SUSAN BLACKMORE argues that the idea of "self" is an illusion, created by
genes and "memes"--elements of culture or behaviour that are passed from
person to person by imitation ("Meme, Myself, I", 13 March, p 40, and
Review, 20 March, p 43). Genes were made by the self-assembly of atoms and
molecules, but Beethoven "himself" created his Fifth Symphony. Who was he
imitating when he created it? The breadth of Beethoven's work tells us that
it was his "self" that created the memes that Blackmore credits with their
Blackmore's definition of the self appears to be a self as defined by Hume:
"a bundle of sensations tied together by a common history". This scientific
self was refuted by Kant, who pointed out that there is a self in the Hume
person which filters out unnecessary information from the virtually infinite
amount of data that the person receives from the environment, and so avoids
the massive number of decisions that a body would be required to make if it
had to consider the total data available.
It is not difficult to imagine that this highly evolved ability to select,
although originating from information sharing between atoms and molecules
and having a physical basis, should find other expression, for example, in
the creation of "memes for pleasure" or "memes useful for survival". Or
memes with no purpose at all, but which persist because they have a high
quality, a quality which can only be decided upon by the self. If memes are
a creation of the self, then perhaps in this Kantian argument their purpose
is to embody as much useful information in as small and as memorable a data
set as possible.
If the whole of survival can be reduced to a memetic short-hand, then maybe
it leaves time to play.
I CANNOT see how the wrist-flexing experiment--which supposedly disproves
free will--or the notion that ideas have a life of their own support
Blackmore's argument that the "self" does not exist. Maybe crucial steps
have been dropped in the shortening from book to article, but beyond that
there seems to be a simple philosophical mistake, the mistake that if you
know all the parts that go to make up a larger entity, then that larger
entity does not exist.
We would never think of making this mistake with a car. We know very well
that a car is made of 10 000 parts (and I should know, I work in a car
factory), but that knowledge does not stop us from regarding a car as an
item. Its "carhood" is not diminished by our knowledge that it is made up of
many smaller parts. And likewise with out minds.
And by the way, there need be no feeling of breaking new ground when
suggesting that Darwinian natural selection also applies to nonbiological
entities. Darwin got both the words and the idea of "survival of the
fittest" from theories of economic competition between companies.
© Copyright New Scientist, RBI Limited 1999