Memetics provides a new way of looking at the self. The self is a vast memeplex – perhaps the most insidious and pervasive memeplex of all. I shall call it the ‘selfplex’. The selfplex permeates all our experience and all our thinking so that we are unable to see it clearly for what it is – a bunch of memes. It comes about because our brains provide the ideal machinery on which to construct it, and our society provides the selective environment in which it thrives.
Memeplexes are groups of memes that come together for mutual advantage. The memes inside a memeplex survive better as part of the group than they would on their own. Once they have got together they form a self-organising, self-protecting structure that welcomes and protects other memes that are compatible with the group, and repels memes that are not.
Each of us is a massive memeplex running on the physical machinery of a human body and brain – a meme machine. Crick was wrong. We are not ‘nothing but a pack of neurons’; we are a pack of memes too. And without understanding the pack of memes we can never understand ourselves.
Where does this leave us with respect to Dawkins’s claim that ‘We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators’. Dawkins is not alone in taking the view that there is someone or something inside us who can step out of the evolutionary process and take it over.
Csikszentmihalyi (1993) explains how memes evolve independently of the people who nurture them; how the memes of weapons, alcohol and drugs are successful while doing us no good. He describes the artist not as originator but as the medium through which artworks evolve. Yet his final message is that we must take conscious control of our lives and begin directing evolution towards a more harmonious future. ‘If you achieve control over your mind, your desires, and your actions, you are likely to increase order around you. If you let them be controlled by genes and memes, you are missing the opportunity to be yourself’.
In his book Virus of the Mind, Brodie exhorts us to ‘consciously choose your own memetic programming to better serve whatever purpose you choose, upon reflection, to have for your life’ and says of the memes ‘you get to choose whether programming yourself with them aids or hinders your life purpose’.
But this is all a cop out. As Dennett says ‘The “independent” mind struggling to protect itself from alien and dangerous memes is a myth’. So we must ask who gets to choose? If we take memetics seriously then the ‘me’ that could do the choosing is itself a memetic construct: a fluid and ever-changing group of memes installed in a complicated meme machine. The choices made will all be a product of my genetic and memetic history in a given environment, not of some separate self that can ‘have’ a life purpose and overrule the memes that make it up.
This is the power and beauty of memetics: it allows us to see how human lives, language, and creativity all come about through the same kind of replicator power as did design in the biological world. The replicators are different, but the process is the same. We once thought that biological design needed a creator, but we now know that natural selection can do all the designing on its own. Similarly, we once thought that human design required a conscious designer inside us, but we now know that memetic selection can do it on its own. We once thought that design required foresight and a plan, but we now know that natural selection can build creatures that look as though they were built to plan when in fact there was none. If we take memetics seriously there is no room for anyone or anything to jump into the evolutionary process and stop it, direct it, or do anything to it. There is just the evolutionary process of genes and memes playing itself endlessly out – and no one watching.
What then am I to do? I feel as though I have to make a choice – to decide how to live my life in the light of my scientific understanding. But how do I do that if I am nothing but a temporary conglomeration of genes, phenotype, memes, and memeplexes. If there is no choice, how am I to choose? Some scientists prefer to keep their scientific ideas and their ordinary lives separate. Some can be biologists all week and go to church on Sunday, or be physicists all their life and believe they will go to heaven. But I cannot divorce my science from the way I live my life. If my understanding of human nature is that there is no conscious self inside then I must live that way – otherwise this is a vain and lifeless theory of human nature. But how can ‘I’ live as though I do not exist, and who would be choosing to do so?
One trick is to concentrate on the present moment – all the time – letting go of any thoughts that come up. This kind of ‘meme-weeding’ requires a great concentration but is most interesting in its effect. If you can concentrate for a few minutes at a time, you will begin to see that in any moment there is no observing self. Suppose you sit and look out of the window. Ideas will come up but these are all past- and future-oriented; so let them go, come back to the present. Just notice what is happening. The mind leaps to label objects with words, but these words take time and are not really in the present. So let them go too. With a lot of practice the world looks different; the idea of a series of events gives way to nothing but change, and the idea of a self who is viewing the scene seems to fall away.
Another way is to pay attention to everything equally. This is an odd practice because things begin to lose their ‘thingness’ and become just changes. Also, it throws up the question of who is paying attention. What becomes obvious, in doing this task, is that attention is always being manipulated by things outside yourself rather than controlled by you. The longer you can sit still and attend to everything, the more obvious it becomes that attention is dragged away by sounds, movements, and most of all thoughts that seem to come from nowhere. These are the memes fighting it out to grab the information-processing resources of the brain they might use for their propagation. Things that worry you, opinions that you hold, things you want to say to someone, or wish you hadn’t – these all come and grab the attention. The practice of paying equal attention to everything disarms them and makes it obvious that you never did control the attention; it controlled – and created – you.
These kinds of practices begin to wear away at the false self. In the present moment, attending equally to everything, there is no distinction between myself and the things happening. It is only when ‘I’ want something, respond to something, believe something, decide to do something, that ‘I’ suddenly appear. This can be seen directly through experience with enough practice at just being.
This insight is perfectly compatible with memetics. In most people the selfplex is constantly being reinforced. Everything that happens is referred to the self, sensations are referred to the observing self, shifts of attention are attributed to the self, decisions are described as being made by the self, and so on. All this reconciles and sustains the selfplex, and the result is a quality of consciousness dominated by the sense of ‘I’ in the middle – me in charge, me responsible, me suffering. The effect of one-pointed concentration is to stop the processes that feed the selfplex. Learning to pay attention to everything equally stops self-related memes from grabbing the attention; learning to be fully in the present moment stops speculation about the past and future of the mythical ‘I’. These are tricks that help a human person (body, brain and memes) to drop the false ideas of the selfplex. The quality of consciousness then changes to become open, and spacious, and free of self. The effect is like waking up from a state of confusion – or waking from the meme dream.
This kind of concentration is not easily learned. Some people are naturals and can do it relatively quickly, but for most people it takes many years of practice. One of the problems is motivation – it is hard to practise consistently just because someone else tells you this is a better way to live. This is where science can help. If our scientific understanding of human nature leads us to doubt the inner self, the soul, the divine creator, or life after death, that doubt can provide the motivation to look directly into experience; to try living without a false sense of self or false hope. Science and spirituality are often opposed but they should not be.
I have described these practices as being done for a few minutes while sitting quietly, but can all of life be lived that way? I think so, but the results are somewhat unnerving. If I genuinely believe that there is no ‘I’ inside, with free will and conscious deliberate choice, then how do I decide what to do? The answer is to have faith in the memetic viewer; to accept that the selection of genes and memes will determine the action and there is no need for an extra ‘me’ to get involved. To live honestly, I must just get out of the way and allow decisions to make themselves.
Desires and hopes and preferences are probably the most difficult to deal with – I hope he’ll get here in time, I must pass that exam, I hope I’ll live to a ripe old age and get rich and famous, I want the strawberry one. All these hopes and desires are based on the idea of an inner self who must be kept happy, and their occurrence feeds the selfplex. So one trick is just to meet them all with a refusal to get involved. If there is no self then there is no point hoping or wishing for things for the sake of someone who does not exist. All these things are in another moment, not now. They do not matter when there is no one for them to matter to. Life really is possible without hope.
The result of this way of living seems somewhat counter-intuitive; that people become more decisive rather than less. On a second look this is not so surprising after all. From the memetic point of view the selfplex is not there to make the decisions, or for the sake of your happiness, or to make your life easier; it is there for the propagation of the memes that make it up. Its demolition allows more spontaneous and appropriate action. Clever thinking brains, installed with plenty of memes, are quite capable of making sound decisions without a selfplex messing them up.
A terrifying thought now raises its head. If I live by this kind of truth – without a self that takes responsibility for its actions, then what of morality? Surely, some would say, this kind of living is a recipe for selfishness and wickedness, for immorality and disaster. Well is it? One of the effects of this way of living is that you stop inflicting your own desires on the world around you and on the people you meet. This alone can mean quite a transformation.
Claxton describes the effect of giving up the illusion of a self in control. ‘The thing that doesn’t happen, but of which people are quite reasonably scared, is that I get worse. A common elaboration of the belief that control is real . . . is that I can, and must control “myself”, and that unless I do, base urges will spill out and I will run amok.’ Luckily, he goes on, the premise is false. ‘So the dreaded mayhem does not happen. I do not take up wholesale rape and pillage and knocking down old ladies just for fun.’. Instead, guilt, shame, embarrassment, self-doubt, and fear of failure ebb away and I become, contrary to expectation, a better neighbour.
In fact, we could reasonably have had faith in this from our understanding of memetics and of meme-driven altruism. Also, if it is true that the inner self is a memeplex and its control is illusory, then surely living a lie cannot be morally superior to accepting the truth. But if the self is a memeplex and can be dismantled, then what is left when it is gone? There is a human being, body, brain and memes, that behaves according to the environment it finds itself in and the memes it comes across. We know that the genes are responsible for much moral behaviour – they brought about kin-selection and reciprocal altruism, love of one’s children, one’s partners, and one’s friends. And the memes are responsible for other kinds of sharing and caring. These behaviours will all still go on whether or not there is a selfplex cluttering the mind up as well.
Indeed, the selfplex can be blamed for much of the trouble. By its very nature the selfplex brings about self-recrimination, self-doubt, greed, anger, and all sorts of destructive emotions. When there is no selfplex, there is no concern about the future of my inner self – whether people like me or whether I did the ‘right’ thing or not – because there is no real ‘I’ to care about. This lack of selfconcern means that you (the physical person) are free to notice other people more. Compassion and empathy come naturally. It is easy to see what another person needed or how to act in a given situation, if there is no concern about a mythical self to get in the way. Perhaps the greater part of true morality is simply stopping all the harm that we normally do, rather than taking on any great and noble deeds; that is, the harm that comes from having a false sense of self.
Memetics thus brings us to a new vision of how we might live our lives. We can carry on our lives as most people do, under the illusion that there is a persistent conscious self inside who is in charge, who is responsible for my actions and who makes me me. Or we can live as human beings, body, brain, and memes, living out our lives as a complex interplay of replicators and environment, in the knowledge that that is all there is. Then we are no longer victims of the selfish selfplex. In this sense we can be truly free – not because we can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators but because we know that there is no one to rebel.
Susan Blackmore, The Meme Machine.