How 'Stupid' Spreads

The last post here noted that there was more than coincidence to environmentalism’s ascendency and the decline of the press. The broader point made here is that mediocrity seems to infect many public institutions, who in turn seem to resort to environmentalism. It’s not just the press; it is hard not to see environmental ‘ethics’ where the ground that has supported organisations seems to have slipped. From agencies which once promised to elevate less developed parts of the world, through to political parties which once represented (or claimed to represent) an entire economic class, promises to construct a better world have given way to a more basic commitment: saving you from Themageddon.

This observation is vulnerable to the criticism that some individuals have been pointed out as mediocre — certain journalists in particular — which may be synonymous with ‘stupid’. The first defence I would make here is that of the Emperor’s New Clothes, the point being that the environmentalist, be he a journalist or academic, presumes that the individual who calls him out on his nakedness does so out of stupidity, the clothes only being visible to those wise enough to wear them. Hans Christian Andersen’s tale is aimed precisely at the tendency of people in power to find ways to justify their status and to further elevate themselves. Second, much of that self-justification involves contempt for ordinary people. Franny Armstrong’s film “The Age of Stupid” being perhaps the epitome of such a big green finger pointing at people. To disagree is not to have understood or engaged with the ideas, but to be too stupid to understand.

This classic intellectual self-defence move can be seen in motion in the comments under Bob Ward’s latest rant against Matt Ridley at the New Statesman.

Leslie Graham
There is no possibility of ‘debating’ with deniers. You cannot use reason, logic and science to persuade someone who was not convinced by reason, logic and science to begin with.
You have no idea what you are talking about and you flatly refuse to be educated.

I just can’t be bothered with ignorant gullible dupes who don’t even understand basic schoolboy physics.

fuzzyspider

The “alarmists” have sighed in resignation and refused to take part in the farce that is global warming denial.

If we had a debate on the moon, with an astrophysicist, an astronomer, a nuclear physicist, and an astronaut, we might learn something about the moon even if none of them agreed on a thing. If David Icke showed up and said the moon was a hollowed out deathstar constructed by aliens, which was then used to wipe out the dinosaurs, and the others simply refused to engage him, that wouldn’t “expose” them as being wrong and it wouldn’t show their position is empty.

As was pointed out in the previous post, the quality of self-justification does not improve as one moves from the world of online comments, through to the Royal Society and the Committee on Climate Change. Paul Nurse and John Gummer’s arguments are no more sophisticated than Fuzzyspider’s and Leslie Graham’s, whoever they are. Thus the Committee on Climate Change and the Royal Society do not have to account for themselves in the face of criticism. But what is the point of science academies and expert panels if it is not to shed light on debates, and to respond to criticism? Rather than following in the spirit of the Enlightenment, the tendency seems to be to belittle critics, and to attack their character.

To understand the climate debate, then, it is often necessary to look outside it, rather than take it at face value. The claim I’m making here is that we can see reasons for public figures’ and institutions’ total embrace of environmentalism and their resistance to criticism. The debate is far wider than the question “is climate change happening?”, which seems to often resort to claiming that the public and deniers are ‘stupid’, which now prompt the question “aren’t these emperors, in fact, quite stupid?”.

Take, for example, the recent experience of Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth, Dr. Susan Blackmore. “A hundred walked out of my lecture”, she complains after her lecture to a group of young students visiting Oxford University failed to convince them that their ideas were not the result of an active engagement with the world, but merely the colonisation of their minds by autonomous agents, known as ‘memes’.

Then I arrived at religion. I pointed out that religions demand lots of resources (I showed them pictures of a church, a Hindu temple, a Jewish menorah and Muslim pilgrims on Hajj); they pose threats to health (I showed people ‘purifying their souls’ by wading in the stinking germ-laden Ganges) and make people do strange things (I showed rows of Muslims bent over with their heads on the floor). I hadn’t gone far with this before five or six young men got up and began to walk out. They had a good distance to go across the large hall, so I said ‘Excuse me, would you mind telling me why you are leaving?’ There was a long silence until one said, ‘You are offending us. We will not listen,’ and they left. Soon after that another bunch left, and then another.

I explained the idea of religions as memeplexes: they package up a set of doctrines, tell believers to learn them, to pass them on, to have faith and not doubt, and they ensure obedience with fearsome threats and ridiculous promises. This I illustrated with images of Christian heaven and hell. Then I read from the Koran “those that have faith and do good works, Allah will admit them to gardens watered by running streams … pearls and bracelets of gold.” “Garments of fire have been prepared for the unbelievers. They shall be lashed with rods of iron.” More walked out. By the time I arrived at a slide calling religions (Richard’s fault!) ‘Viruses of the mind’, the lecture hall was looking rather empty.

Blackmore believes that religious sensibilities were being offended, causing the exit. But there are good reasons why an atheist might be moved to do the same. Being host to an atheist ‘memeplex’ is no better than being host to a religious ‘memeplex’. Thus she has no right to be offended by her students’ exit. She wasn’t just calling religious people stupid, she was calling every last member of the audience stupid…

I persevered, trying to put over the idea that evolution is inevitable – if you have information that is copied with variation and selection then you must get (as Dan Dennett p50 puts it) ‘Design out of chaos without the aid of mind’. It is this inevitability that I find so delightful – the evolutionary algorithm just must produce design, and once you understand that you have no need to believe or not believe in evolution. You see how it works. So I persevered.

The problem for Blackmore, as for Dennet, is that whereas the mechanisms of evolution — DNA — has been isolated, the mechanisms by which ideas and culture are transmitted are harder to identify. The mutation of ideas is usually intentional, which is to say that adaptation is about something, or for some end, at least as often as it is accidental. Matt Ridley calls this process ‘ideas having sex’, but I think he strays too close to the Dawkins-Dennet-Blackmore line here, albeit ending with something much more positive. It is people who generate ideas, in the circumstances they find themselves in, for particular ends. Blackmore, argues, on the other hand, that self-awareness is an illusion, that there is no ‘consciousness’ as such; these are just the products of memeplexes.

This requires a small amount of consideration. Is this a satisfactory way of accounting for our experience of the world, or is it a hasty attempt to circumvent difficult philosophical questions, to bring ‘science’ to bear over questions that science cannot answer yet? I believe it is the latter.

Is the self-perception of the seemingly autonomous self any less weird — i.e. easy to explain — than free will itself? I deny that it is. We find ourselves faced with at least the illusion of autonomy, yet even putting this down to the expression of ‘memes’ having infected our mind moves us no closer to understanding the mechanism by which mere substance produces experience, including will. Blackmore takes a massive shortcut through thousands of years of philosophical reflection on subjective experience — humanity — to say ‘it’s a process‘, yet cannot explain the process. The result is, at best, prosaic. And that is why theoreticians hoping to advance the field of ‘memetics’ have made no progress, and have only antagonised their relationships with their religious counterparts, and alienated themselves. The only notable thing they have achieved is to promote the word ‘meme’ as it applies to the transmission of novelty web content, which is however, more easily explained by the desire to overcome the boredom experienced by people working in office environments, than by the idea of mindless ‘meme-machines’ reproducing content.

In other words, the problem facing memeticians is in reproducing their ideas beyond the narrow environment in which such ideas seem to thrive. But notice that the consequences of memetics do not seem to apply to its proponents.

Walking miserably up the High Street I felt profoundly depressed at the state of the world. I could cheer myself with the thought that I’d learned something. I learned that Islam has yet another nasty meme-trick to offer – when you are offended put your hands over your ears and run away. This would be funny if it weren’t so serious. These bright, but ignorant, young people must be among the more enlightened of their contemporaries since their parents have been able and willing to send them on this course to learn something new. If even they cannot face dissent, or think for themselves, what hope is there for the rest? And what can I do?

I grew up not a quarter of a mile from that very High Street, not one inch of which would look the same had there never been religion. For all the problems attributed to religion, it had created a unique centre of learning, in which the theory of genetic evolution has been advanced, and things such as penicillin discovered, and ideas such as freedom of religion and democracy thrived. Side-by-side, contesting perspectives of the universe were developed, no doubt occasionally resulting in some form of conflict, but as often as not between competing explanations of the physical realm as between accounts of creation and their consequences for the Good Life.

The view of religion offered by memeticians, however, is that it causes people who are ‘infected’ by religion to cut the heads from the shoulders of infidels. Again, I propose a simpler explanation for the horrific acts, which are now transmitted by social media than the one offered by Dawkins and his acolytes. To emphasise the role that religion plays in conflict is to eschew any attempt at understanding the political history of those conflicts, and how it has narrowed the possibilities of transcending religious identities, rendering them trivial. No doubt the doctrine of the Islamic State is poison. But it is advancing through a war-ravaged region, by force of terror, not by transmission of some infectious agent between minds. It is a reign of gangsters and warlords over people denied protection, not the proliferation of an idea. Again, to explain the transmission of the idea as the communication of ‘memes’ belies the fact that the choice given is ‘believe this or die’.

What I am suggesting here is firstly that people walked out of Sue Blackmore’s lecture because she takes a condescending view of people. Second, that this notion of people as stupid and blind automata seems to be prevalent amongst the political class. It seems to explain to them why the hoi polloi take risks with their health, don’t obey authority, and don’t take sufficient notice of climate expertise. In particular, seemingly ‘scientific’ ideas are used to belittle the public, to question their competence to act even in their own interests as individuals and en masse. Such patronising views of people are not unique to the climate debate.

Although the metaphysical proposition — or rather complete denial of metaphysics — of memetics and discussion about it seems like so much philosowaffle, ideas about the constitution of the human mind inform a great deal of policy-making and politics. The mediocrity spoken of above and in the previous post sits in contrast to an era in which politics was, for the most part, premised on the notion of individual autonomy: that people are capable of making decisions for themselves and capable of understanding the risks they are exposed to. This transformation of the political establishment’s view of the public is concomitant with a transformation of the relationship between public institutions and the public they once served but who they increasingly see as children needing to be managed.

The world of memes and the world of climate change came together in 2012, when Blackmore’s house was flooded. Writing in the Guardian, she said,

This will pass. Yet what remains is the potential for future floods. These “extreme weather events” are just what climate scientists predicted, and we must expect more as the planet warms further.

[…]

I’m trying to enjoy the new knowledge gained and think positively about a house that will be better protected and more resilient when the next extreme weather comes. But, above all, I’m left with this thought: we, as a country and as a world, seem to have ignored the advice of the 2006 Stern review, that acting fast on climate change would be cheaper than coping with the consequences. We didn’t act. So now we must cope with the consequences. Rebuilding homes as they were before is not the way to cope.

The world — or at least insurance providers — was not acting quickly enough for Blackmore. Whether or not climate scientists ‘predicted’ ‘extreme weather events’, the flooding that affected her house was neither extreme, nor unprecedented, nor attributable to climate change. Moreover, the issue for anyone living, as Blackmore does, on a flood plain, is not how to stop climate change, but how to manage the excess water that has always plagued people who live on them. Her emphasis on climate change rather than on essential civil infrastructure, however, demonstrates the extent to which the climate change ‘meme’ influences thinking on issues. She had connected, in her own head, for herself, her experience with the prevailing narrative of climate change and ‘extreme weather’. And she had connected them wrongly, as many studies into the frequency and intensity of ‘extreme weather’ have shown. Memes and memeplexes had nothing to do with her joining up her bad ideas with the claims of environmental alarmism.

Does this make her stupid? In my view, Blackmore is not the brightest thinker in the world, but not necessarily stupid, of course. The point being that mediocrity elevates those who are obedient to fashionable schools of thought. The fact of the elevation of redundant parapsychologists to public intellectuals speaks for itself. Blackmore gave up ghost hunting to tell us that we are illusions, and seems to have prospered for doing so. This move wasn’t as useful to society as it was useful to something. And it needs an explanation.

The proliferation of stupid is masked by its own attempts to tell us that we are stupid. But it speaks simultaneously about its own anxiety about its own tenuous grasp on reality, and no less, power. As daft as Blackmore’s ideas about memes are, her elevation of Stern is even dafter. If there was any value in memetics, the genetic analogy would have long ago shown Stern’s work for what it is — an exercise in justifying power for power’s sake.

22 thoughts on “How 'Stupid' Spreads”

  1. I think you’re taking this ‘meme’ analogy far too literally. There’s nothing about it that says that people are mindless or unconscious, or that they’re not aware of or in control of the ideas they’re propagating. Nor does the analogy with the spread and evolution of infectious diseases imply that the memes are bad. One of the more common reasons for the spread of a meme, just as is the case for a gene, is that it’s a good idea. The genes for eyes and opposable thumbs and brains spread because they were good engineering solutions that improved survival. The memes for the wheel and iron making and mathematics spread because they were useful.

    We know how ideas spread. They spread through education, upbringing, reading books, debating, and looking at the things other people make and do. If you see an idea and think ‘that’s stupid!’, it goes no further, and dies. If you think ‘Hey! That’s a great idea!’ you’ll keep it, extend it, and spread it further. The best ideas tend to spread, the bad ideas tend to be weeded out.

    But there is a subtle difference in the emphasis here, analogous to the arguments from design that were applied to biological genes. There are many features of organisms that seem badly designed, from a ‘good engineering’ survival point of view. How do they arise? They can be understood through the realization that evolution grants success to those ideas that spread the most prolifically, and there are other ways to achieve that besides it being a good idea. An obvious one is the ‘believe-or-we’ll-chop-your-heads-off’ technique – just as biological violence is a ubiquitous survival technique in the natural world. An idea backed by this method will tend to spread and survive, because people see it as in their own self-interest to support it, and those who don’t tend not to survive to spread their dissent. Another obvious method is the ‘spread-the-word’ technique – like a sneeze of anemochoric seeds. A belief that encourages believers to spread their ideas (like the printing press or a chain letter) spreads faster and more successfully than one that enjoins believers to keep their beliefs secret. There’s the ‘don’t-listen-to-the-words-of-unbelievers’ technique, analogous to an armoured shell, or fleeing danger. Memes (and genes) are an explanation for why some apparently ‘bad’ ideas (in a ‘good engineering’ sense) can nevertheless succeed and be widely expressed. But it’s still the case that most successful ideas are good ones.

    It’s not saying anything that people didn’t already know, or that isn’t (once it’s been pointed out) obvious. It doesn’t denigrate or diminish the people generating or spreading the ideas – no more than their genes do. People are still what they always were. The most widely known ideas are those with features that encourage people to spread them – whether implicitly or explicitly. So when you see belief systems with explicit ‘destroy-the-infidel’ components (or ‘exclude-the-sceptics’), you can understand that as a successful strategy that goes a long way to explaining the belief system’s popularity. Once understood, it’s almost so trite a point that you wonder what the fuss is about, and think there must be more to it. There isn’t. It’s a useful analogy, no more.

  2. Nullius — I think you’re taking this ‘meme’ analogy far too literally. There’s nothing about it that says that people are mindless or unconscious…

    That is not my reading of Blackmore and Dennett. Blackmore:

    We may feel as though there is a central place within our heads into which the sensations come and from which we clearly make the decisions. Yet this place simply does not exist. Clearly, something is very wrong with our ordinary view of our conscious selves. From this confused viewpoint we cannot say with certainty that other animals are not conscious, nor that consciousness is what makes us unique. So what does?

    […]

    … all human actions, whether conscious or not, come from complex interactions between memes, genes, and their products, in complicated environments. The self is not the initiator of actions, it does not ‘have’ consciousness, and it does not ‘do’ the deliberating. There is no truth to the idea of an inner self inside my body that controls the body and is conscious. Since this is false, so is the idea of my conscious self having free will.

    Dennett asks, rhetorically…

    But if I am nothing over and above some complex system of interactions between my body and the memes that infest it, what happens to personal responsibility? How could I be accountable for my misdeeds, or honoured for my triumphs, if I am not captain of my vessel? Where is the autonomy I need to act with free will?

    Blackmore goes on…

    … our selves have been created out of the interplay of memes exploiting and redirecting the machinery Mother Nature has given us. My brain harbours the memes for celibacy and chastity (I wouldn’t write about them otherwise), but they never manage to get into the driver’s seat in me.

    It is clear that Dawkins occasionally feels uncomfortable with the consequences of his idea…

    It is perfectly possible to hold that genes exert a statistical influence on human behaviour while at the same time believing that this influence can be modified, overridden or reversed by other influences.

    But he nonetheless speaks about ‘viruses of the mind’, and, as is discussed above uses a more dilute form of memetics in place of a understanding of history, only to differentiate himself from his counterparts — i.e. to belittle them.

    I certainly don’t want to pin this all on Dawkins, Dennett and Blackmore. The point is that their ideas are prevalent because they suit the interests of a particular class and its intentions. There is a wider and deeper degradation of the enlightenment conception of the human, towards a more mechanistic and irrational creature, which has many implications.

    One of the more common reasons for the spread of a meme, just as is the case for a gene, is that it’s a good idea.

    But that is not what memetics proposes. If an idea spreads because it appears to us as a good idea, we are the agents in that proliferation; memetics holds that memes are the agents. The difference is the same as the one between the understanding of evolution at the level of the gene or the level of the organism. It might be true of genetic evolution; it does not follow from that that it is true of ‘cultural information’.

    It’s a useful analogy, no more.

    But it is not a useful analogy, because as merely an analogy, it offers nothing that is not conveyed by the word ‘idea’, and no insight beyond the prosaic. It is not an analogy, because it proposes that memes work in particular ways, which are not compatible — in spite of Dennetts fudged compatibilism — with any reasonable understanding of autonomy, or subjective agency. The danger of the analogy is in their haste, thinkers like Dawkins rule out an understanding of the historical reasons why, for instance, certain religious ideas seem to dominate. But Dawkins never attempts to interrogate his own perspective, to see why he might be preoccupied with religion, when it might not really be religion he is looking at.

  3. The question of consciousness, qualia, and free will is a separate issue, and has nothing to do with memes.

    Blackmore and Dennett take a particular position on the consciousness issue. Following on from that, they interpret other concepts like ‘free will’ and ‘self’ and ‘meme’ in a particular way, to fit in with that. You don’t accept their definition of ‘free will’, why then should you accept their definition of ‘meme’? You wouldn’t dismiss the concept of ‘the self’ as nonsensical on the grounds of Blackmore’s definition of it, why accept her version of the role of memes?

    “There is a wider and deeper degradation of the enlightenment conception of the human, towards a more mechanistic and irrational creature, which has many implications.”

    I’ve always tended to look at it the other way round. Rather than reducing the human to the level of mechanisms, I tend to regard it as raising mechanisms to the level of humans, imbuing them with significance and meaning, and the potential for awareness. It’s a bit pantheist, and probably has many philosophical implications too. But I don’t expect people to accept my definitions.

    “But that is not what memetics proposes. If an idea spreads because it appears to us as a good idea, we are the agents in that proliferation; memetics holds that memes are the agents”

    *Both* can be considered as agents, from different points of view.

    It’s the same with a gene. If a gene spreads because it enables an organism’s survival in a hostile environment, you could say that the hostile environment was the agent of change, or you could say it was the organism that used the advantage conferred by the gene to survive. All three are valid interpretations. Evolutionists tend to warn against the dangers of anthropomorphizing genes. Genes are not intelligent, or aware, they say, and they don’t have any ‘intention’ or ‘purpose’. A particular biological feature is not there “for” survival. But it’s tendency to enable survival is the reason it is so prevalent, and it is this that gives the illusion of design.

    In other words, they’re making the exact same argument with respect to anthropomorphizing genes as you report them making with respect to the mind. Just as genes give the illusion of design, so brains give the illusion of autonomy and awareness. But conversely, you can interpret this to say that in the same way that a lump of neurons can be an autonomous person, in the same sort of way genes can *be* autonomous agents with intentions. In the philosophy of artificial intelligence we get exactly the same philosophical argument. Can computers be intelligent agents?

    The appeal not to anthropomorphize a bunch of machinery and chemicals (like computers and genes) is the same thing as the attempt not to anthropomorphize the brain. Some take the position that none of it has agency. Others take the position that it all does. Some try to draw lines to divide one from the other.

    “But it is not a useful analogy, because as merely an analogy, it offers nothing that is not conveyed by the word ‘idea’,”

    It enables one to cross-fertilize insights developed over many years in two separate domains, making both richer. Genetics has long borrowed ideas from the world of conscious agents – cooperation, conflict, strategy, intention, and so on. The same can work in reverse.

    “It is not an analogy, because it proposes that memes work in particular ways, which are not compatible — in spite of Dennetts fudged compatibilism — with any reasonable understanding of autonomy, or subjective agency.”

    It’s not Dennett’s conception of the way memes work, but his conception of the way the brain works. The brain is a mass of cells firing electrical impulses at one another. No part of it has been found to do anything but obey the laws of physics. By one philosophy, it is a cold, dead mechanism. A squishy electrical clockwork, ticking away in the dark of the skull, running software – which is all ideas are. Whether you call them ‘ideas’ or ‘memes’ makes no difference.

    If there’s something wrong with the philosophy, it’s not with the concept of memes. It is, I think, to do with our view of the mechanical, and what we imagine to be its limitations.

  4. Nullius – The question of consciousness, qualia, and free will is a separate issue, and has nothing to do with memes.

    But Blackmore disagrees:

    “The self is not the initiator of actions, it does not ‘have’ consciousness, and it does not ‘do’ the deliberating.

    The reason she says so is, of course, memes. And Dennett, too says that there is nothing more to it than interactions between memes and machinery. Also in the Meme Machine, Blackmore argues that the experience of agency might be an expression of memes.

    You don’t accept their definition of ‘free will’, why then should you accept their definition of ‘meme’?

    I argue that free will — or more precisely, subjective agency — is a broader problem for the scientistic perspective. It wants to deny the possibility of autonomous individuals, and this seems to be owed more to a political need, or driven by it, rather than bthe consequence of philosophical reflection. I don’t think the area between Dennet/Blackmore/Dawkins various conceptions of free will and memes is so clearly delineated as you suggest. They are highly deterministic, after all. And they are generally somewhat muddled, not to mention confused by the world. I don’t accept either their definition of free will, or their claims about memes. And I would argue against them both, if they were separate issues.

    I am not sure where you were going with the discussion about anthropomorphising. I start from the position, per Descartes, that subjective experience is indubitable. I am happy with the possibility that this, in the fullness of time, may be shown to be wrong, but not satisfied by D/D/B’s claims that it must be wrong by virtue of their (pseudo) scientific claims about the transmission of information.

    It enables one to cross-fertilize insights developed over many years in two separate domains, making both richer.

    I don’t believe that memes have produce any insights, either standing alone, or with another domain. You will be able to correct me, I hope. But I would draw your attention to this statement in the final version of the Journal of Memetics.

    The fact is that the closer work has been to the core of memetics, the less successful it has been. The central core, the meme-gene analogy, has not been a wellspring of models and studies which have provided “explanatory leverage” upon observed phenomena. Rather, it has been a short-lived fad whose effect has been to obscure more than it has been to enlighten. I am afraid that memetics, as an identifiable discipline, will not be widely missed.

    Memetics has, however, had considerable popular appeal. And I have noted its periodic returns to the climate debate.

    No part of it has been found to do anything but obey the laws of physics.

    And yet physics cannot explain what the brain seems to produce – experience. So it would seem to me that the deterministic viewpoint hastily denies the possibility of free will (or its analogues), and that there therefore remains a palpable desire to exclude the possibility of free will, which needs an explanation more urgently than the phenomenon its has ruled out does.

    A squishy electrical clockwork, ticking away in the dark of the skull, running software – which is all ideas are. Whether you call them ‘ideas’ or ‘memes’ makes no difference.

    I disagree that this is all ideas are. Ideas mean something to me, or to whoever experiences them. Mere patterns mean nothing by or to themselves. Ideas are about the world, for something. To reduce them to software, even though that is what they may turn out to be, is to make too many leaps…

    It is, I think, to do with our view of the mechanical, and what we imagine to be its limitations.

    … It’s a nice inversion. But we are able to construct machines only to the extent that we are able to understand the limitations of mechanical processes. If we didn’t understand mechanical limits, we would not be able to construct machines. Hence wheels are useful because they have diameters, levers have ratios, and resistors have ohmages, giving them useful properties for particular applications. We don’t account for human behaviour in the same way, except in haste. Try explaining Blackmore’s feelings of sadness when encountering resistance to her ideas, and her failure to reflect on how she might have caused their ire, in mechanical terms. It would be as useful as a poem would be, in the construction of the space shuttle.

    It is possible, of course, to imagine that a synthetic experience could be produced, from some kind of raw ingredients. Yet that would not have ruled out ‘free will’.

  5. “The reason she says so is, of course, memes.”

    I disagree. But I don’t think I’m going to persuade you otherwise, so I’ll leave it there.

    “I argue that free will — or more precisely, subjective agency — is a broader problem for the scientistic perspective. It wants to deny the possibility of autonomous individuals, and this seems to be owed more to a political need, or driven by it, rather than bthe consequence of philosophical reflection.”

    It has been a problem back to the days of the Greek philosophers. Science has provided more detailed observations for the philosophy to try to explain, but fundamentally the questions are the same as they always were.

    Whether or not there is a political preference behind their views, philosophical reflection sees it as a problem too.

    “I start from the position, per Descartes, that subjective experience is indubitable. I am happy with the possibility that this, in the fullness of time, may be shown to be wrong, but not satisfied by D/D/B’s claims that it must be wrong by virtue of their (pseudo) scientific claims about the transmission of information.”

    It’s not wrong. But it is possible that subjective experience is not what it appears at first to be.

    Back in ancient times, a clear distinction was made between objects at rest and objects in motion. Velocity is real and perceptible. But as the song goes, we know today that we live on a world spinning at nine hundred miles an hour, orbiting the sun at nineteen miles a second, circling the galaxy at forty thousand miles an hour. So is the concept of velocity and things being stationary ‘meaningless’?

    Clearly not. The modern view still recognises what people mean by it. But now you have to replace it with a more sophisticated conception of it, that might not be at all what you figured it was based on mundane appearances.

    It’s no use at all denying that the world moves.

    “And yet physics cannot explain what the brain seems to produce – experience.”

    I think it can. And I think that the common acceptance of this sterile and simplistic conception of physics, while refusing to accept its implications, is at the root of the problem. There are no contradictions.

    “Ideas mean something to me, or to whoever experiences them. Mere patterns mean nothing by or to themselves.”

    The second assertion is the same error the Blackmore/Dennett crew are making. Of course mere patterns can mean something by or to themselves. Software can be about the world, and for a purpose. Anyone who has dealt with software can directly perceive that it has meaning and agency, through the same facility we recognise it in one another.

    Human intelligence and meaning exist in the universe, so the physics of the universe must allow it, and indeed implement it. If you think they don’t, then you must have misunderstood the physics. Existence exists.

    “If we didn’t understand mechanical limits, we would not be able to construct machines. Hence wheels are useful because they have diameters, levers have ratios, and resistors have ohmages, giving them useful properties for particular applications.”

    Building machinery is about far more than just diameters and ratios. It is about information and rules and their simulation, too. From cogs and levers, you can build a universal Turing machine! With a universal Turing machine, you can perform any computational information-processing task imaginable. You can simulate the behaviour of any aspect of any other bit of the universe. That’s an amazing property. That’s hugely more than just diameters and ratios. That’s a deep, deep property of the laws of physics, that its rules are self-similar, every part of it reflecting the whole. And so a ‘mere pattern’ of cogs and wheels can be about something in the world by perfectly simulating its properties and behaviour. And what other deep properties do cogs and levers have, that we might not yet have realised?

    Any designer of machinery knows it implicitly in the way they think and work. It takes a positive effort of will for a programmer to see variables in software as not having meaning, and it is disturbingly disorienting to do so. We perceive their meaning as naturally as we perceive the meaning in our own thoughts, with the same subjective certainty. So why the resistance to the idea that our direct perception might be correct?

  6. Nullius — So is the concept of velocity and things being stationary ‘meaningless’?

    Only as an analogy of subjective experience.

    I think it can.

    But it can’t. That’s not to say it won’t. But the point was that it cannot.

    Of course mere patterns can mean something by or to themselves. Software can be about the world, and for a purpose.

    It is our purpose, and about the world for us; it is not the software which either experiences itself or the world, for itself.

    Human intelligence and meaning exist in the universe, so the physics of the universe must allow it,

    You confuse physics with its object. The universe is not physics. Physics can be wrong.

    That’s hugely more than just diameters and ratios. That’s a deep, deep property of the laws of physics…

    And again.

    You can simulate the behaviour of any aspect of any other bit of the universe.

    But simulation is not experience. It is not a subjective, or reflective process. The Turing machine has no more an inner experience than a video tape of the same experience.

    It takes a positive effort of will for a programmer to see variables in software as not having meaning…

    Meaning… for the programmer. Not for the programme. And not for the computer.

  7. Then where does the meaning reside, when there are no programmers aware of it? How does the meaning get from one mind to another, without passing through any of the points in between?

    And how do you know that the Turing machine has no inner experience? How do you measure it?

  8. Nullius — Then where does the meaning reside, when there are no programmers aware of it?

    Nowhere.

    And how do you know that the Turing machine has no inner experience? How do you measure it?

    I can be no more sure of it than I can be sure that a piece of paper does not understand what is written on it. So I worry about other things instead.

  9. “Nowhere.”

    Interesting. So a thing vanishes from a place. Then some time later, the exact same thing reappears in the same location. But it didn’t exist in the meantime. (Or do you mean that it does exist, but not at any spatial location?)

    I wonder how it happens that the meaning when it reappears can so often be the same as the meaning that earlier disappeared, if there is nothing to connect the two. Deep in a cave 32,000 years ago, a man made marks on the cave wall meaning ‘bison’. This meaning vanished from the world for 32,000 years. There was nothing, nowhere. Then a modern man crawled into the cave with a light, looked at the same marks, and instantly said ‘bison’. The words are different but the meaning is the same. Don’t you think that’s amazing? How does this miracle come to happen?

    “I can be no more sure of it than I can be sure that a piece of paper does not understand what is written on it. So I worry about other things instead.”

    Fair enough. I’ll stop bothering you about it, then.

    It’s been nice chatting.

  10. Ben,
    Until your essay I had a very superficial view of memes: Mostly as a metaphor for how ideas move around and influence people. I see that at least some of those who promote the idea are fundamentalists, thinking they have found “it” that explains important parts of life. And like far too many fundies dehumanize those not enlightened (and in this case dehumanize themselves, as well). There is something recursive yet also farcical about someone claiming to be enlightened the idea they have no real individual consciousness.
    I probably would stayed for the entire lecture if only to make certain that I had seen the entire self-parody.
    As to the nasty climate obsessed extremists fleeing from meaningful dialog- well extremists have done it more or less forever.

  11. Hunter – And like far too many fundies dehumanize those not enlightened (and in this case dehumanize themselves, as well).

    I think that’s it. The point is differentiation of the (psuedo) scientists from the hoi polloi. And that is why I was trying to emphasise the point that we can see the ascendency of ideas like memes coincident with power increasingly using scientific ideas to disarm the public and elevate expert panels. Scientific ideas have political utility, whether or not they shed any light on the material world.

    I find this happens often with highly deterministic ideas. For example, the environmentalists’ presupposition of a society highly dependent on natural processes, or ‘ecosystem services’. The assumption that we depend on the totality of subtle transactions in the environment is buried within computer models. (I’m talking about ecological models here, not necessarily GCMs. The Club of Rome’s computer model being perhaps the epitome). This allows the modellers to ‘predict’ that slight forced changes can cause radical shifts in the total ecosystem, to cause $X billion amount of damage, or N million deaths over Y years. But this form of modelling requires that the humans on which this damage is inflicted — i.e. agents in the simulation — don’t have any capacity to act in their own interests in response to change. The notion of stupid humans is embedded in environmental ideology, through and through. As such, it always seems to produce a legitimising basis for the political order preferred by environmentalists. The failed claims of ecologists on behalf of their models is historical record, yet the political power of modelling persists.

    Back to memes, I mentioned the now-abandoned Journal of Memetics above, which is available online here. It hadn’t occurred to me to look into who published it previously, but it turns out to be the Centre for Policy Modelling out of Manchester Metropolitan University. Their about page claims:

    The Centre for Policy Modelling is a research-only unit of the MMU Business School that has focused on complexity science and social simulation since 1992.

    In its 20 years history CPM members have contributed to the theoretical development of the discipline and applied the simulation approach to a variety of issues and fields, participating and coordinating several UK and EU research projects.

    Sure enough, then, we see an interest in computational analogues of humans and their interactions in close proximity to an interest in policy. And predictably, there is the usual emphasis on risk, especially ecological risk. It is to their credit, however, that the CPM abandoned memetics.

    There is a nice overview of some of the problems with memetics at Stanford’s Plato online encyclopaedia. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/evolution-cultural/#ProMem . However, it doesn’t address my concern that we can better explain the transmission of culture by asking people “why did you do that”, and that we have to preclude the actively engaged human subject in order to make memetic’s prosaic insights seem profound.

  12. “The notion of stupid humans is embedded in environmental ideology, through and through. As such, it always seems to produce a legitimising basis for the political order preferred by environmentalists.”

    Isn’t that true of all ideologies? Anyone who wants to change the way other people behave has to come up with an (disreputable) explanation of why they do things the wrong way – stupidity, selfishness, malice, arrogance, lust, hunger for power – so that they can argue why they shouldn’t be allowed to.

    Why are so many people left-wing? Why do so many people like totalitarian solutions? Because they think they’ll gain a free share in what others have, and they’re too stupid to understand why it won’t work. So people argue that we need to set a liberal Constitution to limit the power of the State, which of course is to be written by ‘people like me’ … etc. You see the point, I’m sure.

    The idea that ‘people are stupid’ is one of the best arguments against control by small groups. Rule-by-the-few narrows the diversity of ideas being explored, and suffers from information processing overload. No central committee can know everything relevant to the decision-making of a whole population. And when you put stupid people with insufficient information in charge of an entire society, the result is disaster. The ‘Intelligent Design’ approach in policy/government doesn’t work.

    So how can you run a large society well, when you’ve got nobody competent to run it? How can we get the illusion of good design without a designer? (Or worse, a committee of designers?)

    The answer, as I’m sure you know, is competition. You allow a diversity of ideas, approaches, ways of living, businesses, traders, and transactions. You give people the freedom to choose which ones they like, which ones to do or not do. And you let the ideas that don’t work fail and disappear, and the ideas that do work spread as everyone adopts them. Evolution. The free market. The open society.

    Rule-by-experts is a theory of ‘intelligent design’, where a committee of fallible humans tries to design 8.7 million species and all their potential interactions in 6 days.

    So how do you think the Dawkins/Blackmore crew would react to having it pointed out that they’re believers in ID, when it comes to policy? Would that go down well? :-)

    Or you can make the same argument with the brain. Most of the neurons in the brain individually are pretty stupid. So the brain must be ruled by a tiny group of ‘expert’ cells, a tiny homunculus in the centre of the brain that sees and controls everything. Do you think that would work? Why would a small group of neurons be any smarter than the whole lot? The idea that you can’t get intelligence from a collection of the stupid. and that it must therefore be controlled centrally, is precisely the thing Blackmore and Dennett argue against.

    The same thing applies to the environmentalists. The idea of a ‘fragile network’ assumes the ecosystem has been designed, and any disturbance therefore must necessarily disrupt that design. But the ecosystem is adaptive and therefore robust. A diversity of approaches are tried, and those that don’t work go extinct, which is OK because they’ll soon be replaced by new things that do. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

    It’s true that “Scientific ideas have political utility”. But they can often have utility for many different political positions. It’s not the science itself that is the issue, it’s how you use it.

  13. Nullius – Isn’t that true of all ideologies?

    The answer, as I’m sure you know, is competition. You allow a diversity of ideas, approaches, ways of living, businesses, traders, and transactions. You give people the freedom to choose which ones they like, which ones to do or not do.

    You don’t think what you’ve suggested is ideological?

    It’s not the science itself that is the issue, it’s how you use it.

    I wonder how that would stack up in a discussion about the Hockey Stick.

  14. “You don’t think what you’ve suggested is ideological?”

    Of course it’s ideological.

    “I wonder how that would stack up in a discussion about the Hockey Stick.”

    Discussions debunking the Hockey Stick relied on the same scientific principles and data that were claimed initially to support it. It’s no use saying “we reject principle components analysis, because it was used for political purposes in the Hockey Stick thing”, because people who know PCA as a legitimate scientific technique will think you’re nuts, and that you yourself are putting your politics ahead of science. Sceptics won that debate by fighting it on its own terms, and showing how they had misinterpreted/abused a legitimate technique and used it illegitimately.

    It’s the same argument with the basic greenhouse physics. Some people reflexively oppose the idea that CO2 might absorb and radiate infra-red, because they hate the politics it is used to support. That way you get Skydragons, and so on, which does the ’cause’ no good at all. But it’s not the science itself that is the issue, it is its use and abuse. It’s not enough to simply oppose, you have to oppose it with the right arguments.

  15. Nullius – Of course it’s ideological.

    Just checking. In which case, it seems trivially true to point out that ‘it’s true of all ideologies’, when one broadens out the treatment of people as stupid, to ‘stupidity, selfishness, malice, arrogance, lust, hunger for power’. It also sets the bar low, if that’s all politics is about.

    I’ve tried to explain something particular to environmental ideology, but which is a broader current in contemporary thinking. That’s not to say there’s nothing similar in any other ‘ideology’. But to answer your point, I believe that perspectives that emphasise democracy develop from an idea of individuals as capable, rational beings, with an understanding of their own interests and the risks they are exposed to.

    “Sceptics won that debate by fighting it on its own terms…”

    So it is “the science itself that is the issue”, not “how you use it”?

  16. “It also sets the bar low, if that’s all politics is about.”

    Nature, red in tooth and claw, eh?

    People disagree and can enter into conflict about what is to be done. Politics is about keeping that conflict civilised – debate rather than guns. Or if you agree with Clausewitz, war is politics continued by other means, so maybe not even that.

    Like all man’s works, it spans the full range – from our highest achievements to our lowest.

    “But to answer your point, I believe that perspectives that emphasise democracy develop from an idea of individuals as capable, rational beings, with an understanding of their own interests and the risks they are exposed to.”

    Yes, many of them do. (Not all – some think that whether or not they understand what they’re doing they still have the right to do it.) But when they do they tend to be talking in generalities, not specifics. They also tend to be talking about ‘us’ rather than ‘them’. That sort of statement tends to be more of a political slogan than the basis for a detailed justification.

    People are more complicated. They’re mostly rational, but they’re sometimes not. They understand a lot, but far from everything. They recognise some risks, but a lot of others they get badly wrong. On science, the man-in-the-street is stunningly ignorant. Only 55% of Americans knew that the Earth goes around the sun in a year. (Nor are Europeans any better.) The average person doesn’t know why the sky is blue or how electricity works. It doesn’t mean they’re stupid – they often know what they need to know in their chosen careers in amazing depth – but you can’t assume they’re the same on every sort of question. And educators have spent a lot less time teaching political philosophy than they have science.

    You have written a lot about environmentalists, afraid the sky is falling and that the planet is doomed, and that unless mankind repents and reforms his ways, the world will end in pestilence, famine and war. They believe resources are running out, thousands of species are going extinct, the planet is overcrowded, the weather is getting wild, we’re being poisoned by chemicals, and that technology is dangerous. Are they “capable, rational beings, with an understanding of their own interests and the risks they are exposed to”? During the early 20th century, millions flocked to the banners of left-wing ideologies in Germany, the Soviet Union, and China. Did they know what they were doing? Did they understand the risks? Was that rational? There are people today running round the desert chopping people’s heads off. Were they the people you were thinking of?

    Yes, individuals *can* be rational, in the right setting, with the right cultural support. But it’s obviously, trivially true that they’re not always. That’s just historical observation.

    “So it is “the science itself that is the issue”, not “how you use it”?”

    No, it’s how you use it. We could have dealt with the science bit by just writing an article correcting the errors. It doesn’t matter if nobody reads it – science would have progressed. What won the war was the publicity, the public arguments, the continuing soap opera of data denial, delay, and obfuscation, the freedom of information requests, the diggers’ discoveries in obscure archives and datasets. It was the characters involved: the politicians, the bureaucrats, the activists, the bloggers. The argument was won because they used the the same science the climate scientists used correctly, but it took more than just the corrected science. It took the efforts of all those sceptics who used the science for its political utility.

    What I’m saying is you shouldn’t treat the tools themselves as tainted because of who used them last. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  17. I believe there is also intellectual bankruptcy and mental laziness involved here. Figuring out how to deal with floods is hard–so much easier to simply blame it on climate change. Development in the 3rd world is hard–so much easier to talk only about climate change and let that trump the needs of the world’s poor.

  18. As far as memes and free will–there is a curious self-blindness in those such as Ben quotes above who see others as not having free will and therefore who need to be managed by removing their sodas and salt by the experts–but if the experts also do not have free will then where does the enlightened direction of society come from? Of course the intellectuals give themselves a pass and believe themselves to have what everyone else lacks–a self, free-will, rationality. Ironically, even non-conscious entities if allowed to compete will solve problems that command-and-control statists can’t solve. I can go to the grocery in the US and get salt-free food, diabetic food, gluten-free food, organic food, all because someone saw that there was a demand. No orders from omniscient beauracrats needed.

  19. What an interesting post. Apologies in advance I come to it rather late and with little time to spend, so have skimmed the comments rather swiftly and cannot make the full response it deserves, but feel compelled to say something. However, Nullius has said much that I might say, and I see no conflict between free will and the concept of memes, which appears to be at issue here, rather they are complementary, but memetics provides insights on the nature of that free will, and yes some limitations too. Embedded in culture, we are not ‘entirely’ free agents.

    I feel rather like Nullius that you are taking a view at one end of a wide range in memetics, and that your own reading of this appears to have somehow boxed you in further still. Otoh some of Blackmore’s comments do sometimes make me cringe a little; dramatic effect can backfire (per your example from her above) and lead to misunderstanding. Her own work stresses the co-evolved nature of culture and biology, in which context it would have been better for her to point out that *everyone* is influenced by memeplexes, this is entirely *normal* and not a bad thing at all (nor really a good thing either, it just is), and all of these memeplexes levy (to a lesser or greater extent) resource demands such as those she points out for religions; e.g. old school nationalism does, or modern CAGW does. In this context I think the resource demands for Wind Turbines are rather like those for churches, certainly they’re not much use for generating energy; but at any rate this less dramatic but more faithful expression of what she tries to get across would not insult folks, though it may still be a challenge for many, more equally, to get their head around.

    Regarding the nature of meme / free-will balance, someone like Rosario Conte, who is critical of some of the more, um… traditional I guess mechanistic views of memes, seems to me on a good track, and her approach also ties to the emerging concept of the ‘Social Mind’, e.g. as expressed by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga in his book Who’s in Charge. In essence *some*, i.e. not all, of what we are, is invested in our social networks, and this is the main part of ‘us’ that is subject therefore to memetic influence. Conte stresses the role of intelligent / autonomous agents in the process of cultural transmission, i.e. not producing variants via mere errors of transmission, but via a decision making process. I think this is where the field is migrating to from several angles, which moves away from the rather naive older view (of some at least) which laid more emphasis of flat imitation and simple vectoring.

    My own way of viewing this balance is in chapter 3, the ‘collective-personal duality’, of my essay linked below. It’s not really an original concept, but may be an original packaging of the thoughts of various others into a way (that for me at least) makes the concept more easy to visualise.

    I disagree entirely with the alarming way that Dawkin’s treats religions. Given he’s up to his neck in a (secular) memeplex (CAGW) this amounts to calling out someone else’s memetic bias but hiding his own. And it is neither delusional or abnormal in any way to believe in religion (as he pretty much implies), or in CAGW for that matter, or in any other memetic cultural entity. See my section on Dawkin’s and these issues in Section 4 paragraph 5. By virtue of long co-evolution we all believe in a whole bunch of cultural stuff, which differs depending on our geography and social threads. And while some memeplexes can be (net) much more negative than others, or they can change from (net) -ve to +ve, or vice versa over time, Nullius is also onto another good thing in my opinion. This is that the reason we are all so subject to the mechanisms on which these entities thrive, is because in the totality of their effects, they are overwhelmingly positive. There’s a bunch on this in the linked essay, but essentially without memeplexes focusing our efforts, civilisation would likely never have started (and as almost all early memeplexes would have been religious, we have great reason to be very thankful to religion :) However, this doesn’t rule out that some memeplexes can be (net) very negative indeed, perhaps almost fully parasitical (bad things dominate over good by a long way), at least for part of their evolution. Maybe CAGW is such, it certainly seems so right now. This is the nature of evolution, if something can get a free ride off our mechanisms for altruism (part of how memes work), then it will. Like all parasites, if it brings down the host (currently ‘the west’ I guess), then a society with more resistance will probably gain dominance (well, a bit of a simplistic picture considering all the cross-connections in the modern world, but useful nevertheless).

    I think Dennet is right to ask basic rhetorical questions, how else will we know what to answer. Regarding personal responsibility for those influenced by memeplexes, and with most credit to the referenced paper from Duke Law on ‘memetics and the cultural defence’, see section 11 of the essay.

    Profuse apologies for brevity / choppiness, and for throwing sections of essay at you. There is no real neccessity to follow up there of course. While we might have a very different view on memes btw, I’ve read a number of your articles critisising the climate consensus, and fwiw I’ve thought them very insightful.

    Essay: http://wearenarrative.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/cagw-memeplex-us-rev11.pdf

  20. Andy, we have discussed memetics previously at http://www.climate-resistance.org/2014/03/the-gwpf-crok-lewis-and-positioning-sceptics.html

    …I see no conflict between free will and the concept of memes…you are taking a view at one end of a wide range in memetics…

    It should be obvious that I was going on the ideas developed, and words written by three or four people in the field. I tried to draw NIV’s attention to those words. If there is some other version of memes, so be it, I don’t care. My view of the ‘wide range’ is that at one end it is highly deterministic and denies human agency, and that at the other its insights are prosaic.

    Try to understand that the point is not to discuss every possible theory of memes, but to explain without recourse to memetics, why theories that deny human agency — i.e. conceive of people as essentially stupid — come to prominence.

  21. Ben Pile says: August 28, 2014 at 12:15 am
    “why theories that deny human agency — i.e. conceive of people as essentially stupid — come to prominence”

    But I guess this is indeed the issue, for I do not think that these theories deny human agency (though indeed one example, per quote above Conte specifically promotes human agency in memetic context) or conceives of people as essentially stupid. They simply say that there is more going on, systemically, than the human agency of individuals alone. I don’t believe I am stupid, or that you are, or that the overwhleming majority of humanity is either. And in fact I know there are an awful lot of folks damn cleverer than me. Yet I believe we are all nevetheless heavily influenced by the various cultural threads we are embedded in, and that the way this influence works can be determined (in the general case), which workings involve cutural selection. I simply don’t see why such influence would in any way whatsoever make anyone stupid, or mean that their individual thoughts or debates do not have genuine leverage and contribution, as here, or for instance cannot solve problems (v hard for any stupid folks!) etc.

    So I understand bounds of the issue you propose in your last sentence, but disagree the very premise of the point you are using to set those bounds. I guess we may be stuck then ;)

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