I recently finished my first reading of Daniel C. Dennett's Freedom Evolves, so a few of my posts will deal with some of the topics he addresses.
One of the theories he discusses is the idea of memetics: the idea that ideas or information (memes) evolve along the same lines as biological evolution: the fittest memes are replicated and survive. It's an intriguing area that I've heard mention of before, but don't know a lot about. But it seems to introduce some interesting things. It almost feels like a new kind of dualism: material biology and immaterial memes. But I think this dualism cannot posit the independent existence of memes, because they always require a material substrate for their existence.
Dennett's book talks about memes as something separate from “us” -- as a symbiotic element that requires our bodies to survive and that enhances our existence. But I wonder: what if the “me” of me (my spirit?) is a meme? What if the notion of identity itself is a meme, and the preservation of that meme is my existence (self-awareness). Dennett uses a model early in the book, in discussing computer models of evolution (the Game of Life), in which “preservation of identity” constitutes survival. In terms of the computer model, any shape unit that can maintain (or regain) and preserve its shape is a survivor.
As soon as I read that, I was reminded of Brigham Young's interesting statements about eternal life. For example:
The intelligence that is in me to cease to exist is a horrid thought; it is past enduring. This intelligence must exist; it must dwell somewhere. If I take the right course and preserve it in its organization, I will preserve to myself eternal life. This is the greatest gift that ever was bestowed on mankind, to know how to preserve their identity... The principles of life and salvation are the only principles of freedom; for every principle that is opposed to God—that is opposed to the principles of eternal life, whether it is in heaven, on the earth, or in hell, the time will be when it will cease to exist, cease to preserve, manifest, and exhibit its identity; for it will be returned to its native element. (JD 5:54)
It has also been decreed by the Almighty that spirits, upon taking bodies, shall forget all they had known previously, or they could not have a day of trial—could not have an opportunity for proving themselves in darkness and temptation, in unbelief and wickedness, to prove themselves worthy of eternal existence. The greatest gift that God can bestow upon the children of men is the gift of eternal life; that is, to give mankind power to preserve their identity—to preserve themselves before the Lord... Cleave to light and intelligence with all your hearts, my brethren, that you may be prepared to preserve your identity, which is the greatest gift of God. (JD 6:333)
[The sons of perdition] will be decomposed, both soul and body, and return to their native element. I do not say that they will be annihilated; but they will be disorganized, and will be as though they never had been, while we will live and retain our identity, and contend against those principles which tend to death or dissolution. I am after life; I want to preserve my identity, so that you can see Brigham in the eternal worlds just as you see him now. I want to see that eternal principle of life dwelling within us which will exalt us eternally in the presence of our Father and God. If you wish to retain your present identity in the morn of the resurrection, you must so live that the principle of life will be within you as a well of water springing up unto eternal life. (JD 7:57-58)
There are many more, but these illustrate the principle he was expressing. Now, if I may speculate (and I may, since this is my blog), it seems to me that memes can persist (with various characteristics) in a number of substrates. They can be represented in print on paper, in the vibrations of air, on a computer screen or in ones and zeroes, in mental representations, and so forth. If my identity is a meme, it may be possible that it can persist in a number of substrates, my physical body being one of those substrates. Granted, each variety of representation modifies the meme to some extent, but in a very real sense, representations of a meme can be considered identical, whether written or spoken, for example.
There seem to be some interesting aspects of this relevant to Mormonism. If I am a meme, then it's very feasible that I existed in a different substrate (and with more limited capabilities) prior to “inhabiting” my physical body, and it's possible that I may persist when this substrate no longer does. Because the substrate alters the meme to varying degrees, a physical body can provide power and persistence that are superior to other substrates; hence, the advantage of physical embodiment. It may provide a way to think of “spirit” as requiring some sort of substrate, but not necessarily a gross physical one.
And if people are memes, then a meme that can persuade others to mimic and transform themselves into a replica of itself can be especially successful. Thus the devil seeks to make us devils, while God and Christ seek to make us Gods and Christs. Eternal progression could be understood quite differently...