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The Reverse Solipsist

Ray Liikanen overhears a modern-day Socratic dialogue.

Setting: A park, where Socrates spots a man leafing through one of the three books he has on him. Socrates notes the titles, and since he’s familiar with them he sits down on the bench next to the man.

Socrates: Excuse me for interrupting, but I couldn’t help but notice the books you have there with you.

The other man casts a dubious eye at Socrates, who’s dressed in worn-out sandals and clothes that have seen better days.

Moe: Yes. And who might you be?

Socrates: I’m Socrates the philosopher. I lived in Athens many years ago – around two thousand four hundred years ago, in fact. Perhaps you’ve heard of me?

Moe: Yes, I have. If you were who you say you are, you shouldn’t be here. Apart from the time gap, I recall that you were found guilty of corrupting the minds of the youth and speaking out against the gods. The court sentenced you to death; and you obliged your judges by drinking their cup of hemlock.

Socrates: Yes, that’s right. I’m not sure I would do it a second time if I had the choice again. But after quenching my thirst, I found I was still around. After becoming accustomed to my new unearthly form, I realized I had the ability to return to my bodily form… So I’ve been busy skipping from one place to the other trying to keep up with all the latest developments. Today I thought I’d come down and take a stroll through the park. There are so many new books being written these days that it’s impossible to keep up with all the latest advances in knowledge.

Moe: These are some of the most interesting. The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, both by Richard Dawkins, and The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore. Have you read them?

Socrates: Yes indeed. Quite thoroughly.

Moe: What are your thoughts?

Socrates: I must admit I am somewhat confused. Perhaps you can help me understand.

Moe: I can try. What is it you can’t understand?

Socrates: In The Selfish Gene, Professor Dawkins calls we humans – well perhaps not so much I as you, seeing that I’m no longer alive – but he calls human bodies ‘survival machines’.

Moe: Yes, that’s why genes are called ‘selfish’. They are replicators, and that’s what they do: they replicate themselves. And they use the bodies of organisms to do so.

Socrates: So these selfish genes created us, body and mind, and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence?

Moe: Yes, last paragraph, second chapter… You are familiar with the book.

Socrates: And I can also assume then that these ‘memes’, as they are called, are the intellectual counterpart to these selfish genes?

Moe: I suppose so, yes. It’s well enough explained in these books. The label ‘survival machine’ applies to every living species, including insects, but the label ‘meme machine’ applies more specifically to us. Memes are ideas; and just as genes replicate themselves by leaping from body to body, so to speak, memes replicate themselves by leaping from brain to brain.

Socrates: And that’s why at the end of The Meme Machine Professor Blackmore states that we live our lives as a lie; that there is no self? It is rather that these selfish genes, and these selfish memes, have tricked us into believing this idea that we have of the self, so that we will continue in ‘our’ struggle for survival, and so, with this false assuredness they’ve instilled in us, they can continue to propagate themselves.

Moe: Yes, I think that’s unmistakable. The sense of self we have is an illusion, and a rather pernicious one psychologically. Both authors do admit that we have the capacity to direct our course as no other organism before us. Is that the point on which you’re confused?

Socrates: Not so much that alone. The very thought that there is no ‘I’ to speak of… this seems to me in need of further elucidation.

Moe: It’s quite simple. Genes are selfish because they have no aim other than their own replication, and as a creation of theirs you serve that end. If you have a purpose that you can call your own, it serves the same end – the replication of the genes inside you. What could be clearer?

Socrates: So there truly is no self, no Socrates as I understand him, that I can properly speak of?

Moe: Yes, that’s it.

Socrates: Have you heard of René Descartes?

Moe: I have, yes.

Socrates: What did you think of his ‘ cogito ergo sum’?

Moe: His what?

Socrates: His famous conclusion. It’s Latin, and means, ‘I think, therefore I am.’

Moe: I can’t say I’ve paid it much attention. I’m a molecular biologist by profession, I’m not inclined at all toward philosophy. I deal with concrete facts, not philosophical fancies. Best to keep your feet on the ground, I say, not up in the air.

Socrates: Yes, I quite understand. In fact there was quite a maelstrom from Descartes’ seemingly insignificant statement. It gave rise to many quarrels among the philosophers, including accusations of what they call ‘solipsism’.

Moe: Solipsism?

Socrates: The idea that the only thing that you can truly know to exist, is the self and its experiences. Descartes’ argument was that he may doubt all else, but he cannot doubt that he is thinking. And the fact that he thinks confirms that he is a thinking self – apart, he argued, from even the body in which this thinking self is contained.

Moe: I see.

Socrates: But according to the thinking of the scientists Dawkins and Blackmore, the only reality of which we can be absolutely certain is the selfish genes and memes. So in your philosophy – excuse me… in your science – you arrive at the opposite conclusion: it’s not the external world that we can doubt, it’s the inner world of the self that we most doubt. So this could be called a philosophy – sorry… excuse me again – a science, of reverse solipsism.

Moe: You philosophers can call it whatever you like, but there’s no denying the existence of genes! They’re a fact. They’re inside you and me and every other living organism. And the same goes for memes inside human minds.

Socrates: Thank you, that makes things clear enough for now. Not to switch the subject too far off onto another line; but I’ve also read this other book you have here, The God Delusion. Doesn’t it say that just as Darwinian evolution helps us to form a proper understanding of these selfish genes and these memes, Darwinian evolution may help us to understand the cosmos itself?

Moe: Yes, it may indeed. That’s stated in the Preface. Nice that you picked up on that. Not too many people notice those small details.

Socrates: Have you heard what I said concerning Anaxagoras?

Moe: No, I haven’t. I can’t say that I’m familiar with the man.

Socrates: Anaxagoras had the notion that the world, or you could say the cosmos, was brought about by Intelligence or Mind. But as to how he said things worked, I was as confused back then as I am now. As I said to those gathered around me before I drank the hemlock, it was as if he had tried to explain my drinking of the poison by accounting for how my arms move. My arms have bones and sinews, and the bones and sinews are connected in such a way that enable my arms to move, and that that’s the reason I drank the hemlock. However, the true reason was not to be found in my bones and my sinews, but in my mind.

Moe: And what exactly is your point, if there is one?

Socrates: It seems to me that your science of reverse solipsism simply transfers the operative mechanism from my bones and sinews over to my selfish genes and memes. Now, I see this has the advantage of pushing the explanation back upon a much simpler mechanism, but…

Moe: Excuse me for interrupting, but are you suggesting that Blackmore and Dawkins are somehow misguided?

Socrates: Not in the least. Please bear with me. I’m only hoping to dispense with my confusion.

Moe: Isn’t that hope what got you into trouble in Athens?

Socrates glances downward, as if genuflecting on the past.

Socrates: Yes, I believe it was.

Moe: You haven’t learned your lesson, it seems.

Socrates: So it appears. It’s hard to break one’s habits, however detrimental. Even a habit as seemingly innocent as searching out the truth.

Moe: That’s why I chose to become a scientist. So are there any other questions I can help answer for you?

Socrates: Have you heard of Gottfried Leibniz?

Moe: Yes, the German mathematician. He invented calculus, you know.

Socrates: He also asked, ‘Why there is something rather than nothing’?

Moe: So what about Leibniz?

Socrates: He was also hoping to get to the truth. He wanted to know what the mechanism was whereby all things are brought into being, and came up with the idea of ‘monads’. But I don’t think he managed to get closer to the heart of the matter. However, would you not agree that if an effect, whatever it may be, takes place, then there must have been something prior to that effect that acted to bring about its existence, that is to say, its cause?

Moe: It would seem so.

Socrates: And would you also agree that the earliest replicators, whatever they might have been, have led to the selfish genes in our bodies, and also to the memes about which we’ve spoken?

Moe: Yes, I suppose.

Socrates: And would you not say that all these things together are things that we can say have happened?

Moe: Yes. One can’t very well say they didn’t happen.

Socrates: And would you agree that the cosmos, or the world, is also something that has happened?

Moe: Yes, of course.

Socrates: And would you agree then that the cosmos is an effect, since it too, has come into being, prior to which state it did not exist?

Moe: Yes, that’s the most popular modern hypothesis.

Socrates: So perhaps you can answer me. In so many books dedicated to clarifying this idea of evolution, including these books you’re reading, it is the mechanism of natural selection that accounts for why the world is as it is.

man on bench
Socrates on a park bench
© Noel Feans 2011

Moe: Yes. That’s so. It’s a known scientific fact.

Socrates: But here again I am confused.

Moe: How so?

Socrates: If all that we see is what has come into existence, then this mechanism has also come into existence. So is natural selection then not also an effect in need of further explanation?

Moe: I didn’t really think of it that way, but …

Socrates: Sorry, I must apologize, for it seems we’ve fallen into the habit of speaking in the first person.

Moe: I’m afraid there’s not much we can do about that. The illusion of the ‘selfplex’, as Susan Blackmore calls it, is a very pernicious one. It is itself proof of how well the selfish genes have performed their work.

Socrates: But it also seems to me that the explanatory operative mechanism, having been transferred from my bones and sinews over to my selfish genes and memes, only manages to raise the age-old problem of an infinite regress of causes – meaning to say that we are still in need of further explanation – although I cannot rule out the possibility that this idea of natural selection may, in a perhaps somewhat elevated form, help us to explain the cosmos. Still there is in all of this something else that troubles me.

Moe: And what may that be?

Socrates: If you are correct, and these selfish genes and memes, being my creators, strive only to replicate themselves, then why did they not intervene to prevent my drinking the hemlock?

Moe: It could be that your survival-oriented memes were overcome by a more powerful but irrational counter meme, and this more powerful counter meme was not conducive to their replication. Excuse me if it appears that I’m insulting you by saying this.

Socrates: Your insults are no match for those of Aristophanes.

Moe: The student of Plato?

Socrates: No, that was Aristotle. Aristophanes was a playwright. He was of the opinion that my head was stuck in the clouds… Peculiarly enough, after my death, that’s precisely where I found myself.

Moe: Naturally. But let me again warn you that I’m a scientist. Not a medical practitioner of any kind, though. Is there anything else I can help you with?

Socrates: There is just one other thing.

Moe: I suspected there might be.

Socrates: It strikes me as highly unusual that all of those atoms the atomists talked about would just get together and go about the business of assembling themselves into this world that we have before us, including our own bodies. There are mathematicians who have calculated the odds against such a thing happening, are there not?

Moe: I suspect so. Philosophers aren’t the only ones who can make a nuisance of themselves.

Socrates: Sir Fred Hoyle did some such calculations. The odds appeared to be infinitely remote.

Moe: That’s what I mean.

Socrates: So perhaps you can correct me if I’m wrong, but in The God Delusion, in the section ‘Why There Almost Certainly Is No God’, we find what might be called the ‘Appeal To The Numbers To Beat The Odds’ Conjecture. There Dawkins postulates the idea of billions of planets, among which a small minority of evolution-friendly planets might be found. This world is one of those. Is this not what he states, more or less?

Moe: Yes, I believe so.

Socrates: And theoretical mathematicians employ this same conjecture, appealing to an infinite number of possible universes to explain the existence of this cosmos, despite its unlikeliness. But again, is this not to presume that all these things did happen?

Moe: I suppose.

Socrates: So all of these things of which we speak – selfish genes, memes, and the cosmos itself – seeing that these are all things that have happened, they can be called effects?

Moe: I suppose.

Socrates: And would you agree that the cause must precede the effect, and the effect must follow after the cause?

Moe: Yes, I suppose.

Socrates: So while this thinking takes us further and further back along the chain of effects, we still have yet to determine the cause for all these things that have happened. Or could it perhaps be that the effect is sufficient to explain itself as its own cause?

Moe: Maybe. Maybe the cosmos is enough of an explanation of itself.

Socrates: But if the cause must precede the effect, and the effect must follow after the cause, do we not contradict ourselves in this thought that the cosmos, as an effect, must have preceded itself as its own cause?

Moe: It seems you’re trying to trip me up.

Socrates: Excuse me, that’s not my intention. Though it seems after all this that we have not yet answered Leibniz’s question.

Moe: That’s unfortunate for Leibniz.

Socrates: Perhaps another metaphysician might be of some assistance.

Moe: Metaphysicians? Don’t they have something to do with witchcraft and animal sacrifice?

Socrates: I was thinking more along the lines of Immanuel Kant, or perhaps Hegel. Have you heard of them?

Moe: Only vaguely. Unlike you, I’m sure, I’ve never met them personally.

Socrates: Metaphysicians are inclined to think on abstract terms, something like mathematicians; only where mathematicians think in terms of numbers, metaphysicians think in terms of concepts, or in some cases, in terms of nothing at all. Since my confusion has only increased over these many years since I’ve been dead, maybe I should search another metaphysician out. Perhaps someone like Anaximander?

Moe: Anaximander?

Socrates: Yes, he spoke of the Apeiron, or you can say the ‘infinite’ or the ‘unbounded’ – out of which all else has been formed. Perhaps he was touching on some deep cosmic truth?

Moe: I suspect that next you’ll somehow toss God into the equation.

Socrates: That’s another concept – or meme – that keeps cropping up.

Moe gets to his feet.

Moe: Dawkins has been busy trying to get rid of that one. I expect you’ll mention flying teapots next. Excuse me for saying this, but I think you must have taken leave of an institution somewhere around here, and the interns are out hunting for you. As for myself, I have a conference to attend. It’s been nice chatting with you, but I object to your attempt to pass your psychosis off onto me. My memes are highly resistant. And given your history, Socrates, they’re much more fitted for replication than yours. I do know a little about you. You didn’t manage to get a book published, did you?

Socrates: No. I didn’t think it would be good to write my thoughts down.

Moe: Yes, and I can certainly see why!

Moe marches off.

Socrates: Sigh.

© Ray Liikanen 2017

Ray’s positive solution to Kant’s first antinomy at CausalArgument.com – written out in three different ways – is the result of forty-five years of painstaking effort. His essay ‘Beyond Kant and Hegel’ can be found in The Review of Metaphysics, March 2013 issue.

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