Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Memes

I went to a fascinating debate at the Oxford Union last night, entitled "Darwin & Humanity: Can we rid the mind of God?".

The two speakers were Alister McGrath and Susan Blackmore, and the forum focussed largely on the idea of Memes. One of Richard Dawkins' creations, "Memes are habits, skills, songs, stories, or any other kind of information that is copied from person to person". The concept of God is merely a meme, apparently.

The idea, it seems, is that human beings are merely machines who replicate information or 'memes'. To be fair Dr Blackmore did have something of an uphill task given that she had to explain memes before she could infer why they meant we could rid the mind of God - but her argument lacked coherence and was less than convincing. The theory of memes has evidently evolved, leading to a distinction between those who follow 'Dawkins A' (memes can be objects) and those who follow 'Dawkins B' (memes are all in the mind). Dr Blackmore said that she was in the 'Dawkins A' camp.

What I found very interesting is that she had to admit that there might well have been a creator, though such a creator need not have anything to do with the Universe after its conception. This came about when someone quizzed her on her "information comes from information before it" argument and asked where the first information came from. I also found it very interesting that she has come to the conclusion that the whole Universe is pointless and we are purely meme-replicating machines. Something she admitted she struggled with, but it was her conclusion nonetheless. Not very satisfying from my point of view. Dr Blackmore was also unable to give any sort of answer about absolute morality, and why if we are simply pointless machines there is a concept of right and wrong.

I thought I would browse Dr Blackmore's site for more information and was intruiged by what she had to say about Zen. She is not a Buddhist and she has not signed up to any beliefs - yet she has been practising Zen for many years. I find this a little strange, but what gets me the most is her fear of the memes of Buddhism. If we are all just meme replicating machines then surely she has no choice in the matter. To say that we are all pointless machines and then imply that she has choice is somewhat contradictory.

Alister McGrath talked about the fact that he was once a convinced atheist and is now a practising Christian. He enthused about his faith and the fact that his life has meaning - he was restless until he'd found it apparently. His viewpoint was far more satisfactory.

So. Will religion die out as people move away from inheriting their parents beliefs? - as Susan Blackmore would have you believe. Or, as Alister McGrath thinks, has atheism (a faith in its own right) had its day?

1 comment:

Chuck said...

(Not really an answer but...)
I heard Dawkins speak on Radio 2 just before Christmas, and despite initially being curious as to why he thought religion was the root of all (or most, as he apparently meant) evil, I was quickly disappointed because he gave a distinct impression of a) not being very scientific in his proofs and b) not knowing what he was talking about.
I've heard that he's a good speaker, and is very clever, but frankly his stuff on Radio 2 didn't give me a very high opinion of him.

CJR