S’éveiller du rêve des mêmes

Je connais deux systèmes qui sont capables de démanteler les complexes de Mêmes (quoique je sois convaincue qu’il y en a d’autres). Bien sûr, ces systèmes sont eux-mêmes des Mêmes mais ce sont, si on veut, des désinfectants de Mêmes, des Mêmes mangeurs de Mêmes, ou des “complexes de Mêmes qui détruisent des complexes de Mêmes.” Ce sont la science et le Zen.

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Conférence présentée lors de The Psychology of Awakening:

International Conference on Buddhism, Science and Psychotherapy Dartington 7-10 Novembre 1996

— Réveillez-vous! Réveillez-vous!

— Heeeeeu, hummmm, grrrrggr, Ouais, j’suis réveillée, maintenant. Ouaouh! Quel rêve bizarre. J‘étais convaincue qu’il fallait que j’arrive à sortir du lave-vaisselles et qu’il était d’une importance capitale que j’arrive à temps dans l’armoire. Quelle connerie! Evidemment, maintenant, je me rends compte que c‘était pas vrai.

— Réveillez-vous! Réveillez-vous!

— Qu’est-ce que tu veux dire, “réveillez-vous”, je suis déjà réveillée. C’est vrai, ce qui se passe; ça en a de l’importance. Je ne peux plus me réveiller. Casse-toi!

— Réveillez-vous! Réveillez-vous!

— Mais je comprends pas – De quoi? Et comment?

Ce sont les questions dont je vais traiter aujourd’hui. De quoi c’est qu’il faut qu’on se réveille? Et comment? Mes réponses seront “Du Rêve des Mêmes” et “En constatant que c’est un rêve de Même”. Mais ça pourra prendre un moment pour l’expliquer!

L’histoire est longue, dans les traditions spirituelles et religieuses, de l’idée que la vie éveillée normale est un rêve ou une illusion. Ca n’a aucun sens pour quelqu’un qui regarde autour de lui et est convaincu que ce qu’il voit est un monde réel et qu’il y a un Moi qui le perçoit. Cependant, il y a de nombreux indices à l’effet que cette conception ordinaire est fausse.

Certains de ces indices proviennent d’expériences mystiques spontanées, au cours desquelles les gens “voient la lumière”, se rendent compte que tout est un, et vont “au-delà du Moi” pour voir le monde “tel qu’il est vraiment”. Ils sont sûrs que leur nouvelle manière de voir est meilleure et plus exacte que l’ancienne (bien qu’il soit évident qu’ils puissent se tromper!). D’autres indices proviennent de la pratique spirituelle. Il est probable que la première chose que n’importe qui découvre lorsqu’on essaye de méditer, ou d‘être attentif et concentré, c’est que notre esprit est constamment plein de pensées. Celles-ci ne sont habituellement ni sages ni merveilleuses, ni même utiles ou productives, mais ne sont que du babillage incessant. Du profondément insignifiant à l‘émotionellement embrouillé, elles continuent sans fin. Et ce qui est pis, c’est qu’elles impliquent presque toujours “moi”. Le pas est vite franchi de se demander qui est ce “moi” souffrant et pourquoi “Je” ne peux arrêter les pensées.

En fin de compte, les indices proviennent de la science. La conclusion la plus évidente et la plus effrayante de la neurologie moderne, c’est qu’il n’y simplement personne à l’intérieur du cerveau (note de michel proulx: il s’agit d’une allusion à la théorie antiquissime de l’homunculus, le petit bonhomme qui’il y aurait à l’intérieur, à diriger la machine). Plus on en apprend sur la façon dont fonctionne le cerveau, et moins il semble avoir besoin d’un contrôleur central, une petite personne à l’intérieur, un décideur de décisions ou un expérimenteur d’expériences. Ceux-ci ne sont que des fictions —une partie de l’histoire que le cerveau se raconte à lui-même au sujet d’un moi à l’intérieur (Churchland et Sejnowski, 1992; Dennett, 1991).

Certains disent que ça ne sert à rien de chercher à comprendre intellectuellement les sujets spirituels. Je ne suis pas d’accord.

Il est exact que la compréhension intellectuelle n’est pas la même chose que la réalisation, mais ceci ne signifie pas qu’elle soit inutile. Dans ma propre tradition de pratique, le Zen, il y a beaucoup de place pour le combat intellectuel; par exemple, dans la culture de “l’esprit de je ne sais pas”, ou en travaillant sur des kôans. On peut porter une question à un tel niveau de confusion intellectuelle qu’elle peut être tenue, soupesée, dans toute sa complexité et simplicité. Comme “Qui suis-je?”, “Qu’est ceci?” ou (un avec lequel je me suis débattue) “Qu’est-ce qui te pousse?”.

Il y a aussi un danger terrible dans le refus d‘être intellectuel à propos des sujets de spiritualité. C’est que nous courrons le danger d’isoler notre pratique spirituelle de la science dont dépend toute notre société. Si cette société doit acquérir une quelconque profondeur spirituelle, celle-ci devra coincider heureusement avec notre compréhension croissante des opérations du cerveau et de la nature de l’esprit. Nous ne pouvons pas nous permettre un monde dans lequel les scientifiques comprendraient l’esprit, et un autre dans lequel certaines personnes spécifiques atteindraient l’Eveil.

Je présente donc mes excuses pour ma démarche. Je vais tenter de répondre à mes questions en utilisant ce que je puis trouver de mieux comme science. On dirait que nous vivons dans un embrouillamini dont nous croyons qu’il importe à un moi qui n’existe pas. Je voudrais en trouver la raison.

La Dangereuse Idée de Darwin

Il y a une idée scientifique qui, selon moi, dépasse toutes les autres. Elle est extrêmement simple et belle. Elle contient les origines de toutes les formes de vie et de toute conception biologique. Elle se passe du besoin d’un Dieu créateur, d’un concepteur, d’un plan directeur ou d’un but à l’existence. Ce n’est qu‘à la lumière de cette idée que tout ce que comprend la biologie a du sens. C’est évidemment, l’idée de l‘évolution des espèces par sélection naturelle, de Darwin. Les implications de la sélection naturelle sont si profondes que les gens en ont été sidérés ou enragés, fascinés ou scandalisés, depuis qu’elle a été proposée pour la première fois dans “L’Origine des Espèces” en 1859. C’est pour cette raison que Dennett (1995) l’appelle l’Idée Dangereuse de Darwin. Malheureusement, ils sont nombreux ceux qui ont mal compris l’idée et qui, pire, l’ont utilisée pour défendre des doctrines politiques indéfendables qui n’ont rien à voir avec le darwinisme. J’espère donc que vous me pardonnerez si je prend un peu de temps pour l’expliquer le plus clairement possible.

Tout ce dont on a besoin pour amorcer la sélection naturelle , c’est un réplicateur dans un environnement approprié. Un réplicateur, c’est quelque chose qui se copie lui-même, quoique pas toujours parfaitement. L’environnement doit être celui dans lequel le réplicateur peut créer le plus de copies de lui-même, sans qu’elles soient toutes en mesure de survivre. Voilà.

Est-il possible que ce soit si simple? Oui. Tout se produit de la même façon – dans n’importe quelle génération de copies, toutes les copies ne sont pas identiques et certaines sont plus capables de survivre dans cet environnement que les autres. En conséquence, elles font davantage de copies d’elles-mêmes de sorte que ce type de copie devient plus nombreux. Evidemment, les choses commencent alors à se compliquer. La population de copies en rapide expansion commence à modifier l’environnement et ceci modifie les pressions sélectives. les variations locales de l’environnement impliquent que différentes sortes de copies se débrouilleront bien à différents endroits causant ainsi bien plus de complexité encore. C’est ainsi que le processus peut produire toutes les sortes de complexité organisée que nous voyons dans le monde vivant — et pourtant tout ce qu’il faut, c’est ce processus simple, élégant, beau et évident qu’est la sélection naturelle.

Pour rendre les choses plus concrètes, imaginons une soupe primitive dans laquelle un simple réplicant chimique a surgi. Nous appellerons ces réplicants des “Blobbies”. Ces blobbies, en vertu de leur constitution chimique, fabriquent des copies d’eux-mêmes à chaque fois qu’ils trouvent les bons produits chimiques. Bien, mettons les dans un marais chimique bien riche et ils vont commencer à se copier, quoiqu’avec des erreurs occasionnelles. Quelques millions d’années passent et on trouve des tas de sortes de blobbies. Ceux qui ont besoin de beaucoup de marécageon ont utilisé toutes les ressources et périclitent, de sorte que ceux qui utilisent l’isomarécagine à la place se débrouillent beaucoup mieux. Bientôt, on trouve plein d’endroits où différents produits chimiques prédominent et où différentes sortes de blobbies apparaîssent. La compétition pour les produits chimiques du marécage devient féroce et la plupart des copies qui sont faites crèvent. Seules celles qui, par une rare fortune, se révèlent posséder d’astucieuses nouvelles propriétés continuent à se répliquer encore et encore. Ces propriétés astucieuses pourraient comprendre la capacité de se déplacer et de trouver le marécageon, d’isoler l’isomarécagine3-7 et de s’y accrocher, ou de construire des membranes autour d’elles-mêmes. Une fois que des blobbies à membrane apparaissent, ils vont commencer à l’emporter sur ceux qui flottent à la surface et on obtient des super-blobbies. Encore quelques millions d’années passent et on découvre des trucs, comme de prendre d’autres blobbies à l’intérieur de la membrane, ou de joindre plusieurs super-blobbies ensemble. Des hyper-super-blobbies apparaissent, comme des animaux multi- cellulaires avec des réserves d‘énergie et des parties spécialisées pour se déplacer et se protéger. Cependant, ces derniers ne sont que pitance pour des hyper-super-blobbies encore plus gros. Ce n’est plus qu’une question de temps avant que les variations aléatoires et la sélection naturelle ne créent un vaste monde vivant. Au cours du processus, des milliards et des milliards de blobbies infructueux auront été créés et seront morts, mais c’est ce lent et aveugle processus qui crée les “biens”. Les “biens”, sur notre planète incluent les bactéries et les plantes, les poissons et les grenouilles, les ornithorynques à bec de canard et nous.

La forme surgit de nulle part. Il n’est nul besoin d’un créateur ou d’un plan directeur, et il n’y a aucun point final vers lequel se dirige la création. Richard Dawkins (1996) appelle ça “L’Escalade du Mont Improbable”. Il s’agit seulement d’un processus simple mais inexorable par lequel des choses incroyablement improbables sont créées.

Il est important de se rappeller que l‘évolution n’a aucune vision d’avenir et ne produit donc pas nécessairement la “meilleure” solution. L‘évolution ne peut que procéder par où elle se trouve à l’instant. C’est pour ça que, entre autres, nous avons un oeil d’une conception aussi débile, avec tous les neurones qui passent par devant la rétine et se trouvent dans le chemin de la lumière. Il n’y avait pas de créateur par là pour dire ‘Ho! Recommencez-moi ce truc! Il faut faire passer le cablage par derrière”. Il n’y en avait pas un non plus pour dire “Ho! Arrangeons ça pour que ce soit agréable pour les humains!” Les gênes, eux, ils s’en fichent. En comprenant le fantastique processus de la sélection naturelle, nous pouvons voir comment nos corps humains sont comme ils sont venus à être. Mais qu’en est-il de nos esprits? La psychologie évolutioniste ne répond pas facilement à mes questions. Par exemple, pourquoi pensons-nous tout le temps? D’un point de vue génétique, ça peut sembler un gaspillage extrême – et les animaux qui gaspillent leur énergie ne survivent pas. Le cerveau utilise jusque 20% de l‘énergie du corps alors qu’il n’en pèse que 2%. Si nous pensions des pensées utiles, ou résolvions des problèmes pertinents, ça pourrait encore aller, mais pour la plupart, ce n’est pas ce qu’il semble. Alors, pourquoi ne pouvons-nous pas simplement nous asseoir et ne pas penser?

Pourquoi croyons-nous en un ego qui n’existe pas? Quelqu’un pourrait expliquer ceci en termes évolutionistes, mais ça semble insensé, au moins superficiellement. Pourquoi construire une fausse idée d’un égo, avec tous ses mécanismes pour protéger l’amour-propre et sa crainte de l‘échec et de la perte, alors que du point de vue biologique, c’est le corps qui a besoin de protection. Remarquez que si nous nous voyions nous-mêmes comme un organisme entier, il n’y aurait pas de problème, mais ce n’est pas le cas — au contraire, on dirait que nous croyons en un égo séparé; quelque chose qui serait en charge du corps; quelque chose qui doit être protégé en lui-même. Je parie que si on vous demandait “Que préférez-vous perdre — votre corps, ou votre esprit?” vous ne mettriez pas longtemps à décider. Comme bien d’autres scientifiques, j’aimerais bien découvrir un principe aussi simple, aussi beau et élégant que la sélection naturelle qui expliquerait la nature de l’esprit.

Je crois qu’il y en a un. Il est apparenté de très près à la sélection naturelle. Bien qu’il traîne dans le paysage depuis une vingtaine d’années, il n’a pas encore été pleinement mis à contribution. C’est la théorie des Mêmes.

Une brève histoire du même des Mêmes

En 1976 Richard Dawkins écrivit ce qui fut probablement le livre le plus populaire jamais publié sur l‘évolution – The Selfish Gene (Le Gêne égoiste).

Ce livre donnait un nom accrocheur à la théorie qui veut que l‘évolution procède entièrement en fonction des réplicants égoistes. C’est-à-dire que l‘évolution ne se produit pas pour le bien de l’espèce, ni pour celui du groupe, pas plus que pour l’organisme individuel. Ce n’est que pour le bien des gênes. Les gênes qui sont efficaces s‘étendent et ceux qui ne le sont pas ne le font pas. Le reste est entièrement conséquence de ce fait.

Evidemment, le principal réplicant qu’il prenait en compte était le gêne, une unité d’information codée dans l’ADN et affichée dans la synthèse protéique. Cependant, à la toute fin de son livre, il prétendit qu’il existait un autre réplicant sur cette planète: le Même.

Le Même est une unité d’information (ou instruction de comportement) engrangée dans le cerveau et communiquée par imitation d’un cerveau à un autre. Dawkins donnait des exemples: les idées, les airs de musique, les théories scientifiques, les croyances religieuses, les modes vestimentaires, les techniques telles que de nouvelles manières de tourner des pots ou de construire des voûtes.

Les implications de cette idée sont renversantes, et Dawkins en énumérait quelques unes. Si les Mêmes sont vraiment des réplicants, alors inévitablement, ils se comporteront de manière égoïste. C’est-à-dire que ceux qui sont bons pour se répandre vont se répandre et ceux qui le sont pas ne vont pas le faire. En conséquence de quoi, le monde des idées – ou mémosphère – ne va pas s’emplir des idées les meilleures, les plus véridiques, les plus pleines d’espoir ni les plus utiles, mais avec les survivantes. Les Mêmes ne sont, comme les gênes, que des survivants.

Dans le cours du processus de survie, ils vont, tout comme les gênes, créer des groupes de Mêmes d’entraide mutuelle.

Rappellez-vous les blobbies. En quelques millions d’années ils se sont mis à se rassembler en groupes, parce que ceux qui étaient en groupes survivaient mieux que les solitaires. les groupes sont devenus plus gros et plus efficaces et ont évolué en un écosystème complexe. Dans le vrai monde de la biologie, les gênes se sont regroupés pour créer d‘énormes créatures qui ensuite s’accouplent et font passer les gênes. De manière similaire, les Mêmes peuvent se regrouper dans les cerveaux humains et remplir le monde des idées avec leurs produits.

Si cette conception est correcte, alors les Mêmes devraient pouvoir évoluer de façon assez indépendante des gênes (à part d’avoir besoin d’un cerveau). Il y a eu de nombreuses tentatives d‘étudier l‘évolution culturelle, mais la plupart traitent implicitement les idées (ou Mêmes) comme étant subordonnées aux gênes (cf. par ex. Cavalli-Sforza et Feldman, 1981; Crook, 1995; Durham,1991; Lumsden et Wilson, 1981). La puissance qui résulte de la prise de conscience que les Mêmes sont des réplicants provient de ce qu’on peut les voir comme ne travaillant purement et simplement que dans leur propre intérêt. Evidemment, jusqu‘à un certain point, les Mêmes réussiront d’autant mieux qu’ils seront utiles à leurs hôtes, mais ce n’est pas là pour eux la seule façon de survivre – et nous allons bientôt en voir certaines conséquences. Depuis qu’il a suggéré pour la première fois l’idée des Mêmes, Dawkins a discuté de l’extension de comportements tels que de porter des casquettes de baseball à l’envers (mes enfants ont récemment retourné les leurs à l’endroit!), l’utilisation de certaines marques de vêtements pour identifier les bandes, et (le plus évidemment) le pouvoir des religions. Les religions sont, selon Dawkins (1993), d‘énormes complexes de Mêmes co-adaptés; c’est-à-dire des groupes de Mêmes qui se tiennent ensemble pour s’entraider mutuellement et donc survivre mieux que des Mêmes solitaires ne pourraient le faire. D’autres complexes de Mêmes incluent les sectes, les systèmes politiques, les systèmes de croyances alternatifs et les théories et paradigmes scientifiques.

Les religions sont spéciales parce qu’elles utilisent pratiquement tous les trucs du manuel des Mêmes (ce qui est probablement la raison pour laquelle elles durent si longtemps et infectent autant de cerveaux). Pensez-y de cette façon: l’idée d’un Enfer est utile au début parce que la crainte de l’enfer renforce les comportements socialement désirables. Alors ajoutez-y l’idée que les incroyants (mécréants) vont en enfer, et le Même et tous se compagnons sont bien protégés. L’idée de Dieu est un Même-compagnon naturel, apaisant la crainte et fournissant un (faux) confort. L’expansion des complexes de Mêmes est aidée par les exhortations à convertir les autres et par des trucs tels que le célibat des prêtres. Le célibat est un désastre pour les gênes, mais il aidera à répandre les Mêmes, vu qu’un prêtre célibataire dispose de plus de temps pour répandre sa foi.

Un autre truc consiste à accorder de la valeur à la foi et à supprimer les doutes qui conduisent tout enfant à poser des questions difficiles comme “Où est l’enfer?” et “Si Dieu esst si bon, pourquoi permet-il que ces gens soient torturés?” Remarquez que la science (et certaines formes de Bouddhisme) font le contraire et encouragent le doute.

Finalement, une fois infectés par ces complexes de Mêmes, ils sont difficiles à éliminer. Si vous le tentez, certains vont même se protéger dans leurs derniers retranchements avec des excommunications ou des menaces de mort ou de feux de l’enfer pour l‘éternité.

Il ne faudrait pas que je me laisse emporter. Ce à quoi je veux en venir, c’est que ces Mêmes religieux n’ont pas survécu pendant des siècles parce qu’ils sont vrais, parce qu’ils sont utiles aux gênes ou parce qu’ils nous rendent heureux. En fait, je crois qu’ils sont faux et qu’ils sont responsables des pires misères de l’histoire humaine. Non – ils ont survécu parce que ce sont des Mêmes égoïstes et qu’ils savent bien survivre – Ils n’ont pas besoin d’autre raison.

Une fois qu’on commence à penser ainsi, une perspective véritablement effrayante s’ouvre devant nous. Nous nous sommes tous habitués à penser que nos corps sont des organismes biologiques créés par l‘évolution. Et pourtant, il nous plait toujours de penser que nos egos sont quelque chose de plus. Nous sommes chargés de nos corps, nous menons la barque, nous décidons quelles idées il nous faut croire et lesquelles il nous faut rejeter. Mais le faisons-nous vraiment? Si on commence à réfléchir aux Mêmes égoïstes, il devient vite clair que nos idées sont dans nos têtes parce que ce sont des Mêmes à succès. Le philosophe américain Dan Dennett (1995) conclut qu’une “personne” est une espèce spécifique d’animal infesté par les Mêmes. En d’autres mots, vous et moi et tous nos amis sommes les produits de deux réplicants aveugles; les gênes et les Mêmes.

Je trouve ces idées absolument époustouflantes. Potentiellement, nous pourrions comprendre tout de la vie mentale en termes de compétition entre Mêmes, tout comme nous pouvons comprendre toute vie biologique en termes de compétition entre les gênes.

Ce que je voudrais faire maintenant, en fin de compte, c’est appliquer les idées de la Mêmetique aux questions que j’ai posées au début. de quoi nous éveillons-nous et comment le faisons-nous?

Pourquoi ma tête est-elle si pleine de pensées?

La réponse à cette question est d’une facilité ridicule, une fois qu’on a commencé à penser en termes de Mêmes. Si un Même doit survivre, il lui faut être bien à l’abri dans un cerveau humain et transmis avec précision à davantage de cerveaux. Un Même qui s’enfouit profondément dans la mémoire et ne se montre plus jamais à la surface va tout simplement disparaître. Un Même qui devient extrêmement distordu dans la mémoire ou au cours de la transmission va aussi disparaître. Une manière simple d’assurer sa survie pour un Même, c’est d‘être répété continuellement dans nos têtes.

Prenez deux airs. L’un d’eux est difficile à chanter et même encore plus difficile à se le chanter à soi-même en silence. L’autre est un petit machin accrocheur que vous ne pouvez presque pas vous empêcher de fredonner. Alors vous le faites. Ca continue et ca continue. La prochaine fois que vous avez envie de chanter à haute voix, cet air est très susceptible d‘être celui que vous chanterez. Et si quelqu’un l’entend, il le reprendra. C’est comme ça que vient le succès, et c’est pour ça que le monde est si plein d’airs accrocheurs affreux et de jingles de publicité.

Mais il y a une autre conséquence. Nos cerveaux en deviennent pleins. Ces Mêmes à succès sautent d’une personne à l’autre, et remplissent l’esprit de leur hôte au passage. De la sorte, nos esprits deviennent de plus en plus pleins.

Nous pouvons appliquer la même logique à d’autres sortes de Mêmes. Les idées qui tournent et retournent dans nos têtes auront du succès. Non seulement allons nous bien nous en rappeler, mais la prochaine fois que nous serons en train de parler à quelqu’un, ce seront les idées que nous aurons “en tête” et c’est comme ça qu’elles se transmettront. Elles pourront y arriver en étant émotionnellement chargées, excitantes, facilement mémorisables ou pertinentes pour nos soucis de l’instant. Peu importe comment elles y arrivent. Le fait est que les Mêmes qui arrivent à se faire répéter l’emportent sur ceux qui ne le sont pas. La conséquence évidente en est que nos têtes sont vite remplies d’idées. Toute tentative de nettoyer l’esprit ne fait que faire de la place pour d’autres Mêmes.

Cette simple logique explique pourquoi il est si difficile pour nous de nous asseoir et de “ne pas penser”, et pourquoi cette bataille pour dompter “nos” pensées est perdue d’avance. Dans un sens très réel, elles ne sont pas du tout “nos” pensées. Elles ne sont que des Mêmes qui réussisent à exploiter efficacement nos ondes cérébrales du moment.

Ce qui soulève la question délicate à savoir qui pense ou ne pense pas. Qui est-ce qui se bat contre ces Mêmes égoïstes? En d’autres mots, qui suis-je?

Qui suis-je?

Je suppose que vous pouvez dès maintenant deviner ce que sera ma réponse à cette question. Nous ne sommes que des complexes de Mêmes co-adaptés. nous, nos précieux et mythiques “egos”, ne sommes que des groupes de Mêmes égoïstes qui se sont rassemblés par et pour eux-mêmes. Il s’agit d’une idée proprement époustouflante, et, à mon expérience, mieux on la comprend et plus elle devient folle et fascinante. Elle démantèle notre façon ordinaire de nous penser nous-mêmes et soulève des questions bizarres sur notre relation avec nos idées. Pour la comprendre, il nous faut réfléchir au comment et au pourquoi des Mêmes se rassemblent en groupes.

De même qu’avec les blobbies ou les gênes, les Mêmes en groupes sont davantage à l’abri que les Mêmes solitaires. Une idée fermement sertie dans un complexe de Mêmes a plus de chances de survie dans la mémosphère qu’une idée isolée. C’est peut-être parce que les idées à l’intérieur des groupes de Mêmes sont échangées en vrac (c-à-d. lorsque quelqu’un se convertit à une croyance, une théorie ou une tendance politique), se soutiennent mutuellement — par ex., si vous détestez l‘économie ultra-libérale, vous pourriez aussi être en faveur d’une généreuse protection sociale), et ils se protègent de la destruction. S’ils ne le faisaient pas, ils ne dureraient pas et ne seraient plus là aujourd’hui. Les complexes de Mêmes que nous rencontrons sont tous ceux qui ont réussi!

Comme les religions, l’astrologie est un complexe de Mêmes à succès. Il es peu probable que l’idée que les Lions s’entendent bien avec les Verseaux aurait pu survivre toute seule, mais en tant que partie de l’astrologie, elle est facile à mémoriser et à transmettre. L’astrologie exerce une attirance évidente qui la met dans nos cerveaux dès le départ; elle fournit une jolie (quoique fausse) explication aux différences humaines et une sensation de prédictibilité réconfortante (quoique erronée). Elle peut se répandre facilement (on peut y ajouter de nouvelles idées à l’infini!) et elle résiste très bien aux preuves contraires. En fait, le résultat de centaines d’expériences montre que les prétentions de l’astrologie sont fausses mais ça n’a pas pour autant réduit la croyance en elle d’un iota (Dean, Mather and Kelly, 1996). Il est clair qu’une fois qu’on croit en l’astrologie, il est très difficile de déraciner toutes les croyances et de leur trouver des alternatives. Ça n’en vaut peut-être pas la peine. C’est ainsi que nous devenons tous des hôtes inconscients d’un énorme bagage de complexes Mêmiques inutiles et parfois dommageables.

L’un d’eux est moi.

Pourquoi est-ce que je dis que l’ego est un complexe de Mêmes? Parce que ça marche de la même façon que tous les autres complexes de Mêmes. Comme pour l’astrologie, l’idée d’un “soi” a une bonne raison de s’installer, dès le départ. Ensuite, une fois en place, les Mêmes à l’intérieur du complexe s’entraident mutuellement, on peut leur en rajouter presqu‘à l’infini, et tout le complexe est résistant à toute preuve de sa fausseté.

Pour commencer, l’idée d’un ego doit entrer là. Imaginons une créature sociale très intelligente mais sans le langage. Elle aura besoin d’un sentiment du soi pour prédire le comportement des autres (Humphrey, 1986) et pour traiter la propriété, la tromperie, les amitiés et les alliances (Crook, 1980).

Avec ce simple sentiment du soi, elle peut savoir que sa fille a peur d’une femelle de haut rang et elle peut prendre des mesures pour la protéger, mais elle ne possède pas le langage avec lequel elle pourrait penser “Je pense que ma fille a peur… etc.”. C’est avec le langage que les Mêmes démarrent vraiment – et avec le langage que “Je “ apparaît. Des tas de Mêmes simples peuvent alors s’unir en tant que “mes” croyances, désirs et opinions.

Comme exemple, prenons l’idée des différences de sexe au plan de l’habileté. En tant qu’idée abstraite (ou Même isolé) elle a peu de chances de succès. Mais donnez-lui la forme “Je crois en l‘égalité des sexes” et tout soudain elle a acquis l‘énorme poids du “soi” derrière elle. “Je” me battrai pour cette idée comme si j‘étais menacé. Je pourrais argumenter avec des amis, écrire de mots d’opinion, participer à des marches de protestation. Le Même est à l’abri au port du “soi” même face aux preuves qui l’invalident. “Mes” idées sont protégées. C’est alors qu’elles commencent à proliférer. Les idées qui peuvent s’installer dans un égo – c’est-à-dire devenir “mes” idées, ou “mes” opinions, ont du succès. De sorte qu’on en attrape tout plein. A peine s’en rend-on compte que “nous” sommes un vaste conglomérat de Mêmes à succès. Evidemment, il n’y a aucun “Je” qui “ait” les opinions. C’est évidemment un non-sens lorsqu’on y songe sérieusement. Bien sûr, il y a un corps qui dit “Je crois qu’il faut être correct avec les gens” et un corps qui est (ou n’est pas) correct avec les gens, mais il n’y a pas en prime un ego qui “a” les croyances.

Maintenant, nous avons une idée radicalement neuve de qui nous sommes. Nous ne sommes que des conglomérats temporaires d’idées, fondues ensembles pour leur propre protection. L’analogie avec nos corps est proche. Les corps sont les créations de complexes temporaires de gênes: bien que chacun de nous soit unique, les gênes eux-mêmes proviennent tous de créatures précédentes et, si nous nous reproduisons, continueront en de futures créatures. Nos esprits sont la création de complexes temporaires de Mêmes: bien que chacun de nous soit unique, les Mêmes eux-mêmes proviennent de créatures précédentes et, si nous parlons, écrivons et communiquons, continueront en de futures créatures. C’est tout. Le problème, c’est que nous ne voyons pas les choses comme ça. Nous croyons qu’il y a vraiment quelqu’un à l’intérieur qui s’occupe de croire, et vraiment quelqu’un qui a besoin qu’on le protège. C’est ça, l’illusion – c’est ça le rêve de Mêmes dont nous pouvons nous éveiller

Démanteler le Rêve de Mêmes.

Je connais deux systèmes qui sont capables de démanteler les complexes de Mêmes (quoique je sois convaincue qu’il y en a d’autres). Bien sûr, ces systèmes sont eux-mêmes des Mêmes mais ce sont, si on veut, des désinfectants de Mêmes, des Mêmes mangeurs de Mêmes, ou des “complexes de Mêmes qui détruisent des complexes de Mêmes.” Ce sont la science et le Zen.

La science y arrive à cause de ses idéaux de vérité et de recherche de preuves. Elle n’est pas toujours à la hauteur de ces idéaux, mais en principe, elle est capable de détruire tout complexe de Mêmes non-véridique en le soumettant à la question, en demandant des preuves, ou en organisant une expérience.

Le Zen fait ça aussi, quoique les méthodes soient complètement différentes. Dans l’entraînement Zen, tout concept est soumis à examen, rien n’est laissé sans être examiné, même l‘égo qui mène l’examen doit être maintenu sous la lumière et interrogé. “Qui t’es, toé?”

Après quelque quinze ans de pratique du Zen, et en relisant les Trois Piliers du Zen de Philip Kapleau, j’ai commencé à travailler le kôan “Qui…?”. L’expérience a été très intéressante, et je peux au mieux la comparer à l’observation d’un Même en train de déboutonner d’autres Mêmes. Chaque pensée qui surgit au cours de la méditation était contrée par “Qui est-ce qui pense ça?” ou “Qui c’est qui voit ça?” ou Qui est-ce qui ressent ça?” ou juste “Qui…?”. de considérer le faux soi comme un vaste complexe de Mêmes m’a paru aider – parce qu’il est bien plus facile de lâcher prise sur des Mêmes de passage que sur un ego réel, solide et permanent. C’est bien plus facile de laisser le déboutonneur de Mêmes faire son boulot si vous savez que tout ce qu’il fait, c’est de déboutonner des Mêmes.

Un autre de mes kôans est tombé face aux Mêmes. Q.: Qui te mène?”. R.: Les Mêmes, évidemment.” Il ne s’agit pas là d’une simple réponse intellectuelle, mais d’une façon de se voir comme une construction temporaire transitoire. La question se dissout lorsque le soi et le conducteur sont tous deux vus comme des Mêmes.

Il m’a fallu faire un long détour pour répondre à mes questions, mais j’espère que vous pouvez maintenant comprendre mes réponses. “De quoi c’est qu’il faut qu’on se réveille?” – “Du rêve des Mêmes, évidemment.” – “Et comment?” – “En constatant que c’est un rêve de Même”.

Et qui c’est qui laisse le déboutonneur de Mêmes faire son truc? Qui c’est qui se réveille quand le rêve des Mêmes est démantelé? Ah, en voilà une question.

Source

There aren’t enough minds to house the population explosion of memes

It’s a drop in the bucket, but perhaps if we all start thinking about conservation of valuable mind-space, we can save ourselves (our descendants) from informational collapse.

http://static.videoegg.com/ted/flash/loader.swf

Ideas can be dangerous. Darwin had one, for instance. We hold all sorts of inventors and other innovators responsible for assaying, in advance, the environmental impact of their creations, and since ideas can have huge environmental impacts, I see no reason to exempt us thinkers from the responsibility of quarantining any deadly ideas we may happen to come across. So if I found what I took to be such a dangerous idea, I would button my lip until I could find some way of preparing the ground for its safe expression. I expect that others who are replying to this year’s Edge question have engaged in similar reflections and arrived at the same policy. If so, then some people may be pulling their punches with their replies. The really dangerous ideas they are keeping to themselves.

But here is an unsettling idea that is bound to be true in one version or another, and so far as I can see, it won’t hurt to publicize it more. It might well help.

The human population is still growing, but at nowhere near the rate that the population of memes is growing. There is competition for the limited space in human brains for memes, and something has to give. Thanks to our incessant and often technically brilliant efforts, and our apparently insatiable appetites for novelty, we have created an explosively growing flood of information, in all media, on all topics, in every genre. Now either (1) we will drown in this flood of information, or (2) we won’t drown in it. Both alternatives are deeply disturbing. What do I mean by drowning? I mean that we will become psychologically overwhelmed, unable to cope, victimized by the glut and unable to make life-enhancing decisions in the face of an unimaginable surfeit. (I recall the brilliant scene in the film of Evelyn Waugh’s dark comedy The Loved One in which embalmer Mr. Joyboy’s gluttonous mother is found sprawled on the kitchen floor, helplessly wallowing in the bounty that has spilled from a capsized refrigerator.) We will be lost in the maze, preyed upon by whatever clever forces find ways of pumping money–or simply further memetic replications–out of our situation. (In The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells sees that it might well be our germs, not our high-tech military contraptions, that subdue our alien invaders. Similarly, might our own minds succumb not to the devious manipulations of evil brainwashers and propagandists, but to nothing more than a swarm of irresistible ditties, Noφs nibbled to death by slogans and one-liners?)

If we don’t drown, how will we cope? If we somehow learn to swim in the rising tide of the infosphere, that will entail that we–that is to say, our grandchildren and their grandchildren–become very very different from our recent ancestors. What will “we” be like? (Some years ago, Doug Hofstadter wrote a wonderful piece, “ In 2093, Just Who Will Be We?” in which he imagines robots being created to have “human” values, robots that gradually take over the social roles of our biological descendants, who become stupider and less concerned with the things we value. If we could secure the welfare of just one of these groups, our children or our brainchildren, which group would we care about the most, with which group would we identify?)

Whether “we” are mammals or robots in the not so distant future, what will we know and what will we have forgotten forever, as our previously shared intentional objects recede in the churning wake of the great ship that floats on this sea and charges into the future propelled by jets of newly packaged information? What will happen to our cultural landmarks? Presumably our descendants will all still recognize a few reference points (the pyramids of Egypt, arithmetic, the Bible, Paris, Shakespeare, Einstein, Bach . . . ) but as wave after wave of novelty passes over them, what will they lose sight of? The Beatles are truly wonderful, but if their cultural immortality is to be purchased by the loss of such minor 20th century figures as Billie Holiday, Igor Stravinsky, and Georges Brassens [who he?], what will remain of our shared understanding?

The intergenerational mismatches that we all experience in macroscopic versions (great-grandpa’s joke falls on deaf ears, because nobody else in the room knows that Nixon’s wife was named “Pat”) will presumably be multiplied to the point where much of the raw information that we have piled in our digital storehouses is simply incomprehensible to everyone–except that we will have created phalanxes of “smart” Rosetta-stones of one sort or another that can “translate” the alien material into something we (think maybe we) understand. I suspect we hugely underestimate the importance (to our sense of cognitive security) of our regular participation in the four-dimensional human fabric of mutual understanding, with its reassuring moments of shared–and seen to be shared, and seen to be seen to be shared–comprehension.

What will happen to common knowledge in the future? I do think our ancestors had it easy: aside from all the juicy bits of unshared gossip and some proprietary trade secrets and the like, people all knew pretty much the same things, and knew that they knew the same things. There just wasn’t that much to know. Won’t people be able to create and exploit illusions of common knowledge in the future, virtual worlds in which people only think they are in touch with their cyber-neighbors?

I see small-scale projects that might protect us to some degree, if they are done wisely. Think of all the work published in academic journals before, say, 1990 that is in danger of becoming practically invisible to later researchers because it can’t be found on-line with a good search engine. Just scanning it all and hence making it “available” is not the solution. There is too much of it. But we could start projects in which (virtual) communities of retired researchers who still have their wits about them and who know particular literatures well could brainstorm amongst themselves, using their pooled experience to elevate the forgotten gems, rendering them accessible to the next generation of researchers. This sort of activity has in the past been seen to be a stodgy sort of scholarship, fine for classicists and historians, but not fit work for cutting-edge scientists and the like. I think we should try to shift this imagery and help people recognize the importance of providing for each other this sort of pathfinding through the forests of information. It’s a drop in the bucket, but perhaps if we all start thinking about conservation of valuable mind-space, we can save ourselves (our descendants) from informational collapse.

Source

Freenet

Freenet is free software which lets you publish and obtain information on the Internet without fear of censorship. To achieve this freedom, the network is entirely decentralized and publishers and consumers of information are anonymous. Without anonymity there can never be true freedom of speech, and without decentralization the network will be vulnerable to attack.

What is Freenet?

Freenet is free software which lets you publish and obtain information on the Internet without fear of censorship. To achieve this freedom, the network is entirely decentralized and publishers and consumers of information are anonymous. Without anonymity there can never be true freedom of speech, and without decentralization the network will be vulnerable to attack.

Communications by Freenet nodes are encrypted and are “routed-through” other nodes to make it extremely difficult to determine who is requesting the information and what its content is.

Users contribute to the network by giving bandwidth and a portion of their hard drive (called the “data store”) for storing files. Unlike other peer-to-peer file sharing networks, Freenet does not let the user control what is stored in the data store. Instead, files are kept or deleted depending on how popular they are, with the least popular being discarded to make way for newer or more popular content. Files in the data store are encrypted to reduce the likelihood of prosecution by persons wishing to censor Freenet content.

The network can be used in a number of different ways and isn’t restricted to just sharing files like other peer-to-peer networks. It acts more like an Internet within an Internet. For example Freenet can be used for:

* Publishing websites or ‘freesites’
* Communicating via message boards
* Content distribution
* Sending email messages

Unlike many cutting edge projects, Freenet long ago escaped the science lab, it has been downloaded by over 2 million users since the project started, and it is used for the distribution of censored information all over the world including countries such as China and the Middle East. Ideas and concepts pioneered in Freenet have had a significant impact in the academic world. Our 2000 paper “Freenet: A Distributed Anonymous Information Storage and Retrieval System” was the most cited computer science paper of 2000 according to Citeseer, and Freenet has also inspired papers in the worlds of law and philosophy. Ian Clarke, Freenet’s creator and project coordinator, was selected as one of the top 100 innovators of 2003 by MIT’s Technology Review magazine.

The Philosophy behind Freenet

1. A Disclaimer
There are many reasons why people get involved in the Freenet Project. Some share the views outlined in this document; some share variations of these views, which are also served by what we are trying to achieve; and some just enjoy the technical challenge. These are the ideas which motivated me to architect the system in the first place, but not necessarily the views that everyone involved in the Freenet project holds.

2. Suggested prior reading
For this document to make sense, you should probably know what Freenet is. You can get a good overview on the What is Freenet? page.

3. The importance of the Free flow of information
Freedom of speech, in most western cultures, is generally considered to be one of the most important rights any individual might have. Why is the freedom to share ideas and opinions so important? There are several ways to answer this question.

3.1 Communication is what makes us human
One of the most obvious differences between mankind and the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to communicate sophisticated and abstract concepts. While we constantly discover that animal’s communication ability is more sophisticated than previously assumed, it is unlikely that any other animal approaches our own level of ability in this area.

3.2 Knowledge is good
Most people, given the option of knowing something and not knowing something, will choose to have more information rather than less. Wars have been won and lost over who was better-informed. This is because being better-informed allows us to make better decisions, and generally improve our ability to survive and be successful.

3.3 Democracy assumes a well informed population
Many people today live under democratic governments, and those who don’t, probably want to. Democracy is an answer to the question of how to create leaders, while preventing them from abusing that power. It achieves this by giving the population the power to regulate their government through voting, yet the ability to vote does not necessarily mean that you live in a democratic country. For a population to regulate their government effectively it must know what their government is doing, they must be well informed. It is a feedback loop, but this loop can be broken if the government has the power to control the information the population has access to.

4. Censorship and freedom
Everyone values their freedom, in fact, many consider it so important that they will die for it. People like to think that they are free to form and hold whatever opinions they like, particularly in western countries. Consider now that someone had the ability to control the information you have access to. This would give them the ability to manipulate your opinions by hiding some facts from you, by presenting you with lies and censoring anything that contradicted those lies. This is not some Orwellian fiction, it is standard practice for most western governments to lie to their populations, so much so, that people now take it for granted, despite the fact that this undermines the very democratic principles which justify the government’s existence in the first place.

5. The solution
The only way to ensure that a democracy will remain effective is to ensure that the government cannot control its population’s ability to share information, to communicate. So long as everything we see and hear is filtered, we are not truly free. Freenet’s aim is to allow two or more people who wish to share information, to do so.

6. Isn’t censorship sometimes necessary?
Of course no issue is black and white, and there are many who feel that censorship is a good thing in some circumstances. For example, in some European countries propagating information deemed to be racist is illegal. Governments seek to prevent people from advocating ideas which are deemed damaging to society. There are two answers to this however. The first is that you can’t allow those in power to impose “good” censorship, without also enabling them to impose “bad” censorship. To impose any form of censorship a government must have the ability to monitor and thus restrict communication. There are already criticisms that the anti-racism censorship in many European countries is hampering legitimate historical analysis of events such as the second world war.

The second argument is that this “good” censorship is counter-productive even when it does not leak into other areas. For example, it is generally more effective when trying to persuade someone of something to present them with the arguments against it, and then answer those arguments. Unfortunately, preventing people from being aware of the often sophisticated arguments used by racists, makes them vulnerable to those arguments when they do eventually encounter them.

Of course the first argument is the stronger one, and would still hold-true even if you didn’t accept the second. Basically, you either have censorship, or you don’t. There is no middle-ground.

7. But why is anonymity necessary?
You cannot have freedom of speech without the option to remain anonymous. Most censorship is retrospective, it is generally much easier to curtail free speech by punishing those who exercise it afterward, rather than preventing them from doing it in the first place. The only way to prevent this is to remain anonymous. It is a common misconception that you cannot trust anonymous information. This is not necessarily true, using digital signatures people can create a secure anonymous pseudonym which, in time, people can learn to trust. Freenet incorporates a mechanism called “subspaces” to facilitate this.

8. And what of copyright?
Of course much of Freenet’s publicity has centered around the issue of copyright, and thus I will speak to it briefly. The core problem with copyright is that enforcement of it requires monitoring of communications, and you cannot be guaranteed free speech if someone is monitoring everything you say. This is important, most people fail to see or address this point when debating the issue of copyright, so let me make it clear:

You cannot guarantee freedom of speech and enforce copyright law

It is for this reason that Freenet, a system designed to protect Freedom of Speech, must prevent enforcement of copyright.

9. But how will artists be rewarded for their work without copyright?

Firstly, even if copyright were the only way that artists could be rewarded for their work, then I would contend that freedom is more important than having professional artists (those who claim that we would have no art do not understand creativity: people will always create, it is a compulsion, the only question is whether they can do it for a living).

Secondly, it could be questioned whether copyright is effective even now. The music industry is one of the most vocally opposed to enhancements in communication technology, yet according to many of the artists who should be rewarded by copyright, it is failing to do so. Rather it has allowed middle-men to gain control over the mechanisms of distribution, to the detriment of both artists and the public.

10. Alternatives to Copyright

Fortunately it won’t come to this. There are many alternative ways to reward artists. The simplest is voluntary payment. This is an extension of the patronage system which was frequently used to reward artists prior to copyright, where a wealthy person would fund an artist to allow them to create full-time. The Internet permits an interesting extension of this idea, where rather than having just one wealthy patron, you could have hundreds of thousands, contributing small amounts of money over the Internet.

We actually practice what we preach in this regard too, on the 15th of March 2001 the Freenet Project started taking donations, and within a week we had collected over $1000.

11. More sophisticated approaches: Fairshare

Of course some people ridicule this idea on the basis (I assume) that nobody would ever pay for something unless forced to do so (despite significant evidence to the contrary). While I disagree with their rather depressing outlook on humanity, there are more sophisticated mechanisms which do appeal to people’s self-interest, such as “Fairshare”, where people can buy in to artists much as a venture capitalist will buy into an idea they like, and if that artist is successful they will be rewarded in proportion to their original contribution. This has the nice effect of encouraging people to give more money to obscure artists who they believe have potential. If their investment doesn’t pay-off, then they still have the satisfaction that they contributed to an artist whose work they enjoy.

Evolution of Memes on the Network

There is a better metaphor for the emerging global network. Rather than comparing it to an organism’s genome, which is normally static and evolves only because of random copying errors, it can be likened to the organism’s brain, which learns and develops in a non-random way. The network functions like a nervous system for the social superorganism (Stock, 1993), transmitting signals between its different “organs”, memorizing its experiences, making them available for retrieval when needed, and generally steering and coordinating its different functions. Thus, it might be viewed as a global brain (Russell, 1995).

Evolution of Memes on the Network: from chain-letters to the global brain

Memes as Replicators

An essential characteristic of genes, the units of biological information, is that they replicate: they produce copies of themselves, and thereby spread and increase in numbers. Sometimes mutations or copying errors are introduced, producing different variants. Only the best or “fittest” will manage to spread widely. This is the process of natural selection, which weeds out inadequate genes. Variation and selection together produce evolution, the perpetual creation of new, better adapted genes.

Richard Dawkins (1976) suggested that a similar mechanism applies to cultural information. Ideas, habits and traditions are communicated from individual to individual. This can be interpreted as a replication: a copy (possibly with errors) of the information is made in the memory of a second individual. Dawkins called the units of this cultural replication process “memes”. Practically all cultural entities are memes: images, books, poems, theories, religions, language, melodies, rumours, etc. It suffices that the underlying informational or behavioral pattern is copied, e.g. when people imitate other people’s habits or styles, when they learn other’s ideas, or reproduce works of art. Like genes, cultural variants can be more or less successful in spreading through the population. They therefore undergo natural selection, and thus evolution.

Dawkins listed the following three characteristics for any successful replicator: 1) copying-fidelity: the more faithful the copy, the more will remain of the initial pattern after several rounds of copying. If a painting is reproduced by making photocopies from photocopies, the underlying pattern will quickly become unrecognizable. 2) fecundity: the faster the rate of copying, the more the replicator will spread. An industrial printing press can churn out many more copies of a text than an office copying machine. 3) longevity: the longer any instance of the replicating pattern survives, the more copies can be made of it. A drawing made by etching lines in the sand is likely to be erased before anybody could have photographed or otherwise reproduced it.

In these general respects, memes are similar to genes and to other replicators, like computer viruses or crystals. The genetic metaphor for cultural transmission is limited, though. Genes can only be transmitted from parent to child. Memes can be transmitted between any two individuals (“multiple parenting”). For genes to be transmitted, you need a generation. Memes only take minutes to replicate. On the other hand, the copying-fidelity of memes is in general much lower. If a story is spread by being told from person to person, the final version will be very different from the original one. It is this variability or fuzziness that perhaps distinguishes cultural patterns most strikingly from DNA structures: every individual’s version of an idea or belief will be in some respect different from the others’. That makes it difficult to define or delimit memes.

There are several selection criteria which determine in how far a particular meme will be successful. The more of these criteria a meme satisfies, the more likely it is that it will maintain and spread (Heylighen, 1993). Objective criteria determine whether the knowledge conveyed by a meme can reliably predict events in the outside world. Subjective criteria determine in how far an individual is willing to assimilate a particular meme. They include: 1) coherence: the meme is internally consistent, and does not contradict other beliefs the individual already has; 2) novelty: the meme adds something new, something remarkable, that attracts the person’s attention; 3) simplicity: it is easy to grasp and to remember; 4) individual utility: the meme helps the individual to further his or her personal goals.

Intersubjective criteria determine how easily memes travel from subject to subject. They include: 5) salience: the meme is easily noticed by others, e.g. because it is shouted out loud, or printed on big posters; 6) expressivity: the meme is easily expressed in language or other codes of communication; 7) formality: the interpretation of the meme’s expression depends little on person or context; 8) infectiveness: the individuals who carry the meme are inclined to “spread the word”, to teach it to other people or to convert them to the belief; 9) conformism: the meme is supported by what the majority believe; 10) collective utility: the meme is useful for the group, without necessarily being useful for an individual (e.g. the traffic code).

The information in the genes of an organism constitutes its genotype. Its body, developed through the interaction of genotype with environment, constitutes its phenotype. The equivalent of a phenotype for memes is the sociotype, the concrete organization of the group of people carrying a collection of memes or memotype. For example, if the memotype is the whole of Mormon beliefs, then the sociotype is the group of all Mormons. As a meme is more fuzzy than a gene, a sociotype is likewise more fuzzy than a phenotype: it is in general not clear how a group of meme carriers can be delimited (Heylighen & Campbell, 1995).

Memes on the Net

The above review sketches the properties of memes in general, be they scientific theories, religions, musical styles or the use of gadgets. It is obvious, though, that the media by which a meme is communicated, such as scientific journals, church preachings, or radio stations, will greatly influence its eventual spread. The most important medium at present is the emerging global computer network, which can transmit any type of information to practically any place on the planet, in a negligible time.

This highly increased efficiency of transmission directly affects the dynamics of replication. Meme transmission over the network has a much higher copying-fidelity than communication through image, sound or word. Digitalisation allows the transfer of information without loss, unlike the analog mechanisms of photocopying, filming or tape recording. Fecundity too is greatly increased, since computers can produce thousands of copies of a message in very little time. Longevity, finally, becomes potentially larger, since information can be stored indefinitely on disks or in archives. Together, these three properties ensure that memes can replicate much more efficiently via the networks. This makes the corresponding memotypes and sociotypes potentially less fuzzy.

In addition, the network transcends geographical and cultural boundaries. This means that a new development does not need to diffuse gradually from a center outwards, as, e.g., fashions or rumours do. Such diffusion can easily be stopped by different kinds of physical or linguistic barriers. On the net, an idea can appear virtually simultaneously in different parts of the world, and spread independently of the distance or proximity between senders and receivers.

The simplest example of a meme that takes into advantage these network features is a chain-letter: a message sent to different people with the express request to copy it and distribute it further. This is motivated by anticipated rewards for those who do (and punishment for those who don’t). Paper chain-letters are often poorly readable photocopies, or manuscripts retranscribed numerous times by hand or by typewriter, with the insertion of plenty of spelling and semantic errors. The effort and cost of copying and distribution moreover limit the number of copies per generation to about 20. Chain-letters distributed by electronic mail, on the other hand, can be sent to hundreds or thousands of people at once, at virtually no efforts or costs, and without information degradation.

Though I have received more chain-letters by email than by post, chain-letters on the net are still a minor phenomenon. Although their spread is very much facilitated by the net, the same applies to all other types of messages. That means that there is increased competition between all these different memes for a limited resource: the attention a user pays to the information he or she receives. Because chain-letters fulfil relatively few of the criteria that distinguish successful memes from unsuccessful ones, they are unlikely to win this competition.

The recent development from the net as carrier of email messages to the World-Wide Web as repository of interconnected documents has greatly changed the dynamics of meme replication. On the Web, information is no longer distributed by sending copies of files to different recipients. The information is rather stored in one particular location, the “server”, where everyone can consult it. “Consultation” means that a temporary copy of the file is downloaded to the RAM memory of the user’s computer, so that it can be viewed on the screen. That copy is erased as soon the user moves on to other documents. There is no need to store a permanent copy since the original will always be available. That does not mean that replicator dynamics no longer apply: the interested user will normally create a “bookmark” or “link”, i.e. a pointer with the address of the original file, so that it can be easily retrieved later. A link functions as a virtual copy (also called an “alias” file), which produces real, but temporary, copies the moment it is activated.

The success of a web document can then be measured by the number of virtual copies or links pointing to it: the documents with most pointers will be used most extensively. There are already web robots, i.e. programs which automatically scan the Web, that make “hit parades” of the documents which are linked to most often. For example, it is likely that a reproduction of the works of Van Gogh on the Web will be much more popular in number of pointers than the work of some unknown 20th century painter.

Cooperating Memes: towards a Global Brain?

Discussions about memes, and about evolutionary systems in general, usually emphasize competition, i.e. the “survival of the fittest” at the expense of the less fit. However, in biological evolution, cooperation between evolving systems, in the sense of symbiosis and mutual support, is at least as important. Multicellular organisms, in which the individual cells cooperate for the collective good, are a prime example.

For genes, competition is limited to “alleles”: alternative versions of a gene which compete for the same position on an organism’s chromosome. Genes residing in different parts of the chromosome, on the other hand, do no compete but cooperate in steering the development of the organism. Each gene produces a particular type of protein, in reaction to the presence of absence of other proteins in the cell. Together, these proteins build up the cell, digest food molecules, eliminate poisonous molecules, and generally restore the cell equilibrium after different perturbations. Genes cooperate directly through their arrangement in networks: the product of one gene can activate or deactivate a number of other genes, which in turn may activate further genes, and so on.

Similarly, memes can be said to cooperate if they are coherent or support each other. For example, the belief that the Earth is round and the belief that the Earth circles around the sun are mutually reinforcing. The “roundness” meme makes it easier to visualize the “circling” meme, and vice versa. On the other hand, the roundness meme contradicts the meme which says that the Earth is flat. Roundness and flatness behave like alleles, which compete for the same position in a person’s view of the world. Though flatness does not directly contradict circling, it is clear that they fit less well together than roundness and circling. Similar examples can be found in the domains of art and fashion. Debussy’s music seems to fit in much better with impressionism in painting than with expressionism. Heavy metal music seems to go together with riding motor bikes, but not so much with bicycles.

Mutually supporting memes will tend to group together in larger cooperating ensembles, like ideologies, theories or religions. Mutually exclusive ensembles, like Catholicism and Protestantism, the Copernican and Ptolemaic views of the solar system, or the hippie and punk movements, will compete for converts. It is here that the “multiple parenting” issue, distinguishing memes and genes, comes into play. Since many different people (“parents”) can try to convert the same individual, that individual will need to make a choice between the different memes presented to her. (In contrast, you cannot choose from which parents you inherit your genes). For two otherwise equivalent memes, the determining characteristic will be the number of already existing converts: the more people try to convince you of something, the more likely it is that you will follow the lead. If slightly more people believe in one meme, that meme will make more new converts, and thus increase its lead over the competition. This is a self-reinforcing evolution, where success breeds success. As confirmed by a mathematical model of meme transmission (see Heylighen & Campbell, 1995), the result will be that everyone in a group ends up believing the same things. This is what I called earlier “conformist” selection. However, different groups, with little communication between them, will generally believe different things, since conformist transmission tends to amplify small differences in initial distribution of beliefs.

Let us now see how these mechanisms of cooperation and competition are affected by the global network. Like genes, memes on the web are arranged in networks, where one document points to a number of supporting documents, which in turn link to further supporting documents. Linked documents cooperate, in the sense that they support, confirm or extend each other’s ideas. Competing documents, such as announcements of commercial competitors, will not link to each other, or only refer to each other with a phrase like “you should certainly not believe what is said there”.

Assuming that two competing documents are equally convincing otherwise, the competition will be won or lost by the number of links that point to each of them. The more pointers to a document can be found, the more people will consult it, and the more further pointers will be made. This is the same kind of self-reinforcing process that leads to conformism, to all members of a group settling on the same meme ensemble. The difference is that now there are no separate groups: on the global network, everyone can communicate with everyone, and every document can link to every other document. The end result is likely to be the emergence of a globally shared ideology, or “world culture”, transcending the old geographical, political and religious boundaries. (Note that such homogeneization of memes only results for memes that are otherwise equivalent, such as conventions, standards or codes. Beliefs differing on the other dimensions of meme selection will be much less influenced by conformist selection.)

Such a networked ideology would play a role similar to that of the genome, the network of interconnected genes that stores the blueprint, and controls the physiology, of a multicellular organism. The corresponding “organism” or sociotype for this meme network would be the whole of humanity, together with its supporting technology. Individual humans would play a role similar to the organism’s cells, which in principle have access to the whole of the genome, but which in practice only use that part of it necessary to fulfil their specific function.

There is a better metaphor for the emerging global network. Rather than comparing it to an organism’s genome, which is normally static and evolves only because of random copying errors, it can be likened to the organism’s brain, which learns and develops in a non-random way. The network functions like a nervous system for the social superorganism (Stock, 1993), transmitting signals between its different “organs”, memorizing its experiences, making them available for retrieval when needed, and generally steering and coordinating its different functions. Thus, it might be viewed as a global brain (Russell, 1995).

The learning of new associations can be implemented by automating the evolutionary process which creates new links. We have set up an experiment in which a hypertext network adapts its links to the pattern of its usage by “learning” the implicit semantics of its users. Such a learning web can be made more intelligent by implementing the equivalent of “thoughts”: software agents, which search the net by spreading out while following associative links, collecting information that answers the user’s questions (Heylighen & Bollen, 1996). Such brain-like networks may seem far removed from our initial meme model, but they are still based on the same dynamics of variation and selection of (real or virtual) copies of information.

References

Dawkins R. (1976): The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, New York).

Heylighen F. (1993): “Selection Criteria for the Evolution of Knowledge”, Proc. 13th Int. Cong. on Cybernetics (Int. Ass. of Cybernetics, Namur), p. 524-528.

Heylighen F. & Bollen J. (1996): “The World-Wide Web as a Super-Brain”, in: Cybernetics and System ’96 (Austrian Society for Cybernetic Studies), p. 917-922.

Heylighen F. & Campbell D.T. (1995): “Selection of Organization at the Social Level”, World Futures:45, p. 181-212.

Russell P. (1995): The Global Brain Awakens: Our Next Evolutionary Leap (Miles River Press).

Stock G. (1993): Metaman: the merging of humans and machines into a global superorganism (Simon & Schuster, New York).

The Internet and Memetics

The functioning and usage of the Internet are examined in terms of memes and memetics. It is shown that memetic systems can be distinguished at various levels of Internet operation, and that these systems become increasingly simple as they move further from the user level. In this way, memetics provides a unified framework for examining the overall behaviour of the Internet and its users.

Abstract

The functioning and usage of the Internet are examined in terms of memes and memetics. It is shown that memetic systems can be distinguished at various levels of Internet operation, and that these systems become increasingly simple as they move further from the user level. In this way, memetics provides a unified framework for examining the overall behaviour of the Internet and its users.

1. Introduction

Memetics provides a powerful new way to think about things such as, for example, creativity (Gabora, 1997). The aim of this paper is to use memetics as the basis for obtaining a better understanding of the Internet both in its operation and in the way it is used. A primary purpose of a network such as the Internet is to support communication. In this role, and especially as a carrier of e-mail messages, it serves to disperse memes, spreading them across the network rapidly and accurately. Recently, the principal use of the Internet has moved from e-mail to the World Wide Web. While e-mail is still widely used, the move to the World Wide Web has caused a shift in emphasis from carrying messages to the storage of interconnected documents (Heylighen, 1996). The results of this change are, among others, to ensure the longevity of memes and to link together related memes. The consequence of the availability of both e-mail and the World Wide Web is that the Internet is, for its users, an ideal medium for the spread, replication and storage of memes.

The Internet, like all computer networks, is designed and constructed in a layered fashion, with layers of software added to the basic hardware. The layering facilitates the synthesis of a complex and complicated system but it has always been difficult to describe the operation of the layers in a consistent way so that the activities in one layer could be related directly to those in another. More importantly, the basic rationale for layering is to facilitate meta-system construction, but it has never been entirely clear that this has been achieved in any coherent way. In any event, if a major purpose of the network is to communicate and store memes, one would expect to find memetic ideas present in its design and implementation, even though its designers may not have called on them explicitly.

In fact, as this paper shows in a limited way, the functioning of the various layers can be interpreted memetically. Such an interpretation is of value not only in linking the purpose and operation of the network but also in showing the extent to which the memetic processes the network is intended to support map onto the memetic processes carried out by the underlying layers. A clear and direct mapping will indicate a well designed network, whereas the absence of any direct mapping will not only indicate shortcomings and inefficiencies in the way that the network operates but also help to identify their causes. This paper, then, is an attempt to expose the memetic systems and processes occurring at different levels of Internet operation. It also shows how the processes in adjacent layers relate to one another which, in turn, exposes the meta-system transitions.

2. Memetics at the operational level

We begin by considering the World Wide Web. Here, a system of connections, or links, is maintained in a data space so that the space can be navigated. But this data space, as with everything else on the Internet, is supported by the underlying network, and the connections of the network do not correspond directly to the connections of the data space. To ensure that the users of the virtual world provided by the data space are unaware of the underlying network, any connection that is to be followed in the data space must automatically be mapped onto a route in the network. This means that routing is an aspect of network operation that is vital to the success of the World Wide Web, just as it is for other Internet services.

Routing is, in essence, achieved with routing tables. Each node of the network has a routing table that determines from the destination of a message how that message should be forwarded from that node. A message is delivered to its destination after being forwarded in this way by a series of nodes. Internet routing, however, not only provides routes, but also provides them in a way that adapts to the state of the network (Parker, 1994). The aim of this adaptive routing is to provide all the users of the network with the best possible common level of service regardless of the pattern of traffic carried by the network. The adaptation is controlled by network management centres that collect status information from network nodes, use this information to construct a representation of the state of the network and then send out messages to change the routing tables as necessary.

This way of achieving adaptive routing can be interpreted as a memetic system. The messages carrying the changes to the routing tables can be seen as memes, since they are, in essence, information patterns. The patterns can be interpreted by nodes in such a way as to bring about the required changes to the routing tables and so to the behaviour of the network. They spread across the network by being transmitted, and can be replicated as necessary, for example, if the same changes are needed at different nodes. A network management centre causes the memes to be modified in accordance with its representation of the state of the network. The aim of the modification is to cause the overall network to remain fit for its purpose despite its changing environment. The system can be redescribed in terms of a society. Nodes can be seen as the members of a ‘network society’. Their capability is rather limited in that, as far as routing is concerned, they merely forward the messages that come to them. All the same, they co-operate with each other in an altruistic way to support routes across the network. In fact, a node will have no sense of the overall route of a message, merely passing it on to the next hop of its journey. Further, it will have no knowledge of messages in other parts of the network, and yet the other messages will be delivered to the same performance specification as the ones it handles. The purpose of the memes is to ensure that the routing tables are maintained in such a way that the ‘network society’ meets its goal no matter how the state of the network changes. The claim that this is a memetic system, must be accompanied by the rider that it is rather a limited one. The memes do not mutate or recombine, but are modified by a central controller in response to its perception of what is necessary. In the terminology used by Wilkins (1998), the memes are instructed.

3. Memetics at the service level

Agent technology is becoming ever more widely used on the Internet as a means of supporting services, notably search engines and ‘push’ services.

An agent can be defined as a message that can be sent into the network to perform some task and to return with the result. So, to give an example, Jango (to be found at http://www.jango.com/) is the name of an agent that can search on-line Internet stores for product availability and price information. Clearly, this agent must be able to locate sites of on-line stores, determine the products available at each site, and find their prices. In other words, it must have access to a program that tells it how to perform the task required of it. As an information pattern that can be replicated and spread across a network, an agent is a meme. Since it carries a program for performing a task, it provides a way of disseminating this program and, when there are different agents for the same task, they provide a basis for the selection of the best way of performing that task. Now consider the situation when several agents arrive at a node to carry out their various tasks. They could simply queue to carry out their tasks in succession so that eventually all the tasks would be done. It would, however, make better use of the scarce resource at their disposal if they co-operated with each other by, for example, sharing common tasks and ordering the tasks to facilitate the execution of the overall set of tasks. In this case, the set of agents can be seen as a meme complex and, when they co-operate, they will, if not exactly recombine, at least re-program one another. In terms of a society, the agents can be seen as the members, each having a single, possibly complex, capability, namely to perform the task required of them. The overall aim of the society is to perform the set of tasks contributed by its members.

The question that arises is: How should the agents co-operate? Memes for co-operation are needed! Co-operation can take place in many ways, including those that are benevolent or selfish, disruptive or co-operative, aggressive or submissive. Agents, as representatives of their dispatchers, should presumably co-operate in the same way as would their dispatchers. This makes it hard to envisage a uniform style of co-operation for agents, and an agent that is disposed to co-operate in a particular style must be able to react appropriately to an agent that attempts co-operation in a different fashion. Further, just as norms and laws govern co-operation in the real world, so, in the field of multi-agent systems, it is appreciated that social norms and laws are required for agent co-operation (Conte and Falcone, 1997). To summarise this, we can say that when services are implemented using agent technology, one agent can be seen as a meme, and a group of agents gathered in the same place as a meme complex. In this context, a meme is, again in the terminology used by Wilkins (1998), an interactor. The individual memes of a meme complex interact with each other, modifying themselves as required to achieve the overall aim of the group, which is to achieve their set of tasks in a way that is to the general benefit.

4. Memetics at the user level

The Internet, as mentioned earlier, supports the rapid and accurate world-wide transmission of the memes of its users. This is a supplement to, and not a replacement for, the traditional means of spreading memes. It is also, clearly, a means which makes use of a different medium. To the extent that the characteristics of the medium differ from those of the traditional medium, so the result of dispersing memes is, in turn, different.

It has been argued that the Internet’s capability to spread memes across the world both accurately and instantaneously supports a tendency towards homogeneity in world culture (Heylighen, 1996). Memes can appear at much the same time in different parts of the world regardless of geographical and cultural boundaries to exert their effects. It has also been argued that the speed of transmission, and the resulting rapid cascade of memes across the Internet, makes it more difficult to distinguish between the more and less valuable memes (Taylor, 1996). There is a premium on short, catchy memes as opposed to more complex memes such as lengthy stories. Infectiousness assumes an importance far greater than that of attributes that may well have greater long-term value such as utility and authority.

With these insights, it is possible to sketch the essential differences between virtual and real-world communities. Virtual communities are not structured in the same way as real-world communities. Constraints of geography and status do not come into play: what matters is a common interest. But a diverse collection of people, perhaps drawn from all parts of the world and united by only a common interest, needs to construct its own culture. The network facilitates this with communication and the spread of memes. But, by comparison with the real world, memes are spread rapidly and accurately. This causes virtual communities to develop cultures that are narrow, often extreme and, in consequence, rather precarious (Marshall, 1998). Their precarious nature is re-inforced by the favouring of infectious memes over memes that might bring greater benefits in the long term, in that their adoption can result in a gap between the conceptions of the virtual world and those of the real world that is so great as to become unsustainable (Umpleby, 1996).

The increased use of agents brings another aspect to the situation in that they can be used to control the memes to which their dispatchers are exposed. Agents are a key element in the so-called ‘push’ technology with which users can specify the sort of information they want to receive, after which the network will ‘push’ that, and only that, information to them. As with any form of ‘narrowcasting’ this leads to the reinforcement of existing beliefs and the avoidance of the uncertainty associated with opposing, conflicting or even just different ideas (Salem and Gratz, 1997). This kind of selective attention produces individuals who are unaware of, or even afraid of, other views and of groups holding these views. In turn, this leads to social fragmentation and the production of incompatible social segments.

As a final point, the gulf between those with access to the network and those who do not is amplified by the fact that these groups exchange different memes in different ways. As Internet culture develops and moves farther from real-world culture, it becomes harder, not necessarily to gain access, but to join in effectively once access is gained. Besides this, there is the very real possibility of those with access to the network becoming cut off from their real-world history. They may have no interest in it: those who do may not share the technical and cultural interests of those with access. The consequence can be a separation of those who spend most of their time on the network from their own history, which can only serve to widen further the gulf between those with access and those without.

5. Conclusions

This paper has shown that activities taking place at various levels in the organisation of the Internet can be interpreted in terms of memes and memetics. This provides a unified framework for examining the overall functioning and behaviour of the Internet. Given that the Internet is widely used for the communication of memes, this unified analysis has the real benefit of providing an account of the operation of the network that is coherent with the usage of the network. To the extent that the Internet is an archetypal network, these conclusions apply equally to any computer network.

The levels have been examined, starting from the bottom (hardware) level and working towards the top (user) level, to reveal their embedded memetic systems. The findings of the previous sections show that the simple memetic system supported at the operational level, in which the memes are instructed, is less complex than the system supported at the service level, where the memes are interactors. Again, the system at the service level is less complex than that at the user level which, with certain reservations, is a full-blown memetic system. Thus, the memetic system supported at a particular level is always less complex, and exerts greater control, than that supported by the level above. This finding is in tune with the rationale for adopting a layered approach to the design of a complex system, which is that the addition of a layer adds further capabilities to the overall system by building on those that already exist. In this way, the network supports the capability that users require by progressively building up this capability in a layered way with clear meta-system transitions. The memetic approach adopted here has made it possible to reveal this consistency of design and operation in a coherent way.

Article WebPage

6. References

Conte, R. and Falcone, R., ‘ICMAS ’96: Norms, Obligations, and conventions’, AI Magazine, Winter 1997, pp 145-147.

Gabora, L. M., ‘Memes: the creative spark’, Wired, June 1997, pp 110-112.

Heylighen, F., ‘Evolution of memes on the network: from chain letters to global brain’, Ars Electronica Catalogue, Ingrid Fischer (ed.), (Springer, Vienna/New York, 1996).

Marshall, G. J., ‘The nature and culture of cyberspace’, Cybernetics and Systems ’98, Robert Trappl (ed.), (Austrian Society for Cybernetic Studies, Vienna, 1998), pp 293-298.

Parker, T., ‘TCP/IP’, (Sams Publishing, Indianapolis, 1994). Salem, P. and Gratz, R., ‘Social development and electronic communication technologies: a comparison and contrast of developed and developing countries’, Proc. World Multiconference on Systems, Cybernetics and Informatics, vol. 3, N. Callaos et al, (ed.), (IIIS, 1997), pp 475-481.

Taylor M. A., ‘Fiction as artificial life: exploring the ideosphere’, Cybernetics and Systems ’96, Robert Trappl (ed.), (Austrian Society for Cybernetic Studies, Vienna, 1996), pp 893-896.

Umpleby, S. A., ‘Four models from cybernetics to guide our understanding of cyberspace’, Cybernetics and Systems ’96, Robert Trappl (ed.), (Austrian Society for Cybernetic Studies, Vienna, 1996), pp 868-870.

Wilkins, J. S., ‘What’s in a meme?: reflections from the history and philosophy of evolutionary biology.’ Journal of Memetics, 2(1), 1998.

Résumé de la méthode MCR

Cette méthode est une discipline nouvelle : une représentation des processus de conceptualisation enracinée directement dans la factualité physique a-conceptuelle — bien en-dessous des langages — et dont le caractère est résolument méthodologique et formalisant. Toute l’essence qualitative de la stratégie de description de microétats, de laquelle la microphysique actuelle tire ses forces remarquables, s’y trouve incorporée. Les processus de conceptualisation y sont représentés par des algorithmes qualitatifs de construction qui excluent a priori tout flou ou problème illusoire.

http://video.google.com/googleplayer.swf?docid=8766991904046897581&hl=fr

Introduction générale de l’auteur

Cet ouvrage concerne les processus de conceptualisation, depuis leur genèse et jusqu‘à leurs limites. Il expose une méthode générale de conceptualisation relativisée.

Il s’agit d’une problématique d’un type nouveau qui aboutit à une nouvelle discipline : une représentation des processus de conceptualisation enracinée directement dans la factualité physique a-conceptuelle – bien en dessous des langages – et dont le caractère est résolument méthodologique et formalisant. Les processus de conceptualisation y sont représentés par des algorithmes qualitatifs de « description » qui, par construction, excluent tout flou, paradoxe ou problème illusoire. Toutefois les directions et les contenus des processus de conceptualisation ne sont pas restreints par ces algorithmes. Chacun peut les choisir librement selon ses propres buts. En cela la méthode de conceptualisation relativisée s’apparente en une certaine mesure à la logique et même aux mathématiques. Mais en même temps elle possède une spécificité qui la distingue foncièrement de tout système formel : elle débute à des zéros locaux de conceptualisation, en y représentant la capture de fragments de substance physique purement factuelle, encore a-conceptuelle, qui par la suite sont traités comme une matière première pour des sémantisations progressives. Ces sémantisations constituent le cœur même de l’entière démarche, au lieu de vouloir les en expulser.

La méthode de conceptualisation relativisée introduit un système d’ ‘algorithmes qualitatifs’ de création et de développement indéfinis de sens communicables, à partir de fragments de substance physique a-conceptuelle.

Tout au long du processus de construction de la méthode de conceptualisation relativisée, l’alliance inamovible entre sémantique et formel, qu’on a tant travaillé à occulter dans les systèmes formels, est l’objet d’une attention privilégiée. On guette ses apparitions. On la stabilise. L’on protège ses développements. C’est la genèse et le fonctionnement de cette alliance entre contenu à exprimer et forme d’expression, que l’on scrute et l’on organise.

Par cela la méthode de conceptualisation relativisée s’apparente à l’Ingénierie qui, avec des fragments extraits du réel physique, construit des formes utiles nouvelles, “artificielles”, bien que soumises aux lois qui régissent les phénomènes physiques naturels ; cependant qu’elle s’apparente aussi en un certain sens à l’Art, car l’artiste, lorsqu’il est grand, extrait des profondeurs de sa factualité psychique individuelle, des fragments encore in-formes d‘émotion et d’impression auxquels il donne des formes publiquement sensibles en se conformant aux contraintes matérielles qu’imposent l’utilisation architectonique de matériaux, ou l’utilisation de couleurs, ou de sons, ou de gestes.

Les algorithmes définis dans la méthode de conceptualisation relativisée reflètent pas à pas l‘élaboration des relations cognitives entre l’homme et “le réel”, tout en normant ces relations. Et finalement, comme une fleur inattendue, ils produisent une réponse construite et tranchée à la question de savoir ce que la rationalité déductive, et notamment scientifique, peut régler, et ce qui reste définitivement en dessous d’elle, dans les plaines phosphorescentes de l’intuition et des croyances, ou au delà de sa portée, dans les construits métaphysiques.

D’un point de vue plus pragmatique, la méthode de conceptualisation relativisée met en évidence que l’attitude ouverte à l‘être humain pour conceptualiser le réel dont il fait partie, est foncièrement active, créative, téléologique. Et la méthode établit d’une manière explicite les normes adéquates pour utiliser à fond l’existence de cette ouverture, librement, et sans stagnations ni errements. Elle dote d’instruments pour conceptualiser ce qu’on veut, aussi loin qu’on veut, à l’abri d’ambiguïtés, de paradoxes ou de faux problèmes.

L’exposé est organisé en deux parties.

La première partie est réservée à la construction du noyau de la méthode générale de conceptualisation relativisée. Ce noyau a déjà été exposé dans toutes ses phases successives . Mais une variante inédite en est donnée ici, considérablement clarifiée et enrichie.

La deuxième partie contient quelques applications majeures de la méthode de conceptualisation relativisée.

On y re-construit d’abord selon les exigences de la méthode, les démarches logique et probabiliste. En conséquence des relativisations descriptionnelles, ces deux approches fondamentales de la pensée s’approfondissent, se précisent et s‘élargissent sous les yeux du lecteur, en s’unissant en un seul tout organique.

La relativisation de la représentation des probabilités permet notamment de dissoudre une aporie peu ébruitée mais tout à fait fondamentale qui, depuis plus de deux décennies, semblait reléguer la théorie abstraite des probabilités dans le domaine des mathématiques pures, en la coupant de toute applicabilité.

A son tour, la dissolution de cette aporie conduit à l’identification claire de l’existence d’une certaine classe de “sens” qui interviennent d’une manière centrale dans toutes les étapes de la syntaxe de transmission de messages de Shannon, dont on affirme souvent qu’elle ne comporterait aucune espèce de sens.

Et cette identification du lieu où se loge du sens dans la théorie de Shannon, associée aux exigences générales de la méthode de conceptualisation relativisée, ouvre la voie vers des estimations numériques de complexités relativisées aptes à préserver les contenus sémantiques.

Enfin, le concept de temps est lui aussi reconstruit sous les guidages de la méthode. La représentation qui émerge réserve une surprise : elle est bi-dimensionnelle et elle distingue radicalement entre les temps psychiques individuels et “le” temps collectif consensuel, tout en les reliant d’une manière définie, sur un niveau descriptionnel d’ordre supérieur.

Les résultats mentionnés illustrent les modalités de fonctionnement de la méthode de conceptualisation relativisée et ils démontrent sa puissance d’organisation, de clarification, et d’unification.

C’est peut-être la communauté des informaticiens qui – dans ses tentatives de construire des “intelligences” artificielles et des “sens virtuels” – pourrait en faire l’usage le plus immédiat. C’est en tout cas la communauté des sciences de l’information et de la communication qui, j’espère, trouvera là un saut épistémologique utile.

Mioara Mugur-Schächter

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Résumé de la méthode MCR

C’est sur la base du nouveau regard sur le monde proposé par la physique quantique et pour le rendre applicable à l’ensemble des connaissances que Mioara Mugur-Schächter a voulu construire MCR (Méthode de Conceptualisation Relativisée) de façon systématique. Elle était particulièrement légitime à faire ce travail, ayant conduit elle-même des recherches brillantes en physique et travaillé, jeune, avec les plus grands scientifiques de la génération précédente.

Le nouveau regard apporté par la physique quantique, tout le monde le sait désormais, a signé, tout en moins dans cette discipline, la mort du « réalisme des essences», selon lequel il existerait une réalité indépendante de l’observateur, composée d‘« objets » que l’observateur pouvait décrire « objectivement », en s’en approchant de plus en plus grâce à des instruments de plus en plus perfectionnés. Les physiciens de la grande époque de l’Ecole de Copenhague s‘étaient aperçus qu’ils ne pouvaient absolument pas rendre compte de ce que montraient leurs instruments s’ils continuaient à faire appel au réalisme. Mais s’ils ont jeté les bases d’une nouvelle méthode, ils n’en ont pas tiré toutes les applications épistémologiques. Beaucoup de leurs successeurs ne l’ont d’ailleurs pas encore fait. Mioara Mugur-Schächter fut véritablement la première à proposer de généraliser cette méthode à l’ensemble des sciences. Son mérite est au moins aussi grand que celui de ses prédécesseurs.

Nous pouvons observer que c’est en premier lieu le perfectionnement des instruments d’observations appliqués aux phénomènes de l‘électromagnétisme et de la radioactivité qui a obligé les physiciens utilisateurs de ces instruments à regarder autrement des phénomènes qu’ils ne s’expliquaient pas dans le cadre des anciens paradigmes, les contraignant par exemple à ne pas choisir entre le caractère ondulatoire et le caractère corpusculaire de la lumière. Or ces instruments étaient apparus, sur le « marché des instruments de laboratoires », si l’on peut dire, non pas du fait de « géniaux inventeurs » convaincus qu’ils abordaient de nouveaux rivages de la connaissance, mais du fait de modestes techniciens. Ceci correspond à l’intuition selon laquelle les super-organismes technologiques se développent selon des modes de vie propres, proches de la mémétique, et que c’est leur évolution quasi biologique qui entraîne celle des conceptualisations et connaissances organisées en grands systèmes dans les sociétés humaines.

Mais l‘évolution technologique n’aurait pas suffi à provoquer seule la révolution conceptuelle. Il a fallu aussi que des mutations dans les modes de représentation du monde hébergées par les cerveaux de quelques précurseurs de grand talent les obligent à voir les incohérences, plutôt que continuer à buter contre elles pendant encore des décennies. Nous estimons pour notre part que Mioara Mugur-Schächter a fait preuve d’un génie précurseur aussi grand, en sachant passer d’une pratique mal formulée et mal systématisée, inutilisable ailleurs qu’en physique, à une méthodologie rigoureuse applicable par toutes les sciences.

Evoquons ici en quelques lignes les grandes étapes indispensables à la construction des connaissances selon MCR. Il s’agit en fait d’une méthodologie pour la production des descriptions, car il n’y a de science que de descriptions, les « phénomènes en soi » étant réputés non-existants.

– Le Fonctionnement-conscience. On postule au départ l’existence d’un observateur humain, doté d’un cerveau lui-même capable de faits de conscience. Ce cerveau est tel qu’il peut afficher des buts au service desquels mettre une stratégie. Mioara Mugur-Shächter considère que l’organisme vivant, ceci à plus forte raison s’il est doté de conscience, est capable de téléonomie. Nous pensons pour notre part que le concept de Fonctionnement-conscience peut être étendu au fonctionnement de tous les êtres vivants, et peut-être même à celui de précurseurs matériels de la vie biologique, aux prises avec la Réalité telle que définie ci-dessous. Le terme de conscience ne peut donc alors être conservé que sous forme de métaphore. Les concepteurs de robots véritablement autonomes espèrent que ces robots pourront procéder de même afin de se doter de représentations ayant du sens pour eux.

– La Réalité. On postule qu’il existe quelque chose au-delà des constructions par lesquelles nous nous représentons le monde, mais (pour éviter les pièges du réalisme), qu’il est impossible – et sera à jamais impossible – de décrire objectivement cette réalité. Peut-être pourrait-on (la suggestion est de nous) assimiler cette réalité à ce que la physique contemporaine appelle le Vide quantique ou l‘énergie de point-zéro, à condition d’admettre que ce Vide est et demeurera indescriptible, d’autant plus qu’il ne s’inscrit ni dans le temps ni dans l’espace propres à notre univers. Seules pourront en être connues les fluctuations quantiques en émanant, si elles donnent naissance à des particules qui se matérialiseraient par décohérence au contact avec notre matière. Ces diverses entités d’ailleurs n’acquerront de « réalité » que dans les conditions de formalisation des connaissances proposées par la méthode.

– Le Générateur d’Entité-objet et l’Entité-objet ainsi générée. Il s’agit d’un mécanisme permettant au Fonctionnement conscience, dans le cadre de ses stratégies téléonomiques, de créer quelque chose (un observable) à partir de quoi il pourra procéder à des mesures. Il n’y aurait pas de science sans ce mécanisme. Nous procédons de cette façon en permanence dans la vie courante. Nous construisons des « objets » d‘étude, qui n’existaient pas avant notre intervention.

– Les Qualificateurs. Il s’agit des différents points de vue par lesquels nous décrivons d’une façon utilisable par nous les Entités-objets que nous avons créées. Ces Qualificateurs sont les moyens d’observation et de mesure, biologiques ou instrumentaux, dont nous disposons. Il n’y a qu’une qualification par mesure et celle-ci n’est pas répétable car généralement l’Entité-objet a changé. Mais la multiplication des qualifications donne ce que MCR appelle des Vues-aspects proposant des grilles de qualifications effectives et intersubjectives. L’opération peut conduire à la constatation de l’inexistence relative de l’Entité-objet créée aux fins d’observation (inexistence relative car il serait contraire à MCR de parler de faux absolu). Cela montre que l’on ne peut pas inventer n’importe quelle Entité-objet et construire des connaissances solides à son propos. Il faut qu’elle corresponde à quelque chose dans la Réalité telle que définie plus haut et qu’elle puisse être mise en relation avec les grilles de qualification déjà produites. Ainsi les connaissances construites s’ajoutent-elles les unes aux autres.

– Le Principe-cadre. Il s’agit du cadre d’espace-temps dans lequel on décide d’observer l’Entité-objet afin de la situer.

Tout cela permet d’obtenir un canon général de description, utilisable dans n’importe quel domaine. Il repose sur le postulat de la non-possibilité de confronter la description avec un réel en soi ou réel métaphysique quelconque. Il débouche par contre sur une « description relativisée », individuelle ou probabiliste, à vocation inter-subjective, c’est-à-dire partageable par d’autres Fonctionnements-consciences, à travers ce que MCR appelle des Descriptions relativisées de base Transférées. La somme de celles-ci devrait correspondre à la somme des connaissances scientifiques relativisées que grâce à MCR nous pouvons obtenir sur le monde.
Mioara Mugur-Shächter, depuis les premières années passées à élaborer la méthode, lui a donné plusieurs applications d’un intérêt méthodologique considérable. Elles apportent la preuve de l’intérêt de la révolution épistémologique qui découle de la généralisation de MCR à d’autres domaines de la représentation des connaissances. On y voit en effet remis en cause, d’une façon qui sera certainement fructueuse, l’essentiel de ce que l’on considérait jusqu’ici comme les bases de la conceptualisation dans les disciplines évoquées. Il ne devrait plus jamais être possible, dans ces disciplines, de continuer à raisonner selon les précédentes méthodes, sauf à le faire intentionnellement dans le cadre de recherches limitées.

Nous ne pouvons ici résumer l’argumentaire des démonstrations proposées par Mioara Mugur-Shächter. Elles concernent la logique, les probabilités, le concept de transmission des messages chez Shannon, la complexité et finalement le temps, vu sous l’angle des changements identité-différence qui peuvent s’y produire.
Bornons-nous à dire que, dans chacun de ces cas, on retrouve le postulat de MCR selon lequel on ne peut pas imaginer et moins encore rechercher une prétendue réalité ontologique ou en soi de phénomènes qui sont en fait des constructions du Fonctionnement-conscience et du Générateur d’Entité-objet tels que définis dans la première partie du livre. Prenons l’exemple de la logique. Si celle-ci était considérée comme un instrument du même type que les mathématiques (dont la plupart des mathématiciens n’affirment pas qu’elles existent en soi), on pourrait lui trouver quelque utilité, mais seulement pour donner de la rigueur aux raisonnements abstraits. Elle ne servirait pas à obtenir de descriptions du monde. Or la logique prétend au contraire décrire des classes d’objets, auxquelles elle applique des prédicats. Mais ces objets et ces prédicats sont présentés comme existant dans la réalité ou traduisant des relations réelles entre éléments de la réalité. La logique ne se pose donc pas la question du processus de construction par lequel on les obtient. Elle suspend dont quasiment dans le vide l’ensemble de ses raisonnements. Faire appel à ceux-ci risque alors d‘être inutile, voire dangereux, en égarant l’entendement dans des cercles vicieux (comme le montre le paradoxe du menteur). La logique ne retrouvera de bases saines qu’en utilisant MCR pour spécifier les objets de ses discours.

Il en est de même du concept de probabilités tel que défini notamment par le mathématicien Kolmogorov. L’espace de probabilité proposé par ce dernier ne devrait pas être utilisé dans les sciences, sauf à très petite échelle. Il ne peut que conduire à des impasses. Si l’on pose en principe qu’il existe des objets en soi difficilement descriptibles par les sciences exactes, dont la connaissance impose des approches probabilistes, le calcul des probabilités est un outil indispensable. Ainsi on dira que la probabilité de survenue d’un cyclone dans certaines conditions de température et de pression est de tant. Mais si, pour analyser plus en profondeur les phénomènes de la thermodynamique atmosphérique et océanique, on admettait que le cyclone n’existe pas dans la réalité, pas plus que l‘électron ou le photon, mais qu’il est la construction ad hoc unique d’un processus d‘élaboration de qualification selon MCR, le concept de probabilité changera du tout au tout. On retrouverait, à une échelle différente, l’indétermination caractéristique de la physique quantique et la nécessité de faire appel à des vecteurs d‘état et à la mathématique des grands nombres pour représenter concrètement de tels phénomènes.
La mesure de la complexité oblige aux mêmes restrictions. Pour la science « classique » de la complexité, il existe des entités réelles (en soi) dont les instruments classiques de mesure ne peuvent pas donner, du fait de leur imperfection, de descriptions détaillées et déterministes. D’où une impression de complexité. Il faut donc tenter de mesurer les systèmes ainsi prétendus complexes par des méthodes détournées. Mais si l’on admettait que l’objet, complexe ou pas, est une création du Fonctionnement-conscience et relève dont de MCR dans la totalité de son étude, les choses se simplifieraient. On cesserait en fait de parler de complexité. On se bornerait à dire que l’on a créé une Entité-objet accessible aux opérations de qualifications, qui n’aurait pas d’intérêt en soi, mais seulement comme élément d’un processus plus général de construction de connaissances.

Mioara Mugur-Shächter ne le dit pas, mais ce qui précède pourrait selon nous s’appliquer au concept de système. La science des systèmes s‘évertue à identifier ceux-ci dans la nature et se noie évidemment dans le nombre immense des candidats-systèmes qu’elle peut identifier. Mieux vaudrait admettre d’emblée que le système en général, tels systèmes en particulier, n’existent pas en soi, mais doivent être spécifiés en tant qu’Entités-objets créées par un Générateur ad hoc.

Le même type de raisonnement s’appliquera à la théorie de Shannon et au concept de temps, tels que présentés dans l’ouvrage.

Extrait du livre Pour un principe matérialiste fort.

Approfondir : Automates intelligents

Ethics and second-order cybernetics

Act always so as to increase the number of choices.
The world, as we perceive it, is our own invention.

« premièrement rien n’existe ; deuxièmement, même s’il existe quelque chose, l’homme ne peut l’appréhender ; troisièmement, même si on peut l’appréhender, on ne peut ni le formuler ni l’expliquer aux autres ».

Gorgias

« L’homme est la mesure de toutes choses ».

Protagoras

« premièrement rien n’existe ; deuxièmement, même s’il existe quelque chose, l’homme ne peut l’appréhender ; troisièmement, même si on peut l’appréhender, on ne peut ni le formuler ni l’expliquer aux autres ».

Gorgias

« L’ordre que nous percevons n’est peut-être pas l’ordre réel de la nature ; nous ne pouvons connaître la réalité en soi ; nous ne connaissons que les noms, les représentations de cette réalité ».

Guillaume d’Ockham

« Le contraire d’une vérité n’est pas l’erreur, mais une vérité contraire.»

Blaise Pascal

« Le contraire d’une vérité triviale est une erreur stupide, mais le contraire d’une vérité profonde est toujours une autre vérité profonde. »

Niels Bohr

« Puisque les sens ne peuvent arrêter notre dispute, étant pleins eux-mêmes d’incertitude, il faut que ce soit la raison; aucune raison ne s‘établira sans une autre raison : nous voilà à reculons jusques à l’infini. »

Michel de Montaigne

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am touched by the generosity of the organizers of this conference, who not only invited me to come to your glorious city of Paris, but also gave me the honor of opening the plenary sessions with my presentation.1

And I am impressed by the ingenuity of our organizers, who suggested to me the title of my presentation. They wanted me to address myself to “Ethics and Second-Order Cybernetics.”

To be honest, I would never have dared to propose such an outrageous title, but I must say that I am delighted that this title was chosen for me.

Before I left California for Paris, others asked me, full of envy. “What am I going to do in Paris? What will I talk about?”

When I answered “I shall talk about Ethics and Second-Order Cybernetics,” almost all of them looked at me in bewilderment and asked “What is second-order cybernetics?” as if there were no questions about ethics.

I am relieved when people ask me about second-order cybernetics and not about ethics, because it is so much easier to talk about second-order cybernetics than it is to talk about ethics. In fact, it is impossible to talk about ethics. But let me explain that later, and let me now say a few words about cybernetics, and, of course, about cybernetics of cybernetics, or second-order cybernetics.

As you all know, cybernetics arises when effectors, say, a motor, an engine, our muscles, etc. are connected to a sensory organ which, in turn, acts with its signals upon the effectors.

It is this circular organization which sets cybernetic systems apart from others that are not so organized. Here is Norbert Wiener, who re-introduced the term “cybernetics” into scientific discourse. He observed:

The behavior of such systems may be interpreted as directed to the attainment of a goal.

That is, it looks as if these systems pursued a purpose! That sounds very bizarre indeed.

But let me give you other paraphrases of what cybernetics is all about by invoking the spirit of women and men who rightly could be considered the mamas and papas of cybernetic thought and action.

First, here is Margaret Mead, whose name is, I am sure, familiar to all of you. In one of her addresses to the American Society of Cybernetics she said:

As an anthropologist, I have been interested in the effects that the theories of cybernetics have within our society. I am not referring to computers or to the electronic evolution as a whole, or to the end of dependence on script for knowledge, or to the way that dress has succeeded the mimeographing machine as a form of communication among the dissenting young.

Let me repeat that:

I am not referring to the way that dress has succeeded the mimeographing machine as a form of communication among the dissenting young.

[And then she continues:]

I specifically want to consider the significance of the set of cross-disciplinary ideas which we first called ‘feed-back’ and then called ‘teleological mechanisms’ and then called ‘cybernetics’ — a form of cross-disciplinary thought which made it possible for members of many disciplines to communicate with each other easily in a language which all could understand.

And here is the voice of her third husband, the epistemologist, anthropologist, cybernetician, and, as some say, the papa of family therapy, Gregory Bateson:

Cybernetics is a branch of mathematics dealing with problems of control, recursiveness and information.

And here the organizational philosopher and managerial wizard Stafford Beer:

Cybernetics is the science of effective organization.

And, finally, here the poetic reflection of “Mister Cybernetics,” as we fondly call him, the cybernetician’s cybernetician, Gordon Pask:

Cybernetics is the science of defensible metaphors.

It seems that cybernetics is many different things to many different people, but this is because of the richness of its conceptual base. And this is, I believe, very good; otherwise, cybernetics would become a somewhat boring exercise. However, all of those perspectives arise from one central theme, and that is that of circularity.

When, perhaps a half century ago, the fecundity of this concept was seen, it was sheer euphoria to philosophize, epistemologize, and theorize about its consequences, its ramification into various fields, and its unifying power.

While this was going on, something strange evolved among the philosophers, the epistemologists and the theoreticians: they began to see themselves more and more as being themselves included in a larger circularity, maybe within the circularity of their family, or that of their society and culture, or being included in a circularity of even cosmic proportions.

What appears to us today most natural to see and to think, was then not only hard to see, it was even not allowed to think!

Why?

Because it would violate the basic principle of scientific discourse which demands the separation of the observer from the observed. It is the principle of objectivity: the properties of the observer shall not enter the description of his observations.

I gave this principle here in its most brutal form, to demonstrate its nonsensicality: if the properties of the observer, namely, to observe and to describe, are eliminated, there is nothing left: no observation, no description.

However, there was a justification for adhering to this principle, and this justification was fear. Fear that paradoxes would arise when the observers were allowed to enter the universe of their observations. And you know the threat of paradoxes: to steal their way into a theory is like having the cloven-hoofed foot of the Devil stuck in the door of orthodoxy.

Clearly, when cyberneticians were thinking of partnership in the circularity of observing and communicating, they were entering the forbidden land:

In the general case of circular closure, A implies B, B implies C, and — O! Horror! — C implies A!

Or in the reflexive case:

A implies B, and — O! Shock! — B implies A!

And now Devil’s cloven-hoofed foot in its purest form, in the form of self-reference:

A implies A.

Outrage!

l would like to invite you now to come with me into the land where it is not forbidden, but where one is even encouraged to speak about oneself (what else can one do anyway?).

This turn from looking at things out there to looking at looking itself, arose — I think — from significant advances in neurophysiology and neuropsychiatry.

It appeared that one could now dare to ask the question of how the brain works; one could dare to write a theory of the brain.

It may be argued that over the centuries, since Aristotle, physicians and philosophers again and again developed theories of the brain. So what’s new about the efforts of today’s cyberneticians?

What is new is the profound insight that it needs a brain to write a theory of the brain. From this follows that a theory of the brain that has any aspirations for completeness, has to account for the writing of this theory. And even more fascinating, the writer of this theory has to account for her- or himself. Translated onto the domain of cybernetics: the cybernetician, by entering his own domain, has to account for his own activity; cybernetics becomes cybernetics of cybernetics, or second-order cybernetics.

Ladies and gentlemen, this perception represents a fundamental change not only in the way we conduct science, but also how we perceive of teaching, of learning, of the therapeutic process, of organizational management, and so on and so forth; and — I would say — of how we perceive relationships in our daily life.

One may see this fundamental epistemological change if one considers oneself first to be an independent observer who watches the world go by; or if one considers oneself to be a participant actor in the drama of mutual interaction, of the give and take in the circularity of human relations.

In the first case, because of my independence, I can tell others how to think and to act: “Thou shalt. . . .,” “Thou shalt not. . . .”: This is the origin of moral codes. In the second case, because of my interdependence, I can only tell to myself how to think and to act: “I shall. . . .,” “I shall not. . . .”

This is the origin of ethics.

This was the easy part of my presentation. Now comes the difficult part: I am supposed to reflect about ethics.

How to go about this? Where to begin?

In my search for a beginning I came across the lovely poem by Yveline Rey and Bernard Prieur that embellishes the first page of our program. Let me read to you the first few lines:

“Vous avez dit ethique?”
Deja le murmur s’amplifie en rumeur.
Soudain les roses ne montrent plus des epines.
Sans doute le sujet est-il brulant.
Il est aussi d’actualite

Let me begin with epines, with the thorns, and I hope a rose will emerge.

The thorns I begin with are Ludwig Wittgenstein’s reflections upon ethics in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

If I were to provide a title for this Tractatus, I would call it Tractatus Ethico-Philosophicus. However, I am not going to defend this choice; I rather tell you what prompts me to refer to Wittgenstein’s reflections in order to present my own.

I am referring to point Number 6 in his Tractatus where he discusses the general form of propositions. Almost at the end of this discussion he turns to the problem of values in the world and their expression in propositions. In his famous point number 6.421 he comes to a conclusion which I will read to you in the original German:

Es ist klar, dass sich Ethik nicht aussprechen lasst.

I only know two English translations which are both incorrect. Therefore, I will give you my translation into English:

It is clear that ethics cannot be articulated.

Now you understand why I said before: “My beginning will be thorns.” Here is an International Congress on Ethics, and the first speaker says something to the effect that it is impossible to speak about ethics. But please, be patient for a moment. I quoted Wittgenstein’s thesis in isolation, therefore it is not yet clear what he wanted to say. Fortunately, the next point 6.422, which I will read in a moment, provides a larger context for 6.421. To prepare you for what you are going to hear, you should remember that Wittgenstein was a Viennese. So am I. Therefore there is a kind of underground understanding which, I sense, you Parisians will share with us Viennese. Let me try.

Here is now point 6.422 in the English translation by Pears and McGuinness:

When an ethical law of the form “Thou shalt. . . .” is laid down, one’s first thought is “And what if I do not do it?”

When I read this, my first thought was that not everybody will share that first thought with Wittgenstein. I think here speaks his cultural background.

Let me continue with Wittgenstein.

It is clear, however, that ethics has nothing to do with punishment and reward in the usual sense of the terms. Nevertheless, there must indeed be some kind of ethical reward and punishment, but they must reside in the action itself.

“They must reside in the action itself!”

You may remember, we came across such self-referential notions earlier with the example “A implies A” and its recursive relatives of second-order cybernetics.

Can we take a hint from these comments for how to go about reflecting about ethics and, at the same time, adhering to Wittgenstein’s criterion? I think we can. I, for myself, try to follow the following rule:

For any discourse, I may have — say, in science, philosophy, epistemology, therapy, etc. — to master the use of my language so that ethics is implicit.

What do I mean by that? I mean by that to let language and action ride on an underground river of ethics, and to see to it that one is not thrown off, so that ethics does not become explicit, and so that language does not degenerate into moralization.

How can one accomplish this? How can one hide ethics from all eyes and still let her determine language and action?

Fortunately, Ethics has two sisters who allow her to remain unseen, because they create for us a visible framework, a tangible tissue within which, and upon which, we may weave the Gobelins of our life. And who are these two sisters?

One is Metaphysics. The other Dialogics.

My program now is to talk about these two ladies, and how they manage to allow Ethics become manifest without becoming explicit.

Metaphysics

Let me first talk about Metaphysics. In order to let you see at once the delightful ambiguity that surrounds her, let me quote from a superb article on “The Nature of Metaphysics” by the British scholar W. H. Walsh. He begins his article with the following sentence:

Almost everything in metaphysics is controversial and it is therefore not surprising that there is little agreement among those who call themselves metaphysicians about what precisely it is they are attempting.

When I invoke today Metaphysics, I do not seek agreement with anybody else about her nature. This is because I want to say precisely what it is when we become metaphysicians, whether or not we call ourselves metaphysicians. I say we become metaphysician whenever we decide upon in principle undecidable questions. There are indeed among propositions, proposals, problems, questions, those that are decidable, and those that are in principle undecidable.

Here, for instance, is a decidable question: “Is the number 3,396,714 divisible by 2?” It will take you less than 2 seconds to decide that indeed this number is divisible by 2. The interesting thing here is that it will take you exactly the same short time to decide this question, if the number has not 7, but 7000 or 7 million digits.

Of course, I could invent questions that are slightly more difficult, for instance: “Is 3,396,714 divisible by three?” or more difficult ones. But there are also problems that are extraordinary difficult to decide, some of them having been posed more than 200 years ago and have still not been answered. Think of Fermat’s “Last Theorem” to which the most brilliant heads have put their brilliant minds and have not yet come up with an answer.

Or think of Goldbach’s “Conjecture” which sounds so simple that it seems a proof cannot be too far away:

All even numbers can be composed as the sum of two primes.

For example; 12 is the sum of the two prime numbers 5 and 7; or 20 = 17+3; or 24: 23+11; and so on and so forth. So far, no counterexample to Goldbach’s conjecture has been found. And even if all further tests would not refute Goldbach, it still would remain a conjecture, until a sequence of mathematical steps is found that decides in favor of his good sense of numbers. There is a justification for not giving up but to continue the search for finding a sequence of steps that would prove Goldbach. It is that the problem is posed in a framework of logico-mathematical relations which guarantees that one can climb from any node of this complex crystal of connections to any other node.

One of the most remarkable examples of such a crystal of thoughts is Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead’s monumental Principia Mathematica, which they wrote over a period of 10 years between 1900 and 1910. This magnum opus of 3 volumes and more than 1500 pages was to establish once and for all a conceptual machinery for flawless deductions. A conceptual machinery that would contain no ambiguities, no contradictions and no undecidables.

Nevertheless, in 1931, Kurt Godel, then 25 years of age, published an article whose significance goes far beyond the circles of logicians and mathematicians. The title of this article I will give now in English: “On formally undecidable propositions in the Principia Mathematica and related systems.”

What Godel does in his paper is to demonstrate that logical systems, even like those so carefully constructed by Russell and Whitehead, are not immune against undecidables to sneak in.

However, we do not need to go to Russell, Whitehead, Godel, or to other giants, to learn about in principle undecidable questions, we can easily find them all around.

For instance, the question about the origin of the universe is one of those in principle undecidable questions: nobody was there to watch it. Moreover, this becomes apparent by the many different answers that are given to this question. Some say it was a single act of creation some 4 or 5,000 years ago; others say there was never a beginning and there will be never an end, because the universe is a system in perpetual dynamic equilibrium; then there are those who claim that approximately 10 or 20 billion years ago the universe came into being with a “Big Bang,” whose faint remnants one is able to hear over large radio antennas; but I am inclined to trust most Chuang Tse’s report, because he is the oldest and was therefore the closest to this event. He says:

Heaven does nothing; this nothing-doing is dignity;
Earth does nothing; this nothing-doing is rest;
From the union of these two nothing-doings arise all action
And all things are brought forth.

I could go on and on with other examples, because I have not told you yet what the Burmese, the Australians, the Eskimos, the Bushmen, the Ibos, etc., would tell us about their origins. In other words, tell me how the universe came about, and I will tell you who you are.

I hope I have made the distinction between decidable and in principle undecidable questions sufficiently clear, so that I can present you with a proposition I call the “metaphysical postulate.” Here it is:

Only those questions that are in principle undecidable, we can decide.

Why?

Simply because the decidable questions are already decided by the choice of the framework in which they are asked, and by the choice of rules of how to connect what we call “the question” with what we may take for an “answer.” In some cases it may go fast, in others it may take a long, long time, but ultimately we will arrive, after a sequence of compelling logical steps, at an irrefutable answer: a definite Yes, or a definite No.

But we are under no compulsion, not even under that of logic, when we decide upon in principle undecidable questions. There is no external necessity that forces us to answer such questions one way or another. We are free! The complement to necessity is not chance, it is choice! We can choose who we wish to become when we have decided on in principle undecidable questions.

This is the good news, American journalists would say. Now comes the bad news.

With this freedom of choice we are now responsible for whatever we choose! For some this freedom of choice is a gift from heaven. For others such responsibility is an unbearable burden: How can one escape it? How can one avoid it? How can one pass it on to somebody else?

With much ingenuity and imagination, mechanisms were contrived by which one could bypass this awesome burden. With hierarchies, entire institutions have been built where it is impossible to localize responsibility. Everyone in such a system can say: “I was told to do X.”

On the political stage we hear more and more the phrase of Pontius Pilate: “I have no choice but X.” In other words “Don’t make me responsible for X, blame others.” This phrase apparently replaces: “Among the many choices I had, I decided on X.”

I mentioned objectivity before and I mention it here again as another popular device of avoiding responsibility.

As you may remember, objectivity requires that the properties of the observer shall not enter the description of his observations. With the essence of observing, namely the processes of cognition, being removed, the observer is reduced to a copying machine, and the notion of responsibility has been successfully juggled away.

However, Pontius Pilate, hierarchies, objectivity, and other devices, are all derivations of a decision that has been made on a pair of in principle undecidable questions. Here is the decisive pair:

Am I apart from the universe?

That is, whenever I look I am looking as through a peephole upon an unfolding universe.

or

Am I part of the universe?

That is, whenever I act, I am changing myself and the universe as well.

Whenever I reflect upon these two alternatives, I am surprised again and again by the depth of the abyss that separates the two fundamentally different worlds that can be created by such choices.

Either to see myself as a citizen of an independent universe, whose regularities, rules and customs I may eventually discover, or to see myself as the participant of a conspiracy, whose customs, rules, and regulations we are now inventing.

Whenever I speak to those who have made their decision to be either discoverers or inventors, I am impressed again and again by the fact that neither of them realizes that they have ever made that decision. Moreover, when challenged to justify their position, a conceptual framework is constructed that, it turns out, is itself the result of a decision upon an in principle undecidable question.

It seems that I am telling you a detective story, but keeping silent about who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, or who is sane and who is insane, or who is right and who is wrong. Since these are in principle undecidable questions, it is for each of us to make this decision and to take the responsibility for it. There is a murderer; I submit it is unknowable whether he is or was insane. The only thing we know is what I say, what you say, or what the expert says he is. And what I say, what you say, and what the expert says about his sanity or insanity, it is my, it is your, and it is the expert’s responsibility. Again, the point here is not the question “Who is right and who is wrong.” This is an in principle undecidable question. The point here is freedom: freedom of choice. It is Jose Ortega y Gasset’s point:

Man does not have a nature, but a history. Man is no thing, but a drama. His life is something that has to be chosen, made up as he goes along, and a human consists in that choice and invention. Each human being is the novelist of himself, and though he may choose between being an original writer and a plagiarist, he cannot escape choosing. . . .. He is condemned to be free.

You may have become suspicious of my qualifying all questions as being in principle undecidable questions. This is by no means the case. I was once asked the question, of how the inhabitants of such different worlds as I sketched them before, the inhabitants of the world they discover, and the inhabitants of a world they invent, how can they ever live together? There is no problem to answer that. The discoverers will most likely become astronomers, physicists and engineers; the inventors family therapists, poets and biologists. And for all of them living together will be no problem either, as long as the discoverers discover inventors, and the inventors invent discoverers. Should difficulties develop, fortunately, we have this full house of family therapists who may help bring sanity to the human family.

I have a dear friend who grew up in Marrakech. The house of his family stood on the street that divide the Jewish and the Arabic quarter. As a boy he played with all the others, listened to what they thought and said, and learned of their fundamentally different views. When I asked him once, “Who was right?” he said, “They are both right.”

“But this cannot be,” I argued from an Aristotelian platform, “Only one of them can have the truth!”

“The problem is not truth,” he answered, “The problem is trust.”

I understood: the problem is understanding; the problem is understanding understanding; the problem is making decisions upon in principle undecidable questions.

At that point Metaphysics appeared and asked her younger sister, Ethics: “What would you recommend that I should bring back to my proteges, the metaphysicians, whether or not they call themselves such?” And Ethics answered: “Tell them they should always try to act so as to increase the number of choices; yes, increase the number of choices!”

Dialogics

Now I would like to turn to Ethics’s sister Dialogics.

What are the means at her disposal so that through them Ethics can manifest herself without becoming explicit?

I think you may have guessed it already; it is, of course, language. I am not talking here about language in the sense of the noises that are produced by pushing air past our vocal cords, or language in the sense of grammars, syntax, semantics, semiotics, and the whole machinery of phrases, verb-phrases, noun-phrases, deep structure, etc. When I talk here about language, I talk about Language, the dance. Very much so when we say “It needs two to Tango,” I am saying, “It needs two to Language.”

When it comes to language, the dance, you, the family therapists are, of course, the masters, while I can only speak as an amateur. Since “amateur” comes from “Amour,” you know at once that I love to dance this dance.

In fact, the little I know to dance this dance I learned from you. My first lesson was when I was invited to sit in the observation room and to watch through the one-way mirror a therapeutic session in progress with a family of four. At one moment my colleagues had to leave, and I was by myself. I was curious as to what I would see when I could not hear what was said, so I turned the sound off.

I recommend to you to make this experiment yourself. Perhaps you will be as fascinated as I was. What I saw then, the silent pantomime, the parting and closing of lips, the body movements, the boy who only once stopped biting his nails. . . . What I saw then were the dance steps of language, the dance steps alone, without the disturbing effects of the music. Later I heard from the therapist that this session was very successful indeed.

What magic, I thought, must sit in the noises these people produced by pushing air past their vocal cords, and by parting and closing their lips.

Therapy! What magic indeed!

And to think that the only medicine at your disposal is the dance steps of language and its accompanying music.

Language! What magic indeed!

It is left to the naive to believe that magic can be explained. Magic can not be explained, Magic can only be practiced, as you all well know.

Reflecting upon the magic of language is similar to reflecting upon a theory of the brain. As much as one needs a brain to reflect upon a theory of the brain, one needs the magic of language to reflect upon the magic of language. It is the magic of those notions that need themselves to come into being. They are of second-order.

It is also the way language protects itself against explanation by always speaking about itself: There is a word for language, namely, “language”; there is word for word, namely, “word.” If you don’t know what “word” means, you can look it up in a dictionary. I did that. I found it to be an “utterance.” I asked myself, what is an “utterance”? I looked it up in the dictionary. The dictionary said it means: “to express through words.”

So we are back were we started. Circularity: A implies A.

But this is not the only way language protects itself again explanation. In order to confuse her explorer she always runs on two different tracks. If you chase language up one track, she jumps to the other. If you follow her there, she is back on the first.

What are these two tracks?

The one track is the track of appearance. It runs through the land that appears to be stretched out before us: the land we are looking at as through a peephole.

The other track is the track of function. It runs through the land that is as much part of us as we are part of it: the land that functions like an extension of our body.

When language is on the track of appearance it is monologue. There are the noises produced by pushing air past vocal cords, there are the words, the grammars, the syntax, the well-formed sentences. Along with these noises go the denotative pointings. Point to a table, make the noise “table” — point to a chair, make the noise “chair.”

Sometimes it does not work. Margaret Mead learned fast the colloquial languages of many tribes by pointing to things and waiting for the appropriate noises. She told me that once she came to a tribe, pointed to different things, but got always the same noises “chumulu.” A primitive language she thought, only one word! Later, she learned that “chu mulu” means “pointing with finger.”

When language switches to the track of function it is dialogic. There are of course these noises; some of them may sound like “table,” some others like “chair,” but there need not be any tables or chairs, because nobody is pointing at tables or chairs. These noises are invitations to the other to make some dance steps together. The noises “table” and “chair” bring to resonance those strings in the mind of the other which, when brought to vibration, would produce noises like “table” and “chair.” Language in its function is connotative.

In its appearance, language is descriptive. When you tell your story, you tell it as it was: the magnificent ship, the ocean, the big sky, and the flirt you had, that made the whole trip a delight.

But for whom do you tell it? That’s the wrong question. The right question is: With whom are you going to dance your story, so that your partner will float with you over the decks of your ship, will smell the salt of the ocean, will let the soul expand over the sky, and there will be a flash of jealousy when you come to the point of your flirt.

In its function, language is constructive, because nobody knows the source of your story. Nobody knows, or ever will know how it was: because as it was is gone forever.

You remember Rene Descartes, as he was sitting in his study, not only doubting that he was sitting in his study, but also doubted his existence. He asked himself: “Am I, or am I not?”

He answered this rhetorical question with the solipsistic monologue: “Je pense, donc je suis,” or in the famous Latin version, “Cogito ergo Sum.” As Descartes knew very well, this is language in its appearance; otherwise he would not have quickly published his insight for the benefit of others in his “Discourse de la methode.” Since he understood the function of language as well, in all fairness, he should have exclaimed: “Je pense, donc nous sommes,” “Cogito ergo sumus” or “I think, therefore we are!”

In its appearance, the language I speak is my language. It makes me aware of myself: this is the root of consciousness.

In its function, my language reaches out for the other: this is the root of conscience. And this is where Ethics invisibly manifests itself through dialogue. Permit me to read to you what Martin Buber says in the last few lines of his book Das Problem der Menschen:

Contemplate the human with the human, and you will see the dynamic duality, the human essence, together: here is the giving and the receiving, here the aggressive and the defensive power, here the quality of searching and of responding, always both in one, mutually complementing in alternating action, demonstrating together what it is: human. Now you can turn to the single one and you recognize him as human for his potential of relating. We may come closer to answering the question “What is human?” when we come to understand him as the being in whose dialogic, in his mutually present two-getherness, the encounter of the one with the other is realized and recognized at all times.

Since I cannot add anything to Buber’s words, this is all I can say about ethics, and about second-order cybernetics. Thank you very much.

August, 1994
Pescadero, CA
EHR, volume 4, issue 2: Constructions of the Mind

1 Opening address for the International Conference, Systems and Family Therapy: Ethics, Epistemology, New Methods, held in Paris, France, October 4th, 1990, subsequently published (in translation) in Yveline Rey and Bernard Prieur, eds., Systemes, ethiques: Perspectives en therapie familiale (Paris: ESF Editeur, 1991) 41-54. Reprinted with permission from the original unpublished English version.