the meme delusion

In our last Philosophy Cafe, we invited Dr. Arthur Schafer, head of the Centre for Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, to talk about whether there are moral absolutes. Schafer is a prominent commentator on ethical issues here in Canada, and  recently invited the cognitive/evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker to lecture at Winnipeg’s new Museum of Human Rights.

Always engaging and provocative, Schafer argued that as long as we had enough facts about a situation, we would steer toward the right action, or at least know what the right action is not. He gave the example of a head hunter in Papua New Guinea. Why do they insist on harvesting the soul of the opponents head, each time a new baby is born? Because they have imperfect knowledge about the fact that harvesting souls is impossible, and hence headhunting is redundant (and so terribly politically incorrect). If the headhunter knew this, they would probably (hopefully) stop headhunting. Ethics is defined by how we view harm reduction in each individual situation, based on factual knowledge.

To me this represented the liberal scientific anti-religious view of life quite admirably. We know what is good based on a utilitarian calculus of harm. The key here is that harm is always defined according to modern liberal conceptions of the individual and of rights. We can respect other cultures’ erroneous and harmful views, because they are acting in good faith without the factual correct knowledge that we have. Therefore it becomes very important to educate people in empiricism and facts, which can undermine harmful ways of thinking.

But if good ethics are based on “facts”, how do we come to knowledge of the intrinsic dignity of the individual – of human rights? I suppose that ethical facts may in the end be reduced to a kind of scientism. Do Pinker, Dawkins, and company view the idea of human rights as merely a useful meme that allows for human flourishing? Do people have responsibility and freedom to act morally, or merely the illusion of responsibility for reproductive advantage?

Since I’m currently reading Daniel Dennett’s book “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” in which he extols the “meme” interpretation of culture, I couldn’t resist Roger Scruton’s article criticizing the same. Scruton is a close student of the arts and of philosophy and often says what many people lack the courage to articulate (and articulate clearly). In this New Atlantis article, he does it again:

The theory of the “meme” threatens to debunk the whole realm of high culture by making culture into a thing that survives in the human brain by its own efforts, as it were, and which has no more intrinsic significance than any other network of adaptations.

Scruton provides a sustained argument for the idea of a human person and their subjective experiences, and therefore freedom and moral responsibility.

Even if there are units of memetic information propagated from brain to brain, it is not these units that come before the mind in conscious thinking. Memes stand to ideas as genes stand to organisms: if they exist at all (and no evidence has been given by Dawkins or anyone else that they do) then their ceaseless and purposeless reproduction is of no concern to culture. Ideas, by contrast, form part of the conscious network of critical thinking. We assess them for their truth, their validity, their moral propriety, their elegance, completeness, and charm. We take them up and discard them, sometimes in the course of our search for truth and explanation, sometimes in our search for meaning and value. And both activities are essential to us. Although culture isn’t science, it is just as much a conscious activity of the critical mind. Culture — both the high culture of art and music, and the wider culture embodied in a moral and religious tradition — sorts ideas by their intrinsic qualities, helps us to feel at home in the world and to resonate to its personal significance.

Other, perhaps reactionary, critics of the meme concept have similar things to say. One such critique comes from David Bentley Hart, the orthodox theologian who wields the English language like a scimitar (“Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark”). He points out that memes are a useful metaphor in the absence of any clear understanding of how evolutionary theory might explain culture and ideas. The propagation of memes functions more like a virus, rather than a function of human consciousness, will, desire, and rational thought. Atheists like Dennett, therefore, easily sidestep the need to refute the content of ideas, particularly ones he disagrees with, such as God and religious faith.

So far, from my reading of Dennett, liberal values like human rights are arbitrarily seen to be “good” (always in quotation marks) for the simple reason that things like eugenics, radical reductionism (E.O. Wilson and company), and the concept of God, are common sensically bad. There is no argument here, only assertion backed by the scientistic metaphor of memes.

More to come on Dennett and ethics.

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