsolvable. The young folks who wrote the paper I linked to earlier, coming from a wholly different direction out of another discipline, arrive almost to their surprise at a comparable conclusion. I doubt you’ll ever hear Dawkins say it.

    • But I would agree with everything in that passage! I think all mental states have cerebral realizations: minds are based on brains. Ideas do spread from brain to brain like parasites. Yet I’m a mysterian.

  4. Rick Padua says:

    Nice paper here co-authored by Alva Noë — same guy who wrote the friendly blurb for Prehension — affording a fair idea of how inadequate the above statement is. What do you mean by “cerebral realizations”? Dawkins (and the Nicholas K. Humphrey of yore) mean(t) specific, localized and, in theory, discernibly patterned localizations. Primitive stuff, gotten to no small extent from Francis Crick. Today it’s increasingly appreciated that consciousness needs to be understood as a global phenomenon within the brain, as is made exquisitely clear in Maguire et alia. Anyway, Noë and Thompson (both of whom are credentialed and vetted philosophers):

    http://selfpace.uconn.edu/class/ccs/NoeThompson2004AreThereNccs.pdf

    • I just mean the neural correlates of mental states, local or global–what is going on in the brain when the mind is doing its thing.

      • Rick Padua says:

        Assuming neural correlates, trying to fit memes (as defined by Dawkins-Humphrey and Dennett) into mind still raises issues. As Maguire et al point out …

        “However, if integration is necessary for consciousness, then somewhere between the stimulus entering the brain and the decision leaving the brain, there is a point where the information cannot be fully disentangled from the rest of cognition. This integrated processing cannot be localised to any part of the brain or any specific point in time. The contents of cognition are effectively unified. We label this idea ‘scramble in, scramble out’ to reflect the irreversible integration and disintegration that must occur between observation and action.”

        Dawkins likes the parasite analogy in respect of memes (which are, let’s never forget, still only hypothetical entities … unlike the genes they supposedly resemble). So any individual “real” meme would need to have global causal power in the brain. This would be more analogous to epigenetics. (There’s a Wiki article on “epimemetics” … guy named Tim Tyler seems to have staked out much of the territory.) Parasites of course, can act globally in the body, particularly if they get into the bloodstream (or spatially metastasize) but how does that work neurally? Maybe Tim knows. Bet L. Ron Hubbard did.

        Anyway, if memes are real physical structures in the nervous system — a precept endorsed by Dawkins — what do they look like? We know what genes look like after all. Kind of indistinguishable. But do different memes possibly present different appearances? Does “life after death” look appreciably different from “I can haz cheeseburger”? And one senses one has taken all this as far as one can. Wearing out one’s welcome. Time to ride off into the sunset (an amazingly durable cognitive tick, cliché, whatever, that).

  5. Rick Padua says:

    The hula hoop shtik would pretty much need to involve a neural correlate too. But neural correlation may be a stillborn concept, and with it physically structured memes in the hardcore sense of TSG, is the point . Please do check out Noë and Thompson on neural correlates. Also methinks I’m nosing the dire Principio 15 beneath the stairs here. Really don’t want to have to view the cause.

    • If it were, that would involve much more than memes, but all of mental life. I don’t think memes, or mental phenomena in general, are “physically structured”, merely that they have correlates in the brain.

      • Rick Padua says:

        Okay, then you and Dawkins are in disagreement. Which makes you by far the superior mysterian. For emphasis, here is Dawks again — quoting hapless Nick Humphrey, who’s now stuck with this silliness for life — obviously with full approval:

        —the meme for, say, “belief in life after death” is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.’

        I mean, how many ways can this text be interpreted? Structures realized physically in nervous systems. The kind of unanalytically positivististic thought process you find offensive in physicists only in this case without any support of physical evidence. Now, I admit that Dawkins annoys me personally and deeply on several levels so my motivation in all this is impure. Which doesn’t make me wrong, however, merely a petty jerk.

        • Dawkins and I are certainly in disagreement over the depth of the mystery–I never claimed otherwise. You should also distinguish between saying that a mental state has a structured physical realization (neural correlate) and saying that a mental state is itself “physically structured”: I believe the former but not the latter.

          • Rick Padua says:

            Once again purely for the sake of discussion I’ll posit neural correlates as defined by Noë and Thompson (who of course harbor serious doubts about them). Given that, I’ll go on to interpret what you’re saying to mean that the structured realization (individual meme) doesn’t necessarily need to be identical in all persons, as is the case with a gene … that there’s room for nuance based on individual consciousness and its history. The question then becomes what did Dawkins and Humphrey mean to say by “realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.” Me, I fear the worst, particularly considering that the lead-in tries to establish a parallel with genetic reductionism and Dawks is employing genetics and parasitology as his template. For me this waves a red flag signaling that importantly uncritical thinking is afoot at a serious level and misinformation is being disseminated. For you perhaps not so much. Okay. Far deeper disagreements exist.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *