mind, matter, meaning and information

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cultural information

If intelligent aliens could study our culture very, very closely over a long period without disrupting it—without us having any awareness of their presence—they would eventually discern the shapes of most or all of our social, political and other institutions, from the family to state regulation of personal finance advisers. These behavioural patterns, though immensely complex and interwoven, are objective: they are what people actually, physically do. This is so even though we feel immersed within them—they are the sea in which we swim—and naturally take our thoughts and feelings about them, our conscious participation in them, to be essential to them. Our behavioural patterns are out there.

Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in The Selfish Gene. This word was chosen as reminiscent of “memory”, and “gene”, and the French word “même”, meaning “same”. It is pronounced “meem”. The study of memes is “memetics”, on the model of “genetics”. “Examples of memes,” according to Dawkins, “are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches” (page 192). In this scenario, such cultural entities quite literally evolve, the meme being to cultural evolution as the gene is to biological evolution. Patterns in human behaviour are viewed as entities that replicate, with variation and selection.

Actually, that's not quite true. Most of Dawkins' examples do look like objective behavioural patterns, but ideas clearly do not, and he later complicated the issue (to my mind), by saying that memes are patterns stored in the brain. Considerable controversy remains, as to both the real value of the concept of the meme, and also—among those inclined to “believe in it” in general terms—exactly what the meme is and where it resides. We will leave the value of the concept aside for now. Regarding just what it is supposed to be, the two main competing positions are:

  • that the meme is an item of information in the brain, or in the mind—corresponding to and causing the behavioural patterns—and
  • that memes are better understood actually to be such behavioural patterns, themselves.

The meme is supposedly analogous to the gene, but unlike that, it has to be transmitted from one location to another without any sperm or egg cell to carry it. The question arises as to how the meme travels, either from brain to brain, or from one instance of behaviour to another—which neither the brain-based nor the behaviour-based school can easily answer. In each case there is a gap that appears unbridgeable.

It seems to me that the best case that can be made for memes requires viewing them as encoded in both brains and behaviour, travelling between brains via behaviour, and between instances of behaviour via brains. This allows us to look at the relationships between en/decoding of information, physical processes in general, causation and control: do memes control us, or we them? It provides the long-sought-for memetic equivalent of DNA: the underlying mechanism, the explanation of how memes actually work.

Consider any repeated cycle of en- and decoding operations, between, say, two different languages. For the sake of simplicity we will assume that a perfect translation takes place every time. If we did not know which came first, we could not say which was the “clear”, and which the encoded form. Or, if you knew one language and not the other, you might be biased as to which was which—but in any case the judgement is subjective. In fact, the two forms might as well be considered different encodings, neither being “clear”. What they have in common, that allows the cycle to be repeated indefinitely, is never explicit. This is the case with memes—they have two phases of existence: encoded in the brain, and encoded in behaviour. A brain that carries the meme is motivated, in appropriate circumstances, to perform the relevant behaviour—the circumstances comprise the decoding mechanism. Another brain, observing that behaviour, processes the incoming information with the result that the meme takes up residence in this brain—is encoded there—and if the action is again triggered, the cycle continues, brain to behaviour to brain, and so on, each transformation being viewable as encoding from one point of view and decoding from the other. The pattern within the brain's physical information that corresponds to a given meme, is the behavioural pattern, encoded, and the behavioural pattern is the neural pattern, encoded.

It can be argued, however, that what the two sentences in different languages have in common is their meaning, while the brain and behavioural encodings have nothing in common beyond the fact that each one is caused by the other (in the sense that chicken and egg are caused by each other), so that “meme” in this scenario does not actually refer to anything. The two sentences mean the same, but the two meme-forms “mean” each other, and the scare-quotes are significant, because this sense of “meaning” is unusual, to say the least.

The solution to this problem is that, strictly speaking, there is no difference between (i) brain and behavioural patterns as each other, encoded, or (ii) as different encodings of a single abstraction. These are all isomorphs. But for our convenience, (ii) is preferable—this is what we call the meme. It is what an instance of behaviour and the neural pattern that corresponds to it have in common. The gene is a factor of the relationship between the DNA and its cellular context, and the meme is similarly abstract.

So, do memes exist? For me, the existence of repetitive patterns of human behaviour, picked up and perhaps modified by one individual and then passed on to others, seems indisputable—and that's really all that's required. Acceptance of that implies acceptance of the whole brain-to-behaviour-to-brain en/decoding story, as there is really no other way for such patterns to propagate. I suspect that some of those who find the proposition to be much more controversial are confusing memetics with other related issues such as: what would the acceptance of it imply for our attitudes towards individual responsibility? That is a serious issue, but that's no reason to let it muddy the water—objective behavioural and neural patterns exist, and cultural information is transmitted by them “horizontally” through human society, just as genetic information is transmitted “vertically” by reproduction.

But what about Dawkins' “idea” as an example of a meme? It's neither a pattern of behaviour, nor, on the face of it, a neural pattern either. Briefly, ideas are the subjective aspects of neurally stored information. That storage cannot be assumed to be passive but will often involve processing, the subjective aspect of which is thought. But we think about things: memes, in their subjective aspect, are composed of intentional information, while the neural and behavioural patterns are encoded physical information. Culture, like life, is the survival of encoded items of physical information, genes in one case and memes in the other.

To speak of biological, psychological and cultural information is not invalid, but information comes in just two basic varieties: physical and intentional. Some claim that, between them, genes and memes determine all our behaviour—in fact, the reason Dawkins first came up with the concept of the meme was to explain behaviour that could not be explained genetically. Between them, physical and intentional information encompass matter, meaning and mind, and many long-standing enigmas can be resolved using these concepts. These include those of free will versus determinism (genetic, memetic, or whatever), how material processes can “give rise” to consciousness, and the meaning of artificial intelligence. There are even implications for the place of religion in our modern secular world. None of that is yet online, but it soon will be!

More on memetics (not much yet, and just the basics)

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Copyright © 1998—2005 by Robin Faichney. This material may be distributed only subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License, v1.0 or later (the latest version is presently available at http://www.opencontent.org/openpub/). Distribution of substantively modified versions of this document is prohibited without the explicit permission of the copyright holder. Distribution of the work or derivative of the work in any standard (paper) book form is prohibited unless prior permission is obtained from the copyright holder.
Last modified 02/02/2005 14:58:16 by Robin Faichney .