Department of Psychology
University of the West of England
Oral presentation preferred. 01.06; 01.10; 01.11; 04.09; 05.02
The world and the self who experiences it seem separate, even though no self can be found within the brain, and there are good reasons for thinking it is an illusion. For anyone who wants to avoid dualism the interesting question is this. Why should we humans live under the illusion of being a self with consciousness and free will, if such a thing does not exist?
Evolutionary theory might provide an answer, yet a false sense of self does not obviously contribute to inclusive fitness and may even reduce it. I propose that the correct evolutionary explanation is not in terms of benefit to genes, but benefit to memes.
Memes are information that is copied from person to person by imitation. They are replicators subject to heredity, variation and selection, and they compete for space in our minds and cultures, shaping human nature as they go. We humans are meme machines; selective imitators, who spend our lives copying memes. Why then do we have selves?
A self is a co-adapted meme complex (or memeplex) whose function is to protect and propagate its constituent memes. A memeplex forms whenever a group of memes can propagate better together than they can alone. Examples include religions, languages, political systems and scientific theories that have evolved over long periods, with adaptations that protect them from dissolution or from competing memeplexes.
The selfplex is a large collection of memes using a single body for their protection and propagation. Once a selfplex begins to grow it provides a haven for more memes. For example, people may argue strongly for their beliefs, using emotional language and phrases such as “I believe …” “I think …” “I want …”. This behaviour promotes the memes, and in addition feeds the false idea that there is an inner self who has the opinions, makes the decisions and perceives the world.
Thus far the theory is similar to Dennett’s but there are two fundamental differences. First Dennett calls the self a “benign user illusion”. I suggest it is far from benign, and is the root source of human suffering and delusion. The creation of a selfplex means we live our lives as a lie; constantly falling into dualism, and prey to all the emotions concerned with protecting our false self from harm or dissolution. Second, for Dennett consciousness “is itself a huge complex of memes”, which implies that if all the memes were dropped consciousness would cease. An alternative is that the memes of the selfplex obscure and distort consciousness rather than constituting it.
This is a an empirical question, well suited to first-person research with available methods. Meditation and mindfulness can be seen as techniques for dropping memes (or meme-weeding), their ultimate effect being to dismantle the selfplex. We may ask those who have completed this path what happens. I believe their answer is that dualism falls away but consciousness (though it may be transformed) does not.