Monday, 2 April 2007

Irrelevance of Memes

Memes are an idea that some people find very appealing. They are generally used in reference to some common, powerful belief system shared by a (usually fairly large) number of people. They are often, but not always, used in a hostile sense (e.g. to dismiss a belief as merely a meme).

Memes don't add anything that doesn't already exist in the concept of ideas or beliefs. We already know that ideas and beliefs can be passed between people, and that some are more compelling than others. Memes don't actually help us understand why this is so.

But memes aren't merely superfluous, they are fallacious.

The problem with memes is that they are supposedly like viruses, but viruses of the mind. The difficulty with this is that a virus is just a virus. It isn't a referent -- it doesn't point to anything beyond itself (it has consequences beyond itself, but it doesn't mean anything, it doesn't have semantic content).

But a meme, in its role as an idea or belief, is a referent, it does point beyond itself.

To claim that an idea or belief is popular because it's a meme, and a meme has some sort of "infectious" quality, is to ignore the fact that an idea or belief points beyond itself to some correspondence with reality (or not) -- some truth or falsity.

Elaborating on the way the meme is infectious, self-sustaining, or whatever, completely ignores the semantic content of the "meme" -- the truth or falseness of the idea or belief. So proclaiming a belief as suspect because it has been labeled a meme is merely making the assumption that being able to describe why an idea appeals somehow speaks to its truthfulness.

Equally, saying that the meme "infected" its host at a young age is discussing the origins of the belief -- its history in that person's thinking -- not its truth or falsity. This is condemning the truthfulness of the idea because of its transmission method.

So to claim that a belief is merely a meme, and therefore to be dismissed, is either begging the question (i.e. not addressing the truth or falsity of the idea itself, and merely assuming that it is false), or committing the genetic fallacy (i.e. claiming that the origins of the idea speak to its truthfulness). These are two quite common fallacies in reasoning, and descriptions of them can be found in any decent logic text.

Given this, it is then clear that the whole idea of memes is really, for all practical purposes, irrelevant.

1 comment:

Peter said...

Memetics resembles itself - a logically precarious place to be. If it had an element of truth, then on its own criteria it would be impossible for the memeticist to discern whether or not they were infected by the i-am-not-infected meme. When such a meme jumps from host to host at the next atheist convention, who could resist such a tempting idea?

In addition to the fallacies you identified, I think memetics is blatant ad hominem. "Nyah nyah... you're brainwashed, and I'm not, because I know about brainwashing!" It's such a low point for atheists because it is so schoolyard... reminds me of Plantinga's quip about The God Delusion - to say that it's sophomoric would be an insult to sophomores! A crude, cut-n-paste McDawkins sloppy meal fallacy combo: greasy, synaptic pathway-clogging tripe. Little wonder uberatheist Michael Ruse is embarassed by the whole thing.

Contra Dawkins, Dennett et al., all people (not just atheists) have a rational core. Yes, it can go awry, and often does, but it's not as crippled as memetics makes out. Even cult members voluntarily suspend their critical faculties after first employing them (albeit poorly and mistakenly) to evaluate the cult leader's authority in matters of truth. Thereafter they accept things uncritically on authority, which in principle is a sound and sane thing to do (for any genuine authority). So once again it is everyone, not just atheists, who quite naturally try to make rational sense of wide-ranging data gathered over a lifetime. For many, formulating a coherent, accurate worldview is a conscious and disciplined quest. People do have different interpretations of the same data, and do arrive at radically different conclusions, but that is a function of their knowledge and reasoning abilities - NOT the allegedly irresistible quality of some meme. Atheists desparately promulgating this laughable theory have successfully reduced thoughs to feelings, stripping ideas of their propositional merit.