Dennett – Don’t Mention the Memes

Recent (26 Jan 2018) talk by Dan Dennett recorded in Warsaw and published by Polish Rationalists on the topic of his most recent “From Bacteria to Bach and Back” (B2BnB) book on the evolution of intelligent consciousness. I’ve written and talked much about B2BnB so not a great deal “new” in the presentation – and unfortunately the recording doesn’t capture his slides, just his words. Nevertheless a great talk on his key topics as well as a great book for the Dennett novice.

Other than the hardware plus software model of mind (consciousness, intelligence, the lot), like his book he doesn’t actually spend as much time on this as he does on words and memes as the basic tools and building blocks of everything, including intelligent conscious mind, and on the fact that these are information objects independent of any of their physical embodiments. As I said in my own reviews, Turing and Shannon (and Wiener) feature more centrally than Darwin in this story.

I’m already comfortable with the language of memes and memetics, and the fact that the word simply coined objectively what was already a clear subject of mimesis for centuries. It’s just a word for long established concepts, but a word – because of its seemingly reductive objectivity – that draws a lot of flak from art and culture and the humanities in general. The Q&A allows him to address many objections, as he does as well with his examples in the talk. He also incidentally makes many points I’ve made in my own interpretations of his work in my own. This is the real value for me in this particular talk.

Memetics is no less predictive than genetics and any complex systems science. It predicts that stuff will happen, the kinds of stuff and the explanatory how it will happen. Like all evolution, specific detailed objects and even creative genius exist – attract specific names in our ontology – only with hindsight. Memetics explanations are only as reductive and objectifying as you make them – culture and humanities really have nothing to fear. Dan himself always uses qualitative language sorta / kinda and “more like”. Worth understanding Dennett’s form of compatibilism – subjective stuff doesn’t reduce to objective components, even though they explain the processes. These processes and patterns may be “determined” by these objective component interactions, but the products of culture and creativity are not. This is as important for scientific objectors to understand – eg in the the reality of conscious will – as anyone concerned with the humanities.

Determinism, like transparency, is over-rated – a fetish of the scientistic. The humanities and humanists are right to fear scientism. Some scientists and philosophers have a lot wrong.

There is a strong acknowledgement of information science practitioners – systems developoers –  as one of the fields that takes true ontology of the real world – all of it, not just science – very seriously, and that philosophers ought to take information scientists more seriously. This was incidentally my route into this space.

Might be worth transcribing more of Dennett’s actual words from the Q&A … meantime, worth a listen.

[Hat tip to Terry Waites for the link.]


Post Notes: topics in the transcript.

Evolution (hi-fidelity / hi-fecundity / lo-mutation – repeatedly emphasised here) is massively positive feedback loop. See also Maruyama on “second cybernetics”.

Transparency is a bad thing – fetishised in mass & social media. Need-to-know is better.

Fundamental Information.

No-brainer = brainless.

Also published on Medium.

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