Saturday, December 31, 2011

Just a Fluke

[NOTE: This post was originally published in 2009. I've made a few revisions to this version, for the sake of clarity and logical consistency, as well as just plain rhetorical correctness.]

A fluke (or flounder) is a kind of flat, bottom-feeding fish that is (according to lore) easily caught, even with inferior tackle or technique. (In the Gunther Grass novel The Flounder, the fish jumps right into the fisherman's arms). Over time, owing to its near-ridiculous catchability, it loaned its name to a type of billiard shot, by which a shooter, having no good shot to make, sinks the desired balls by improbable or near-random means, much like a Hail Mary in football, or a "garbage" shot in basketball. Eventually it took on the meaning common today of a happy accident, unrepeatable and beholden only to the vagaries of fortune.

A fluke is also a type of flat parasitic worm, one variety of which, the lancet liver fluke, is employed by the philosopher Daniel Dennett to illustrate his theory of memes, an improbable or near-random hypothesis that Dennett has had the happy accident of getting many otherwise intelligent people to believe in. The lancet fluke spends its adult life cycle in the liver of sheep and cattle. To get there, the fluke first parasitizes a species of common black ant, taking residence near a ganglia of cells that--somehow--alter the behavior of the ant so that it now spends the cool dewy portions of the day on top of blades of grass, instead of going about its normal business at a safer remove from the teeth and gums of grazing livestock.

A meme is supposed to be similarly parasitic, spurring its host (a human mind) to behave in ways orthogonal to its rational interest. Before parasitization, an organism does what we would expect it to do according to Darwinian logic. After parasitization, all bets are off. The meme might lead to fantastic cultural achievements, cathedrals and sonatas and elaborate cuisines. Or it might lead to tragic cultural afflictions; harmful ideologies and superstitions. In either case the important detail is that the minds hosting these memes have not consciously evaluated or chosen them; rather they were "selected" on the basis of their effectiveness, by Darwinian logic. The meme-parasite is thus enlisted to explain all manner of irrational behavior, and the beliefs that underlie them. In Dennett's recent book, Breaking the Spell (2006), the irrational beliefs and behaviors in question are religious ones, and the primary meme postulated to explain why they persist is called "belief in belief."

Many more able critics than I have taken on meme theory for the modern day phlogiston it is (See, for example, here and here.) I want to limit myself now to this question: If memes were real, how would we know? Put another way, how can we know that our thoughts and values, whatever they may be, are really our thoughts and values, and not the duplicitous effect of some kind of parasitic infection? How can we protect ourselves from "bad" memes, when the whole strategy of bad memes is to appear to be good?

To explore this I want to return to the parasitized ant. Such ants are sometimes called "zombie ants," to indicate that their free will and good sense (or whatever the equivalents of these might be in the ant mind) have been usurped. As a thought experiment, I want to imagine what the experience of a zombie ant might be as it climbs a blade of grass to await mastication. Granting formicidae, for the moment, a faculty of consciousness and reflection, how might the ant understand its strange and deviant mission? It might, for example, feel guilt over abandoning the important tasks of the hive, but impelled to climb the stalk all the same by some quasi-instinctual engine--like a gambling addict skulking shame-faced to the casino. Alternatively, we have to allow that it might feel something like glory in fulfilling a higher purpose than was selected for the normal members of the community, much as a martyr might feel. There need be no clue at all that anything could be bad or wrong about grass-blade climbing, despite the high risk of an early death. To the ant, it may feel like entirely justified and morally unimpeachable behavior. Or there may be any number of gradations of doubt, guilt, shame, or confusion associated with it. In any case, the subjective experience of the ant, who cannot know the real reason it climbs the blade of grass, is doomed to irrelevance. It's beliefs about its own motives simply cannot track with reality.

I don't imagine meme advocates would have any problem with this thought fable, as far as it goes. Dennett, in particular, acknowledges that many religious people go freely and gladly toward fates that strike outside observers as absurd, just as the zombie ant seems to. The trouble is: in the case of humanity in general, who is to act as the "outside" observer? Who has the neutral or objective perspective to say definitively than any of us aren't foolishly pursuing an absurd fate? Once we analogize human belief about our own motives with the zombie ant, on what foundation can we say that any of our thoughts or actions make any sense at all?

Dennett's answer is that rational inquiry can evaluate various beliefs and behaviors and demonstrate which ones are left wanting. His entire project in Breaking the Spell is an appeal to open up allegedly "sacred" beliefs and practices to scientific investigation*, so we can know if they make any sense or not, or have any good in them at all, rather than relying on custom or faith.

But now we have a serious problem. In Dennett's earlier books he has proposed that the mechanism underlying both genes and memes, natural selection, is a "universal acid," that corrodes through everything. Anything which purports to operate by some different means than natural selection is, in Dennett's coinage, a "skyhook:" a miracle or deus ex machina. If we are to break the bonds of belief and "belief in belief," which, we have just finished explaining, are the products of a process so universal it melts away all competing explanations, then how are we to explain the faculty of Reason? It must be either that it is, on the one hand, somehow impervious to the corrosiveness of natural selection, making it just another "skyhook," or, on the other hand, a product of natural selection, making it just another meme, with nothing to privilege it above any belief, delusional or otherwise.

In other words, if meme theory is true, how are we know that our new and improved sacred values of Truth, Reason, Enquiry and Democracy which Dennett hopes will supersede faith and tradition and "belief in belief" aren't themselves "bad memes," serving interests antagonistic to our own? (Whatever that might mean). How do we know that free and critical inquiry, free from fetters and taboo, is not our own seemingly purposeful climb up the blade of grass? Against what do we test our sense that rationality is ... rational? How could we know for sure that our most prized and cherished ideas, values, theories and methodologies are not just flukes?


*That Dennett is so bad at this investigation will have to be the subject of a future post.


Nick said...

This is of course a perfectly good argument, and notice how nicely it dovetails with my definition of ideology: a lens that cannot be turned in on itself.  Proponents of scientism will never accept this form of argument, as the axioms and methods of reason itself (along with commonsense and scientific views) are not, according to them, beliefs.  They are, rather, facts, primitives, objects walled off from the scope of inquiry in general.  In short: you're a philosopher, Dennett is not (though he used to be), and it's hard to know how to convince a non-philosopher that philosophy matters.

underverse said...

<span>Proponents of scientism will never accept this form of argument</span>

To the extent that they acknowledge it at all, which I rarely see. Somehow it invariably seems to get mutated in their minds into some kind of turf war--over what science is permitted to examine-rather than a logical and semiotic question of what science can meaningfully examine.

If I'm a philosopher, it is with the smallest of p's. Dennett clearly stopped being anything of the sort about halfway through the last decade, having traded it for a career as a capital-P Polemicist against "belief in belief." It reminds me a little of Linus Pauling and Vitamin C advocacy, though no one seems to have noticed the move.