I would be most interested in your opinion on Memetics (Dawkins, Heylighen) as an epistemological
theory. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this approach? And in which philosophical
context should this approach be placed? (Successor to the Rationalistic, Cognitivistic approach or
perhaps as yet another attempt to overcome the Cartesian split?)
I'll take a stab at this; I found the idea interesting at one point, but now I find it rather limited. A
"meme", as I understand the term, refers to an idea or concept of some sort which must be 1)
communicable, and 2) replicable. Then the theory goes on to claim that "ideas" like religion, or say,
some specific religion, act analogously to genes. They are communicated between people, they
replicate (in one's head, so to speak) by being thought about, and then are communicated again, etc.
And somewhere in here is the idea that the ideas themselves, the "memes", are doing the job
themselves, analogously to DNA.
Well, there are holes in this that you can drive a truck through. What is an "idea", anyway? Patterns of
neural firing? If so, do patterns of firing shoot from head to head? No. So ideas aren't communicated
like DNA, which doesshoot from cell to cell, in effect. Is an idea the "information"? Um... what's that?
Patterns of neural firing? Whoops, we just did that. Is it the words, say, in which an "idea" is
communicated? So words are replicating themselves? No.
Ok, let's try something else. A meme "replicates" itself in our head, or our mind, whatever you'd
prefer. Now what exactly does that mean? We hear someone talking, ok, then... an idea shoots from
their head to ours? No. We reconstruct it from the communication? Ok, not unreasonable, but why is
this analogous to an organism replicating? What's happened, according to this theory, is that the
"meaning", the "information", which is communicated by the words is taking pieces from the various
concepts we have in our minds and building a copy of itself, like an organism. But how is this different
from any act of understanding, and in fact any act of sensing the world at all? That's what we always
do whenever we hear, speak, see. Is everything a "meme", then? But then the concept is empty. If
everything we understand or sense is a meme, all we've done is use the word "meme" instead of
"concept" or "phenomenon".
Do you see what I mean about the problems? Let's go further. Let's say, giving the meme people lots
of slack, that there are someideas that are more attractive, that "spread" in some meaningful sense,
from person to person. Ok, now what? How do we differentiate those from other ideas, which do not?
What is the test, the theory, the experiment to determine whether an idea is a "meme" or just an
ordinary run-of-the-mill idea, and further, how successful it will be? Do we just look at ideas and see
the one's that have spread? Now what would those be, exactly? Is the religion of one person the
sameas the religion of another, even if they go to the same church? The "same" in what sense? And
if we're merely defining the "memes" by taking some ideas that we think are widespread, and saying,
"Those ideas are widespread, therefore I will call them 'memes'", just how have we avoided a vicious
circle? A meme is some idea that's widespread because memes are ideas that spread themselves
widely? Well, that just won't do. You need an independent criterion. With DNA, we have all sorts of
chemical characteristics, the four amino acids, etc., etc. There's nothing like that for memes, no basic
little meme-component we can test for in ideas so that we could say, "yes, that's got the 'meme amino
acids', so there it is!"
So, as far as I can tell, it's one of those sort of interesting ideas that just fizzle out for lack of concrete
support. A shame, really, but without something to test for and without the ability to make predictions,
there's just rhetoric.
Steven Ravett Brown