Sunday, December 13, 2020

The Selfish Meme

Surely the title of this post violates some kind of copyright somewhere. I don't mean to steal it, but it just came to me and I have no attribution for it. Well, the title of Dawkins' book called out the Selfish Gene, and in it he coined the term "meme" defined as the unit for cultural evolution by analogy to the gene, which he also defines in a rather fluid, functionalist manner; steering away from primitive physically defined taxonomy. As though physical boundaries would ever magically match the real ones.

A gene is a replicator unit that persists, regardless of how many ACGT pairings are involved. It's like a word that way, as I seem to remember Dawkins suggesting. Of variable length and complexity of phonemes; syllables; whatever.

I just reviewed (posted here) Dennett's summative work on consciousness, disparaging his all-too-ready acceptance of the computer as metaphor for his dogmatically materialist conception of mind. I think I'm probably as much of a materialist as he is, though I doubt our current meaning for that term can cover the cosmos. It certainly can't quite touch a definition for mind. 

I try not to be dogmatic, though I'm sure I mostly fail. My brand of dogma engages the fact of emotion at a cosmic, elemental level. The level of protons of photons of gluons and quarks. What do these words mean, and why do they take hold? 

Most often I lack the energy to read the hard stuff. There is always something sweeter, more digestible, ready to hand. I would love to make my writing that enticing. Most often I lack the energy. Dennett is easy enough to read, though.

Much of Dennett's summation dwells on words as memes. I think here again he makes an error; one that Dawkins did not make. Whatever a meme is, it might compose multiple words, and should likely be distinguished from anything totally language-dependent. Maybe something closer to "idea," well, except that the term idea is meaningless to me. It reifies thought, as though thought could be stored and catalogued. 

To be more accurate, I can use the term 'idea' as well as you can, but I may be more attuned to how folk usage of the term can lead to consequential misconceptions. For instance, it's common to think of an idea as being 'in the head,' which really means in the brain. It's also common to think that creativity starts there, in the head, and with an idea, which then might be expressed - squeezed out - in ways that others might catch and even understand.

Plato, silly man, used the term, or a similar term, to describe something - a structure? A design schematic? - eternal and even primordial, which can be discovered by deductive reasoning alone. Squares, circles and other such stuff, but also things relating to truth and beauty. These eternal 'ideas' relate to 'ideals' as in God's creation, or something like that. Creativity, thus, relates God to man. An originator.

Right there is my beef with Dennett. He seems, by my read, to reify ideas all over again in his definition for top-down intelligent design. And it's right there that Descartes and his mind/body duality sneaks right back in through the back door. That's despite how much time Dennett spends dubunking Descartes and his Cartesian theater, which is really Plato's cave and on and on. As though there were a real real beyond what we think we know as real. As though there could be a watcher apart from the screen.

A while ago, I spent some time on a realistic challenge to Google's search model. We were attempting to deploy something like Dawkins' usage for meme - without yet having that term ready to hand - to create an infinitely dimensional space where orthogonal intersections would allow the searcher to - independent of language and largely independent of words - find the locus within a few clicks where the search object either was or wasn't. (Null searches that are reliably null are just as useful, if not more so, than successful searches). Word-based searches can't come up with reliably empty locuses. Words from natural languages are just simply inherently ambiguous. Google now makes 'helpful' suggestions about how to get better results when a search comes up vacant. 'Try to use the exact words which might be in what you are looking for." Something like that. If that's not broken, I don't know what is.

Of course the project was impossibly naive. There can be no competition to Google in its ability to replicate the entire Internet, by virtue of near monopoly power, and in particular to replicate it as quickly as it does. Their keyterm auction algorithms are their golden goose, and so long as Google's search results are unapproachable in the overall satisfaction among users for their production, including especially the speed of their production, it remains a fools game to challenge them. The kids seem happy with Google. Or they recently did.

But Google search has been broken from the beginning. Just try getting beyond the popular words, to the expression you are looking for without knowing the exact phrasing of the answer that might be there. Google's game has long been to make money, though that might now have a hitch in it, since their own workers don't necessarily like the amoral money grubbing model any more.

If we were to have an actual government again, it would reasonably exercise eminent domain over search and social networking to bring ownership of ourselves back to the people. (Now I find out that Kim Stanley Robinson proposes this old notion of mine in his new "novel." Dang! I don't think he did the math right about how valuable our individual personal information is, though. He's looking at the wrong sort of theft.) The reason a good government would do that is because the danger of wildly replicating memes is far too great. Without any trueing, wildly replicating memes demonstrably destroy democracy, among other things like scientific understanding, trust in any authority, trust in your fellow man and so forth.

Anyhow, I'm hardly happy with my review of Dennett's book, and this morning I'm struck that we both missed the obvious. That the Internet is functioning as a great accelerator for certain kinds of meme shuffling. It remains to be seen if this will be destructive of consciousness as we mean that term. My prejudice is that it already has been. My goal is to go a little deeper than the click-bait theories about how the Internet ultimately gave us the travesty of Trumpism (or 'I want to find the hope in Trumpism,' which might be the same thing). 

I, on the other very arrogant hand, do have a better definition for mind than Dennett's, but let's defer that for a moment, shall we? I haven't been very successful communicating my own definition, so I'd like to come at it the long way 'round this time.

For now, as shorthand, I'll say that mind rides along on physical structures (I can't and won't isolate the brain, for reasons I hope you shall soon see) as that set of mechanisms which host some set of memes. To be strict with the analogy to genes, I would have to say that the memes, in fact, form mind. That would be a step closer to origination than to say that memes 'inform' mind, as though mind were separate from its forming.

As is the case with genes, these memes draw from and extend throughout all of cosmic history, in particular gathering strength once life takes hold in the cosmos. Of course I would make the claim that life had already taken hold at the instant of that Big Bang in whose thrall we all remain. But once again, I'm getting ahead of myself (I wonder if I shall ever catch up). 

To this point, I'm only quibbling with Daniel Dennett. He agrees that mind is built on memes. Dennett doesn't start with words as memes. In his usage, words are a type of meme. I would say that's wrong; that words only facilitate meme formation when a certain type of communication happens. Or in other words when something like what most people still mean by an "idea" forms in another mind in a way reliably identical to what was in the mind of the "originator" of the idea - more properly the originator of the communication. The sender. Of course, I don't much believe in original ideas - inventions - either, so I still have a lot of 'splainin to do.

Interestingly, when Dennett defines "information," he does so in a way that makes information far more similar to Dawkins' memes that his usage of words would be. He points out that the same information could be had by different parties without any direct communication or sharing. But information itself, like the gene, might be embodied in a variety of forms.

Information leads to sense. Words make sense. Ideas can be communicated. My premise is that what defines an idea is its emotional valence. The person on the other end has to care about it.Want it. Need it even. Memes ride on enthusiasms. Think money. Think sex. Think what it is we do when we "read" the texts swirling on the Internet. Social media. Tweets. News. Shock. Awe. 

Several people have noted that when boats arrived in the Americas, the indigenous peoples literally couldn't see them, because they were so far off from what was real to them. I'm truly sorry that I don't have an attribution for this, but I've come across it lots of times in lots of places. Google it! I think it's an observation often made these days about UFOs. That they're real, but that, by and large, we can't see them.

Some people see ghosts. Lots and lots of people. Some people see Trump as a great leader. Some people think that it would be a kind of ultimate evil were the government to mandate vaccines on the basis of legal sanctions. Perhaps they imagine end-of-the-world scenarios, where sterilization is an as-yet-undiscovered side effect. Children of Men. Perhaps they're blind to the wanton destruction already happening by loss of trust.

I did recently find a solid definition for "idea." Simply put, it's the protected part of "intellectual property" in a capitalist "knowledge economy." This might be similar to an attribution Dennett makes to someone named McKay, that "information in general is that which justifies representational activity." That, in turn relates to a different attribution to someone called Luciano Floridi that "economic information is whatever is worth some work", which reminds me of Unger's definition. Dennett then proposes his own working definition for what he calls 'semantic information' as "design worth getting." Not bad. Now embedded in that sentence right there are a lot of problematical assumptions, which I may be too lazy to upack just now. But at least we are moving toward a workable definition for what an idea might be.

Internet search is all about money. Things (words, pictures, objects, concepts, even 'ideas') have become memes, and these memes have proper names that are trademarked and copyrighted and which might refer to actual things which are patented. That's why people like me might be so frustrated by Google. What I'm looking for is almost always buried beneath what everyone else is looking for, which generally has something to do with money, honey. On one side or the other of the search algorithm. 

Now I'm not saying that Google is not an honest broker. They know better than to allow search results to be paid for directly. Well, of course they're paid for, by way of auction, but they know that user confidence would plummet if they were to cook the search so that the highest bidder always came out on top. The bidders are making bets on what searchers are looking for when they search on certain words, or combinations of words. They're betting its worth paying for their ads to come out on top. Google is not as stupid as VW with their finger on the pollution readings. Sort of. I like VW cars, so there you go. It makes me sad that I'm stuck with Subaru. "Love" more cynical even that Google's old motto.

Even before Google got in the game, people were talking about an information explosion, and even a knowledge explosion. I thought those were perfectly ridiculous notions, but now I'm not so sure. Dennett makes a useful distinction between top-down design of the sort that human engineers might do, say, and bottom-up of the sort that happens by way of natural evolution.

My burden is to highlight what knowledge is on a deeper and to me more satisfying level than the glib term "knowledge explosion" can mean. I guess I have typically supposed that the information content of the world has always been rather constant. That may not be true if the evolution of life can be construed as an increase in information "content." But it still seems to me that information is all about what binds us and therefore less something that grows apart from us. Or in other words, it's less of an explosion than it is a consolidation of many minds to create a rather more collective design function, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and well beyond what any individual could accomplish. I quibble with knowledge as an individual possession, preferring that it always be called out in the collective.

So knowledge - individual knowledge - is a partaking in a more collective knowledge which must be, in the end, trued against something worthy to be called reality. Truing means it has to work, I guess. What a carpenter does with a straightedge ruler.

So we live in an age of consummate irony. Virtually everyone is obsessed with the selfie self, and fear of death is really fear of disappearance of something like personality. We transpose our animal fear of death into a fear of losing our Narcissus image of our self. This is the illusion that Dennett should be calling out - not consciousness, which is a very real quality shared by all the animals.

Richard Rorty's ironism comes closer to how knowledge is formed than could anything relating to artificial intelligence, computing and what-you-will. The irony is that as we become more individualistic, we do that in direct response (reaction) to the fact of a more hive-like mind in which we participate. We seek "authenticity" to the point of mutilating our bodies if we weren't born with the right one - the one that is the essential me - as though we could invent our very selves. Can you tell that I despise and eschew the term 'authenticity' even more than I do "idea?" Well, they're certainly related, those two terms are.

(Don't get me wrong, I celebrate transgendered people. It's just that I focus on the fiction of any gender binary more than I do on idealization of the body. Beauty, in the end, is a most powerful cliche. But still cliche for its power. And as though there could be anything interesting about the naked body. We're all the same without clothes on, more or less.)

Memes would enable bottom-up development of mind, I suppose, which isn't quite the same as evolution. Or maybe it could be if one understands these matters in relation to entropy, the way that information theory goes, or as life goes against the normal grain. Just as we think we're taking control, we're losing it. All of our fixes represent the triumph of Moloch. Nobodaddy. Consciousness economicus.

Now those of us who read lots of books, and who even enjoy the arduous business of thinking tend to the left of Trumpsters, I should think. We would tend to rationalize God away, say, although not always. We might even suppose that only the great unwashed masses of people who voted for Trump allow their minds to be taken in by memes, while we actually know things.

There may be some truth to that, but I rather suspect that our minds are as fully in thrall to memes as anyone's. We can be perfectly dogmatic about what we know, and damn the evidence. Academic polemical argumentation can be just as lively as a monster truck rally. 

It used to be patently obvious to me that there is no more information in the cosmos than there ever was. But that would be true only if humans (and any other critters in the cosmos with rational agency connected to their consciousness) are really not adding anything cosmically with our top-down design thinking. I still think we're probably not.

But at least I have a definition for mind. It's a social construct that can't be had by oneself alone. In essence, that's why you'll never be able to upload your mind and experience yourself virtually. Mind is not only in-formed by perception, mind is inseparable from perception. Perception relates to what Dennett calls the affordances of manifest ontology. Manifest ontology is not the same as the scientific image, which can apparently exist in mind alone in conjunction with theories and instrumentation.

What makes the scientific image more real is that it enables ever more powerful top-down design. Which really only means that the scientific image is ever more culture and language independent. Ever more universal. It has to be trueable everywhere in the cosmos.

Just now, I declare, the mind is being hijacked by the viruses of money. Apart from nature, we mostly thrive on the basis of money. It defines and guides our enthusiasms, and these, in turn, determine which replicators - memes - persist. Once money is separable from value, which it is as soon as money is separable from labor and material, it takes on a life of is own, apparently. It becomes, in essence, a deadly virus, turning all memes against us for its own spread.

How can money be separable from "value?" Money *is* value. So here again we have to make a distinction between the real and the artificial. The "real" value of anything on the market is nearly impossible to know now, no matter how much Bill Gates might not think so.

Mind is composed of and by conception, which is the holding of ideas in relation to one another. Ideas aren't acted on by forces and so can't be directly perceived. But they are formed, ideas are, by perception, and especially by the sorts of perception which enable us to read and write. Conceptions inform what we commonly think of as our will, which in turn defines agency.

I maintain that concepts are as real as percepts and that emotion exists in the place of the forces of physical reality as that which defines the relative movement of concepts. The accident of some replicator's persistence is as much emotional reality as it is the physical survival of the gene. 

So I do believe that we still require a way to distinguish the living from the deadly. I myself would make the dividing line that between digital and living models. That's because digital is divided from real in the sense that genetically derived organisms are not. While the signal to noise ratio can be improved to the point of zero noise with digital, fidelity to actual reality will always involve an absolute break. I am connected to you in ways that cannot be digitally replicated. It's an emotive and lived and living connection.

I am tired. I will have to return to this. Making sense of and with words is hard hard work. But I can tell you this much now, having nearly forgotten my promise at the beginning to come back around to mind. Mind is mostly composed on emotion, much as all survival is. There has to be an emotional valence to "ideas." Otherwise, no matter how much sense they make, they just fall dead. In the long run.

God, indeed, is love. It's what makes meaning. 

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