Back to article index
Previous page


Having extended that, I think, very useful idea to the atheists, I think I have to finish here, but I do so reluctantly because I haven't discussed what seems to me to be one of the most interesting ideas - possibly the most novel, possibly the only novel idea - advanced in the recent literature, Richard Dawkins's idea, taken up enthusiastically by Dennett, of 'memes' - memorable, copiable ideas that lodge in the mind and act as replicators, multiplying themselves in numerous different minds through conversation, words on a page, TV chat shows. Like genes they act for their own sake quite independently of the needs of their vehicles - ourselves - and, also like genes, some of them happen to be good for us (evolution by natural selection for example) and some of them bad (perhaps in Dawkins's eyes the doctrine of the Trinity would be an example). According to Dennett:

'The haven all memes depend on reaching is the human mind, but a human mind is itself an artefact created when memes restructure a human brain in order to make it a better habitat for memes ...' (Consciousness Explained, p.206)


'Human consciousness is itself a huge complex of memes (or more exactly meme-effects in brains)' (p.210)


'Thousands of memes, mostly borne by language but also by wordless "images" and other data structures, take up residence in an individual brain, shaping its tendencies and thereby turning it into a mind.' (p.254)

And another idea I would like to discuss at greater length is one thrown out by Strawson which is that instead of talking about lots of small units we might think in terms of a single large unit of experience in which we all, together with everything else in the material/physical world, participate: 'Might we in the end have to posit a universe-wide sesmet in order to posit the existence of many sesmets in a dimension that allows for their interaction? I've been assuming that the answer is No, but I would not be much troubled of it were Yes ... because a universe wide sesmet would have no more to do with dogmatic religion than the view that there is a single universe ...' (p.260)

Of course, as an adherent of dogmatic religion, I find the idea of a single universe-wide sesmet in which everything lives and moves and has its being very attractive; and the first thought that occurred to me when I came across the idea of memes was that the subjective experience it suggests - the feeling that the mind is full of forces that are pursuing an agenda of their own, not anything we might want or need ourselves - rather resembles the traditional Christian idea of a mind that is a battleground between angels and demons. I will therefore end with an extract from what might be called a poem on the struggle between the memes and the ghost in the machine, René Daumal's Holy War [21], written at the time of the 1939 war:

'I shall try to speak then of the holy war.

May it break out and continue without truce! Now and again it takes fire, but never for long. At the first small hint of victory, I flatter myself that I’ve won, and I play the part of the generous victor and come to terms with the enemy. There are traitors in the house, but they have the look of friends and it would be so unpleasant to unmask them! They have their place in the chimney corner, their armchairs and their slippers; they come in when I’m drowsy, offering me a compliment, or a funny or exciting story, or flowers and goodies—sometimes a fine hat with feathers. They speak in the first person, and it’s my voice I think I’m hearing, my voice in which I’m speaking: “I am … , I know … , I wish …” But it’s all lies! Lies grafted on my flesh, abscesses screaming at me: “Don’t slaughter us, we’re of the same blood!”—pustules whining: “We are your greatest treasure, your only good feature; go on feeding us, it doesn’t cost all that much!”

'And there are so many of them; and they are charming, they are pathetic, they are arrogant, they practice blackmail, they band together … but they are barbarians who respect nothing—nothing that is true, I mean, because they cringe in front of everything else and are tied in knots with respect. It’s thanks to their ideas that I wear my mask; they take possession of everything, including the keys to the costume wardrobe. They tell me: “We’ll dress you; how could you ever present yourself properly in the great world without us?” But oh! It would be better to go naked as a grub!'

[21] René Daumal: La Guerre Sainte, suivi de Les dernières paroles du poète, Eds Gallimard, 1990, p.202. Originally published in the review La Fontaine, 1940. This translation, by D.M.Dooling, obtained off the internet at