Critical comments on critical memefulness

Somebody calling himself Hermes of Reason has made a YouTube video called Critical memefulness, which is about memes and mindfulness.

According to Hermes, in his book Waking Up Sam Harris talks about “thinking without knowing you’re thinking” as being “lost in thought”. This isn’t what “lost in thought” means colloquially. “Lost in thought” usually means that you’re ignoring the outside world, not that you’re unaware that you’re thinking. According to Hermes, Harris sez this distracts us from the lives we want to live. According to Hermes, Harris suggests mindfulness meditation cuz it helps us notice when we’re unthinkingly being led astray from living the lives we want to live. I have criticised Harris in the past on economics and moral philosophy and I consider Harris to be a bad thinker. But I haven’t read this particular Harris book, so I don’t know if Hermes has reported its contents accurately. I also have reason to think that Hermes doesn’t know how to read books and report their contents accurately, as I will discuss below, so I consider Hermes’ report of the book’s contents unreliable.

Hermes claims that people binge eat when they know they don’t want to binge eat, but still do it anyway and that this is an example of “thinking without thinking”, but he’s wrong. A binge eater may know he’s binge eating, he may be thinking that he is binge eating, he may know that he’s thinking about binge eating. That binge eater may know that he also has a preference to avoid binge eating and he may be thinking about that preference while he binge eats. So Hermes’ example contradicts his argument.

Hermes claims that “thinking without knowing we’re thinking” isn’t thought because thought involves error correction. No. Lots of thought involves no error correction. For example, justificationist philosophers don’t do error correction on important aspects of their philosophy, but they still think.

Hermes then sez:

What mindfulness can get you to recognise is that you are not the appearances in your mind per se, but you are more like the mind space in which those appearances are coming and going.

No. You aren’t a space in which thoughts come and go. That’s like the bucket theory of mind that was specifically criticised by Karl Popper, see “The bucket and the searchlight: two theories of knowledge” appendix 1 of Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. You invent ideas to try to solve problems, so ideas don’t just float into your mind. Now, if you choose not to pay attention to your problems and criticise them, then you won’t understand your own problems and some or all of your thoughts may appear to just come and go for some unknown reason. But that’s a result of you not understanding and criticising your priorities, it’s not a necessary feature of your life.

I’m now going to quote a transcription I made of a long section of the video:

The whole notion of going from one thing to another and you might say being distracted is actually a necessary feature of our creativity, being able to arrange and combine existing things and solve problems and stuff like that. We have a whole range of things we’re interested in and problems we’re interested in solving, so it’s necessary that we’re able to go from one thing to another in that kind of way. So distraction is only a problem insofar as it relates to not actually thinking.

But the ability to have a wide range of things you’re interested in and just kind of hop from one thing to another and explore all of them in a way is a good thing. I mean if you’re solving problems and having fun and stuff like that you know there’s nothing to worry about. Although given that our minds work in this way the space of potentially moving from one thing to another is the space in which unthinkingness, or you might even call it irrationality, rears its head or takes advantage of and exploits. And there are real things out there that are looking to take advantage of that dynamic capacity of our minds. And those things are what David Deutsch, in his book ‘The Beginning of Infinity’ and in particular his chapter ‘The evolution of culture’ calls anti-rational memes. So a meme is like a behaviour with its corresponding meaning or idea that gets itself replicated in the same way that genes get themselves replicated, namely by just simply out competing their rivals. And the anti-rational memes do this by suppressing creative criticism. While there are rational memes that encourage creative criticism. So especially the anti-rational memes that suppress creative criticism they have to take advantage of this space or potential for doing things unthinkingly because if you were thinking that means you would be error-correcting that means you would be using creative criticism. And as we know this space for doing things unthinkingly comes out of this space where we’re able to be distracted and dynamic going from one thing to another. And so what the anti-rational memes do is they hijack that space and entrench certain patterns of behaviour that we can do unthinkingly and they have to do that otherwise we would be able to recognise them quickly and error correct our way out of doing them.

Now, as I’ve noted already this theory is false. It also contradicts The Beginning of Infinity, pp. 413-414:

But how does one discover the wishes and expectations of other people? They might issue commands, but they could never specify every detail of what they expected, let alone every detail of how to achieve it. When one is commanded to do something (or expected to, as a condition for being considered worthy of food or mating, for instance), one might remember seeing an already-respected person doing the same thing, and one might try to emulate that person. To do that effectively, one would have to understand what the point of doing it was, and to try to achieve that as best one could. One would impress one’s chief, priest, parent or potential mate by replicating, and following, their standards of what one should strive for. One would impress the tribe as a whole by replicating their idea (or the ideas of the most influential among them) of what was worthy, and acting accordingly.

Hence, paradoxically, it requires creativity to thrive in a static society – creativity that enables one to be less innovative than other people. And that is how primitive, static societies, which contained pitifully little knowledge and existed only by suppressing innovation, constituted environments that strongly favoured the evolution of an ever-greater ability to innovate.

In other words, anti-rational memes are copied cuz people use creativity to copy them. People don’t copy anti-rational memes unthinkingly: they put effort and thought into copying them. For example, justificationist philosophers put lots of creativity into writing long books about how to do justification. They also put creativity into finding excuses to ignore criticisms of justificationism, like those given by Popper. A binge eater thinks about what he’s going to eat and when and how and why. He puts creativity into his binge eating. Hermes hasn’t reported the contents of “The Beginning of Infinity” accurately, so I think he’s bad at reading books and reporting their contents.

I have one final example of a person using creativity to copy an anti-rational meme. Hermes of reason wants to present himself as a wise philosopher. So he puts creativity into quoting the title of an intellectual book called “The Beginning of Infinity” and having some superficial knowledge of some of the terminology the author uses. Hermes also puts creativity into coming up with a chain of words that sound superficially plausible to somebody without detailed knowledge of what he’s talking about. I think it would be better if Hermes put more creativity into learning rather than presenting himself as a wise philosopher. If you want to be a real philosopher rather than a poseur, there are forums like Fallible Ideas where you can actually discuss philosophy, expose your ideas to criticism and possibly make progress.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

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