Culture is not “more than causal.”


Above: Culture.

The free will perspective is ingrained in our beliefs about human beings, society, and in our language itself. So it’s no surprise that you can find its fallacies everywhere, even in the reasoning of otherwise rational people (I do not count myself as an exception here).

I happened to be reading radgeek’s refutation of memetics when I realized that his argument provides a good example of that. Here is the crux of his argument:

The whole point of memetics, as a science of culture, is supposed to be that it can give us accurate and interesting explanations of cultural phenomena from the standpoint of selection of the “fittest”. But there’s an important disanalogy here between evolutionary biology and the study of culture: organisms can, and the astronomically large majority of organisms do, replicate their genes blindly… There is usually a causal link between an organism’s interests or desires or choices and the replication of the genes that may determine or influence them, but there’s no conceptual link; you can spell out what makes for the “replication” of a gene, and what makes a gene “fit”, without any essential reference to the interests or desires or choices of its “vehicle”. Not so for “memes”; the link between the “fitness” of a idea, belief, device, game, etc. and the reasons a person does or doesn’t have for passing it on or taking it up is not just causal, but logical.
(bold mine)

Radgeek here is wedging in a difference between evolution and memetics that revolves around the notion of “choice,” of reasons that are “not just causal.” So what are those “reasons”?

Those reasons may be very simple: you hum a song you heard on the radio because the melody is nice; you tell your child not to bite you because it hurts. Or they may be very complex: scientists begin to adopt the Alvarez theory of the K-T extinction because several complex geological findings tend to support it over other plausible candidates; Dada Anti-Art flourishes in the world of visual art and art criticism because of an intricate knot of political, aesthetic, and philosophical influences including the devastation of the Great War, a perception that the possibilities for modern painting had been exhausted, and the modernist ethic of rebellion against stale convention.

But all these reasons are causal and have nothing to do with “choice.” They are either memes or part of the substrate in which memes evolve. Where does “choice” enter into this? Where does the contra-causal come in? Melodies are catchy for purely song-related reasons that can be computed and predicted, the relation between pain and telling your child not to bite you is clearly causal, and the fact that scientists like theories that are supported by the evidence is not overly surprising since that’s their job and that’s how they’re trained to think.

Again, all of this is clearly the result of cause and effect, not of “choice.” You can spell out what makes a meme spread and its “fitness” without any essential reference to the “choices” of its “vehicle.” So why should we reject memetics while accepting evolution, even though both are designed not to take human “choice” into account?

I am not passing judgment on whether we should decide to spend our resources on memetics-based research projects. I am just saying that this is a bad argument to use against memetics as a concept. What radgeek is trying to say is that we need to examine human “choice” in order to make sense of memetics, but there is no such thing as “choice” in the literal sense. We do not “choose” what ideas we pass along, we pass ideas along because of previous causes, including memes, that acted on our mind. And obviously, as in evolution, the changing nature of the substrate (human minds) is of great import in determining “fitness.” But this is purely deterministic and we still do not need to invoke the agents to make sense of it.

There is also some contradiction here. If radgeek is correct that free will exists, then it becomes doubtful whether an “astronomically large majority of organisms” reproduce “blindly.” After all, there is no scientific way to know which organisms have “free will” and which do not (since “free will” is a contra-causal delusion). In the absence of a coherent account of “choice,” it is as meaningful to say that plants choose to reproduce or not as to say that humans choose to reproduce or not.

This may seem like a bizarre conclusion, but that’s the problem that arises when dealing with terms designating things that can’t be falsified, like “God.” If we can’t possibly understand what “God” means, then anything could be “God” and “God” could be anything (indeed, some people believe as much). Likewise with “free will”; because it is a nonsense property, we can attribute it to anything we want, including plants or rocks. After all, it makes as much sense (that is to say, none) to say that rocks “choose” a path when they fall than to say that humans “choose” their actions.

Now obviously genes and memes are different. One is encoded in DNA and the other is sensory information (in the broad sense) encoded in language, graphics, sounds, and so on. One is transmitted through a mind-bogging complex biological process, the other is transmitted through one-to-one or mass communication in generally simple ways. One is changed by a physical process of mutation, the other can be changed by a great variety of causes which derive from the very mutable nature of our memories, our minds, social transmission, the use of words, concepts and symbols, and so on.

Nevertheless, it is clear that there are factors which make some ideas easier to spread than others under given conditions. It is also clear that these ideas change over time and adapt to changes in conditions. But all of these observations only make sense if we first eschew the concept of “choice.” If there was such a thing as “choice,” then we should not expect such factors and changes to exist. After all, this “choice” cannot be based on any natural cause, or it’s mere determinism and not a “choice.” This puts the free will advocate in a bind, because every attempt at explanation or judgment puts free will to the lie.

It’s really impossible to imagine what such a “choice” would feel like, because, whether we believe in free will or not, we have no experience of being completely detached from reality (well, you know, unless you’re Mitt Romney- and yes I am writing this entry in September of 2012). I think most of us, except people who have severe mental disabilities, can give a fairly good account of the reasons why we take this or that decision. We may not be cognizant of all the factors involved, especially since most of them are subconscious, but we are at least aware of the surface rationale.

By “logical,” I assume that radgeek is referring to some epistemological process. However, unless the current scientific evidence is debunked, there’s no reason to believe that such processes cause decisions in any meaningful way. All that is relevant is the “causal.” In that respect, the fields of evolution and memetics stand or fall on the basis of the evidence, not in the name of some nebulous “agent.”

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