A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

More on memes: The Teeming Millions lose their minds

March 12, 2004

Dear Cecil:

Regarding memes (What's a meme? The Straight Dope, February 13), why is it so important to deny me even the tiniest crumb of a consciousness, self, will, Geist, Seele, soul, or whatever the heck you want to call it? What is so threatening about my having a little bit of choice? What is so terrifying about acknowledging my ability to choose between whether I will read two, three, or four bedtime stories tonight to my four-year-old son or, for that matter, whether to get a root beer instead of a Coke? Do I really have to have a meme for every little decision? Is it OK if I tell my memes to go jump in the lake?

Cecil replies:

There, there. Uncle Cecil recognizes that his column, while nailing the meme question, had the unfortunate side effect of rhetorically reducing his readers to zombies, leaving parties such as yourself in a nervous and uncertain state. So let me assure you: You have consciousness, and by the time I'm done you'll have free will, too. (I'll take a pass on whether you've got a soul.) There's just one thing I can't budge on, but in today's postliterate society it's something most folks won't miss: You haven't got a mind.

Before you stomp off in a huff, I'm talking here about the mind as something distinct from the body — in other words, mind-body dualism, a notion most famously advanced by Rene Descartes, the 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician. Descartes reasoned that one could imagine having no body but not one's own nonexistence. It followed that the irreducible nub of personhood was the conscious mind. Thus his famous dictum: "I think, therefore I am."

Though beguilingly commonsensical, this logic suffers from a fatal defect: it's wrong. As Daniel Dennett observes in Consciousness Explained (1991) — and if you think an 800-word column about consciousness is heavy sledding, wait till you wade through 468 pages — mind-body dualism defies physics. To order your body into action, your mind must inject some sort of energy into the system; but if the mind isn't part of the physical realm, that input is essentially coming from nowhere — thus violating the law of conservation of energy. (You science types understand what I'm talking about.) Ergo, you don't have a mind separate from the belching, sweating rest of you. You're meat that thinks.

But how? After 50 years of floundering we can't even agree on what it means to think. The subject leaves otherwise sensible people completely unnerved. To hear some talk, it's as though abandoning the concept of pure mind obliges us to think of ourselves as mere automatons.

Take memeticist Susan Blackmore, who believes the self and free will are illusions and that what we imagine to be our choices are actually the product of competing memes. For Blackmore, consciously trying to "decide" something is futile — the memes have already worked it out. In the closing pages of her book The Meme Machine she recommends a weird techno Zen approach in which we watch with detachment while our robot selves rattle through the preordained humdrum of existence.

Other folks, while they don't get quite that nutty, make much of the work of neuroscientist Benjamin Libet, whose brain experiments suggest that awareness of the impulse to perform an act often arises after the act has begun — the implication being that decisions are made subconsciously, by memes or who knows what hidden agency, and that the conscious mind is just along for the ride.

This is surely nonsense. I'll concede we make lots of decisions without articulating them to ourselves — how else would anyone play a decent game of basketball? — but there's no reason to think the conscious process we use for more considered choices is somehow fraudulent. No laws of physics or logic must be violated for us to ponder alternatives and make decisions in the ordinary senses of those terms. Electronic computers process inputs and produce outputs, and so do we.

Abandoning the notion of pure mind makes life seem scary and empty only if we take the analogy too far and think of ourselves as nothing but computers, mindlessly executing preprogrammed instructions. True, we're but flesh and blood, and our thought processes in some sense are mechanical. True also, our range of choices is limited — it's not necessarily memes dictating whether you pick root beer or Coke, but the Coca-Cola company has definitely had a lot to say about it.

Nonetheless I think we're entitled to believe that we are what we seem to ourselves to be — that is, self-aware creatures who through a combination of reason and emotion select among alternatives and set events into motion, and who can reasonably be held to account for the consequences. Obvious? Maybe to you, but the philosophers are more likely to grumble: How can you be sure, when so little about consciousness is understood? Take my word for it, gang. Sometimes at the Straight Dope we just know.

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