A Theory of Memetic Morality: its Origins and Implications
By the way, this essay is nearly 8000 words, so if you don't have time or you wish to get a brief outline to entice you in, click here for an abstract.
This is a revised copy, 2nd revision, thanks to input from Samuel Stathakos. The original copy with Samuels input can be found here.
The debate regarding the concept of moral autonomy has been inconclusively fought for millennia; hardly surprising given that the notion of free will lies deep within its heart, its repetitive beat raising more than a few pulses. If we do have free will, then from where does it join the deterministic chemical reactions that make up what we know as a human being? If however it is an illusion as much contemporary thinking suggests, we appear to lose responsibility for our actions and our autonomy is reduced to nothing. Such diametrically opposed notions seem to defy compromise; indeed, the battle has swung back and forth without ever finding a satisfactory middle-ground on which to build. Moral autonomy has to be assumed for society to function, though this is not a difficult task when it is what humans naturally assume to be true anyway. We are unique, an individual with direct knowledge of ourselves and no other, capable of foresight, empathy and the recollection of a personal database of ones own memories. We are all we know, “I think therefore I am”, with an emphasis on the I. Tempting, true, but not correct. Although such a world seems a sure bet for true moral autonomy, such a world would, I propose, actually be considerably less moral.
Until recently the debate surrounding moral autonomy has largely been conjecture and speculation dependent largely upon the culture of the time. The Civil War contributed to Hobbes view of man as a selfish creature whilst others who came later in the enlightenment were able to see the good in mankind through our ability to reason. The two sides argued loudly yet with practically no information whatsoever about our how brains actually work. Modern science and technology has seen advances in knowledge at levels previously unimagined in all of human history and yet still this question of autonomy scratches away at the minds of many. Religiously inclined people believe in the spirit, the courts still regard each of us as fully responsible for our actions and we are all told that if we put our minds to it we can become anything we choose. In this essay I intend provide a new perspective from which to view this question of moral autonomy. Whilst discarding the full extent of free will, it will leave in it's place a concept which more closely resembles the actual dynamic of how will and the self is created and the responsibility each of us has, free will or no.
This is a theory of memetic morality: its origin, development and direction. At its heart however lies a deeper understanding of the origins of our phenomenological selves and a framework for understanding the universals which link all of mankind. When grasped fully, this theory can explain from simple premises the whole of human civilisation, applicable to any aspect of human behaviour. Firstly, I shall discuss the origins and the nature of the concept of morality before continuing to reveal what this says about our autonomy. I hope it will become apparent throughout how this applies to more than simply morality, but in case it is still not clear, I shall stress its significance in the conclusion.
Universality of Morals
Much of the prior discourse on morals has centred around the universality of morality and, in turn, whether it is innate or learned. Recent cross-cultural studies using thought experiments (the spawn of prisoners dilemma) have shown that our inclinations as to whether an action is right or wrong share a universality across all peoples of the world. Whilst it may be legitimate to argue whether we share universal moral content, the universality of the ability to moralise should not come as a surprise. All humans have the same components within their brains, the same tools and mechanisms (aside from disabilities) derived through natural selection adapting toward societal living. The hardware is universal and, as in real-life, some people have the latest Macbook (not necessarily a good thing, more on that later) whilst others may suffer from a case of low bandwidth. This analogy between mind and computer is nothing new but I will never-the-less add to this meme in the conclusion of this essay.
This universality of moral inclination would have surprised many people in the more developed, racist countries of the Western world's past. One person it would not have surprised was Kant, who rigorously attacked Hobbes' (still) lingering notion of a selfish human nature held only by rules and the threat of punishment. For Kant, humans held moral values that constituted a fundamental, innate moral law given unto us by our own capacity to reason. Through the use of this pure reason one could derive the categorical imperatives, universal maxims which, being part of the self, created moral autonomy: auto-nomos, self-law. Some maxims, such as that of the principle of universality applied to a moral question (would you submit to all peoples behaving that way, even to oneself), have been reformulated over time: Do unto others, Kant's principle of universality, Rawl's thought experiment with an amnesiac patient. All recognise this importance of mutual recognition as key to morality and all attribute the capability to do so within all humans.
So why are we so different?
Post-modernism, love it or loath it, did a great deed in pointing out that we actually knew very little about an awful lot of things, either through misplaced confidence or simple ignorance. As the world was opened up and people started to find their voice, many new and often bewildering memes were combined and reformulated, proliferating over every discipline and cultural form. Hegel may have revelled in this example of humanity coming to know itself that little bit better, but I am sure that even that great mind would struggle to comprehend the vast multitude of advances in technology, development and communication. Such a diverse collection of humans finally learning of each other and the novelty and strangeness of the staggering variety of cultures, laws and moral codes has stolen the limelight from the staggering number of universals found within all cultures. This should not be surprising. Familiar memes and situations are unlikely to be dangerous and so not worthy of wasting energy on. The mammalian brain would not have gotten very far had it somehow managed to evolve a thought process that went “Mmm, something new and unknown... I shall spend time now to consider in what ways it is similar to me.” The next (and last) thought could well be, “Oh, we both have a mouth, though there's something about those huge teeth...”.
Clearly however there are numerous differences in moral codes throughout the world. The importance of recognising another culture has at times reached an almost sacred, off-limits taboo. Respecting another's culture has become much like the respect one is expected to show for another's religion and, I believe, for much the same reason. Both religion and, in a wider sense, culture can each impact massively upon the make-up of an individual, constituting the vast majority of another self's memetic disposition (disposition is a good word to use here, since the memetic make-up of an individual will predispose their response to any new meme).
This idea of humans being 'meme-machines', as Susan Blackmore calls us, may seem fairly knew, but its central idea can be found in the notion of the mind being a Tabula Rasa, albeit somewhat more sophisticated. The concept of Tabula Rasa, as it was conceived, was an almost post-modern over-simplification, ignorant of the role of genetics in providing the structure and dynamics to which are memes are subject. Yet, despite the enormous explanatory power the concept has, I believe its full force has not yet been fully understood. When Dawkins termed the word meme he did so specifically for it's analogy to genes. Although he has since said he regretted pushing the analogy as far as he did, it did encapsulate the key feature of memetics: its evolution.
We are memes. Memes are Culture. So...?
For billions of years biological matter has evolved from the first replicators up to the uncategorisable mass of variety we see today. Eventually it led to the development of the brain of the homo-sapiens, the most complex and miraculous object in nature. This brain made possible the creation of an entirely new evolutionary process, that of memes. As genes hold the information needed for life, so memes make up the total information of culture.
If our genes represent the hardware (the brain), then memes could, when talking of the consciously experienced phenomonology of the self, be accurately described as the software. Each and every one of us has led a unique life, not simply due to our unique genetics, but how those uniques genetics entwine with a personal journey through a mass of culture-specific memes: one's memepool. These memepools may change throughout our lives to various degrees of memetic similarity. Whilst moving house within the same city may have a minimal impact on your memepool, moving to another continent would be an almost total displacement.
To bring this back to the question of moral autonomy, it is clear when looking through history that morals have progressed in line with individuals memepools. Indeed, it couldn't be any other way. In the Middle-Ages, for the majority of people, their memepool would have primarily consisted of the Church, village, family, farming and the local baron or lord. The morals that prevailed were those of God, spread through the memes of those holding a monopoly on literacy. This is tantamount to a monopoly on meme-production given that the Church represented the highest authority and, since we are made of memes, it is also tantamount to having a monopoly on the production of peoples selves.
I feel I have been somewhat vague in my terminology to ease you, the reader, in. So here is a working definition of the self which I feel is needed before we continue. We each consist of a unique self, unique because of the personal journey we have taken through the memepool. The cumulative total of memes that have been recorded in our brains make up the visable surface of our operating system: our self. It is the emergence of this individuality that gives rise to subjectivity, akin to inputting data into millions of ever-so-slightly different operating systems and receiving millions of slightly different error messages and varying degrees of success.
What are Morals?
What is crucial when defining morals is recognising the implications of this definition of the self. We are, in essence, society. Everything we have experienced has influenced us to various degrees, building a web of concepts into an operating system we know as ourselves. To be any other way, to have truly original ideas, would be impossible. It would violate physics: something from nothing, a skyhook for the soul. Memetic moral codes, though the capacity for them is hard-wired through the genes, are given to us in the time and age we were born. This much is obvious in History. The same middle-age village had morals based upon survival and the Church; life allowed for little opportunity for anything else. The creation of a common vernacular and the start of what Benedict Anderson called Imagined Communities saw the rise of an entirely new set of morals. A highly nationalistic memepool resulted in self's operating on nationalistic software whose morals were reflective of that: patriotic duty to one's country, xenophobia, justification of colonialism.
So what is the common link between memes and morals? Memes have an evolutionary life of their own, uninterested in our own well-being. Yet this is just the domain which in morals would expect to find themselves. What people have until recently concentrated too much time on was the content of morals, those memes such as 'thou shall not kill' which manifest themselves in our culture for observation. What has been missed is the evolutionary function from which these conceptual ideas of morality are born. The obvious answer to the question of how to conceptualise morals is through cooperation, trust and societal living. This however would be a somewhat broad and generous answer based as it is upon today's moral memepool. It would also, as mentioned before, be mistaking moral content as the object to be explained. When thinking of the content of morals, we revert to that which we know and communicate: the memes. Moral memes and their associated vocabulary conceptualise morals within terminology we understand, such as trust and society, only because this corresponds rationally with the genetic function as being an advantageous one.
In reality, the capacity for moral action has its roots long before memes took centre-stage. A wide variety of mammalian life has exhibited moral behaviour. Furthermore, this moral behaviour has been linked in degree to genetic similarity, with nuclear familial bonds being strongest. Herein lies an analogy between genes and memes I have yet to hear Dawkins mention. He was clear in his proposal that genetic similarity was responsible for apparently moral acts. I propose that in the same way in which genetic similarity determines pre-sentient morality, memetic similarity determines morality within memetic beings, through their increasing reliance on memetic concepts1. This is clearly bias according to what is known and unknown, with those agents directly located within ones shared temporal/spatial history (memory) being a stronger link than than discribing the abstract. Yet it is only through memes that such abstraction is possible, and ultimately why large-scale civilisation continues to be a non-sero sum game.
The evolutionary advantage of this is obvious. Humans with similar memetic structures were those from within the same memepool. Families are closer meme-wise than villages (at least until children relinquish their dependency on their parents and develop a more peer-based meme-pool association), who in turn are closer than those outside of their geographical locale. This is a crucial point. In pre-civilisation, before the advent of writing, memes stayed local. Oral memes would pass between tribes or families and the culture would, as in the rainforests of Papua, be isolated within a community. Therefore, as a rational conceptualisation of the genetic bond, the concept of this bond took form in the only way in which it could, our shared memes. We cannot think in genes, we can only think in memes. When one pre-historic person looked at another and knew he could trust him, he did not come to the conclusion that the trust was based on an evolutionary trait which said “do not waste energy being afraid of that with which you are familiar”. No, instead he would have rationalised it as “I trust you because I know you”. It is not the genes they know, it is the shared memes, the shared culture, experience and past. Above all, it is the sentient self to which this statement is addressed, which is but a collection of memes.
So where does this leave morality? Morality is the conceptualisation of genetic forces unique (we think) to mammalian species. Is this to say that human morality is an illusion, no more or less than that shown in other species? Certainly not. A mind attempting to conceptualise an evolutionary force in this new memetic world would not, I imagine, be able to single out one particular force within the myriad of instincts and predispositions. Instead, morality is the conceptualisation of multiple forces: genetic similarity, familiarity and an entire range of emotions of which we are intimately aware. As a memetic self, we have a far more emotive and complex range of forces to interpret, and a far higher awareness of them, standing us apart from our more instinctively driven mammalian cousins. Since we conceptualise in memes, it is only logical that we should turn to memetic similarity, that which we can see and ascertain, rather than genetic similarity. This is evident from the way in which we talk to strangers, learning and disclosing information that can be used to evaluate potential danger and opportunity. This is why morality is so culturally specific in it's content, the memetic forms conceptualisations are limited too, whilst being ubiquitous in its application by all humans.
Memetic morality at work.
That is not to say that memetic morality has not fashioned its share
of genetically based justifications for grossly immoral acts. The
age of Enlightenment was also the age of colonialism and slavery and
we are all aware of the eventual horrors of the two World Wars.
Europe had undergone dramatic memetic upheaval, the religious and
political structures through which memes were 'officially' created
found themselves challenged and emboldened respectively with the
arrival of the printing press and its influence on the formation,
through market forces, of common vernacular languages set within
states borders. For the first time, memes travelled in undilutable
form, handed from person to person or nailed upon walls in the
street. Knowledge spread, including the re-introduction of many
Greek and other historical memes, and combined in new and ingenious
ways. Crucially though, with the exception of a minority of
scientifically minded elite, these new and exciting memepools were
mediated by the state and largely confined within state and class
boundaries. The domination and subjugation of Pierre Levi's three anthropological spaces (broadly religion, state and capitalism (in all their forms)) can distinctly be seen as a consequence of ownserhip of memetic production within any one time and place.
Thus did memetically based imagined communities come to dominate ever-larger geographical areas. Memetics had already managed this leap of abstraction before in religious bonds encapsulating varying numbers of people from geographically distant (compared to pre-historic) locales. All that is needed is non-zero sum consequences derived from shared ownership of constituents of a memeplex, or group of memes. Some memes are better at forming these bonds than others, and it is no surprise that religious memes came to dominate early societal living as both the essence and arbitrator of morality. Religion was awfully good at rationally conceptualising the world at a time when the monopoly on meme production was held by, strangely enough, religion.
Come late 19th century Europe however, the creation of these vast, different memepools posed issues. The state had superseded the church as the arbitrator of memes, and therefore moral concepts, at a time when democracy brought forth many governments dependent on the will of the people, or the will of the memepool. Thus once more do memes take centre-stage, as governments boasted about how great and incredible their own countries were, pandering to the crowds who held their careers in their hands. It even has a name: propaganda. Nationalistic memes start to create a cycle, whereby nationalism is attributed the label of patriotism and becomes a virtue, strived for with the effect of contributing ever more and powerful memes to an ever increasingly nationalistic memepool. Another moral virtue of the time was one's duty to one's country, a progression from the duty to ones King or Queen or Baron of the Middle-Ages. What is common in each case and, I would argue, universal, is that moral concepts arise from the memepool and that the memepool is open to the power of influence from those with the most resources or institutional authority to contribute to it. These resources may be material (owning a newspaper or television channel for example), or it may be more indirect, in the authority from which you speak, or the depth of the fears and response which your memes provoke.
The result of minority control of memetic input has often caused calamity. Throughout 19th Century Europe, the increasingly easily-imagined 'known' of one's own state met with buttressing political force the equally meme-exclusive 'unknowns' of foreign memes. The fear of the unknown, when mediated through official, trusted known sources with nationalist motives, created such an intelligable rationale that two World Wars were fought before people realised, before they first conceptualised that they did, in fact, share memes after all... Don't forget, this is between Europeans. Think how much harder it is to become aware of memes from other continents.
Viewed as memetic morality, it is not hard to see why it took time for the gross barbarity of colonialism to be deemed morally wrong. People are collections of memes: if the only memes available to you are rationales of racism, presented from a known source in an authoritative way, if you have no other contradictory memes or memories from which to draw, then Racism will come to dominate. Reason can be made to mean many things, it all depends upon what the memepool says reason is. In the case of colonialism, the lack of memetic similarity stemmed from vast geographical distance and the dissemination of an almost uniformly negative set of official memes depicting a savage, an outsider, a memetic outcast.
In Germany, the objective of the Nazis was more difficult due to the close proximity of the presented imagined threat to the deeply emancipated reality. It took a totalitarian government taking complete control of memetic production and the physical removal of Jews, first from positions of power (as meme-creators capable of introducing contradictory memes) and secondly from day-to-day life itself. The extent to which the Nazi's had to go is testament to the insanity and irrationality of their ideas.
Memetic morality is at work everywhere. It is clear that within the huge variety of individuals groups emerge. Punks, train-spotters, football team fans... all share between them a particular trust and camaraderie, often autonomously derived (i.e. not imposed), held exclusively for other members of that particular shared memepool. This may be far from their only bond, they may also be a colleague, a family member, or even as wide ranging as the same nationality. Each person is a web of such bonds presumably in proportion to the number of shared memes. The power of memes over genes in providing this bond in a post-sentient age is evident in the classic troublesome teenager, whose parents simply don't understand him and who finds solace only amongst his peers. The greater the meme gap, the weaker the bond. That is not to say it need be an absolute correlation. The brain may be good at rationalising but its far from a Kantian ideal. It is subject to persuasion and seduction and numerous other forces both helping and hindering it in its rationalisation. That the Brain tries to rationalise our emotions and moods through memetic concepts should not particularly surprising; it does so well enough for our other senses (besides, it would surely be more shocking if it didn't). This simple premise explains the next section.
The progression of memetic morality
How do you define just how moral a moral system is? As mentioned before, one key concept that has been identified by numerous thinkers is that of universality. The beauty about universality is that is is disconnected from any one memepools rationalisation of any given moral law, like a memetic mirror-neuron which has no need of direct sensory stimulation. The 20th century, in the wake of the disaster of nationalism, saw a huge rise in societies striving to adjust as minority groups managed to express themselves, aided by post-modernist concepts of recognising and respecting different facets of the memepool. This is easier done within the confines of a nation, where those in power can, if pushed, retract segregation, encourage diverse memetic transmission and, in the end, arrive at a situation whereby members of a multi-cultural nation begin to share more and more memes from multi-cultural sources.
Undoubtedly this could not have happened where it not for the increased opportunity to advance greater memetic exchange. Just as the printing press enabled imagined communities to form based upon the memes of the state, so too independent publishing, telephones, television and radio helped those whose explicit differences had been previously been manipulated and presented as an 'other'. It allowed minorites to participate in the forming of the new generation of meme harvesting individuals, bestowing on them the necessary software for incorporating these new memes into their moral conceptualisation.
Hegel's idea of the progression of history as the unfolding story of
humanity coming to know itself, whilst widely derided for its
idealistic telos, does beautifully describe this process of memetic
morality. Where Hegel discusses the conflict of thesis and
antithesis resulting in synthesis, I prefer to see it has the coming
together of two sets of memes. Each side of a conflict is a living
embodiment of the memes they represent, each advocating their
position within the memepool. From this melting pot a new generation
is formed, young or open-minded enough to have not settled on an
operating system incompatible with one side or the other. They have
the openess of mind to combine the rational parts of each side toward
a new ideal. This ideal often solidifies in the ageing mind,
becoming an advocate for a new thesis. To aid us in this quest of continuous change, cthis onstant negotiation of subjectivity, memetics identified such apps as mathematics, logic and the scientific method to help pull us from the quicksand of our contextuality. For those realms unable or unwilling to render unto us laws of independent stature, those of philosophy, ethics, morality: in those do we see in particular the clash of young and old, progressive and conservative. In our children we instil the ideal, that which we wished we could be. Is it not only natural then that the teenage mind, when confronted with such unfathomable contradictions upon first contact with the world of the adult, would rail against the unfairness and injustice and the lies. Perhaps it is in this contrast of ideal and real that is the true provider of the non-zero sum?
A look back at the progression of Europe confirms this view. The Middle-Ages, with a moral code handed down by the church, was a time when there were far more unknowns than knowns. Since memepools were restricted to local areas, so to was moral inclination. The immoral treatment that people in the middle-ages could dish out to those outside of their memepool was immense. It was a time of burning witches and gruesome executions, heads on pikes and torture chambers; this wasn't between foreigners remember, this was future countrymen. Religion, through its monopoly on authoritative memes, even managed to morally justify the crusades. With the arrival of nationwide imagined communities in the late Enlightenment, the state took control of memetic production with regards to the general population. To their ends, they created a memepool capable of enlisting millions of men to die in ditches, capable even of creating millions of people indifferent to genocide. Nationalistic memepools created nationalistic morals capable of the grossest immoral rationalisations by today's standards. Here morals were restricted to your country or to your race. The complete lack of accurate memes from foreign sources necessarily meant a complete lack of moral regard for those sources.
After the First World War, the failure of the League of Nations and the economic depression meant a continuation of the isolation of memepools within the general populations of European nations. The bitter legacy of the Great War was still dominated the memepool and, therefore, peoples selves. Against a backdrop of economic hardship, this negative memepool had been easily exploited by governments, in particular the Nazi party. Germany had been ostracised and forced to pay colossal reparations: able to rationalise these feelings to the isolated and vulnerable population with memes of victimisation at the hands of others, the Nazis used their growing popularity to gain authority and further poison the memepool for their own ends. These ends were exclusive and based upon race, by definition not universal. Thankfully, they also provided a valuable lesson, that in order for these separate memepools to live alongside each other in peace, it was necessary to forgive the German people and help them to regain both prosperity and dignity. In doing so, the allies removed the most powerful of weapons for those wishing to rationalise evil.
People often ask, “how could a whole country sit back and watch as an entire people are destroyed”? It is indeed a staggering thought when reflected upon over sixty years later. Really however, it is simply a matter of cause and effect. It is wholly dependent on the memes we are exposed to. If, as in Nazi Germany, meme-production becomes entirely institutionalised and 'cleansed' of a minorities influence, over time those once contradictory positive memories of that minority will be replaced by false memories, the negative mantras everywhere you look. Gain monopoly power over the memepool and you gain exclusive production rights on all future software, minus the books you failed to burn or the minorities who continue to pass on more rational memes from the past. Imagine you had a million computers which work optimally when they are fully compatible with each other's software. If, over many years, you constantly fed them corrupted data and viruses aimed at inhibiting compatibility, you wouldn't be very surprised to find that they can no longer function optimally, if at all. The Nazis took advantage of the fact that morality is whatever a memepool says it is, its content does not come to us as a species-wide universal. For that you would need a fully democratised memepool of global proportions.
Globalisation and the arrival of global memetic morality.
So, rather than talk blame and reparation, Europe instead found itself divided between a U.S. backed western bloc and a Soviet backed eastern bloc. Not perfect, as the Cold War stand-off showed, but certainly an improvement on the many nationalistic states of pre-1945. Western Europe came together succesfully in the United Nations and, with much financial aid from the U.S., managed to recover into a period of healthy economic growth. Peace begets peace, and as the negative memes of the past rescinded, the positive memes of a peaceful present took their place within the new generation. This was a time of great technological progress, particularly in transport and communications technology. Telephones, televisions and cars became affordable to the now burgeoning middle-classes. With it came an interesting development. Our memepools started to mix. American television and films entranced not simply the English speaking world. People on mass started to travel between European countries, experiencing different memepools from their own and finding them to be... pleasant. Certainly not the monstrous society depicted by some certain former leaders. Trade saw not just social interaction but a boom in multi-memepool trust to mutual advantage. People even started travelling abroad to far away and utterly different memepools, a blow to the psyche that can be so strong it has a name: culture-shock. It could very well be meme-shock, and shocked they were...
Word was getting back to the Western world about what lay in those far away lands. It was not the backward, savage world that had been described but a few decades ago. A new generation, suffused with memes from a variety of cultures had developed a moral code accordingly, one expanded beyond the easily imagined to encompass all people. Although the UN, and indeed the American Constitution, had pre-empted this with declarations of rights for all humanity, these were in fact idealisms to be achieved. By themselves, they were not sufficiently strong memes to reshape individuals moral codes without the help of a multi-cultural memepool. The sixties provided that memepool, as minorities found their voice. The excitement of the times was manifested in the hippy movement and, once digested enough to be intellectually translated, the post-modernist era. Though unable to achieve the world peace they strove for, they never-the-less managed to vastly widen the moral net. They also left a memetic legacy for all those who came after, a ripple in the memepool felt long after they declined and influencing far more people in the following fifty years than in the sixties themselves.
We live on the cusp of a revolution. Common language was utilised by the state to create a nationalist memepool whose morals encompassed only those the state deemed fit. The arrival of affordable communication and transport technology meant that meme-production was no longer monopolised by the powerful. This mixing of memes manifested itself as expected, with unknowns becoming knowns and the moral net expanding as it progressed. Now, with the coming of the internet, we are seeing the creation of a system whereby meme-production is becoming utterly democratised. Technology has created memepools, particularly in the Western world, which have no borders. They are not bound by geographical location, they are not bound by the cost of production and distribution and they are not even bound by language barriers, with instant translation software progressing quickly. These memes are coming together through countless mediums and are constantly incorporated into our cumulative self. A new generation whose memes are derived from global sources, universally, theoretically has no other against which they can be manipulated.
This should be celebrated by those who believe that whilst necessary, post-modernism goes too far when they say we cannot objectively know anything. They should add the caveat of yet. Soon, so long as our memetically deprived leaders and financial gods have not conspired us to a new stone age, we will have a virtual world with no barriers whatsoever. This intuitive, fast, seamless connection will allow for direct pier-to-pier exchange between different memepools rather than having those memes facilitated, censored and explained through 'official', bias sources. I say pier-to-pier because it is another very compelling computer related analogy of the process. Until now, it has always been those in power providing the memes. In effect, it is like having a Macbook and only receiving official updates from Apple: they are incompatible with other updates and so block contradictory memes from updating their operating system. Post-modernism and other movements helped create a new wave of independent thinkers not as reliant on official sources. How did we reach here? With applications. 'Apps' have really started to take off now in the mobile phone sector and there's a very good reason: they are immensely useful. An app is a tool which helps translate or utilise information rationally. The equivalent in memetics would be maxims, logic, critical thinking, knowledge of the myriad of concepts realised through post-modernism. These apps, once installed, mediate all the future memes attempting to make themselves felt. If one becomes proficient with these apps (which will themselves become more numerous and intuitive as the virtual world is expanded), one can finally break free from the official sources and learn to think and judge for oneself. Because of this, it will become ever more possible for an individual can safely navigate all available memepools and learn the lessons from each, something long ago realised within Buddhist teachings.
If all of this sounds somewhat utopian and idealistic, then perhaps you need a few more utopian memes in you to counter your internalised cynicism. There is however one more reason why I believe Hegel was right about the progression of history. Hegel himself talks about the thesis, antithesis process being the result of humans being rational creatures. Like Kant however, he believes in a pure reason as opposed to recognising that we have little choice in the matter. It is one thing for a wealthy philosopher to talk of pure reason, their personal journey took them through a privileged memepool rich in information. We can only use that which we have encountered: simple cause and effect. So if it is not pure reason in us all that drives history, what is the driving force? If the elite had monopolies on meme-production, why did the status-quo not remain as it was? It all had do to with the one thing that Kant discounted entirely: emotion.
The Interplay of Emotion and Reason.
Kant saw humans ability for rational thought as the tamer of emotions, the riposte to Hobbes' innate selfishness that allowed us to glimpse pure reason and use it to determine its role in morality. In truth, emotion has been shown to play a fundamental role in our ability to reason. Emotion is the physical manifestation of instinctive desires and impulses, the raw material with which reason shapes concepts. It is however a two-way street: memes affect emotions and emotions affect memes. This denial of emotion in the transmission of modernist memes was first challenged by the Romanticists whose gripes later matured in post-modernist concepts. Emotion is the key indicator of how inclusive or divisive a new meme is to the operating system and, as Kant no doubt noticed, emotion can block an incompatible meme and skew pure reason. Yet all reason is impure that originates from an individual; such a notion is a legacy of divine origins. Pierre Levi puts it beautifully (the most profound theology I've read for a long time) when he talks of pure reason as being the agent intellect, the manifestation of the whole of which indivuals are but reflected fragments. Such a notion of reason is God, yet it also equates equally with the physical emergence of a global memepool (more on this in the conclusion). Everyone has an operating system made up of a finite number of memes, biased toward the known. Emotion is our instinctive legacy for recognising known and unknown, safety and danger.
In this way we see that the progression of morality to include a broader memetic base is actually a by-product of mankind's growing awareness and mastery of the emotions. The real driving force is the democratisation of memetic production through the advances in communication and transport technology. As operating systems around the world start using these memetic apps to start judging for themselves instead of relying on official updates, they start to find for themselves commonalities with more diverse memes, creating inclusive concepts which start to question and disregard memes originating from a more narrow and selfish morality due to their now apparently inferior rationality. It is the structure of the process of memetic transmission which determines who benefits from the memepool. So was Hegel wrong to say that it was reason that drove progress? Yes and no. Yes, in that just as Marx considered means of production a the source of power, it was more the means of meme-production that determined a countries Zeitgeist. Hegel viewed the State as a reflection of the Zeitgeist, as opposed to primary creator. He was however right to focus on an individuals desire for the world to make rational sense. This of course can be used for evil, as has been seen too many times. Yet, on the flip side, it does mean that as we start to conceptualise the world with more and more knowns and less and less unknowns, it becomes harder for an outside agent to convince you, as he would now need to change your mind. This of course is still possible, but it would require a totalitarian state with complete monopoly over the memepool. Such a situation seems further away than ever in most fully developed countries of the world today, thanks to the now deep-rooted memes of personal liberty and freedom. This is why there is little in the world more moral than upholding these values.
Where does this leave Autonomy?
When Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene, he was careful to add that whilst genes are selfish in terms of their function, memes do not suffer the same limitations. Our ability to conceptualise, combined with our capacity for empathy, our memory and our ability to think temporally gives us the opportunity to be more than the instincts and emotions with which life had, until this point, been a slave to. It is this awareness of oneself as an independent meme-machine that Hegel talks of when he sees humanity becoming aware of itself. Free will didn't merely appear one day. Instead we can see a steady progression of memetic concepts coming to dominate our Hobbesian instincts. Societal living was beneficial because memetic transmission was finding solutions to problems that genetic evolution could not. Thus did selective pressures start to work on the hardware of the brain, creating an instrument capable of making use of this burgeoning memetic self.
Gradually, as memes started to accumulate, as did human awareness. The number of concepts and apps began to grow as economics drove people to trade and specialise. What we see today is a world dominated by memes. This is a wholly new phenomenon in the history of life, one that inspired Ray Kurzweil to declare the coming of the Singularity. In various ways, be they economic, social or moral, pressures have exerted themselves upon society, the common link being the instilling of a rational motive. People are not stupid, they are not solely slave to their instincts and, with the right incentive providing the necessary rationality, memepools can be shaped, for good and ill. Thankfully, monopolies on meme-production were not strong enough to combat market forces and so the rational incentive of cooperation prevailed.
I am lucky in that the UK has the opportunity to foster a memepool
with enough opportunity for rational development as to foster a moral
code derived largely from universal ideals. Obviously this is not to
say that every person in the UK is of the same mind. The recent rise
of the British Nationalist Party is evidence that there is still
rationality to be found in nationalist ideals for at least a minority
of the population. The breadth of one's memetic make-up, and the genetic/emotional base which it clothes, is unique to each individual: all we can do is continue to find
incentives for inspiring and directing the memepool to democratise to
it's fullest. This will result in people without prejudice, without
the unknown.It also means that net neutrality is, in my view, the single most important political question of our day.
So is that it? We are machines at the mercy of fate, a culmination of prior experiences in a deterministic world of memes? Absolutely not. Imagine the opposite. Imagine we have souls, so that as individuals we have sole control and responsibility over our actions. When I imagine that I imagine a world free of morality. It would mean that the multitude of immoral acts that have happened in the past were innate products of spirit rather than the sorry fate of someone for whom fate dealt a poor hand. Instead, as genetics shed light on our bodies, so memetics sheds light on our minds, illuminating it for the beautiful product of cause and effect that it is. What is more, if we had such souls, we would bare no responsibility in our actions toward one another. There would be nothing we could do, good or bad, that would alter their behaviour. Memetics allows us to become aware of our real responsibility, our contribution to the memepool and the effects these contributions have upon others.
People are created from the memepool. Everything good and everything bad is a product of the society to which we all contribute. This is a wonderfully liberating view of good and evil. They exist here simply because, due to the vast number of humans and unique lives we lead, there will always be those for whom the journey was harsh and those for whom it was kind, to all possible degrees. Our responsibility lies in striving to eliminate those negative memes and maximising the positive. Simply with the recognition that: a) we have the ability to utilise apps, develop independent, rational thought and pass this wisdom on and b) that there is an ideal, the universal memepool, a global memosphere generating the kind of objective thinking that post-modernists decried. This is a far greater sense of autonomy than classical free will would allow. It gives one the power to shape future generations in an Hegelian progress of History and to do real good. Yes, our actions are determined by our memeplex, but the content of that memeplex can be altered, refined and broadened by reflection. Just as genetic variation comes to dominate if proven advantageous, so too do enough people in each generation recognise the rationality in conflicting views and find ways to articulate it persuasively to its domination and eventual succession.
As I have already noted, what we call “I”, this supposed free agent, is actually our collection of memes conceptualising our emotions. We have the ability not to choose necessarily but to be persuaded. This is the key to the matter. We can persuade someone with rationality far easier than we can change someone with irrationality. Rational creatures choose what is rational for their own particular self. Add incentives that encourage these selves to spread their memes, such as in economics, and you naturally advance these selves to incorporate the unknown. This ripples outward, each of us an agent of memes gossiping, chatting and debating. Memes have made us what we are and it is the sheer complexity, the vastness of the concept, that has kept it so hidden. Free will is fine so long as everyone played by the rules, but that is not how the world works. Instead, it merely hides us from our own responsibility to seek out new memes. This is the one underlying factor that is fundamental to memetic development. The democratisation of memetic production must be humanitie's primary focus.
Memetic morality is but a part of the entire memetic world from which our self's are constantly created and updated. Everything we think, everything we conceptualise, is processed by an operating system built upon hardware genetically created over millions of years. This operating system is relatively new, and its power and sophistication is a direct product of the increase in memetic transmission. Nature has created incredible machines, that are able to continue memetic evolution throughout their lifetime in order to master both it, and each other. Evolution clearly has some mechanisms by which this process works, universals that are hard to break out from: fear the unknown, trust the known, place proportionately more faith in those perceived as our superiors, follow our emotions. That this information could be communicated, copied and improved upon started a runaway evolution that we still do not fully understand.
Memetic evolution brakes with the limits that held genetic evolution back. Mutations and replications take place daily, becoming more complex as language develops to conceptualise ever more abstract notions. They were passed down not simply through one bloodline each generation, but like a virus, spreading amongst populations and capable of surviving for thousands of years. A key component determining how effective a meme is in replicating is how rational the meme is. This does not mean pure reason. 'Rational' is merely that which is compatible with any one particular operating system. If a memepool provides the possibility for compatible operating systems, a meme will spread. I cannot emphasise how important this concept is. Let me finish by driving home why humanity needs to recognise this lesson.
As I mentioned before, a new generation is being created which derive their conceptual selves from global memepools. People are beginning to realise that there are like-minded (I hope you recognise the significance of that term) people to themselves all over the world. Soon, there will be no more unknowns that can be exploited by those who seek to shape the memepool to their advantage. For this generation, the nationalistic or class based memepools will be accepted for what they are, exclusive memepools of mutual beneficence manipulating and influencing the memepool to their own ends. It has ever been thus. I think Marx and Hegel may well have their last laugh, for while capitalism hasn't fallen in the wake of proletariat revolution (as already established, capitalism is, for good reason, easier to rationalise than chaos and disorder), it's greed for new markets has acted like an enzyme for technological advance and helped disseminate the internet like no other technology before it. In doing so, it has created the opportunity for the creation of a global memepool that will advance moral memes to incorporate all the remaining unknowns of humanity.
This is going to represent the greatest conflict of the 21st Century. As this global memepool grows, it will find itself in direct conflict with nationalistic governmental and capitalistic corporate memepools reluctant to relinquish the status-quo. They have done so thus far through exploitation of the unknown other. When this rationale becomes accepted by the new generation as insufficiently universal to be deemed rational, they will demand change. Capitalism has the easiest task to adjust since flexibility to respond to changing market perceptions is central to a successful business. In short, there is a natural transition. Governments, particularly democracies, need to be representative of the entire imagined community. Viewed memetically, it is worrying how isolated a memepool governments usually are. The term 'spin' is a vile word in memetics, the purposeful manipulation of a memepool by someone abusing their authority. 'Power corrupts': it does so through limiting an individuals memepool and thus reducing one's moral concern. That is why it is important to 'stay grounded', or retain the influence of one's memetic roots (in governmental terms this means remembering where one's duty lays – with the people). It is crucial therefore that governments recognise that this coming global movement is a positive step, one to be accommodated and encouraged. Unfortunately I fear that these people will become governments and capitalists new official other, since by definition they will then be excluding the only group that they can no longer hope to manipulate. They will undoubtedly utilise the vocabulary and rationalisation as was and is used against Communism and Islam, marginalising dissenting voices in an attempt to perpetuate the interests of those directly inclusive of their memepool: namely, the corporate sector, through the excessive use of lobbyists and the importance of campaign donations.
That is the future of morality, yet this theory explains far more than that. What it describes is nothing short of an explanation for all of memetic history, otherwise known as human civilisation. Memetics rational conceptualisation of our pre-sentient instincts and emotions has set loose a wholly new exponentially evolving system, one capable of harnessing nature and creating an operating system far greater than the sum of it's genes. No longer do we need the correlate of reality to know something to be true. Instead, we can use knowledge of the unknown to create rational universals, thus becoming the sum of our memes. As we have advanced technologically, so we have expanded our memepools until, one day, perhaps we will be the sum of the memes of all of humanity. This, I think, could be the Singularity of which Ray Kurzweil speaks, the realisation of that which post-modernists denied was possible, a true objectivity within one imagined community.