Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Buddhist practice and philosophy, memetics, the jukebox theory of meaning, and impermanence

I'm getting concerned a bit I'm going off on a philosphical/semantic tangent here, but I think there's another bit or two to be said about the whole line of discussion of cultural interactions with Buddhism here, sparked by yet another post by Barbara on her blog.  

She says
It's easy to criticize the cultural accommodations made by Buddhism in Asia over the years, but we in the West also are creatures of our conditioning, and realization requires breaking out of that conditioning.  People who want to make Buddhism over to accommodate the "rational" West have no idea what they are doing.
I think she could have rephrased slightly when  she says, "we in the West" need to "break out of our [Western] conditioning" as a prerequisite for realization.  From the standpoint of non-duality, from a viewpoint of "forget both" it is more a point of being able to live with the fact that the contradictions have been present in the past and to some extent still exist today.   It does not mean ignoring the difference, or denigrating the difference, but staring the difference right in the face, as it were, and seeing it as it is.  But that's really a very minor quibble; I think we're in rare strong agreement here.

These concepts of "Eastern" and "Western" anyway are rather impermanent in and of themselves.  I don't know how deeply memetics parallels genetics, but the latter is being actively studied by communications and information theorists, and as a guy involved in that business, I have more or less an educated but layman's side interest in those topics.  In fact, right now it is somewhat related to the question of to what extent a communication system adaptable from its messages transmitted and received.  Communication systems might seem far afield from genetics, but there are some striking parallels now being explored by information theorists. (It is also of practical value therefore to communications systems researchers.) 

Is the message in the jukebox or in the recording? So asked Douglas R. Hofstadter in Gödel, Escher, Bach.  Is the jukebox itself a message containing all possible messages the jukebox can transmit?  Maybe the jukebox and the message are the wrong paradigms for this sort of thing.  Maybe they're even wrong for playing music one wants to "store" as a copy of some piece.  In terms of genetics the model is clearly poor (and it is almost certainly for memes as well).

Genes are exchanged in a mating system between two pairs of mates, and the particular  genes  taken from each parent seems somewhat random, as best as we can determine today.  By 10 generations there is less than 5X 10-4 of any one 10th generation or earlier ancestor, on the average, in the descendant, assuming a random exchange of genes.  Mutations happen, and that's how evolution proceeds.  The genome - the "message" corrupts the jukebox  and vice-versa (as well as "noise" such as viruses corrupting both the message and the jukebox).

Similarly it might be with ideas.  The old concepts of "Western" and "Eastern" will, given enough time, recede into something that will become something different entirely from what was previously. Thought viruses will latch onto other ideas.  Concepts such as a literal reincarnation will almost certainly die out if there can be no way these ideas pass the giggle test, just as Odin worship has died out.  If anyone's Buddhist practice depends on that, they've got a problem.  But I can't, myself, imagine such a practice.

Ultimately the practice itself should deal with things that are themselves a bit more stable than ideas about how to think about how to cultivate wisdom, generosity and compassion, but rather the cultivation of these things themselves.

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