Memes and the malign user illusion

Paper presented at Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness Conference “Unity and Dissociation”, Brussels, 30.6-2.7.00

Abstract also published in Consciousness and Cognition, 9, S49, 2000

Many authors have suggested that the apparent unity of consciousness is an illusion. Parfit contrasts ego theorists with bundle theorists, who believe that underlying the apparent continuity of self is only a series or bundle of experiences. Dennett, having rejected the audience in the Cartesian Theatre, suggests the self is a benign user illusion. If we accept this, we must ask (1) How is the illusion constructed? (2) Why is it constructed, and (3) Is it really benign?

Possible answers include evolutionary, cognitive and social explanations. I shall argue that none of these is valid, for the illusion does not benefit either us or our genes, it benefits our memes.

I shall explain the basic principles of memetics, pointing out sources of confusion over definitions and false analogies with genes, and stressing the importance of understanding memes as replicators. I shall explain how and why memes group together into co-adapted meme complexes, one of which is the self. This memeplex is constructed by the memes for their own propagation, not for our benefit. Indeed it is arguably the root of all human suffering. I conclude that both scientifically, and for living our lives, the illusion is malign.