Sunday, October 10, 2010

Memes on my Mind

Kate Distin.  The Selfish Meme: A Critical Reassessment.  Cambridge University Press, 2005.  ISBN: 0521606276.

As a follow-up to the last post, I offer three points which reading The Selfish Meme brought into focus for me. 

(1) People do not automatically take charge of their ideas (memes).  Ideas can and will run your life as they please if you let them, inducing you to do and be a number of things which you might never do or be if you examined yourself carefully and decided consciously what to dedicate yourself (your doing and being) to.  The fact that this happens is not really anyone's "fault" (unless you believe in a divine puppet-master pulling our and/or all strings): it results from the facts (1) that we need ideas to survive, and (2) that we begin life largely (indeed wholly) at the mercy of a relatively small bundles of ideas (starting with the meme-complexes articulated and defended by our parents).

(2) The human mind is amazingly plastic: it will bend over backwards to make "bad" memes "good" (i.e. to get useful and use-able information from even the crappiest sources).  The individual capacity to adapt and "mold" memes admitted from someone else (parents, the community, churches, schools, teachers, gurus, etc.) is an amazing human feature.  Sometimes the most worthless piece of information (a really dumb meme) can be redeemed by someone's ability to fit it into a new context (re-tooling an old meme-complex or creating a new one).  For a practical example, consider what Denise Minger has done for T. Colin Campbell's China Study.  Because of the nature of human "intelligence" (the way we pick up memes and run with them), no idea (meme), no matter how stupid, is a guaranteed stillbirth.  By the same token, even really dumb ideologies (meme-complexes) can build defenses against skepticism that will convince people not to challenge truth-claims (no matter what these are: they might be absolute truth or ridiculous nonsense; either way, some people will run with them while others won't, and both sides will have "reasons" that appear compelling from some perspective).  They can also accommodate some useful information (at least enough that people keep passing them on).

(3) I am not really comfortable living my life in accordance with ideas I have not examined and approved (however provisionally) for myself, for reasons that I find compelling.  I recognize that not all of my standards in choosing ideas (memes) and even ideologies (meme-complexes) are rationally defensible: making decisions with insufficient information is part and parcel of the human condition as I experience it.  That being said, there are one or two things I am pretty sure I know (at least empirically), and I cannot live seriously with ideas (memes) and ideologies (meme-complexes) that deny my knowledge (requiring me to have faith in something that I "know" to be untrue).  I have to own my own memes and use them in a way that appears ethical to me.  I cannot spend the rest of my life assuming that "one day" in the future everything will magically make sense and be perfect if I just keep doing what seems wrong to me in the here and now.

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