Consciousness in memo machines

Anonymous Guest's picture
Submitted by Anonymous Guest on Wed, 2009-10-28 17:59

I post excerpts from the paper "Consciousness in meme machines" by Dr Susan Blackmore. This paper has been published in very respectful Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10, 4-5, 19-30, 2003

I urge all Soloists to read and re-read it so they can have direct look on unashamed, undisguised, pure evil.
Especially, I suggest to pay attention to Kantian approach in regard to consciousness-consciousness as it appears, that is-an illusion, and real consciousness, consciousness in itself which is uknown and could be experienced only during mystical event of meditation in which mental activities are switched off. Other points-substitution of mind by imitation and denial of self. If one asks: what is the source of our current political, economical, ethical problems-this paper provides the ample answer-contemporary philosophy.
I don't post the part of the paper which is dealing with artificial intelligence. Whoever is interested, may read full paper-see link.


"Consciousness is an illusion.
There are several ways of thinking about consciousness as an illusion. Most important is to distinguish them from the view that consciousness does not exist. To say that consciousness is an illusion is to say that it is not what it appears to be. This follows from the ordinary dictionary definitions of “illusion”, for example “Something that deceives or misleads intellectually” (Penguin); “Perception of something objectively existing in such a way as to cause misinterpretation of its actual nature.” (Webster). This point is frequently misunderstood. For example Velmans (2000) wrongly categorises Dennett’s position as eliminativist when it is better described as the view that consciousness is an illusion. I shall explore a version of this position here.

On this view human-like consciousness means having a particular kind of illusion. If machines are to have human-like consciousness then they must be subject to this same kind of illusion. I shall therefore explore one theory of how this illusion comes about in humans and how it might be created in machines; the theory of memetics.

Human beings as meme machines
Memes are ideas, habits, skills, stories, or any kind of behaviour or information that is copied from person to person by imitation (Dawkins 1976). They range from single words and simple actions to the vast memeplexes (co-adapted meme complexes) of science, art, religion, politics and finance. There are interesting difficulties concerning definitions (Aunger 2000, Blackmore 1998), and whether memes can be said to be replicated by means other than imitation, but the essential point is this. When people copy actions or words, those actions or words are copied with variation and then selectively retained and copied again. In other words the actions and words (the memes) fulfil the conditions for being a replicator in a Darwinian evolutionary process (Dawkins 1976, Dennett 1995).

This new evolutionary process can only run if the replication process is good enough (has high enough fidelity). Some species of birds, and some cetaceans, can copy sounds with high fidelity, and their songs are therefore memes. But very few other species can imitate at all. Even chimpanzees and orangutans are, at best, poor imitators and there is much debate over the extent to which they are really able to copy observed behaviours (Dautenhahn and Nehaniv 2002). Humans appear to be the only species that readily and easily imitates a wide variety of sounds and actions. This suggests that we alone are supporting this second evolutionary process; cultural or memetic evolution. If this is so human evolution must have taken a very different course from that of other species once we became capable of imitation. I have suggested that human brains and minds were designed by the replicator power of this new process and that this explains why humans are so different from other species (Blackmore 1999).

There are two aspects of this that are relevant to machine consciousness. First there is how we living humans got to have such large and peculiarly capable brains (the co-evolutionary story). Second is how our individual minds and our sense of self and consciousness are designed by memetic pressures (the developmental story). Both are relevant to the possibility of machine consciousness.

Meme-Gene Co-evolution
The human brain is excessively large by ape standards, and has been extensively redesigned for language (Deacon 1997). There is no generally accepted theory to explain this but all existing theories have in common the assumption that the ultimate beneficiary is the genes, and that the large brain and capacity for language must have been adaptive from the genes point of view (Deacon 1997, Donald 1991, Dunbar 1996, Wills 1993). I have argued, instead, that both were designed by and for the memes in a process called memetic drive.

Once imitation of sufficiently high fidelity occurs, memetic drive works as follows. In a given population of people, memes compete to be copied. People who are especially good at imitation gain a survival advantage by being able to copy the currently most useful memes. Assuming that imitation is a difficult skill requiring extra brain power, this gives an advantage to genes for bigger brains and better imitation. Increasing imitation then provides scope for more competing memes to appear (both useful and harmful ones), and hence there is pressure to be a selective imitator. One effective strategy might be to copy the ‘meme founts’ - those skilful imitators who pick up currently popular memes and create new ones from the old. Meme founts acquire both status and better opportunities for mating. They pass on the genes that made them good at propagating those particular memes. Memetic drive creates not only bigger brains but brains that are better adapted to copying the memes that were successful during the previous memetic competition - whether or not those memes were directly beneficial to people or their genes.

Music and religion are examples. Once people can copy simple sounds, such as humming or drumming, the sounds themselves compete to be copied. People who are best at copying the winning sounds acquire status and a mating advantage. In this way the successful sounds give an advantage to genes for the ability to copy those particular sounds. Similarly with religious behaviours such as rituals and devotions, the winning memes drive brains to become better at imitating those particular behaviours. The result is brains that are musical and inclined to religious behaviour.

I have argued that this same process can explain the evolution of language. In general, successful replicators are those with high fidelity, longevity and fecundity. Digitisation of sounds into words may increase fidelity, combining words into novel combinations may improve fecundity, and every improvement leads to increased memetic competition. The people who can best copy the winning sounds have an advantage and pass on the genes that gave them that ability. Gradually human brains would be driven by the emerging language itself. In most theories of language evolution, the ultimate function of language is to benefit genes. On this theory it is to benefit memes.

Underlying these examples is the general principle that replicators co-evolve with their replication machinery, just as genes must once have co-evolved with their cellular copying machinery. In the case of human evolution, memetic evolution drove the genes to construct better meme-spreading brains. More recent examples include the invention of ever better meme spreading devices from roads and railways to the telegraph, telephone and email. In each case the products copied helped spread the copying machinery which in turn made more products possible and so on. From the memes’ point of view the internet is an obvious step in improving meme-copying facilities. As Ridley points out “memes need a medium to replicate in. Human society works quite well; the Internet works even better” (Ridley 2003 p 222). It is in this context that I want to look at the possible development of conscious machines.

Mind design by memes
The second relevant issue is how memes design individual minds; that is, how the design process of evolution unfolds in the case of individual people infected with a lifetime of competing memes.

We spend our lives bombarded by written, spoken, and other memes. Most of these are ignored. Some are remembered but not passed on. Others are both remembered and passed on. Some are recombined in novel ways with others to produce new memes. Note that there is much dispute about whether we should use the word ‘meme’ to apply only to the behaviours themselves, only to the patterns of neural representation (or whatever underlies their storage inside brains), or to both (Aunger 2000). I shall stick to Dawkins’s original definition here, treating memes as “that which is imitated”, or “that which is copied”. So I shall not distinguish between memes instantiated in books, computers, ephemeral behaviours or human brains, since all can potentially be replicated.

On the memetic hypothesis, human development is a process of being loaded with, or infected by, large numbers of memes. As Dennett (1995) puts it “Thousands of memes, mostly borne by language, but also by wordless ‘images’ and other data structures, take up residence in an individual brain, shaping its tendencies and thereby turning it into a mind.” (Dennett 1991 p 254). Language is the mainstay of this process. We have brains specially designed to absorb the language we hear (see above), to deal with grammar, and to imitate the particular sounds of the language(Drunk we grew up with. By the age of about three years the word “I” is used frequently and with increasing sophistication. The word “I” is initially essential to distinguish one physical person from another, but very rapidly becomes used to say things like “I think”, “I like”, “I want”, “I believe” “That’s mine” and so forth, as though there were a central self who has opinions, desires and posessions. In this way, I suggest, a false notion of self is constructed.

There have been very many theories of the formation of this illusory self (Gallagher & Shear 1999). The difference between other theories and the memetic theory proposed here lies in the question “Who benefits?”. Previous theories suggest that either the individual person or their genes are the primary beneficiaries; memetic theory suggests that the memes are (Dennett 1995). I have argued as follows (Blackmore 1999); once a child is able to talk about his or her self then many other memes can obtain a replication advantage by tagging onto this growing memeplex. For example, saying a sentence such as “I believe x” is more likely to get ‘x’ replicated than simply saying ‘x’. Memes that can become my desires, my beliefs, my preferences, my ideas and so on, are more likely to be talked about by this physical body, and therefore stand a better chance of replication. The result is the construction of an increasingly elaborate memetic self. In other words, the self is a vast memeplex; the selfplex (Blackmore 1999).

The selfplex and the illusion of consciousness
The result of the memetic process described above is that physical, speaking, human bodies use the word ‘I’ to stand for many different things; a particular physical body; something inhabiting, controlling and owning this body; something that has beliefs, opinions, and desires; something that makes decisions; and a subject of experience. This is, I suggest, a whole concatenation of mistakes resulting in the false idea of a persisting conscious self.

The view proposed here has much in common with James’s (1890) idea of the appropriating self, and with Dennett’s (1991) “centre of narrative gravity”. There are two main differences from Dennett. First, Dennett refers to the self as a “benign user illusion”, whereas I have argued that it is malign; being the cause of much greed, fear, disappointment, and other forms of human suffering (Blackmore 2000). Second (and more relevant here) Dennett says “Human consciousness is itself a huge complex of memes....” (Dennett 1991 p 210).

There is reason to question this. Dennett’s statement implies that if a person were without memes they would not be conscious. We cannot, of course, strip someone of all their memes without destroying their personhood, but we can temporarily quieten the memes’ effects. Meditation and mindfulness can be thought of as meme-weeding techniques, designed to let go of words, logical thoughts, and other memetic constructs and leave only immediate sensory experience. The nature of this experience changes dramatically with practice, and it is common for the sense of a self who is having the experiences to disappear. This same selflessness, or union of self and world, is frequently reported in mystical experiences. But far from consciousness ceasing, it is usually described as enhanced or deepened, and with a loss of duality. If this experience can justifiably be thought of as consciousness without memes, then there is something left when the memes are gone and Dennett is wrong that consciousness is the memes. It might then be better to say that the ordinary human illusion of consciousness is a “complex of memes” but that there are other kinds of consciousness.

This is, however, a big ‘if’, and raises all the problems associated with first-person exploration of consciousness (see Pickering 1997, Varela & Shear 1999). At present we should not think of this so much as evidence against Dennett’s view as a motivation for further research and self-exploration. It might turn out that if meditation is even more deeply pursued and the selfplex is completely dismantled, then all consciousness does cease and Dennett is correct.

The alternative I want to defend here is that memes distort consciousness into an illusion rather than constitute it. On this view the underlying consciousness itself remains unexplained but we can understand the particular nature of ordinary human consciousness in terms of the selfplex. By creating the illusion of self for their own survival and replication, memes are responsible for our false sense that there is always an ‘I’ having experiences, and for the inherent dualism that bedevils all our attempts to understand consciousness.

On this view many kinds of machine might be conscious, but only a particular kind of machine could be conscious in a human-like, illusory way. It would have to be capable of imitation (otherwise it could not replicate memes) and live in a community of similar meme-sharing machines (otherwise there would be no pressure for memeplexes to form). Such a machine would, if this theory is correct, be a victim of the same illusions of consciousness as we humans are. That is, it would think it had an inner self who was conscious. Ultimately it would start wondering what consciousness was and trying to solve the hard problem."

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The problem...

Ross Elliot's picture

...with Dawkins and Hitchens, is that they have no moral compass.

It's a lot of fun--and important fun--but devoid of an endgame. Something like having a big cock without anywhere to put it.

Thanks for comments

Leonid's picture

Thanks for your comments. I'd like to add that memetic theory as it presented not only repulsive but also contradictory since it leads to infinite regress. It is also self-refuting. The competition between memes presupposes existence of mind which accepts some of them and rejects others. But mind doesn't exist, it's just an illusion. Mind is only able to imitate, not to create. Self is illusion as well. Yet the learned doctor tells us that "More recent examples include the invention of ever better meme spreading devices from roads and railways to the telegraph, telephone and email." The obvious question is who invented all these products if there is no mind or self. Imitation is the opposite of creation. And finally comes great "revelation:-"This same selflessness, or union of self and world, is frequently reported in mystical experiences." What a beautiful illustration of Rand's mystic-altruist axis of evil.

Funny part is ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

Dawkins concludes The God Delusion with a rousing peroration to the effect that atheists are much better placed to find meaning in life than religionists—as though it were a volitional quest.

He and that Dennett are the fashionable pin-ups of the ghastly ARCHN tribe. 'Nuff said.

10 Years Gone

Jmaurone's picture

"We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism -- something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our own creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators."

It's been over 10 years since I read The Selfish Gene,, and while I forget most of the arguments, I remember the above quote vividly. It was clear where Dawkins stood, which is why I never bothered with his GOD DELUSION.

Dawkins kicks off the meme meme

William Scott Scherk's picture

The chapter of The Selfish Gene that Alex refers to is available online: Memes: the new replicators

I'm not sure Alex believes Dawkins denies free will . . . the meme chapter concludes with this paragraph:

We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism -- something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our own creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

"We have the power to turn against our own creators." If we think Dawkins is a strict determinist, agreeing that our genes and our cultural legacies control us, then how would we square that thought with his declaiming our ability to defy both gene and meme?

The idea of memes is an incoherent theory, and its adoption by writers such as Dennett and Dawkins demonstrates their desperation to avoid ascribing causal efficacy to the mind. Faced with the fact that in reality ideas clearly do have consequences, they are then led to adopt a version of Hegelian idealism, granting causal efficacy and purposefulness, not to human beings and their thinking, but to disembodied ideas.

-- the paragraph above is from an essay by Eyal Mozes, "The Dogmatic Determinism of Daniel Dennett." The first sentence/meme from Mozes' paragraph seems to have replicated itself without quotation marks into Alex's post. Somehow, Alex freely chose to copy the sentence. Alternatively, the power in Mozes' idea was strong enough to make it leap unaided from the TAS site to SOLO.

A Prossian moment.


Thanks, Alex

Ted Keer's picture

It's nice to hear a flat out rejection of this absurd idea of Dawkins'.

The first thing that should be said is that the word is unnecessary. English has gotten along with the idea of idea for a long time. Meme is just a self-serving rebranding of that perfectly serviceable notion.

The idea of the meme is a paradoxically Platonic yet materialistic notion. It is Platonic since it wants to reify ideas as something existing outside the individual mind. Yet it is materialistic, or perhaps impersonal, since while it reifies ideas it denies that there is some other realm or higher mind that is the holder of those ideas.

The reification is invalid. My specific idea of, say, Halloween is simply not identical with your specific idea of Halloween. (They may possibly coincide in essence, but never in fully expanded personal connotation. I doubt Dawkins wants to treat essences alone as memes.) And the idea is never communicated directly, nor does it have any independent existence. Although you may prompt me, all the ideas I have are always either directly perceived or I must induce them from reality. My induction of an abstract idea is always a product of my mental processes. It is not something external that infects me as if it were a dynamic agent.

To treat the mind as if it were an illusion while ideas are prior realities is to steal the concept, and to beg the question of where new "memes" come from. They are, of course, produced by minds, which in this context are prior existents.

Knowing that Dawkins wrote the introduction for Blackmore's book relieves me of all respect for him.


Alex Garrett's picture

Memes are the creation of Richard Dawkins. The term was coined by Dawkins in chapter 11 of his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. Dawkins is a materialist and he came up with the meme concept precisely to remove intentionality and rational thought even from our thoughts themselves. Memes (phrases, ideas, mental constructs) are supposedly parasites that treat the mind of their host as their vehicle to carry them forward and all that really is operative in what we call our mental life is the unconscious, purposeless meme, which by surviving and spreading seems to have a purpose. What we think of as our minds are just the passive host of the purposeless meme. Its not surprising that Dawkins and his "new atheist" colleague Daniel Dennett are determinists who adamantly deny free will. The idea of memes is an incoherent theory and its adoption by writers such as Dennett and Dawkins demonstrates their desperation to avoid ascribing causal efficacy to the mind.

But this raises a question about Dawkins himself. Given his view of human beings as creatures whose mental life is determined by memes, where do his own values and choices dome from, say for example his love of science? Has he chosen his values and views because he thinks they're true, good, beautiful, or pleasing, or have they been implanted in him by earlier memes that operate on his thoughts and behavior the way a bacillus operates on an infected organism? By Dawkins's own theory, the answer can only be the latter. Therefore he has no right to the opinions he has. He has them, not because he thinks they're true, but because his memes determine him to have them. What gives a memetic robot the authority to speak of truth? And if Dawkins protests that he is not a robot, then his theories are false. Either way, I believe his meme theory is discredited.

I hope this discussion of memes advances because I have recently read some books on evolutionary psychology and it seems like total genetic determinism to me and memes are everywhere in that field. I thank Leonid for posting this anti-mind piece and I especially appreciate his tying it to Kant's attack on human consciousness. I think under the influence of post-Kantian philosophy (contemporary philosophy as Leonid calls it) evolutionary science is being hijacked by materialists and reductionists. Dawkins creation of "memes" is a good illustration of that.


Duncan Bayne's picture

For an intellectual antidote to this, try reading Goedel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. Weird, difficult to follow in places but definitely not crap.

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