Dennett


octopusWhenever the concept of memes comes up it seems that people get really incensed. I’m baffled by this reaction. What is it about this concept that gets folks so worked up? I certainly understand the point that meme theory is underdeveloped, but this is a call for theoretical elaboration and development, not outright rejection. I get the sense that memes get some worked up for one of two reasons. On the one hand, I sometimes sense that hostility to the concept of memes is really driven by disciplinary territory disputes. Here you have the upstarts like Dawkins and Dennett come along, spout the word “memes”, and suddenly everyone yahoo that knows nothing about social theory or the broad and deep discipline of semiotics gets all excited. I wonder whether there isn’t a little of resentment and envy at work here. On the other hand, I get the sense that some associate memes with socio- and psychobiology (more on this in a moment).

From the standpoint of object-oriented ontology, I find meme theory extremely attractive precisely because meme theory treats memes as real objects or actors in the world. Here, more specifically, are the reasons that I find memes attractive:

praying-mantis-cannabilism-eating-mate1) Far from falling into vulgar socio- and psychobiology, meme theory allows us to tell a far more complex story about human beings and behavior. The central thesis of meme theory is that at some point in human biological history a new type of replicator emerged in contrast to gene replicators. Genes are replicators in the sense that they are units of some sort that get copied or replicated through reproduction. Under Dawkin’s formulation, at least, the “aim” of genes is not the advantage of the organism, but to get themselves copied through reproduction. In this respect, genes construct vehicles (bodies, organisms) as strategies for getting themselves replicated.

Just as we do not act primarily for the welfare of our cars but use cars for our own aims, genes aren’t primarily “interested” in the welfare of bodies or organisms. This comes out with special clarity in the case of the preying mantis, but also my favorite animal, the octopus. In the case of the preying mantis, of course, the female devours the male preying mantis’s head after mating with him. In contributing half his genes the male has done his work. His sole value after mating consists in contributing nutrients to the impregnated preying mantis. Moreover, were the male to go his happy way after mating he might mate with other females, generating dangerous competitors to the offspring of his first mate. Cruel world. The case is similar with the octopus. After the female octopus is impregnated she finds a well protected cave or pipe and lays her eggs around the mouth of the cave opening. For the next few weeks after laying her eggs she never again leaves the cave, but rather spends all of her time jetting water over the egg sacks hanging from the cave opening and cleaning the eggs with her tentacles. Once the eggs hatch the female octopus is free to leave the cave, but at this point she is so weakened from lack of food (she hasn’t hunted during this whole time) and is very quickly, and somewhat ironically, devoured by the fish and crabs that she previously feasted upon. Once again, the genes of the female octopus were not acting on her behalf, but rather she was a vehicle or strategy for getting her genes replicated. When that replication is complete her job is done. Cruel world.

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go-3women-534x716Responding to my post on the Game of Life and Emergence, John Doyle, over at Ktismatics, speculates about the ontological status of the patterns that emerge in the game. Doyle first outlines five helpful criteria for emergence drawn from Jaegwon Kim:

1. Systems with a higher level of complexity emerge from the coming together of lower-level entities in new structural configurations.
2. Higher-level systems exhibit higher-level emergent properties arising from the lower-level properties and relations of its constituent parts.
3. Emergent properties are not predictable from information about lower-level conditions.
4. Emergent properties are not explainable or reducible to the lower-level conditions.
5. Emergent properties have novel causal powers of their own.

I am largely in agreement with these five criteria of emergent phenomena so long as number four isn’t taken to entail anything spooky or magical like a sudden magical leap, but rather is a thesis about scale dependent properties that couldn’t have strictly been predicted from the lower level rules. I’ll have more to say about this in a moment. For those interested in actually playing the Game of Life, Ian Bogost has been kind enough to provide a link here.

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I came across the game of life in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and decided to research it a little further. Designed by John Horton Conway, the game of life is interesting because it is a universe based on two very simple rules that generates surprising organized complexity. Here’s a short video illustrating these properties:

All of this reminds me of a discussion Dominic and I had a year or so ago in another context. In that context, Dominic was objecting to my use of the term emergence. My memory of the actual discussion is a bit fuzzy now, but if I recall correctly Dominic’s concern was with those ideas of emergence that posit some sort of gap between simple rules or principles governing a system and properties of the emergent system. This sort of emergence is akin to magic, in the sense that it asserts the irreducibility of the system to its rules or principles. Emergent properties thus become something “ontologically spooky”.

The game of life perhaps provides the possibility of a more rigorous conception of emergence. The properties that emerge within the system are all made possible based on the rules, constraints, or principles governing the system but are not strictly predictable within these constraints. As Dennett articulates this sort of emergence, “…the properties [are]… unpredictable in principle from the mere analysis of the micro-properties of the [system]” (415). There is nothing magical here, as these properties are products of the constraints underlying the system. Perhaps a clearer way of putting the issue is that the results of the system are not themselves programmed, but rather are rendered possible by the constraints on the system. This seems to be similar to what biologist Stuart Kauffman is getting at in books like The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution. What he draws attention to are certain physical constraints in matter that give rise to persistent organization under specific conditions. It is unfortunate that he’s chosen to dress up this thesis in the trappings of a sort of spiritualism in books like At Home in the Universe. Ah well, no accounting for taste.

AntibodyWorking 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.

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brainvatIn email today an old friend of mine asks,

Currently I’m having a bit of a spat with other graphic designers over in another pocket of the Internet. My question is: can design be understood to have an ontology, can there be an ‘ontology of design’? Does this make philosophical sense?

I’m wondering if the assemblage that is my discourse, field, discipline, community, etc. can be understood as a thing? I like the notion of tracing it through all of those lenses and coming to a networked definition. A flat ontology perhaps? Does this make sense?

Hopefully he won’t object to me posting his question here as I think it’s an extremely interesting question that goes straight to the heart of what I’ve been working on with regard to cultural and social theory. Within the framework of my onticology, the criteria by which something is real lies in making a difference. As I put it with my ontic principle, “there is no difference that does not make a difference”. Thus, to be real is to make a difference. More recently I have described the ontic principle as a deflationary move. I’ve stolen the idea of “deflationary moves” from my buddy Nate over at the terrific blog What in the Hell. Nate praises Badiou for the deflationary move of placing ontology in the domain of mathematics. Where philosophy has been obsessed with the question “what is being?” or “what is the meaning of being?”, “Badiou’s” ontology is deflationary in the sense that it says “this question has already been answered and if you would like to know that answer go study mathematics.” As a consequence, Badiou is able to set aside the question of being, dethrone it from center stage, and instead focus philosophy on the question of truth. Deflating the ontological question allows the object of philosophical inquiry to be shifted elsewhere.

Unlike Badiou (and Heidegger), I do not think the central question of philosophy has been “what is being?” or “what is the meaning of being?” Rather, following Zubiri, I think the central question of philosophy is “what is reality?” However, like Badiou, I try to effect a deflationary move with respect to the question of reality. Since roughly the 17th century, philosophy has been obsessed with the question of how we might come to know reality. As such, reality has been treated as a transcendent beyond that must be reached, and which is to be distinguished from something else that is not reality. What this thing that is other than reality, I do not know. It seems to be mind, culture, language, power, and a host of other things relating to the human. The problem is that situated in these terms the question of how we can know reality is hopeless. Why? Because one of the central lines of thought we inherit from the 17th century is the thesis that we only have access to our representations. Well, if we only have access to our representations then we can only ever scan our representations to find the marks of reality, but since these marks are themselves representations we have no criteria for determining whether they are marks or simulacra: Descartes with his mind in a vat.

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