The Bitch is in The Driving Seat

(Still not got domestic internet access yet, here in Perth, so limited on blogging time at the moment.)

Managed to spend two late afternoons on the beach this weekend, and finished Sue Blackmore’s Meme Machine. I have to say I’m still a fan of Sue’s writing, but I’m glad I didn’t read her best-seller first. (Intriguing for me is that Sue’s writing projects parallel in real-time my own amateur research – I didn’t realise this, her most popular acclaimed book, was so recent – 1999.)

I buy the entire story about memes being independent replicators, unleashed, and increasingly significant as comms become ubiquitous at the speed of light. ie the dog is no longer (never was) on a leash, but it is now in the driving seat, and furthermore has no longer any tendencies to favour hunter-gatherer / sexual-reproduction / mating-game genetic traits, hence the dog could just as well well be a bitch. That I buy.

What I don’t buy is her depressing conclusion that we humans are powerless. I’m (surprisingly) with the hyper-rational Dawkins on this one – we are a species that can take control of evolution – genetic and memetic. Sue unfortunately comes down on the side of the idea that our “self” is a an illusion and free-will non-existent. I think she falls for her own anthropomorphic selfish-meme metaphor. It can no more be a matter of “it’s all in the memes” any more than it could ever have been true to say either “it’s all in the genes” or “it’s god’s will” – life’s complicated enough, without trying to reduce it to a single issue.

Her last chapter is at least contradictory, if not hypocritical. How can she talk as if she and other intelligent humans have meme-recognition strategies, and yet memes are in control over humanity ? (I’ve read Dennett’s Intentional Stance, but I’m going to have to read his Darwin / Consciousness / Memetic stuff in the original.) The illusory self stuff is a cop-out I feel. It’s complicated and in looking for simple (scientific) black and white evidence all we find is metaphor – so what ? – that’s true of 100% of reality (Come in Lakoff, your final call.) That doesn’t mean the conscious self is merely illusion – only a metaphor – any more than any other reality we talk about. Talk is the clue.

(Oddly, she doen’t make much of her Zen views of self and unity-with-reality in this context. Interesting to note that she includes Francis Heylighen in her web-list of significant people in memetics. What a tangled web.)

I see why in her bio-pen-picture she was described as previously being a researcher into paranormal phenomena, but that she is now a total sceptic. Alien-abductions and meeting-my-maker-at-the-end-of-a-near-death-tunnel type whacky stuff is clearly memetic – undisprovable myths to explain the mysterious. But I hope she’s not cut herself off from the idea of non-local / non-causal communication channels out there in the ether – physics explains everything, but physics is not yet itself fully explicable in my book.

(Marsha, I see why Sue is sceptical of mysterious agent explanations of scary events, like near-death-experiences, and sleep-paralysis-fears – aren’t we all – but she is not sceptical about the existence of those “paranormal” phenomena – she just prefers a 100% memetic explanation – as I say, in going 100%, she just goes too far.)

She is equally dismissive of Hameroff and Penrose – cellular micro-tubules governing quantum coherence – quoting the Churchlands again – “about as much use a pixie dust in explaining consciousness”. I don’t think Sue (or any other modern philosophical writer I’ve seen) has actually got to grips with understanding the weirdness of new phyiscs – a real pity, so close. When will I get the time to write on this ?

David Deutsch’s “Fabric of Reality” next.

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