Re: virus: Replication of Memes

David McFadzean (
Tue, 13 Aug 1996 18:27:51 -0600

At 09:54 AM 13/08/96 -0500, KMO wrote:

>The meaning of the signal is just that. Words have assigned meanings,
>and those meanings are not dependent on an effect they have in any one

Disagree. You as a philosopher and I as a programmer often use the
same words to mean different things (e.g. memory, semantics). And I
as a programmer of genetic algorithms use many terms from evolutionary
biology (e.g. phenotype, genetic operator, allele) in a related but
different sense than a biologist would use the same words in communications
with her colleagues. The meaning cannot be divorced from the context,
the semantics is in the effects which are particular to a situation
and not in the words themselves.

>I have no cat and you know that I have no cat. Now suppose I leave a
>message on your answering machine saying, "Stephen, my cat is
>pregnant." That sentence is meaningful. The nouns refer to things or
>types of things with which you are familiar, and the syntax of the
>sentece relates the words in a meaningful fashion, yet, since you know I
>don't have a cat, the sentence does not convey the information that my
>cat is pregnant. It might carry the information that the feds are on to
>our little scheme and it's time to lie low for a while, but the
>conveyance of that information would require that you know more than
>just the content of the signal (sentence). The content of the signal is

The meaning of "my cat is pregnant" then is it causes me to know that
the feds are on to us and I should lay low. This is also the information
carried in the signal. Someone else listening in (and not knowing our
previously agreed upon code phrase) would likely infer a different,
more mundane meaning from the message.

>what it means. The information it carries is what you can learn from
>it. Because I don't have a cat, and so you couldn't possibly learn
>(form a true belief) that my cat is pregnant. The signal could convey a
>wide range of information, but it can't convey the information that my
>cat is pregnant. The sentence is meaningful, but the information it
>might convey (if it conveyed any information at all) is not identical
>with its meaning.

Given what I have said above, would you agree they are the same? Or
at least the information causes the meaning/effects?

>It would seem so. For Dretske, information is that which facilitates
>knowledge. While you can believe something that isn't true, you can't
>know something that isn't true. Given this definition of information,

On a related note, I've been researching the notion of truth (prompted
by the recent great "objective truth" vs. the postmoderns thread) and
I'm beginning to think the only things (i.e. category of propositions)
we can know are true are conditionals. Every time we say "I think X is
true." we should translate that to mean "IF my assumptions are correct
THEN X is true." And of course we can never know with certainty whether
our assumptions are true, but we can apply the same transformation
to each one along the lines of "IF an objective reality exists AND my
sense perceptions are correlated with said reality AND etc. etc. THEN
my <insert premise here> is true." Does this fit in with your notion
of beliefs and knowledge?

>Many signals have an unconscious source. I don't think a drill bit at
>the bottom of the ocean thinks anything about the signals it sends to
>oil company geologists on the platform above.

Granted. So Dtretske's theory doesn't differentiate between passive
phenomena and purposeful communications? I guess that makes sense,
both are signals from the environment and the fact that the latter
may be more complex doesn't seem to make a difference.

>Hmmm... Seeing memes as historical entities which are necessarily
>classified by their lineage is central to the concept of memetics.
>Information theory (or 'signal theory' as Dretske would call it) seems
>to be an indispensible element. If there's an intractable problem with
>identifying a meme at the stage of it's lifecycle when it is transmitted
>from one host to the next, then there seems to be an intractible problem
>for a science of memetics.

Why would it be hard to identify the meme when it is transmitted?

Here's a textbook example I read last night in the latest Skeptic
(vol. 4, no. 2) in John Hartung's "Prospects for Existence" (a
very Virian essay BTW):

"Before there were written laws and governments to enforce
them, abortion and infanticide were privately practiced in
most, if not all, societies. A common reason for infanticide
was the birth of twins. Most mothers in hunter-gatherer
societies, especially those who already had children, could
not obtain enough food to nurse two babies without losing
more than one offspring. Accordingly, mothers who believed
that it was right to kill one of two twins had more offspring
to whom she could teach that belief. When such beliefs reach
a critical threshold by a process analogous to natural selection,
they become the stuff of cultural norms and religious convictions.

Spot the meme.

>> Let me ask you this then: Do bees and termites behave *as if* they
>> have beliefs?
>They most certainly do, but so do alot of things I wouldn't be willing
>have beliefs, e.g. industrial robots, coffee makers, and house plants.

Why not (just out of curiosity)? Can only humans have beliefs or can
chimps? Where do you draw the line?

David McFadzean       
Memetic Engineer      
Ideosphere Inc.