Monday, June 07, 2004

Am I a meme?

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...


  1. Sounds a lot like an explanation of "pragmatism" that I read recently in THE METAPHYSICAL CLUB, by Louis Menand. It is difficult to explain well and succinctly, but it is basically the notion that ideas persist according to their viability, and that the best ideas are the ones that best adapt to the state of the universe. In addition to this, it also encompasses the notion that the very state of the universe was the result of the application of different ideas in it. In other words, ideas are not separate from the universe; rather, they are always employed by free agents in the universe (you and me) who use them to attempt both to live in the universe and to make it more amenable to the way we think things ought to be. Thus, according to this view, we have an active "vote" in the way the universe turns out. Truly a mind-boggling and eye-opening read that I would highly recommend as a good springboard for reflection.

    Carl Youngblood

  2. Funny you should recommend that; I just picked it up at the library a few days ago and am a few pages in. From your description, though, it sounds like my speculation above is a step further: not only are ideas part and parcel of the universe, but perhaps we are embodied ideas.

  3. While I find the concept of "memes" somewhat problematic, I think you'll find that this is what Peirce believed. He's famous for saying that man is a sign. I've touched on this a few times on my blog. The Metaphysical Club is good for mentioning him, but his actual writings are well worth reading. The Essential Peirce is the best source. However short of that go to my blog and I have numerous links on my sidebar.

  4. Semiotician, I have a slight familiarity with Peirce (having been introduced to him by John Robertson and Alan Manning in the linguistics program at BYU), but hadn't made the connection between his "man is a sign" and this thought. I definitely need to read more Peirce. Are there specific posts from your blog that I should see, or just go through all the archives? ;-)

  5. While I find the concept of "memes" somewhat problematic, I think you'll find that this is what Peirce believed. He's famous for saying that man is a sign. I've touched on this a few times on my blog. The Metaphysical Club is good for mentioning him, but his actual writings are well worth reading. The Essential Peirce is the best source. However short of that go to my blog and I have numerous links on my sidebar.

  6. The following is probably the best place to start. It's one of Peirce's main essays and is quite readable.

  7. An other good resource is the following introduction to semiotics.

    I also had a discussion on this topic in an intentionally dense and impenetrable fashion over at the Metaphysics Elders. Why I made things more complicated than they needed to be I'm still trying to figure out.

  8. I haven't read Dennet's book but I understood 'memes' to apply to cultural and social ideas. That excludes one's personal identity from the meme classification since our identites cannot be shared by a group. Don't memes live by travelling from person to person or group to group? I know I am oversimplifying and I know Dennett has much more complicated ideas on the matter (since he always does).
    You make a very interesting analogy, applying the meme idea to immaterial dualism. I have often thought about our spiritual dependence on our physical bodies as substratum. It seems that we do need them to amplify ourselves, in order to learn and probably to form a more cohesive identity that we would care enough about to want to preserve. And I found those quotes from Young very interesting.

  9. sounds like a good theory. personally, i almost feel like a life dies each time that i can't turn an idea/meme into a physical reality. almost like they want to be 'clothed' in more concrete matter! (i.e. it doesn't have to be dualistic thanks to JS definition of 'spirit' as more refined matter.) Remember, God created the world 'spiritually' first; why wouldn't it follow that we do the same thing?

    -lyle the meme

  10. Thanks for the links, Semiotician.

    JL, I'm definitely going beyond Dennett (at least what I've read of him) in suggesting that my identity may be a meme. But it seems wrong to say that my identity cannot be shared by a group. To some extent, it must be, because the group recognizes me as me. Their representation of the meme is certainly different from my representation of it, but, as above, I think there is a very real sense in which it is the same meme (just as the same meme can be represented in writing or in speech).

  11. Lyle,

    Thanks for making the explicit connection between our concept of spiritual creation and my thoughts above. I think this is another fascinating connection to Mormonism, and may help to bridge the apparent gap between "planning as spiritual creation" and "all spirit is matter" (or at least represented in some kind of material substrate?).

    This would suggest that we are more involved in the ongoing spiritual creation of the world than we typically think. Indeed, to a degree, we participate with God in the spiritual creation of our children.

  12. Grasshopper,

    Would you be dismayed if you were to learn that you are a meme, but that you are not unique, i.e., that your meme pattern is replicated elsewhere?

    Would you consider meme pattern A that appears to an objective observer to be identical to meme pattern B is, in fact the same pattern? Does the subjective perceptions of the "pattern" count for anything in this construct?

  13. Grasshopper:

    rather than "indistinguishable" bothering us...why shouldn't it comfort us? We are all the Children of God. Shouldn't we be fairly, almost indistinguishably, similar in appearance/composition? like brothers & sisters? also, they may only be indistinguishable 'currently' given our level of tech (assuming meme's are literal) :)

  14. I understand very little of memitics, so perhaps this is irrelevent. In my basic understanding, memes are analogous to genes (with comparisons about survival of the fittest and so on), and successful memes replicate themselves. Therein lies the problem for me in trying to conceive of identity as a meme. Identity can't, as far as I can tell, be replicated. My tentative understanding of metaphysics (viewed through an LDS lens) is that not only are we all unique individuals, but that uniqueness is fundamentally unalterable. God literally could not create someone exactly like me.

    I think I would be more comfortable thinking of identity as a collection of memes. Given that my identity is constantly in flux anyway, it makes more sense to me. In that model, one could think of God trying to get us to collect the good memes and drive out the bad. An interesting application of the model would be that our missionary efforts should include trying to get others to adopt all of the 'good' memes that they are prepared to accept.

  15. It amazes me how long you've been participating in the blogosphere/mormon blogosphere. I feel like you're years ahead on the learning/thinking curve. Great post.