Memes and Immortality

“Resurrection. In the crude form in which it is preached to console the weak, it is alien to me. I have always understood Christ’s words about the living and the dead in a different sense. Where could you find room for all these hordes of people accumulated over thousands of years? The universe isn’t big enough for them; God, the good, and meaningful purpose would be crowded out. They’d be crushed by these throngs greedy merely for animal life.
But, all the time, life, one, immense, identical throughout its innumerable combinations and transformations, fills the universe and is continually reborn. You are anxious about whether you will rise from the dead or not, but you rose from the dead when you were born and didn’t notice it.”

“Consciousness is a light directed outward, it lights up the way ahead of us so that we don’t stumble. It’s like the headlights on a locomotive – turn them inward and you’d crash.”

“And now listen carefully. You in others – this is your soul. This is what you are. This is what your consciousness has breathed and lived on and enjoyed throughout your life – your soul, your immortality, your life in others. And what now? You have always been in others and you will remain in others. And what does it matter to you if later on that is called your memory? This will be you – the you that enters the future and becomes a part of it.”

Dr. Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak

I like to think a lot about cognition, philosophy of mind, and the material origins and characteristics of consciousness. I also like to blog a lot about them. However, of all the questions that dog philosophers, artists, and scientific researchers the most is the fundamental one – What is it like to unexist?

Of course, one of the reasons for this is our (thus far) lack of understanding of the phenomenon (or possibly, epiphenomenon) of consciousness. Even to the most reductionist materialist like myself, the inexplicable and intractable sense of “I”-ness permeates all experience and thought, as even thinking about the logical underpinnings of that very sense are fraught with emotion. In any case, it’s impossible to get away from. I cannot decide whether I admire people who are comfortable with themselves decomposing to dirt upon death, or whether I pity their lack of self-reflection.

Fortunately, Richard Dawkins, and in a similar way, Dr. Yury Zhivago, provide us with “a way out.” In fact, my own materialist neuroscientific beliefs provide me with some much-needed consolation, as I will explain.

I’ve blogged about Dawkins before, but that was because I was especially impressed by an excerpt from The Selfish Gene. But it’s been on my reading list ever since, and just a few days ago, I finished it. The most interesting chapter, I found, had little to do with biology – it was a connection to human society. Fortunately, he does expound eugenics or social Darwinism, but rather stresses the ways in which human society deviates from the expectations of evolution – the creation of the welfare state, and contraception, being two examples of support that he offers. Instead, with regard to his gene-centered theory evolutionary biology, Dawkins turns over the philosophical debate to another class of “immortal replicators” termed memes (a term that Dawkins in fact coined himself – wouldn’t have thought, considering that word has less to do with biology nowadays and more to do with this.) Memes are patterns of thought – believing in God, for example – which transfer widely in the population, evolve (most people don’t believe in the same type of God as 500 years ago, with some exceptions.) In any case, Dawkins defines the gene as the basis of life – some sort of self-replicating mechanism. He does not really worry about the nuanced dictionary definitions, simply offering the following perspective on early life-forms:

Should we then call the original replicator molecules ‘living’? Who cares? If I say to you ‘Darwin was the greatest man who has ever lived,’ and you might say ‘No, Newton was’, but I hope we would not prolong the argument. The point is that no conclusion of substance would be affected whichever way our argument was resolved. The facts of the lives and achievements of Newton and Darwin remain totally unchanged whether we label them ‘great’ or not. Similarly, the story of the replicator molecules probably happened something like the way I am telling it, regardless of whether we choose to call them ‘living.’ Human suffering has been caused because too many of us cannot grasp that words are only tools for our use, and that the mere presence in the dictionary of a word like ‘living’ does not mean it necessarily has to refer to something definite in the real world. Whether we call the early replicators living or not, they were the ancestors of life; they were our founding fathers.

So I venture to grant this tentative label of ‘living’ to consciousness, or at least fragments of it. These are, according to me, characterized by certain patterns of organizations in abstract information-processing models, ‘minds’, entrenched in the hardware of our firing neurons. The point that Dawkins and Zhivago make is that certain characteristics of our own thought are reflected in minds other than ours’. Do Hemingway and Joyce live in the minds of those who read and revere their works? How about the Beatles (not all dead yet, but still)? Picasso? Socrates? Machiavelli? How about the thoughts of empiricists such as Bacon, Hume, and Popper? Bacon devised the scientific method which is currently used by practically every single legitimate professional scientist (and scientifically minded non-scientists like myself) out there for the last four centuries. I, and many others, have thoroughly entrenched ourselves in the skeptical and falsifying attitudes of Popper and Hume. So does that mean that these two great philosophers live in our minds? It’s certainly a strange thought, but an attractive one.

Perhaps at the end of the day, it’s enough to just conclude that given that our consciousness is determined and caused by our unique patterns of mental processes, our best hope of ‘immortality’ is to make our own unique thinking impression on the rest of the world, since other minds can harbor these patterns, just as our friends might imagine how we feel or think about a given thing. But, as Dawkins reminds us, don’t forget about natural selection – not all ideas stick around!


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