Saturday, December 31, 2011

Just a Fluke

A fluke (or flounder) is a kind of flat, bottom-feeding fish that is, according to lore, so easily caught that one may use the most rudimentary tackle or technique. (In the Gunther Grass novel The Flounder, the titular fish jumps right into the fisherman's arms). Over time, the fluke's nonchalance for the angler's competency loaned its name to a type of billiard shot, by which a shooter, having no good options, sinks a billiard ball by improbable or near-random means, much like a Hail Mary in football, or a "garbage" shot in basketball. Eventually the term 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 small, 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, near-random hypothesis that Dennett has had the happy accident of getting many otherwise intelligent people to subscribe to. The lancet fluke spends its adult life cycle in the liver of sheep and cattle. It gets inside these creatures by first getting itself incubated inside a type of snail, and then by hitchhiking aboard a species of common black ant that feeds on the snail's slime trail. Some of these flukes then residence near a ganglia of nerve cells, where it is proposed they are now able to--somehow--alter the ant's behavior so that it spends the cool, dewy portions of the day perched atop blades of grass, instead of going about its normal business at a safer remove from the teeth and gums of grazing livestock.Ants thusly hijacked by flukes are called, in the literature, "zombie ants."

A "meme" -- a fancy word for an idea originally coined by biologist Richard Dawkins -- is supposed to be similarly parasitic, spurring its host (a human mind) to behave, like a zombie ant, in ways orthogonal to its rational self-interest. Deviation or distraction from such self-interest under the influence of memes may lead to fantastic cultural achievements, such as cathedrals and sonatas and elaborate cuisines. Or, it may lead to tragic cultural afflictions; harmful ideologies and superstitions. So goes the hypothesis. In either case the important detail is that the minds hosting these memes are not free to consciously accept or reject them; rather memes are "selected" by Nature itself, on the basis of their effectiveness, according to Darwinian logic. The meme-parasite is thus enlisted to explain all manner of apparently irrational behavior, and the beliefs that purportedly underlie them.

I want to limit myself now to this question: If meme theory were true, if there were such things as discrete, mappable gene-like memes colonizing our minds, how could we tell? 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 return to our zombie ant. What might the experience of a zombie ant might be as it climbs a blade of grass to await mastication? As this is just a thought experiment, it's not terribly important that ants probably aren't capable of self reflection. In their metaphorical, explanatory capacity, zombie ants are stand ins for ourselves, whose obvious capacity for self reflection would need explaining under the theory of memes. How, then, might our zombie ant understand its strange and deviant mission? Might it, for example, feel guilty for abandoning the important tasks of the ant-collective, but remain impelled to climb the grass-stalk all the same by some quasi-instinctual engine--like a gambling addict skulking shame-faced to the casino?

Or might it feel something like glory in fulfilling a higher purpose than was selected for the normal members of the community, much as a human martyr might feel?  In either case, we who observe the ant's self-reflection and who know the true reason for its climbing the blade of grass, would have to conclude that any such self reflection on motives is doomed to failure, since the very apparatus of reflection has been usurped by an outside agent, with plans of its own.

I don't imagine meme advocates would have any problem with this thought fable, as far as it goes. Dan Dennett, in his 2006 book on the etiology of belief, Breaking The Spell, acknowledges that many religious people go seemingly freely and gladly toward fates that strike outside observers as absurd, just as the zombie ant seems to. The trouble arises when we exit the metaphor and ask, in the case of humanity in general, who is to act as the "outside" observer? Who has the perspective to say definitively that any of us is or is not foolishly pursuing an absurd fate? Having analogized human belief about our own motives to the zombie ant, on what foundation can we say we truly understand any of our thoughts or actions at all?

Dennett's answer is that rational inquiry and the scientific method 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, which are far more prone to self-deception.

But here the knot tightens. In his earlier books, such as Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995), and Freedom Evolves (2003), Dennett has proposed that the mechanism underlying both genes and memes, namely 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 clunky and unnecessary explanation, a deus ex machina. If rational inquiry is to break the bonds of blind belief, which according to meme theory is the product 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, itself a product of natural selection, making it, at least potentially, just another meme, with nothing to privilege it above any belief, delusional or otherwise.

Given how self-evident it seems to us that reason itself is a powerful instrument of truth, the idea that examined, reasoned, and empirically tested beliefs are no less reliably true than those born of custom or superstition strikes us as absurd, but meme theory permits no other conclusion. If the zombie ant's faculties of perceptions and reflection cannot be trusted, than how can ours? How are we know that our new and improved sacred values of truth, reason, inquiry 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? 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?


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.