Celebrity Funerals

The end of the year is actually one of the most enjoyable times to watch the mainstream news media. In particular, the tradition of airing over-the-top montages of a year’s worth of news is what CNN lives for. A typical year will provide more terrible disasters and human suffering than can properly be crammed into a 3-hour special hosted by Anderson Cooper. Once you add in a sprinkling of goofy offbeat stories and a few sappy human interest pieces you’ve got yourself some pretty compelling déjà-vu that will fill plenty of airtime between Christmas and New Year’s.

But aside from pretending that we live in apocalyptic world of simultaneous tsunamis, earthquakes, assassinations and financial collapse, these looks back on the year are  actually a valuable public service that all the major networks dutifully perform.

Not only do these retrospectives remind us of the sheer insanity and calamity that we’re capable of producing in a very short period of time, but they also jolt us into comparing our initial reactions to events with our more mature, considered opinions of those same events following a few months of rumination.

The biggest political story in Canada this year was a twofer – the NDP’s huge gains in Quebec and then leader Jack Layton’s rather sudden death from cancer.  His death rightly gripped much of the country for a little under two weeks, but of course not everyone was equally moved.

Jack Layton (1950-2011)

Enter Michael Coren, a pretty conservative Catholic talk show host, writer, etc., who wrote an editorial about his “friend” Jack Layton’s death. Basically his beef was that the Canadian people were collectively over-reacting to his untimely death, and that we should let the newly-minted Leader of the Opposition Rest In Peace.

Now I cringe at celebrity worship more than most people I know.  My unusual hatred for public acts of fame adoration probably explains why I never go to big concerts or book signings or anything where I’m expected to participate in a collective rejoicing in the presence of another human being. Weird.

So with that in mind I’m willing to allow that Coren was playing the unwelcome, but badly needed, voice of reason. His article can be charitably understood as trying to put a lid on the overzealous public commemoration of just another, mortal man.  Fair enough.

Coren (R) at the Kentucky Derby of Stupid (L)

But just when he had piqued my reasonable side, he went and showed his work. It’s the calculations by which he comes to his conclusion that amused and dismayed me.

You can read his article for yourself here, but here’s a rundown of his thoughts:

Coren denounces the political opportunism of Layton’s like-minded mourners, who shamelessly infuse his death with political overtones. He criticizes the lavishness of the ceremonies surrounding the commemoration of Layton’s death and wonders if that money might not have been put to better use, say, actually helping the poor people who Layton purportedly sought to help his entire life. Coren goes on to lament that in the case of Layton’s death, we are “morally classified by how much we weep for people we did not know”.

Substitute “Jack Layton” for “Jesus Christ” and I wish I’d written it myself. But of course, Coren’s editorial was written not two weeks after Jack Layton died and Jesus Christ died (according to my calculations) approximately one thousand nine hundred and seventy eight years ago.

So what gives? Coren unfavorably compares Layton’s eulogies to the wisdom of a couple of Christian philosophers and then questions the integrity of the atheists and the anti-Christians who mourned him so publicly. He seems pissed off: Layton didn’t even win every election he ran in, for Fuck’s sake!

In a banal and indeed textbook case of self-deception, Coren implores us to reconsider our ways. These massive collective displays of emotion all for the sake of one lousy, mortal, flawed, eating, shitting human being? Are you kidding me? Coren is so over Jack Layton’s death, he wants us to know.

Now, Jack Layton was no Jesus Christ, whatever that would actually mean. He didn’t perform any miracles [insert turning Pepsi into Orange Crush joke here], did not descend directly from any (known) deities… Really, the two don’t have all that much in common. We can assume that Jack admired Jesus, and maybe, if you’re the speculating superstitious type, just maybe, Jesus liked Jack Layton as well.

But this is missing the point. The larger question Coren stumbles upon is the human panache for public displays of grief when a well-known person dies.  I can only really speak from experience, which limits me to the English speaking world in the last twenty years or so. But even this small sample has given me something to run with.

Public grief for public figures manifests itself in some genuinely ridiculous ways – a point I would certainly grant to Coren. Who among us really defends the absurd, orgasmic reaction of the mass media to a celebrity death? Those who work in the ‘news’ media, for one. And the celebrities that depend upon the media for their financial and professional survival certainly do too.

Too many of us lowly media sponges participate in the effusive saturation coverage of the death, which takes the same well-rehearsed structure (with minor idiosyncratic variations each time).

  • The News Flash
  • The Statements of Condolence from Public Officials or Celebrities (usually both)
  • The Outpouring of Public Grief (flower and Bristol board shrines, the condolence books, the visitation of the body)
  • The Memorial
  • The Funeral
  • The $ Commemoration $ (actually begins some time while the person is still alive, but kicks in once it’s officially a flatline).

This works for singers, former presidents, actors, noted legislators, trusted TV personalities, Royalty, and so forth. Very different-seeming people are apparently capable of eliciting such similar, even formulaic, outpourings of grief.

How do these disparate people produce this media-fueled reaction? I can think of two major avenues of achieving such levels of fame, both roughly characterized by the relation of the person to the mass media. Some are highly parasitic upon the media, like almost all performers and self-promoters. Others are reluctant manipulators of the media,  like those who must use it for political or ideological reasons. I would count Layton (or, say, Vaclav Havel) in this second group, whereas most major celebrities, like Michael Jackson, belong squarely in the first.

Now Jack Layton was no Michael Jackson. Yes, they were both loved, hated, and above all famous – probably one of the only meaningful things they had in common.  But the very public nature of their lives and the type of public grief they evoked when they died makes them members of an exclusive stratum of society. Steve Jobs recently claimed his rightful spot in their company, along with Princess Diana, Mother Theresa and handful of others.

Michael Jackson (1958 -2009)

Those operating in this stratum invariably use some (or almost all!) of the time-honoured media techniques and tricks that foster a sense of closeness, trust, respect and admiration in people they will never actually meet face to face.

This flirtation with the masses via the media is a delicate dance perfected by some, and botched by many. But there are many tricks that work. For example:

  • Giving guided tours of your house to a camera crew (MTV’s Cribs style)
  • Talking to the camera as if it were a person
  • Providing teasing glimpses of private time (Family photos/ home videos, etc.)

These and many other subtle media routines lay the foundation for the outpouring of grief at the end of a famous life. And we non-famous types make this all possible by letting ourselves get swept up in the culmination of a famous existence. We jump at the chance to see a little deeper into a glamorous life once it has ended.

Our morbidity, or salacious love of gossip, our curiosity, and our tendency toward social conformity all conspire to ensure that even if we don’t care about a particular famous death, we make ourselves open to learning the details all the same.  We allow ourselves to collaterally absorb the basic information. How did she die? Where was she? How old was she again? We allow ourselves to participate despite our embarrassment about the fuss being made.

Death, of course, is the most powerful imposition of the natural world upon the material life of a great and adored person.  Full of contradiction, like all social events, the death of a celebrity is the humiliating tyranny of mortality and the ennobling glow of an aesthetic experience come to an end.

But Coren makes a big mistake. Just because Layton and, say, Jackson used similar well-honed media tactics to build rapport with the public and to create for themselves a well-defined public image, their actual achievements are not on par. Entertainers and political leaders do not have a moral equivalence, and especially not in this case!

What Layton did in his public life was not aimed at personal fame or wealth – it was largely in the service of his ideals and his desire to help and serve his fellow citizens.

When Donald Trump finally dies, for example, I suspect his funeral’s media coverage will be in the same stratum in the United States as Layton’s was in Canada.

You don't have to die, but some kind of disappearing would be nice.

But hopefully most people won’t make the mistake that Coren did. A huge over-the-top funeral partially worships celebrity for its own sake, to be sure. But not all celebrities are equal, nor do they all view celebrity as a worthy goal in itself. Coren should be among the first to recognize this about his late friend.

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Darwin: Clever Like a Fox (News)

The sadist in me loves American politics. I get a certain sick joy from watching the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter and Sarah Palin bloviating ignorantly about matters of crucial importance to their country and the world. I get a dirty thrill up my leg when I hear them ridicule science, boast about their particular brands of Christianity, and resurrect the threats of Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong (apparently all simultaneously reincarnated as one B. Hussein Obama).

A direct product of my Southern-style schadenfreude is an abiding gratitude for the relative lack of brazen ignorance in my daily grind. I’m fortunate insofar as I rarely deal with any overtly religious, anti-science types. The parable of the looming Nazi threat rarely infects my political discussions. In the circles that I frequent (few and far between though they are), Charles Darwin is a kindly old man, not some horrible menace to our national values and our children’s fragile young minds. If it sounds a bit like I’m bragging, well, I suppose it’s because I am.

And so it is with great trepidation that I foolishly enter the circus of the U.S. political debate. I do so because I see something lurking below the surface of the caustic right-wing rhetoric that I find both curious and a little alarming.  Behind all the talk of Nazism, Intelligent Design, Death Panels and so forth linger the remaining fragments of what was once a powerful stand-alone political ideology: Social Darwinism.

From what I can gather, it’s been over a century since anyone took seriously the prospect of ‘survival of the fittest’ as a legitimate political principle. But to listen to the American conservative right today, one could be forgiven for mistaking it to be alive and well. Take as a particularly rich example the acrimonious health care debate. Being the glutton for intellectual punishment that I am, I can assure you that this is a fair characterization of a major right-wing talking point throughout much of the debate:  ‘The Democrats want to collectivize health care and choose who lives or dies based on a statistical cost/benefit analysis.’

Me in my BDSM Fox-News-Watching-Attire. Thanks YTV. And yes, that's an actual quote from Sarah Palin.

If that absurd charge were actually true, it would be a textbook policy of a Social Darwinist State. Of course, back in the day, Social Darwinists would not stop with the sick and elderly. On the contrary; a true, red-blooded ideologue would probably want to stamp out the human equivalent of Noah’s Ark – your gays, mixed races, and non-white races; your Jews and gypsies; your disabled and disfigured; your political dissidents and grievous criminals; your homeless and transients. The recipe is actually quite simple – just keep killing all humans until everyone left on Earth could be substituted for the cast of “Leave It To Beaver” without anyone noticing.

It is ironic and maybe even a little cruel that the Right has managed to damage the effectiveness of Obama’s promised health care reforms with a whisper campaign designed to tease out fears of totalitarian biopolitics. The reality is that a Social Darwinist would fervently oppose any form of social safety net that helped ‘inferior’ humans nurture their offspring and, worse, enable them to reach breeding age! Forcing sick people into bankruptcy and home foreclosure is a far more Darwinian set-up for a society, and one that the non-corporatist Left overwhelmingly rejects.

Fear not, nerds. Next post will be back to good ol’ dry philosophy. No Palin, I promise.

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An Emerging Taste for Good and Bad

I can’t say for sure when or why, but at some point in my lifelong train of thought I came to view emergence as a dirty word in philosophy. It seemed absurd that perfectly natural phenomena might escape explanation in terms of simpler or ‘lower’ levels of reality. After all, I figured, the whole promise of a natural worldview was the unbroken explanatory link stretching from the simplest elementary particles of matter all the way up to the collective social movements of complex mammals like yours truly.

I suspect that my greed for this flavour of strong reductionism was largely ideological – my youthful self badly wanted a tidy naturalistic and deterministic understanding of the universe. Such an understanding by its very nature precluded the messiness of emergence. Of course we rarely get what we want by virtue of wanting it alone. And as much as my former self might protest, I now begrudgingly accept that to more accurately understand the universe, one must ironically acknowledge necessarily unpredictable phenomena and events.

Looking back, my best (admittedly post hoc) explanation for my mistake is that my rejection of top-down, theological accounts of the universe soured me on emergent explanations of phenomena which are a bizarre admixture of top-down and bottom-up. It is only in the last couple of years that I have begun to properly grapple with the messiness of a causal and undesigned universe, or so I hope.

I mention all of this because I think an ideological desire for tidy naturalism continues to taint a lot of philosophical domains, meta-ethics included. Consider the massive influence of Hume’s guillotine on moral philosophy. We cannot derive an ought from an is, Hume famously argued. True enough. But this does not imply that ought is not compatible with is. If we allow for an emergent conception of morality, we should not expect to derive an ought from anything! We should allow for an admittedly vague framework whereby the contingent and necessary properties of living, feeling creatures result in emergent ‘moral’ obligations.

I’ll be the first to admit that this sounds sloppy. It’s all a little too convenient to say that morality just happens to exist merely because we do. It would be almost too good to be true if we could just stop worrying about explaining what it is to act morally in terms of simpler reasons because any such account was doomed to fail by necessity. But if we allow the possibility that morality might be emergent, we can do battle against some of our more pervasive and distracting intuitions and hopefully address more fruitful questions in meta-ethics.

Perhaps one of the most basic problems is who or what is worthy of moral consideration? I suspect most people could be persuaded that all humans have some degree moral worth simply because they are members of the species homo sapiens. I also suspect that most people would agree that some subset of animals that exhibit signs of intelligence and the capacity to suffer also merit some level of moral worth. Perhaps it would even be uncontroversial that a great many artifacts and natural phenomena have second-order moral worth to the degree that they provide humans with pleasure or meaning.

This is the anthropocentric version of moral worth – whatever helps us feel happy and whatever suffering makes us feel guilty are what counts. Once again, this is a suspiciously convenient basis for morality. But just because it happens to be convenient is not sufficient reason why it might not be so.

I would argue that moral worth and a moral sense are two separate properties and that they do not always coincide. Many creatures on Earth have moral worth but do not behave accordingly. We routinely see in nature (and for that matter, in ourselves!) callous, disgusting behaviour towards creatures that can plainly suffer. At least we have the good sense to know it is wrong, but we shouldn’t get too cocky. From what we can tell about our history, our moral sense is a relatively recent emergence and it is clearly one that we have yet to properly hone.

The well-known primatologist Frans de Waal has argued that chimpanzees apparently observe a basic moral code, but this argument is contentious to say the least. There is a great risk of anthropomorphizing and projecting our phenomenological moral sense onto the behaviours of other creatures who we deem worthy of moral consideration. Arguably a moral sense is a far more complex and recent cultural and evolutionary development than the capacity of being wronged. A similar argument holds that the capacity to appreciate beauty came about fewer times and much later than the many instances of beautiful things, creatures and phenomena.

So far as I can tell, a  perception-like concept of morality nicely encapsulates the emergent, emotion-driven nature of what we feel to be right and wrong. It also gives us room for competing legitimate moralities as well as the possibility of refining our moral ‘tastes’.

But why should it be that a proper moral sense has only emerged in human beings? This is an empirical question that is being vigorously pursued by countless thinkers. It is arguably one of the hottest scientific questions of the day. But the fact that we recognize that our moral sense is evolved and dependent to some degree upon our biological history is a crucial shift in perspective.

But just as we cannot determine the properties of chemicals simply in reference to their constituent sub-atomic particles, neither should we hope to determine our moral obligations with reference only to the vastness of our evolutionary and cultural heritage. The point of emergence is that there is a jump in explanatory levels. As I alluded to in a previous post, there is a gap that we ought to mind with great care. To properly understand morality, we need to study the phenomenon itself; we need to pay close attention to how our moral behaviour manifests itself, how it changes over time, how competing moral systems influence each other and so forth. We must be of two minds; we must study the ‘is’ and contemplate the ‘ought’ even if the two will never seamlessly intersect.

I owe a great many insights in this post to Stuart Kauffman’s Reinventing The Sacred.  His book is difficult to say the least, but I have not been so pleasantly persuaded in quite some time. Highly recommended.

Reinventing The Sacred by Stuart Kauffman

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On Black Swans and Related Matters

The first time I read anything by John Ralston Saul was at the behest of a 40-something Mexican-American school teacher I met in Argentina. Hernando, as we’ll call him, was one of the most well-read people that I met in my travels and he had with him a number of books on philosophy. This was very lucky for me since they were all in English and he was eager to offload them as part of his plan to shed many of his possessions and buy an isolated parcel of land to call home.

When I met Hernando it was early enough in my trip that I not yet begun to read in Spanish, but late enough that my supply of English books was running low. It’s at moments like these when the planned route has almost run its course and the future path is contingent on chance events that the mind is most ripe for exposure to new ideas. As he showed me his collection of books, he recommended to me above all his copy of The Unconscious Civilization. When I recognized the name and told him that Saul was (at the time) the husband of Canada’s Governor General, he seemed surprised and quite pleased. Now that I am more familiar with Saul’s philosophy I can see why such an honorific, institutional, anachronistic day job clashes (and yet strangely complements) his thoughts on power, modernity, and the principles of the Enlightenment.

The Unconscious Civilization by John Ralston Saul (the edition with the best cover!)

In any case, thanks to my new friend’s flight from civilization, I had the wonderful occasion to read Saul’s Massey Lecture as well as a book on fuzzy logic and some of Bertrand Russell’s greatest hits in the blistering sun of the Southern summer (and my first ‘winter’ without so much as a flake of snow). In return I (vaguely) recall proffering a few liters of beer and a couple of cheap Spanish translations of Nietzsche.

Voltaire's Bastards by John Ralston Saul. Do not ingest.

When I returned to Canada I was eager to return to the stuff of Hernando’s serendipitous book collection, not least of which was what Saul had to say about rampant corporatism

And so I picked up Voltaire’s Bastards (VB) on Hernando’s emphatic advice.
I will be mercifully brief in my thoughts about VB. First, at over 650 pages, it is a monster of a book. Thanks to my abortive attempt to read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, VB easily clocks in as the longest book that I’ve ever actually read and finished. Second, it is an unusual book of philosophy in the sense that Saul’s arguments are not particularly rigorous or logical. He doesn’t set up tidy syllogisms nor find logical flaws in the reasoning of other philosophers. Instead, from what I can gather, he seems to be trying to give a sense of a trend in the Western world from multiple, apparently unrelated avenues. It’s as though he’s trying to give the reader an aesthetic sense of the corruption of the true ideals of the Enlightenment at the hands of modern Western technocrats. There are no smoking guns so much as there are cumulative tell-tale signs of the wresting of power by the ever-more specialized elites in the bastardized name of Reason. Third, it is an imperfect, wandering book, but its charm lies in its style and its highly interpreted portraits of key historical figures and events.

Long story short: it is an ambitious book that fleshed out my nascent sense that the official line was borderline conspiratorial, even if the conspirators were almost as unwitting as those of us who they rule over.

And now I come to The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I came across this book in a far less interesting way; I’d been hearing the buzz about it for some time so I bought it at the bookstore where I work. Unfortunately I had difficulty contributing to the well-earned buzz surrounding Taleb’s book because of the movie by the same name that had just been released. This book is mercifully unrelated to ballet.

I have a  few general thoughts on The Black Swan (which I won’t abbreviate to BS out of consideration to Taleb!). I grew to enjoy Taleb as a character in his own book. Although he comes across as a somewhat arrogant and particular man (he loves walking and talking at a very specific pace in urban locations), it grows endearing. He is not worried about making friends – as he says in his book, he’s already earned enough money to say a big “Fuck You” to all those who would pretend to tell him what to do. He is very cognizant of his image as an iconoclast in his profession – a financial trader.

In short, he is rebuking who Saul aptly called Voltaire’s bastards in one of their most pernicious and sophisticated manifestations: the modern financial sector. To put it crudely, he gives straightforward and clear arguments why those who pretend to model and forecast future financial and economic events are full of shit. The statistical models that such ‘experts’ use, Taleb says, are deeply flawed and based on fallacies like the tendency to ascribe a narrative structure to events, or to view systems according to clear rules where no such rules exist (the narrative and ludic fallacies, respectively).  The Black Swan is a type of event that is massively significant and almost impossible to predict accurately.  They are revolutionary, unanticipated, emergent events that destroy the unsophisticated (but deceptively certain) models of prediction. The best we can do is prepare ourselves to be receptive to the good ones and shielded from the bad ones. We can build systems that are flexible in the face of the inevitable Black Swan, but we cannot preemptively build anything that encompasses them or successfully resists them rigidly. Even when we can get a flavour of the types of Black Swans that are more or less likely, the consequences of such events by definition defy prediction. They are epistemologically inaccessible and we need to deal with that unpleasant reality.

Taleb is not writing just a business book – he is offering a wider epistemological critique which I consider to be anchored squarely in a number of psychological heuristics that I’ve discussed elsewhere in this blog.

In the same family as Wrong by David H. Freedman and Risk by Dan Gardner, Taleb’s book is the antithesis of most business books. It is a well-aimed barb in the same category of the nebulous Voltaire’s Bastards and well worth a reader’s time.

Thar She Blows In All Her Glory.

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Minding Our Gap.

Darwin’s impact on philosophy has long been my fascination. Given that we are evolved creatures, it’s not so surprising that many of our individual behaviours and our cultural institutions might be profitably understood from a biological perspective. Yet traditional, so-called armchair philosophy has been done with minimal input from the empirical sciences for as long as there has been philosophy (which is incidentally longer than there has been armchairs.) The poverty of empiricism in philosophy, to borrow a phrase, has only recently been corrected.

Philosophers as we now know them have their feet in many camps – they are sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists or engineers; they are computer scientists, neurologists or historians. The diversity of reputable philosophers’ training is perhaps unmatched by any other discipline.

But this great empirical trend in philosophy comes with its own dangers. By over-correcting for the highly abstract, even Platonic trend in philosophy, the pendulum can be made to swing the other way. If philosophy leans too much on science, the former risks being swallowed whole by the latter. This would be a grave mistake – philosophy is not yet ‘merely’ a branch of the other social and pure sciences. Other fields are undeniably encroaching fast, but philosophy still has a humble outpost that is truly its own domain.

This belief has taken me a long time to reach. Since very early in my philosophical education I felt that purely philosophical questions existed only because they had not been asked in the proper empirical terms. It is easy to make a splash with this type of claim. The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow opens with the bold claim that “Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead.” The papers and blogs jumped on this with the usual gusto for Hyperbole stemming from Authority and providing Controversy (the H.A.C. Factor™ as I have come to call it).

Not quite, I would say to Hawking and friends. Philosophy suffers when it is overwhelmed by the natural sciences, and especially so in the case of moral philosophy.  Of course, Hawking and Mlodinow are concerned with the origins of the universe and not necessarily how one ought to live, but their overreach is nonetheless instructive.

Philosophical questions do not disappear even when they are very cleverly couched in empirical terms. They are eroded, chipped away at, freshly illuminated – pick your metaphor. Scientific progress will continue to correlate strongly with philosophical progress, but there is little risk of science eclipsing philosophy just yet.

Perhaps without realising it, many moral philosophers similarly over-extend the reach of the natural sciences in philosophy. I am likely still guilty of such mistakes, although this mea culpa of a post should at least make it clear that I hope to change my erroneous ways.

In many ways the most recent wave of this notorious infusion of the biological sciences in philosophy began with E. O. Wilson’s work on insect and animal societies. Although not alone in this movement, his book Sociobiology was probably the most popular and controversial example of biology’s newest pretenses to speak with authority in traditionally off-limit domains (i.e. sociology, anthropology, psychology, etc.).

Wilson is still committed to his vision of unified knowledge of the universe, and his more recent book Consilience is beautifully written defense of finding unity in the sciences. But Wilson is not as strong a reductionist as it might seem. He doesn’t claim that the key to understanding the endless forms most beautiful that are being evolved (to borrow another phrase) must be done in terms of quantum physics. Different ‘levels’ of the universe require different ‘levels’ of explanation. This point is easy to forget when philosophy is so thoroughly infused with science. But there are limits to this infusion.

I have always enjoyed Bertrand Russell for his clarity and his style. But his philosophy has not stood up well with time. In a short piece called “Philosophy in the Twentieth Century” he writes:

“The first characteristic of the new philosophy is that it abandons the claim to a special philosophical method or a peculiar brand of knowledge to be obtained by its means. It regards philosophy as essentially one with science, differing from the special sciences merely by the generality of its problems, and by the fact that it is concerned with the formation of hypotheses where empirical evidence is still lacking. It conceives that all knowledge is scientific knowledge, to be ascertained and proved by the methods of science.” The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell. p. 268

It’s undeniable now as it was in 1928 that philosophy increasingly resembles science and profits from its methods and findings. But philosophy and science are not one and the same. Granted, moral decision making will continue to be illuminated by scientific progress. But to say that we will finally cross the gap of ‘is’ to ‘ought’ is, I believe, mistaken. The explanatory level of agency and morality may well be the highest level of explanation in the universe. This is because for every complex social phenomenon – broad cultural systems like politics, industry, economy (divide it however you like) – we can and do aspire to direct them for practical and moral reasons.

It’s true that our political system exists only because there are millions of individuals whose collective actions constitute a given political entity. And some of the phenomena we see associated with the body politic are not reducible to these individual actions – the logic of politics requires another level of explanation. But the intentional actions of individuals within the body politic are shaped by the trends at this ‘higher’ level of explanation. Feedback is possible, and indeed common. Political trends emerge because of the collective actions of millions, which in turn affects the actions of those millions (some more than others, of course).

The way we deem suitable to direct the political phenomenon is a moral question, which we only dimly understand using statistical and theoretical political models. Science informs our understanding of this complex phenomena that is nevertheless emergent and susceptible to direction from ‘below’. Our social sciences have come a long way, but have plenty of room to grow.

And yet, as I think we will increasingly understand, agency always finds a way to bubble to the top of the explanatory hierarchy, and thus will always, if only minutely, remain meaningfully distinct from scientific explanation.

The moral questions are separate from science, if just barely. But our ability to create that insurmountable explanatory leap is what makes us human, and it is something we ought to hold quite dear. That gap is perhaps our greatest distinguishing feature as temporary assemblies of matter in a cooling universe.

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The Meme Wars: Episode 2: An Electric State of Mind

In my last post I went on for several thousand words about memes as avenues for understanding human culture. In particular, I argued that memes were a good place to start looking for common threads between the social aims espoused by socialists and the empirical foundations of Darwinian theories of the human condition. My point, if I had to put it into a sentence, is that we must use our understanding of human psychology to properly direct our political and moral campaigns if they are to be successful. I praised Adbusters for being openly conscious of this constraint on politics, as evidenced by their frequent use of memes as actual entities that must be grappled with if their aims are to be successful.

I still stand by these main points, simple as they are. But much has changed in the time since my last post. By coincidence, I came across an extremely cheap copy ($1, First Edition) of a truly remarkable book that pretty much blows the doors off my admittedly simplistic view of memes.The book is The Electric Meme by Robert Aunger. A fair warning: it will require much of my restraint to avoid hyperbole in my endorsement of this book. Hopefully I’ll catch most of it.

The Electric Meme - Robert Aunger (A particularly egregious case of good book, bad cover)

First of all, it is by far the most comprehensive and innovative book on memes that I’ve read. Aunger has worked as an anthropologist and has an undeniably sophisticated understanding of evolutionary theory, and particularly of replication theory.  In my meanderings, the only other book on memes of comparable quality that I’ve come across is a collection of essays edited by Aunger called Darwinizing Culture. Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine was enjoyable, but Aunger’s approach is on a conceptually higher plane.

Second, it comes with heavyweight endorsements like Richard Dawkins’ and Daniel Dennett’s. This is always a selling point for me, no matter how academically sloppy that may be. However, Dennett and Dawkins are not the types to blindly support their disciples and sycophants. Aunger develops memetics well beyond anything that Dawkins or Dennett have established. He takes both to task on inconsistencies in their theories and refutes a number of their conceptual claims about memes. Aunger clearly establishes in his book a theory of memes that surpasses in coherence and testability anything that has been written by his intellectual forebears.

Finally, The Electric Meme was not a light read, nor a particularly brisk one. But Aunger writes incredibly well about complex and abstract concepts. Dawkins may be stretching it when he says that Aunger writes “entertainingly”, but a rewarding read it is without question.

Now that I’m done my sales pitch, (you’re welcome, Robert), we can return to the question at hand – namely how memes can help us achieve political goals. For the moment, there seems to be only one effective avenue, which I hinted at in my last post: successful memes as reflections of ‘human nature’ (whatever that means!).

Aunger goes into great theoretical deal about the nature of memes and how they are transmitted. He examines other replicators (genes, prions and computer viruses) to establish the fundamental conditions of what constitutes replication.

His definition is much narrower than the conventional uses of meme (such as Internet jokes and public relations campaigns). He limits the actual physical substrate of the meme to our brains, and specifically to patterns of firing synapses, hence The Electric Meme. What many have thought to be memes (inventions, ideas, documents, fads etc.) are the products of memes, but not memes themselves. Memes do indeed spread from one brain to the next using these various artifacts and forms of communication, but this is an important theoretical distinction (to which Aunger dedicates much of his book).

Of the three ways that Aunger says memes can reproduce themselves, most supporters of memetic theory (Adbusters included) seem to be focused on just one, which I mentioned above. It is the meme’s capacity to exploit an existing disposition to form across multiple brains. Memes whose structures conform to idiosyncrasies of a particular environment (i.e. human brains) will be more likely to proliferate. This assumption is one that leads meme theorists to psychology (and particularly evolutionary psychology) as a window into such peculiarities of the human brain and thus the memetic population. Our evolutionary predispositions, as I alluded to in the first post, are perhaps the easiest memes to predict. Memes (and the technologies that transmit them) which fulfill our love for fat, sugar, sex, laughter, violence, and so forth are no-brainers, so to speak.

The problem is that we so poorly understand the function of the brain in its boggling complexity. Our ignorance is so great that any effort to extrapolate the firing of select synapses based on the study of trends in human evolution is – for now – a folly. One day we may better understand how our brains come to mesh with memetic replicators, and in turn how larger cultural forces and memes co-evolve, as Aunger argues they do.

But before we can engage in anything like a properly substantiated meme war (or memetic engineering, for the less bellicose among us) we have much ground to cover. The best we can hope for in these early days, it seems to me, is an approach that in broad strokes allows us to take the meme’s-eye-view as a helpful shortcut to finding ways to make counter-intuitive or as-yet unpopular ideas stick. Psychology, biology, anthropology and sociology all have a part to play. And so do many of the values espoused by Adbusters.

Finally, I will add a note on reductionism. Like genes, memes are explanatory to a certain degree. But never would I argue that all of culture is entirely reducible to memes. On the contrary, much of what we see occurring in human life may only be partially influenced by memetics.

The gene is a good example: strings of A,G,C and T do not fully explain human beings. But any explanation of human beings that violates the laws of genetics as we come to know them is necessarily flawed. Ditto for memes, although we admittedly know so little about the laws that govern their influence that to dismiss possible explanations of human behaviour as anti-memetic is for now unreasonable.

Memes do not provide a complete picture, but they may eventually present a real constraint on any explanation of human affairs, just as the laws of genetics, chemistry, physics now do. You can’t explain a human with pure physics, but you can’t explain a human if you ignore those laws either. This is the hard-won lesson of consilience as opposed to what Dennett called ‘greedy reductionism’.

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Begun, The Meme Wars Have: Episode I

Part Marx For Effort

In my post before last I probably pissed off a lot of people who like Karl Marx. That’s probably an unavoidable result of my genuine disagreements with Marxist theory and my outright opposition to Marxist practices (so far, at any rate). But that doesn’t mean that Marxists and I have no common ideals.

Believe it or not, I hold many beliefs that could fairly be called ‘socialist’. I value individual equality beneath the law and institutions that ensure equality of opportunity. I fully understand the need for economic and political structures that are designed to prevent the stratification of society and the legalized oppression of the many beneath the unaccountable few. Furthermore, I think that inequality of opportunity and the stratification of society tend to be mutually reinforcing if left unchecked. Because of this they must be of central concern to policymakers and citizens alike.

But my reasons for believing such Marx-ish ideas are not to be found in Das Kapital or elsewhere in his massive body of work. As I alluded to before, one can accept such conclusions in broad strokes without buying into the particular framework to which they are most famously attached. Socialist values are ideas that I hold to be true. But like any other statements, they can be produced with valid or invalid arguments alike. My goal with this blog (and more generally with my efforts in philosophy) is to show how this can be done with valid and scientifically compatible arguments.

Fortunately for my brave readers I don’t have the stomach to try to spell out a full-blown legal, economic, political, social, biological (etc…) alternative to Marx in a single post. I hope such an alternative grows over time, as I continue to work it out for myself. Obviously I’m not unique in this pursuit, and many of my intellectual superiors have made prodigious inroads that I still follow closely. But philosophy isn’t a spectator sport, so here it goes:

If You See What I Meme.

I hope it’s fair to say that Adbusters is the most mainstream Marx-inspired magazine in the world. And whenever I read it, I find myself in overall agreement with many of their general arguments and attitudes. I like that they manifest an admittedly contagious – if sometimes fleeting – optimism. I like that they put urgency into old and commonsensical ideas that our current economic system contradicts on a routine basis. And I like that they find no reason to isolate art, politics and economics – after all, they are all elements of human culture demanding introspection and continuous reinvention. And I like that they find passionate and creative ways to show the problems inherent in our global economy as it exists today. In short, Adbusters exemplifies equal attention to praxis and theory that is refreshing and commendable.

I write this to underscore once again that I am not numb to the appeal of socialism. But for many, of course, Adbusters ≠ Socialism. Many on the far left see it as amateurish, uncommitted, lite and generally just Mickey Mouse business (irony intended). From a little closer to the centre, there is still plenty of criticism to go around. The magazine’s stated project of ‘culture-jamming’ has been lambasted persuasively.* And from the right, I think it is safe to say that Adbusters is seen as little more than an embarrassing, if at times unsettling, patchouli-scented farce.

All very fascinating, but my goal is not an overall assessment of Adbusters magazine. My aim is far more narrow: finding ways to bridge the divide between the conclusions (or rather, intuitions) of socialist thinkers and modern, Darwinian theories of human nature.

So why Adbusters? Because of the meme.

Adbusters loves memes. They routinely summon readers to engage in meme warfare as a means of jamming the culture and furthering their notions of economic and social justice. This generally entails working towards a global system that respects people over corporations and that rejects consumer materialism as a source of worthwhile meaning Just this week they lionized the founder of WikiLeaks Julian Assange as a metameme warrior on the front page of their website.

Adbuster's call to arms. Or their (ironic?) branding of a phenomenon of human culture?

In Part I of this post I want to fill out what I think are the contours of memes themselves, including the much-fabled metameme. In Part II I hope to examine the implications of a theory of human nature and of social justice that includes memes.

Part I (…finally!)

As coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 masterwork The Selfish Gene, the meme is intended to be developed into a far-reaching conceptual unit of cultural transmission. Instead, its common usage, as far as I can tell, is limited to describing a range of phenomena on the Internet – from in-jokes on message boards to viral gags that even catch on in ‘real life’. It’s true that LOLcats and Power Thirst are memes.** But so are buttered bread and ‘Happy Birthday’. So is agricultural wheat and ‘false consciousness’.

The semi-endangered meme: the 1978 cover of The Selfish Gene (and one that I was very happy to find at a used bookstore).

Perhaps the reason that the meme meme has acquired this common usage is because the the Internet is probably the best medium we have for understanding memes on a more discrete level of analysis. With the Internet it is easy to detect when a particular meme in its earliest form first appears. From there it is easy to trace, its spread, its gains or declines in popularity and its mutations and adaptations. They can even be classified in general terms, and patterns of the meme life-cycle can be hypothesized.

An important, if distracting question worth asking is: what exactly is a meme. It’s well and good to give examples. Most of us can intuitively grasp the basic concept. But how is the stuff of memes actually selected and transmitted, mutated and extinguished. What is the stuff of memes? The analogy of meme:gene is a good one (and one that Dawkins fully intended). However there is a considerable risk, as with any analogy, of stretching it to the breaking point.

Remember that we can theoretically imagine genes that are not composed of the base pairs that constitute DNA. There is not a necessary connection between the unit of data identified as a gene and its physical substrate. This is evidenced by the fact that our theories of genes long preceded the actual discovery of the structure of DNA, and that we can speak of genetic effects long before actually determining the precise genes involved.

Similarly, we are not required to identify the physical substrate of memes in order to talk meaningfully about their function and even to devise theories about their workings. Like genes, we can begin to deduce their contours well before we have any idea about their immensely complex workings.

I am also hesitant to draw close parallels between genes’ and memes’ precise functional make-up. Base pairs make up long strings of information that via a complex process of transcription code for proteins. Forgive me for glossing over an enormous domain of science, but once those proteins are out and about, shit gets complicated. We are still in the early stages of understanding the function and shape of complex macromolecules, let alone understanding the richly dynamic process of genes interacting with one another via these vastly complex compounds.

And given that this still-baffling process is the medium of the meme, we should take any and all rudimentary memetic predictions with a healthy dose of skepticism. And yet I am drawn to the concept of the meme. I am willing to admit wholeheartedly that any rigid definition of a meme at this stage borders upon pseudo-science. It is a theoretical, conceptual entity whose workings we can only faintly intimate.

But Dawkins wasn’t theorizing about a mythical abstraction. He was proposing another shorthand for understanding complex systems. The Selfish Gene was about genes, to be sure. But it was also about how we can profitably go about understanding gene’s function in particular, and a replicator’s function generally.

Humans have an excellent ability to understand intentionality. Some have argued that it is a theory of mind and, correspondingly, of intentionality, that is what distinguishes humans and, more importantly, human culture from that of the other apes. In turning this theory of mind on to something other than humans, it is putting one of our minds’ specialities to good use.

So when we adopt the gene’s-eye-view (GEV), we are using our intuitive (and largely innate) understanding of intentionality*** to predict how an inanimate, non-intentional informational abstraction will behave in a dynamic and complex environment. When understood as a limited and metaphorical device, the GEV is extremely effective.

And so it goes with the meme’s-eye-view (MEV). If we understand abstract pieces of cultural information along similar lines, we can gain some insights into the complex machinations of cultural transmission.****

My hope is that this rudimentary MEV can help Marxists and other social theorists find a common ground for evaluating claims. After all, when we engage in social theorising, we are at once describing how human culture (in the broadest sense) actually functions, as well as how we think it ought to be improved.

This semi-objective space for understanding culture and arguing about how it ought to be shaped has its advantages.

The Ecology Of Memes

The MEV allows us to incorporate evidence from the sciences about human nature. To take some extremely basic (and admittedly borderline-caricatured) examples, we can all understand why memes for not eating, not drinking water, not reproducing and not fighting in self-defense do not spread among many normal human beings. Our innate desires too strongly counteract them, in most cases. Of course there are those who attempt chastity, who fast, who adhere to strict non-violence even in self-defense, and so forth. But I suspect we can all readily admit that it would be nearly impossible to impose these extreme principles as laws on any sizable group of people. We understand that (and roughly why) these ideas do not find fertile soil in human minds. Moreover, we can provide falsifiable theoretical reasons why they do not and testable empirical evidence that they do not.

Conversely, memes for over-indulgence in food, sex, and fluids are of epidemic proportions in the rich world. Diet plans and treatments for sex-addiction (not to mention plain old contraception!) constitute our various attempts to curb an extremely fertile memetic niche. That the diet industry is worth many billions of dollars a year in the United States alone is proof positive that some behaviours are desirable to a fault. From the MEV, the human weakness for fatty, sweet, frequent meals that cheer us up ensures the promulgation of a whole host of associated memes (from agricultural practices to drive-thrus).

The Condom and the Balanced Diet: Two Anti-Meme Memes in the vast Meme Wars

I think that these very basic examples might be widely intuitive. We all understand that human nature predisposes us to certain behaviours that, in the modern world, lead to perversions that are generally undesirable but remarkably difficult to curb, let alone halt.

The MEV enables us to do a few things. First, it provides us an entry point of vaguely understanding the intersection of human behaviour and artifacts on the one hand and social and psychological forces on the other.

There are dozens of books and articles that document the range of known and hypothesized psychological heuristics. In many cases, the behaviours that they describe (and that indeed provide quintessential examples of their manifest effects) have existed long before the heuristics were understood in modern psychological terms.

Anchoring is an easy example – things that cost $19.99 apparently sell better than things that cost $20.00, even if things that cost $23.45 don’t sell much better than things that cost $23.44. Our brains’ clumsy handling of numbers is well-known and has long been exploited, intentionally or not, by businesspeople throughout time. The meme of exploiting the various instances of the anchoring heuristic takes many forms, of course, but the basic logic behind this ‘good trick’ is a relative constant.

Even when done incorrectly, anchoring probably still works better than we'd expect.

Is it any wonder, for example, why drive-thrus have caught on so widely, whereas ‘make your own burger’ joints have not? Is it any surprise that toys are marketed to the children themselves whereas healthful children’s foods are marketed to parents? For a meme to be enduring and successful, it helps to play on the weakness rather than the strengths of the bodies in which it replicates.

Metamemes Or Better Memes?

It is hardly surprising that a magazine so concerned with advertising would take memes seriously. Marketing is arguably one of the most highly-developed branches of memetic engineering.

It differs from more conventional forms of memetic reproduction / propagation to the extent that it involves designing and spreading memes explicitly intended to successfully bear influence on the constitution of the meme pool in a given population. It is metamemetics. Of course, we all engage in metamemetics in some form when we seek to influence the behaviour (and thus the manifestation of memes) in others. Much of our meta-memetic efforts are unconscious and idiosyncratic. Marketing, like politicking, governing,

Given the vastly complex inter-relations of memes, all memes might be said to be ‘about’ others, in the same way that all genes are all to some degree dependent on the others. This is roughly the perspective advocated by Dawkins in The Extended Phenotype, which he considers to be his greatest contribution to science. As a general principle, Dawkins holds that the information content of replicators is influenced by all other replicators as well as the properties of the physical world. The content of a replicator like a gene or meme is not some localised and isolated string of bits – it is the inseparable product of the natural world in all its enormous complexity.

Accordingly, the concept of a metameme is fuzzy, and probably unnecessary for our purposes (or for Adbusters). All memes influence all others. But only some can be said to be overtly about others. Intentionality is relevant for the study of memes. A novel and a manifesto differ along this dimension. The Da Vinci Code and The Communist Manifesto are similar in the sense that the authors generally expect similar reactions in most readers. Brown hopes to entertain, surprise and thrill readers. Marx hopes to invigorate, awaken and mobilise readers. In each case the relation between the meme and the agent are dissimilar. Brown wants the reader to be experience pleasant feelings and emotions as a consequence of reading his book. Secondarily he might hope that readers go on to buy his other books or go to see the film version of The Da Vinci Code starring the loveable Tom Hanks as the Langdon.

As we clearly see in this diagram, Marx and Langdon are very different.

Marx hoped to provoke an emotional response in his readers as well. But he and Engels also hoped that the reader would form explicit beliefs about the world and is motivated to act in accordance with these new beliefs. The book is meant to be a catalyst for social change. It is more properly understood as a means to an end and not, as with many novels, essentially an end in itself. As I mentioned above, this is a fuzzy distinction because many novels are an admixture of entertainment and persuasion. Orwell’s Animal Farm is a book about a farm. But it’s not really a book about a farm. Orwell hopes to nurture a set of beliefs in the reader and, hopefully, even motivate her to act according to such beliefs.

WikiLeaks is a metamemetic operation. So is Fox News. And Adbusters. And every marketing department in the world. And every documentary ever produced. The list goes on, just like this post!

In Part II, my patient reader, we will try to see how the concept of the meme supports a vision of human well-being as a project of social engineering based on empirical evidence


* Namely The Rebel Sell by Andrew Potter and Joseph Heath. Incidentally, they also rip into another sacred manifesto of counter-culture with similar effectiveness: No Logo by Naomi Klein.

** A highly educational and entertaining repository of such Internet memes can be found here: http://knowyourmeme.com/

*** This exploits what Wrey Herbert calls the Whodunit heuristic in his new book On Second Thought

****Redirecting our ingrained heuristics is an excellent way of teasing out insights that can be difficult to determine logically. Like analogies, heuristics have breaking points and we must be wary of over-stepping their useful useful application.

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