Dangerous Ideas !

In a recent article in the journal Foreign Policy, astrophysicist Paul Davies writes about free will and memes. He says

“… Those aspects of the mind that are not predetermined by genetics lie at the mercy of “memetics.” Memes are the mental equivalent of genes-ideas, beliefs, and fashions that replicate and compete in the manner of genes.  British psychologist Susan Blackmore recently contended that our minds are actually nothing but collections of memes that we catch from each other like viruses, and that the familiar sense of “I” is some sort of fiction that memes create for their own agenda.

These ideas are dangerous because there is more than a grain of truth in them.  There is an acute risk that they will be oversimplified and used to justify an anything-goes attitude to criminal activity, ethnic conflict, even genocide. Conversely, people convinced that the concept of individual choice is a myth may passively conform to whatever fate and exploitative social or political system may have decreed for them.  If you thought eugenics was a disastrous perversion of science, imagine a world where most people don’t believe in free will.”

I do not agree with him – partly because I think it is perfectly possible to live a moral life without belief in free will, and to construct legal and political systems that work without such belief, and partly because if there is truth in an idea (which he says there is) then I think we must consider the implications rather than run away from them.

A critique of his article can be found at http://www.naturalism.org/davies.htm

Learn more about his views on the Edge website at http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/davies/davies_index.html