What’s Wrong with Larry Auster?
And, can people who deny the existence of consciousness applaud truth speakers?
(Note: this entry includes a discussion on the subject: does a person who subscribes to the Darwinian/Dawkinsian model of human mental life have the right to appeal to ideals of truth and honesty?)
is a big subject
this weekend at What’s Wrong with the World
, and all because, according to Steve Burton’s ethical code, it was perfectly ok for him to issue a cheap smear of me, but not ok for me to identify the smear as a smear.
I have not read the thread about me. [Note, October 3, 2010: I have just mostly skimmed, partly read, the 4W thread for the first time. It is quite astonishing. It basically consists of Auster-obsessives Steve Burton, Ilion, and Hesperado, backed by Christopher Roach and Awake, repeatedly attacking me as intellectually dishonest, psychologically bent, and lots of other things for my criticisms of Steyn, Melanie Phillips, et al. The main commenter is Ilion, who posts at least 30 comments stating that I am intellectually dishonest and expressing his increasing frustration that other commenters are not getting the point, I fail to find a single piece of evidence showing my intellectual dishonesty or even getting close. Maybe that’s the reason why no one, outside the anti-Auster crew, agrees with Ilion’s point. Numerous commenters also defend me.] However, Mencius Moldbug has just sent me a comment he posted there in which he warmly defends me. I thank Mencius very much, especially as I’ve been very tough on him lately. However, I can’t help but ask Mencius the following question: how can a person be an intellectually honest seeker of truth, as Mencius generously says about me, if his supposed mental life actually consists of the autonomous operation of delusional parasitic memes, which Mencius says is true of all people who believe in God, and, by Mencius’ own logic, would be true of all human beings, period, including Mencius himself?
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Leonard D. writes:
“how can a person be an intellectually honest seeker of truth … if his supposed mental life actually consists of the autonomous operation of delusional parasitic memes, which … would be true of all human beings … ?”
I am not Mencius Moldbug, but I think I can tackle the question. But first, I want to address some incorrect conceptions in your question.
First off, just as is the case for genes, nobody is saying that memes actually are autonomous. It can certainly be helpful to impute autonomy to them, for the purpose of understanding their evolution. To some extent, they behave like they have goals or a will of their own. But it is not really there. [LA replies: You’re right. I didn’t mean to impute purpose to memes but rather causality in relation to us; we are not the cause of our own actions and thoughts; the memes act on us.]
Second, not all memes are delusional. For example, one of the things I was taught by rote was the earth is round. I believed this long before I saw any evidence of it. Indeed, I believed it long before I was even capable of forming my own judgment about it. [LA replies: I’m sorry to be rude, but I’m not going to compromise on this point. If our mental life consists of and is determined by memes, then whether individual memes are “true” or not is besides the point as far as we are concerned. We don’t believe—i.e., harbor—a meme because it’s true and we don’t disbelieve it because it’s false. We believe it because, according to some unspecified calculus which would be the mental equivalent of natural selection, it “works,” and so has been “memetically selected.” There is no truth involved in this process. Truth is irrelevant in a meme-based vision of human mental life. A person who believes our mental life is determined by memes has no more right to say he believes in truth than a person who believes in evolution by Darwinian random mutation and natural selection has the right to say that he believes in right and wrong. A concept of right and wrong CANNOT be produced by a process that runs solely on chance genetic mutations plus the spread of the genes that best survive. Similarly a belief in truth and the ability to tell true from false cannot arise in a being whose “mental” life is the function of memes that happen to have gotten implanted in him through “memetic selection.”]
Third, not all memes are parasitic. A parasite (at least in gene terms) is a gene (or geneset) which raises its own fitness by reducing the fitness of a host. Certainly some memes have an analog to that quality. For example, Christianity and Islam preclude each other, and yet both accept the idea of martyrdom. Both cannot be correct, so a lot of people have died for an incorrect religion. That is what I would call a parasitic meme. (I am curious if you would agree with the idea that Islam is a parasitic meme.) [LA replies: I of course reject the very notion of memes because it is incompatible with human consciousness and human rationality. Which is not to say that much of human mental life does not consist of phrases, notions, ideas, that get mechanically picked up and implanted. Much of the work of intellectual life and cultural criticism consists in the criticism of such mechanically spread ideas. But Dawkins, you, and Mencius reduce human mental life to nothing but memes. And therefore you have no right to talk about consciousness and a belief in truth that chooses true over false memes. ]
[ … ]
So, back to the question. Memes may be true, or false, or (mostly) without a truth value. But they are not autonomous. They don’t act; they are not infectious the way that, say, a virus is. There is a “you” here. A mind may be analogized to a computer: “you” comprise both a chunk of “hardware” (a brain), and the “software” of existing memes. Both the hardware and the software affect how the entire system acts. [LA replies: Once again, a being consisting of hardware plus memes is not a human entity with a self and a mind and consciousness and volition. And someone who believes that that is what humans are has no right to speak of a human belief in truth and a human ability to discern true from false.]
[ … ]
To be intellectually honest, then, is a matter of not deluding yourself when you attempt to determine which memes are true. It comes in two forms, paralleling the two sorts of relationships between existing memes and a new one. First, you must be honest with yourself about conflicts between ideas you hold as true. Second, you must be honest with yourself about the decision process itself, and how you weight various factors. [LA replies: Once again, this is absolute nonsense, and it would be wrong in the interests of politeness to allow anyone to go on pretending otherwise. If a person’s “mental life” consists of nothing but memes, then there is nothing in him that can tell the difference between a true and a false meme, just as, if every feature of a biological organism was implanted by chance mutations naturally selected, there is no way such an organism could have volition, purpose, or conscience.
[People have a right to reasonable opinions. They do not have a right to blatant contradictions. They do not have the right to say that a circle is a square. They do not have the right to say that a dog is a tree. And what you and Mencius are presenting is a such a blatant contradiction, namely you subscribe to a radically reductive view of humanity that denies the possibility of consciousness and conscience, and then you blithely claim that humans have a consciousness and conscience that can tell the difference between true and false, good and bad.]
I really enjoyed reading your rebuttal to Leonard D. regarding memes. right between the eyes. The sort of language they use is seductive in a nerdy sort of way, and you broke it down beautifully, effortlessly.
If someone is going to talk about something (memes), it ought to exist. Can anyone document the existence of these meme things? Santa Claus at least has a historical basis. David Stove, in Darwinian Fairytales, filed this in the “Genetic Calvinism, or Demons and Dawkins” chapter.
Leonard replies to LA:
I do believe in objective truth, that is, that a real universe exists outside any observer. I believe in consciousness, which I assure you I do experience. And I do also believe in right and wrong, although not in the same way that you do. I do not believe in an objective right and wrong, as real things: platonic forms, or ideas in the mind of God. I believe in them as evolved cultural memes, which channel and are constrained to concord with our moral sentiments, which are themselves creations of biological evolution.
You say that as a Darwinian I have no right to believe in these things. I believe them anyway, regardless of whether or not you permit it. We are at an impasse on that one, but I would suggest that it is uncharitable for you to tell me I cannot believe something that I do believe. You claim my ideas are in blatant contradiction. I don’t see that at all, but that may be because we are talking past each other. Certainly the views you are putting forth about what my views must be bear little resemblance to what I think. [LA replies: I didn’t say I don’t permit you to believe in your own consciousness. I say that, given your Darwinism, you have no right to believe in it. Of course you have the power to believe and say whatever you want. You have the power to say, “A square is a circle.” But you don’t have the right to say it.]
For example, you say
We don’t believe—i.e., harbor—a meme because it’s true and we don’t disbelieve it because it’s false. We believe it because, according to some unspecified calculus which would be the mental equivalent of natural selection, it “works,” and so has been “memetically selected.”
I agree with the second sentence, but not the first. Truth is totally relevant to sustaining belief in many memes. Put another way, all else equal, a true meme “works” better. Or another way: truth is part of that “unspecified calculus.” Or, to reference your first para: we can act on memes. We choose to believe them, or not, or to make our own modified version. [LA replies: yes, but the reason the meme is “selected,” is NOT because it’s true, but because it “works” in the sense of assisting reproduction. There is no moment in the process when truth is selected AS truth and there is no moment when the organism would recognize and value of truth AS truth.]
As for how we can judge truth: we have a source of information independent of memes: our senses, which connect more or less directly to reality. Thus the humor in the saying “Who you gonna believe, me or your lyin” eyes?”
A concept of right and wrong CANNOT be produced by a process that runs solely on chance genetic mutations plus the spread of the genes that best survive.
Yes, it can. “right” is what helps your genes’ survival, “wrong” is what hurts them. Again, I realize this is nothing transcendent, nor desirable. But it is a sense of right and wrong. And it is how many uncivilized people act. Blood relatives matter according to degree of relatedness; everyone else can expect no moral consideration. “My brother and I against my cousin; my cousin and I against the stranger.” [LA replies: Thank you for underscoring the point I made in my previous reply. What is selected is a gene’s survival, not the caring about truth.]
Finally, let me point out a contradiction in your own argument:
I reject the very notion of memes because it is incompatible with human consciousness and human rationality. Which is not to say that much of human mental life does not consist of phrases, notions, ideas, that get mechanically picked up and implanted. Much of the work of intellectual life and cultural criticism consists in the criticism of such mechanically spread ideas.
Your sentences 2 and 3 contradict 1. Memes are “phrases, notions, ideas, that get mechanically picked up and implanted.” [LA replies: But you didn’t quote my other statement from that comment, that the mistake of your side is to think that the mechanical transmission and imitation of phrases, which indeed does comprise a large part of human mental life, constitutes the principle of our entire mental life.]
LA replies further to Leonard:
I recognize that my saying that you have “no right” to believe something is a provocative and offensive way of putting it. I could put it in a milder way, such as saying that the belief in Darwinism on one side and the belief in consciousness, intellectual honesty, and the ideal of truth on the other are mutually incompatible. I use the stronger language because, frankly, I have had it with the parasitism of materialists who undercut and destroy the basis of our entire civilization and even our humanity, and then turn around claim for themselves the very humane and civilized qualities they’ve denied—like Darwinians denying any purpose in evolution and then constantly appealing to purpose in evolution. VFR is a zero tolerance zone for that kind of game. Which doesn’t mean that I won’t permit people to say it, but that I will consistently point out that they do not have the intellectual right to say it.
Thank you for saying what you said, the way you said it in your last response to Leonard D. Civilization, the kind we know, and humanity are exactly what is on the table. I feel fortified in my discussions with others when I remember this and recall that tougher language than usual is not only justified, it is often more effective.
I have been following the W4 debacle loosely. Most people will soften their stance in order to shore up civility, myself included, but if everyone behaved that way we should have perished long ago. They want to see a chink in your armor I suspect, just to see a display of genial humanitarianism.
I see it this way. There are multiple levels of players or classes, and at whatever level one participates, there is some allegiance to one or another fraternity. They are the ones we recognize as allies, who we relate to and feel in touch with. The columnists and book authors have a rather broad wake of followers, the smaller groups online or offline have fewer. And then there are independent operators, of which you are obviously one. Maybe Moldbug is right, there is a competition or jealousy factor. But anyone who reads VFR and feels compelled to speak out about what they have read is the recipient of something valuable, whether they are in agreement with your views or not.
Let me try to communicate better what I see as the core idea in this discussion. Dawkins, seconded by Mencius Moldbug, as I discussed here, and by Leonard D., says that just as genes are parasites that treat biological organism as their hosts to carry them forward, memes (phrases, ideas, mental constructs) are parasites that treat the mind of their host as their vehicle to carry them forward. Just as all that is really operative in biological life is the unconscious, purposeless gene, which by surviving and spreading seems to have a purpose, all that really is operative in what we call our mental life is the unconscious, purposeless meme, which by surviving and spreading seems to have a purpose. What we think of as our minds are just the passive host of the purposeless meme.
This is what Mencius believes. With brutal clarity and relish he has said that what we think of as our intellect is really just the host of parasitic “memeplexes.” Yet Mencius in his recent writings, here and at his site, has praised intellectual honesty and integrity. How can humans, whose so-called mind, according to Mencius, is simply the host of parasitic memes, have any independent consciousness at all, let alone exhibit such qualities as honesty and love of truth?
It is sheerest nonsense. And that’s why I say to Mencius, if he wants to uphold an ideal of truth and to admire certain individuals for their intelligence and intellectual integrity, he cannot simultaneously describe man—and thus the individual men whom he is praising—as hosts of parasitic memeplexes. If he wants to keep his ideal of intellectual honesty, he needs to renounce his Dawkinsianism. If he wants to cleave to his Dawkinsianism, he needs to stop talking about his love of truth and honesty. He cannot have both. He cannot say a triangle is a circle. He cannot say a spaniel is an acorn.
James N. (who just had his seventh child) writes:
But he’s just a kid (Moldbug). He just had his first child, for heaven’s sake!
After five or six, he’ll settle down. I predict he’ll become a Catholic within five years :-).
James N. continues:
On a more serious note, I think quite a lot of Mencius Moldbug. He’s obviously a serious intellect who knows how bad the crisis of our civilization is, and who is willing to think outside of the box both diagnostically and therapeutically. He’s very widely read and applies an enormous range of source material to his work. That he’s kept up his output with a newborn at home is remarkable. He’s much more than “just a kid.”
Leonard replies to LA:
Just as all that is really operative in biological life is the unconscious, purposeless gene, which by surviving and spreading seems to have a purpose, all that really is operative in what we call our mental life is the unconscious, purposeless meme, which by surviving and spreading seems to have a purpose. What we think of as our minds are just the passive host of the purposeless meme.
This is not what I think about memes. Genes and memes differ in significant ways, which breaks your analogy.
First, genes are active in a way that memes are not. The cell is the “substrate” that genes act within; but the cell was itself built by genes. The cell cannot have its own agenda. The brain is the substrate that memes “act” within. But the brain is not a construct of memes, but rather, genes. Thus, it can be expected to have its own agenda, namely, that of the individual. There is a “you” here. [LA replies: Thank you for perfectly revealing the inherent contradiction of your view. If the brain is the construct of genes, which are themselves the result of random accidental mutations selected because they helped their possessor survive and have more offspring, there is no “you,” no conscious, purposeful entity, that could possibly have been produced by this blind material process. Therefore, just as I said, the purposeless brain is the passive host of the purposeless meme. ]
Second, memes can be purposeful in a way that genes cannot. We can invent new memes, whereas (thus far at least) we cannot invent viable new organisms. For example, this text is a meme I am currently writing explicitly for the purpose of communicating with you. [LA replies: But who are YOU? According to your own material reductionist theory, there could be no YOU to invent a new meme. There’s only memes randomly producing new memes, some of which get “selected,” just as genes randomly produce new genes, some of which get “selected.”]
Third, meme evolution cannot be tightly analogized to gene evolution. In gene evolution, barring artificial selection by outside intelligences, there is no selection mechanism other than natural selection. Whereas there is a test of truth for memes, namely, our own senses. Thus many memes are subject to artificial selection, by us. And of course we have many tried and true memes which serve as guides to the evaluation of other memes. For example, formal logic. It is something we are taught. [LA replies: But what is this truth-knowing and truth-desiring “we” that is testing the genes for truth?]
It is at least theoretically possible, then, using only one’s own senses and using only the most reliable truth evaluation memes (science, logic, rationality), independently to evaluate all information one is presented with.
Most people, most of the time, do not stringently select their beliefs. They simply accept, believe, and repeat whatever ideas their parents, friends, culture, and the media proffer. And many other people, even very intelligent men such as Dr. Dawkins, manage to evaluate and cull some untrue memes, but not others. (That is the gist of Moldbug’s piece: Dawkins believes in progressivism, which is a species of religion, even though Dawkins is vehemently anti-religion.) It is this environment of uncritical minds that is the dirty petri dish of meme evolution. Humans can reject bad ideas, but mostly they don’t. And that is why the analogy of meme-evolution to gene-evolution is fruitful, even though it is not necessarily true. [LA replies: I agree that much of human life consists of people uncritically accepting and echoing the ideas provided to them by their social environment, and I also agree that true thought consists of culling the true from the false ideas. But, Mr. D., you do not have the right to assert the existence of such a critical intellectual faculty, since your Darwinian theory, which says that nothing exists but the material and that we came into existence through a blind material process, precludes it. By contrast, I do have the right to assert the existence of such an intellectual faculty, because I say that material existence and life are the expression of a non-material intelligence.]
Leonard D. replies:
If I had to choose between believing in materialism versus believing that I have a conscious, purposeful mind, then I would reject materialism. My own consciousness and selfhood, and my ability to judge truth (however imperfectly), are irrefutably obvious to me by introspection. Materialism, although I firmly believe it, is not obvious.
So we are back to the Darwinian evolution of the mind. You assert it is impossible, and you even seem to think that that is obvious. Whereas I think it is possible, and did in fact in happen, although I do not think that either assertion is obvious. Yes: “entities produced by Darwinian evolution are capable of seeking and knowing truth”. Little t truth.
Mr. D., in my view, it’s not just big “t” truth (i.e., moral and spiritual truth), but little “t” truth (i.e. material truth), that is precluded by Darwinism, because it is impossible for a being produced by Darwinian evolution to have a purposive consciousness. Such a being could only have mechanical behaviors dictated by its genes.
As I’ve shown in previous entries, leading Darwinians such as Edward O. Wilson and Jerry Coyne openly admit that evolutionary science has no idea how of Darwinian evolution produced consciousness. Yet somehow they go on asserting that it was so produced, as do you. Assertion is not truth.
However, I admire you for insisting on the existence of your own consciousness, for that is indeed a primary fact (a fact which many people today deny) and the foundation of all possible truth.
I am not closed-minded on this issue. I have been interested to find out how Darwininians explained the origin of human consciousness and reason. I had been under the impression that they had some explanation for the leap from the animal to the human mind, and thence to human culture. But they don’t. If you don’t believe me, go to a bookstore and read the last chapter of Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True,” where he discusses human culture and human moral capabilities.
Of course, my argument is not based primarily on the fact that the Darwinians have not yet come up with a theory for the existence of human consciousness. It’s based on the fact that Darwinian evolution is inherently incompatible with the existence of human consciousness.
I guess there are Darwinians who say that consciousness came into being via a random genetic mutation, and then got selected. But offhand I don’t remember seeing anyone actually making a case for that. Coyne as I remember makes no mention of consciousness and doesn’t try to explain it. Wilson in his 2006 article which I’ve previous quoted says that scientists have no idea how consciousness came into being, but he hopes that someday they will figure it out.
This discussion continues in a new thread
Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 15, 2009 01:47 AM | Send