Working through Darwin’s Dangerous Idea with my students, I naturally have memes on my mind these days. Although there is a tendency for the concept of “memes” to be looked down upon in the world of theory, Dennett puts forward a number of striking ideas that are well worth consideration when thinking about the nature of language and culture. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Dennett argues that memes, much like organisms, often form their own immunological system so as to help insure their replication. A meme, of course, is simply a cultural unit. Memes can be anything from hairstyles, to clothing, to techniques for preparing food, to songs, to particular ways of organizing society. The disturbing thesis of memetics– quite close in many respects to structural linguistics –is that the aim of memes is not to communicate or provide any advantage to those who use them, but simply to replicate themselves. Of course, one way in which memes can effectively replicate themselves lies in being useful in some way to the other replicants, humans, in which they commonly lodge themselves.
One way in which memes help to replicate themselves is by acquiring something resembling an “immune system”. Through the acquisition of an immune system, a memetic complex helps to insure its persistence and diminish drift or memetic change as it is replicated or passed from host to host. An obvious example of such an immunological system belonging to a mimetic complex would be certain concepts of faith as it operates in religion. Indeed, faith often functions like an anti-body within meme-complexes of religious belief. On the one hand, despite its very public, political, and social nature, it is not unusual to hear it said that faith is a private matter. In presenting itself as a private matter faith paradoxically enhances its likelihood of social or public replication by creating a defense against critique and criticism. The person who criticizes faith becomes the jerk who is not respecting another person’s privacy. Thus the person of faith is free to discuss and assert their faith as publicly as they like, but criticism is treated as a violation of the faithful person’s privacy and is said to ignore their rights or indicate a lack of respect.
Faith also enhances its chances of replication by portraying itself as a virtue. Treated as a form of belief in the absence of evidence, proof, or demonstration, to have faith despite this absence is treated as a sign of devotion and is therefore a virtue. Given that religious belief often requires us to believe in extraordinary things that are at odds with much of what we know about the world around us, this conception of faith as a virtue helps to immunize religious belief by encouraging the believer not to entertain criticism towards their belief. In this way, faith helps to maximize its own replication.
Another way of immunizing memes through the formation of memetic antibodies lies in acquiring a self-referential loop. If you can organize your memes around self-referential loops that cannot be escaped, then it becomes that much more difficult for the meme to be destroyed. This sort of strategy can often be found in philosophy. Thus, for example, solipsism is a highly effective self-referential loop, immune from all external criticism. The solipsist claims either that it is impossible to know anything other than his own mind or that only his own mind exists. This position is, for all intents and purposes, unassailable. For any criticism you might level against the solipsist, the solipsist will respond by saying nonetheless it is in his mind. “But you don’t know what I’m thinking!” “My mind made you say that!” Berkeley’s brand of idealism is similar. Strictly speaking, Berkeley’s thesis esse est percipi is irrefutable. For any example you might give, the Berkeleyian can respond by pointing out that you perceived it and therefore made it be.
Finally it could be said that anti-realisms have similar immune systems. For any claim you might make against the anti-realist they can respond either by saying you have to think it to talk about it, or that you had to have access to it to discuss it. Operating at the root of these positions is thus the axioms “no being without being thought” and “no being without access to being”. Part of the success of anti-realism lies in the fact that it gives the advocate an all purpose rejoinder that can always be evoked in discussion to trump the other person, much like certain moves in chess become standardized and common because of their effectiveness. In this way any position a person might put forward can always be traced back to issues of thought or access, and we can always reject other claims that don’t treat mind as “ground” as being dogmatic. The interesting thing is that despite the admirable immune systems of solipsism and Berkeleyianism, these memes generally do a very poor job replicating themselves, whereas anti-realism does. This is especially surprising given that no one outside of philosophy and the social sciences advocates anti-realism, and, indeed, anti-realists themselves do not behave as anti-realists when not engaging in philosophy. To my knowledge, no one has ever managed to refute solipsism or Berkeley. Further, I cannot say that I have ever come across a true solipsist or Berkeleyian among the ranks of professional or serious philosophers. Despite the inability to refute solipsism or Berkeley, few take these positions seriously or even see the need to refute them. Rather, they lie fallow as curiosities that no one adopts. On the other hand, these positions have found a way to replicate themselves precisely as positions not to be adopted. At any rate, the fact that no one adopts these positions despite being unable to refute them suggests that generally our reasons for adopting a philosophical position are not a matter of argument.
Given that anti-realisms have a self-referential structure similar to that of solipsism or Berkeleyianism, we can thus ask why these positions have been so successful in replicating themselves whereas the former have not. When we look at how anti-realisms actually function in philosophy, the suspicion arises that the success of this particular memetic complex has less to do with the problems it solves– its solutions and arguments aren’t that convincing –than the way this form of thought functions as an antibody against other memes. Consider the historical context in which anti-realism emerged. Freud famously said that since the beginning of modernity humanity had suffered three wounds to its narcissism: Copernicus’ heliocentric hypothesis, Darwin’s evolutionary theory, and Freud’s unconscious. In each case humanity was cast from its point of centrality and importance in the order of creation. However, significantly, philosophy already appeared to be ousted from its position as a gatekeeper of all knowledge.
Now look at how anti-realism functions. When we look closely at what anti-realisms do we note that they function to treat humans as ex-ceptional within the order of creation, place them at the center, and render them immune to being dethroned from being at the center. Kant’s third antinomy, for example, defends humans from neurology by refusing the gesture of identification of the mind with the body. Similarly, Husserl’s phenomenology defends consciousness from the ravages of evolutionary theory and neurology by arguing that nature cannot be a condition of consciousness because consciousness is the condition of nature. Likewise, the so-called “critical stance” allows us to dismiss those features of the world we do not like in relation to us by charging them with being dogmatic.
However, if it is the case that anti-realism is based on a self-referential loop rather than an actual argument, perhaps the move shouldn’t be to refute it, but simply abandon it. Just as little as we can refute the self-referential loop “the following sentence is a lie. the previous sentence is true.” can we refute any self-referential loop. However, in the case of self-referential loops such as this we do not seem to trouble ourselves too much. Similarly, when it comes to solipsism or Berkeleyianism, no one seems particularly troubled simply ignoring these positions rather than refuting them. Perhaps the criteria by which a philosophy should be judged is not by whether or not we are able to rigorously ground it, but rather by whether it enables us to ask interesting and revealing questions about the nature of the world. If anti-realism has been a strongly replicating memetic complex, then this is not only because it has a strong immunological system to defend it from criticism, but because it has enabled us to ask a number of very interesting questions about the world. However, this particular self-referential loop also seems to have exhausted its possibilities and to actively prevent the posing of other types of questions because they can’t readily be formulated within the framework of the human, consciousness, or the role that language play in granting evidence. Granting that these other questions are questions that vitally need to be addressed, perhaps the time has come to adopt a different self-referential loop that doesn’t require relating everything to the human or access.
UPDATE [5:48PM]: Over at Dead Voles Carl weighs in this post, writing:
The target exemplar of memetic self-defense in Levi’s post is ‘anti-realism’, roughly, the philosophical tradition holding that things only become real (to us) through our access to them in thought. His analysis of its characteristic defense strategies and their contextual elaboration through the work of trial and error is terrific. I’ve pulled Levi’s leg in the comments by turning the analysis back on his own ‘realist’, ‘object-oriented’ philosophy, reversal being another classic defense strategy that only works in this case if he has correctly identified a universal dynamic. As you know, Bob, claims made about geese apply to both gooses and ganders, which is also a good way to test them.
In the event that I was not entirely clear– I mentioned in comments that I’m very fuzzy today as a storm woke me up around four –the point of this post is not that anti-realism should be abandoned because it is self-referential. I have a very difficult time thinking of any mimetic complex that is not self-referential. This includes my own onticology. Attentive readers will have noted that I often make fun of my “ontic principle”, describing it as trite, vulgar, and silly. After all, what could fail to meet the criteria of being a difference that makes a difference? Nothing. This is precisely what makes onticology a deflationary move where epistemology is concerned. By adopting this jester-like criteria of the real, it undercuts the entire question. Like the anti-realist who can endlessly ape variants of the self-referential axiom “no being without being-thought”, always moving dialogue back on to his chosen terrain of access, the onticologist can endless spout the self-referential axiom “if it makes a difference then it is real.”
What I hoped to draw attention to in this post, then was not that anti-realism is to be rejected because it is self-referential, but rather that our reasons for adopting a position are independent of the grounds of that position. In evoking Berkeley and solipsism and pointing out that while these positions are unassailable or irrefutable, I hoped to draw attention to this. Nobody can refute these positions, yet no one advocates them. Why? After all, none of us have arguments against these positions, we simply abandon them. You’ll never win an argument against a true metaphysical or epistemological solipsist, because they will always bring it back to the fact that you’re only talking about your own mind.
If solipsism and Berkeleyianism are nonetheless not adopted, this has to do with reasons independent of argument. My proposal was that they don’t allow us to ask interesting questions about the world. Once you throw in with solipsism or Berkeleyianism, you very quickly find that you’re faced with exactly the same set of questions as before. Nothing changes. The world remains exactly as it was with the caveat that now it’s only mind or perception. The hypothesis that everything in the universe doubles in size is an interesting thought experiment and is impossible to refute, but ultimately sheds no light on the world. Anti-realism differs from solipsism and Berkeleyianism by allowing us to ask interesting questions about the world and also by immunizing us against certain things we have learned about the world. We’ve learned all sorts of very interesting things from Foucault, the linguistic idealists, Heidegger, etc., as a result of questions of access. However, the self-referential loop upon which philosophies of access are based also prevents all sorts of other interesting questions because it perpetually requires us to think the correlate. My point then– and it’s a pragmatic point –is that onticology allows us to ask these other interesting questions by abandoning the primacy of the correlate as the ground of all questioning.
I’m glad Carl enjoyed the post.