Letter to the Editor

Dear Editor,

I truly enjoyed seeing seasoned skeptics deftly dealing erudite critical comments about Dr. Susan Blackmoreís theory of memes during my first REALL meeting this month [July]. It was all I could do to sit back and try to absorb the rapid-fire points and counterpoints. Now that Iíve had time to reflect, Iíd like to make a few comments from the tranquil sanctuary of my study. Because the fiery Dr. Blackmore managed to touch on (or hammer at) so many fundamental issues and beliefs, it is hard to decide where to start and where to finish, but Iíll begin by seconding one of the post-video comments and then focus on just two issues.

Someone posited that Dr. Blackmoreís memes may constitute a useful idea that she has overgeneralized to explain just about everything. Ditto. Her approach reminds me of the radical behaviorist B.F. Skinner, whose operant conditioning principles would explain all aspects of humanity and show how concepts like mind, self, free will and personal responsibility are pre-scientific fictions. He, too, could succinctly explain religion Ė superstitious behavior reinforced by chance (with some interesting pigeon demonstrations as evidence). In fact, he did this with scarcely a passing reference to genetics and evolution. Interestingly, one of the factors leading to the decline of Skinnerís paradigm was the work of Albert Bandura, a psychologist whose social learning theory focused on imitation or "modeling."

Nonetheless, I would like to focus on two issues that Dr. Blackmore indicated follow from meme theory. 1), the denial of free will, and 2), the self or "I" as a meme-induced illusion. Iíll mention at the get-go that my arguments are grounded in ideas propounded by three philosophers: Mortimer Adlerís Ten Philosophical Mistakes, David Kelleyís taped lectures Foundations of Knowledge: An Objectivist Perspective, and Tibor Machanís The Pseudo-Science of B.F. Skinner.

It appears to me that many scientists erroneously conclude that determinism must be true, thinking that everything has a cause, and thus, our actions must be the results of massive causal networks dating back to the big bang. Free will is assumed to imply actions without causes, suspending the laws of the universe, just for man, as if by magic. I will make two points here, one about Dr. Blackmoreís statements regarding the denial of free will, and another about an alternative view of causation which is compatible with human evolution.

Dr. B. noted that she had given up belief in free will 20 years ago. She thus denies that we really have a choice in our beliefs (or the memes we allow to run our shows). We cannot rebel against the memes, but may tune out in a Zen-like state of mindlessness. Yet she endorsed compulsory religious education, noting that when children are exposed to multiple systems, they may find absurdities and contradictions which will lead them away from religion. Is she is not endorsing the common sense idea that when exposed to a variety of alternatives, we possess the capacity to exercise our reason and choose among them? Is this not what we mean by free will? Also, did she not choose to believe that determinism and not free will is true? If her current belief of determinism was not rationally chosen, then why should we trust the memes that have thrust the deterministic view upon her, rather than free will endorsing memes, or indeed, rather than the causal memetic chains which enable some to "know" there are spacecraft full of sexy, swinging aliens out there looking for human pickups (for experimental purposes only, of course).

I think that a determinism that rules out free will leads to inevitable contradictions. An interesting approach to this issue lies in comparing and contrasting the views of causality put forth by David Hume (events causing events in billiard-ball-like fashion in infinite regress) and by Aristotle (agents causing events in accord with the nature or identity of the agents).

2) I believe Dr. Blackmoreís statement that the sense of a "self" or an "I" are meme-produced illusions begs the question of who or what the memes are deluding. I worked for a year and a half in a neuropsychology laboratory, and it is true that though I saw a few brains, I saw far fewer minds. Still, I believe the idea that the self is an illusion is grounded in the reductionistic fallacy that the emergent properties of wholes are somehow less real than their constituent parts. Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky once compared behaviorists who would understand all the workings of human consciousness by the examination of discrete stimulus-response pairings to those who would understand the relationship of water to fire only by separately studying hydrogen, which burns, and oxygen, which sustains fire.

All in all, I still think other aspects of the meme theory, which would not logically necessitate the denial of free will or the self, could prove of value. And in all fairness, I have yet to read Dr. Blackmoreís book. Nevertheless, there is, so far, much more evidence of "meís" than memes. Dare I say it is "self"-evident?

Kevin Vost, Psy.D.

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