Meme machines and consciousness

In: Rita Carter, Consciousness, Weidenfeld and Nicolson 2002 pp 241-3

(This is the originally submitted version. It may have been edited prior to publication)

What would it take for an artificial system to have something like human consciousness? Central to human consciousness is subjectivity and the notion of an experiencing self. I suggest that the self is more like a story or myth than a persisting entity that has free will and consciousness. Memes are information passed from one person to another by imitation, and I propose that the idea of a persisting self is a memeplex; a group of memes that propagate together. This selfplex is the origin of ordinary human consciousness. Therefore, only systems capable of imitation (and hence of sustaining memetic evolution) can have this kind of consciousness.

The concept of the meme derives from Dawkins’s 1976 book, The Selfish Gene,[Dawkins,R. (1976) The Selfish Gene Oxford, Oxford University Press (new edition with additional material, 1989)] in which he explained the power of universal Darwinism. This is the idea that whenever you have information that is copied with variation and selection you must get evolution. He called the information that is copied the ‘replicator’. Genes are one example of a replicator and it is their competition that drives the evolution of biological design. But Dawkins argued that there are other replicators on this planet – memes. Whenever information is copied from person to person by imitation, the copies may vary and not all of them get passed on again. So a new evolutionary process occurs. He called the information that is copied the meme. As examples he suggested “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.” (Dawkins, 1976, p 192)

Everything you have learned by copying it from someone else is a meme; every word in your language, every catch-phrase or saying. Every story you have ever heard, and every song you know, is a meme. The fact that you drive on the left (or perhaps the right), that you drink lager, think sun-dried tomatoes are passé, and wear jeans and a T-shirt to work are memes. The style of your house and your bicycle, the design of the roads in your city and the colour of the buses – all these are memes. Our culture is swept increasingly often by new memes, as communications and copying facilities improve. Email icons such as 😉 , air kisses, pierced tongues, robo-pups, high-five salutations and fusion cuisine have all passed, like infections, around the planet.

It is tempting to say that the meme is information copied from one person to another. This is not misleading as long as we accept that this means only that something has been copied – whether it is a bodily movement, an utterance, a design, or a scientific theory. Whatever it is that is copied – that is the meme.

Since memes are replicators, memetic evolution proceeds not in the interest of the genes, nor in the interest of the individual who carries the memes, but in the interest of the memes themselves, so their survival is not necessarily advantageous to the host . Related memes tend to form mutually supportive meme-complexes such as religions, political ideologies, scientific theories, and New Age dogmas. Some of these may be hugely beneficial to human society, but others are pernicious because they infect people and demand their resources in spite of being false.

The most powerful and insidious of all the memeplexes is, I shall argue, our very own ‘self’. It is perhaps hard to think of yourself as a memeplex, but if you look inside a brain you do not see a central place where a self might live, and from where it might direct operations. You just see a lump of porridge-like stuff or, with magnification, millions of neurons connected in billions of ways to each other. Indeed the more you understand about what is going on in the brain, the less need there seems to be for a central experiencing self. Certainly there is a human body and brain that can see, imagine, and think, and these processes may entail hierarchies, control mechanisms, and a body image. However, there is not, in addition, a central, persisting conscious self that receives the impressions or makes the decisions.

The implications for consciousness are this. The whole problem of consciousness stems from making a distinction between the world that is perceived and the self who is perceiving it, but if this self is just a myth, then this distinction must be false.

If the self is a myth, then why are selves constructed at all? The answer, I suggest, is that the memes do it. The twin capabilities of imitation and language – unique to humans – allows all kinds of memes to flourish. So the self becomes a word to which can be attached desires, intentions, loves and hates, ambitions and fears. “I” love the Simpsons. “I” am going to be a famous artist. “I” believe in freedom of speech.

Each of us comes across countless ideas every day but most are forgotten. However, any that become “my” belief are protected. I will fight for my beliefs; I will argue for them with others and so pass them on. The same is true of my plans for the future. Once I have got it into my head that I want to go to Bali for my holiday I will collect brochures, read books, and buy pictures of Bali. These memes spread better because they are part of “my” plans. The self becomes an idea to which are attached all sorts of verbal labels – nice, nasty, reliable, punctual, disobedient, friendly or sexy. Note that there is, of course, a body that behaves in certain ways and looks a certain way, but this is not how we talk about ourselves or each other. We speak about our ‘self’ as being the one who is nice or nasty. We don’t just mean the body – we mean the inner ‘me’ who has this personality and is responsible for ‘my’ actions. As language and society become more and more complex we can say more and more things about this self, and it can desire more and more possessions and achievements.

In this way all kinds of memes succeed better because they become part of a self, and so the selfplex grows – and grows. This is how we come to acquire a story about a little self inside that has desires and plans, that has free will and the power to make decisions, and that has consciousness. Ordinary human consciousness is thus constructed by the memes, using the human meme machine. Our consciousness is the way it is because of the success of the memes that make up the selfplex.