Yet another difficulty with New Atheist ideology is that the New Atheists—especially Dawkins, Dennett and Harris—also demonstrate a logical inconsistency by violating their own demand that all genuine knowledge must conform to the requirements of the scientific method.
According to this paradigm, knowledge claims not scientifically testable are no better than superstition or religion. Yet what are we to make of Dawkins’ and Dennett’s adherence to meme theory?
In order to explain the spread and powerful hold of religion, they assert that religion is a meme, i.e. a “unit of cultural imitation”31 which functions like a gene for ideas, beliefs, customs, feelings, skills, etc. These are transferred through teaching, imitation and law. As Dennett points out, these memes operate for their own benefit, and must be studied in light of the question “cui bono?” 32 i.e. who gains?
The basic problem with meme theory is that it does not meet the demands of the scientific method. To examine this further, I offer ten reasons why memes are no more than metaphors and not products of reasoning by the scientific method.
- do not exist in space
- are not physical
- have no internal structure i.e. no physically separate or component parts or clear boundaries
- are not involved in any measurable energetic interactions within themselves, amongst themselves or with other beings
- do not show action, agency, e.g. competition, accommodation
- have no inherent interests or even self-interests (all their interests are attributed to them externally)
- have no intention and cannot act intentionally
- have no inherent reproductive capacity
- cannot be quantified
- “have no chromosomes or loci or alleles or sexual recombination.”33
Memes also lack definitional precision. How, for example, do we distinguish between the meme phenotype and the genotype? The examples provided by Dawkins and Dennett could refer to either. This lack of precision matters because evolutionary theory requires this distinction; without it meme-theory is simply not a scientific evolutionary theory.
Consequently, Dawkins’ and Dennett’s meme theory is based on a fallacy—that is, a false analogy— not only because memes are so unlike genes, but also because, unlike genes, memes are not scientifically testable. Furthermore, treating memes as if they had inherent interests is an example of a logical mistake known as the pathetic fallacy, which treats inanimate things as if they were alive. Since a non-living thing has no intentions or goals, it cannot have any inherent interests to achieve or lose. Any ‘interests’ it has must be imposed from the outside. In other words, Dennett and Dawkins ignore the overwhelming list of dissimilarities that undermine any attempt to establish a valid analogy in order to explain their naturalistic theory about the prevalence of religion.
Dennett’s claim that memes exist “because words exist”34 is also untenable. In the first place, identifying words with memes does not escape the problems noted above. A word may exist physically as sound or as physical marks on paper, but how does it have intentions or interests or a reproductive mechanism? What internal energy processes are involved in it?
The second problem is that the suggestion is confused. By “words” is he referring to the word-form, or the idea-content? There is no necessary connection between a word-form and what it means, e.g. ‘dog’ can be ‘Hund’, ‘perro,’ ‘cane’ and ‘koira.’ The form of the word and its content are not identical; the same idea-content can be expressed by different word-forms. In that case, which is the meme—the word-form or the idea-content? If the meme is the word-form, then different words for the same thing must express different idea-content; this creates problems vis-à-vis translation between different languages and even dialects of one language: different form equals different meaning. If the meme is the idea-content, then word-forms cannot be memes. But if the meme is the idea-content where does it exist? How does it have interests or intentions?
In the third place, we can see the possibilities of various confusions between genotype (idea-content) and phenotype (individual expression) arising here. If Dennett’s suggestion is true, how are the genotype (idea-content) and phenotype (individual word) connected? Since there is no necessary connection between a word-form and its idea-content, how can one be the expression of the other?
In meme theory, Dawkins and Dennett attempt to establish their own unscientific superstition in order to explain the prevalence of the superstition of religion. Similar remarks might be directed at Dennett’s theory of the HADD, the brain’s supposed ‘hyper-action agent detection device’ which attributes agency or intention to events and entities around us.35 This HADD is the alleged origin of our belief in super-natural phenomenon including God or gods.36 Dennett provides no evidence for the HADD’s existence, merely accepting it as a convenient supposition for his purpose. In short, memes and HADDs are no more than reified concepts.
To his credit, Dennett admits that the HADD and memes are no more than a theory37 but that admission only leads to a further problem: Why does he spend so much time advocating an explanation that is frankly unscientific and for which there is no scientific evidence of any kind?
Obviously there is an enormous inconsistency in criticising religion for its speculations and lack of scientific explicability and at the same time indulging in such speculations in order to explain religion away. This is a clear case of the logical error of special pleading.
When we strip away memes and HADDs, a significant portion of Dawkins’ and Dennett’s argument falls by the wayside. Without them, they simply lack their sought-after naturalistic explanation of the origin and spread of religion. Their indulgence in sheer speculation means they have failed in “investigating the biological basis of religion,”38 and indeed, have failed to investigate religion scientifically at all. They have reified a concept—just as they claim religion does—and then treated their reification as an established fact.
Next time: Adopting Eastern Mysticism
Biblio: 31 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 223; also Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell, p. 78.; 32 Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell, p. 84.; 33 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p.223.; 34 Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell, p. 80.; 35 Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell, p. 109—115.; 36 Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell, p. 123.: 37 Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell, p. 310.; 38 Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell, p. 71—72.