Memes, creativity and consciousness

Aesthetica Magazine May, June, July 2006 Issue 13, 50

I have always been obsessed by the mystery of consciousness – at least, for as long as I can remember. As a young child I used to worry about the nature of heat and light, and how the universe was created, but in my teens I became interested in the paranormal and the nature of mind. At university I had a very dramatic out-of-the body experience which convinced me that my soul had left my body. I became determined to become a parapsychologist and prove all my close-minded Oxford lecturers wrong.

But it turned out to be I who was wrong. I did make it as a parapsychologist, and spent nearly 30 years investigating the paranormal, but by the end I was as convinced as anyone can be that there is no such thing. In all those years of meeting psychics and clairvoyants, healers and spiritualists, not once did I find a convincing paranormal phenomenon. I learned a great deal about fraud and self-deception. It seems to me now that people so want to believe in the meaning of life, an inner spirit or soul, and its survival after bodily death that they will take any pathetic scrap of evidence, or any third-hand story that fits their prior beliefs and grasp onto it as proof. And the media, of course, pander to this desire.

I could have got deeply depressed about all this but two things saved me. One is my training as a scientist. In science you have to learn – difficult as it is – to keep an open mind and to reject your own firmly held beliefs if the evidence goes against them. I am glad now that I learned this the hard way and early in my life. And yes, it was hard. It was awful to set out as a young PhD student with what I thought was a brilliant new theory that would explain mind, memory and consciousness, and then to find that I was wrong. But that’s how science gets closer to the truth.

The other is my training in Zen. Back in those heady student days I tried many things; I trained as a witch, learned ritual magic, read Tarot cards, and took many of the most exciting and interesting drugs, but eventually I stumbled across Zen. I am not a Buddhist; I won’t sign up to any dogmas or creeds, but I have been practising Zen now for more than twenty years. This means daily meditation, or “just sitting”, paying attention and letting go. It also means applying the same in daily life, something like John Lennon’s “words of wisdom – let it be”. Through this practice one learns that everything is empty and ephemeral, including the self who seems to be practicing.

This is most peculiar. If there is no real “me” who has consciousness and free will, then what on earth is going on? This is the great matter into which one looks deeply in Zen practice.

Happily it is also the great mystery that scientists are delving into. When we look inside the brain there is just a vast mass of interconnected brain cells and no one who is directing the show. Indeed there is no show. So how come it feels as though “I” am inside my brain, looking out through “my” eyes at the world outside? This really sums up the problem of consciousness facing philosophers and scientists today, and I have spent the past few years tackling this head on. I decided that if I was really going to understand consciousness I should give up my university job, read as much as I could, and write the first ever textbook of the subject. This book was published in 2003 and since then I have written two more books on consciousness. I still don’t understand it!

But before that came the other intellectual thread that was to have such an impact. In 1995, after spending years working much too hard, I succumbed to chronic fatigue (I won’t use the meaningless term ME). I was too weak to walk, and so tired that I slept more than 12 hours a day for many months. During all this time I could do little but read for short periods and I began reading about memes. This is Richard Dawkins’s idea that culture is an evolving system just like the living world. In the case of biology genes are the selfish units of information that compete to get copied from generation to generation. In the case of culture it is ideas, stories, songs, works of art, or technologies that compete – he called these “memes”. In this view all the man made things we see around us are there because they have succeeded in using us to store and copy them. We are the meme machines that culture is using for its own propagation. No wonder the planet is in such dire straights; we have unwittingly taken on this parasitic new replication system and it is spreading all over the globe, using up all the natural resources.

This is how I became interested in the role of art and creativity. We may think that human consciousness is what makes us creative, but on this new view, all creativity is an evolutionary process. Just as elephants and the AIDS virus were novel creations of genetic evolution, so all of music, literature and art are novel creations of memetic evolution. We human meme machines copy old memes, mix them up in our heads, and spew out new combinations – the most creative of us being the best copiers and recombiners of memes.

This is a scary view of the world, and very far indeed from the comforting, psychic and self-based world I once hoped (and tried to prove) was true. But I think it is a lot closer to the truth. We humans are evolved meme machines. Free will and consciousness are wonderful delusions that it is difficult, but possible, to live without. I still battle with the mystery of consciousness but I now know that there is really no one inside here who is writing the books and articles, or looking at the world. It is all the pointless universe doing its stuff.