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Susan J. Blackmore on the Illusory Self

The Meme Machine (Oxford University Press: 2000), pp. 236-7.

Each illusory self is a construct of the memetic world in which it successfully competes. Each selfplex gives rise to ordinary human consciousness based on the false idea that there is someone inside who is in charge. The ways we behave, the choices we make, and the things we say are all a result of this complex structure: a set of memeplexes (including the powerful selfplex) running on a biologically constructed system. The driving force behind everything that happens is replicator power. Genes fight it out to get into the next generation, and in the process biological design comes about. Memes fight it out to get passed on into another brain or book or object, and in the process cultural and mental design comes about. There is no need for any other source of design power. There is no need to call on the creative ‘power of consciousness’, for consciousness has no power. There is no need to invent the idea of free will. Free will, like the self who ‘has’ it, is an illusion. Terrifying as thought seems, I suggest it is true.

Benjamin chose cornflakes this morning for breakfast. Why? He did so because he is a human with human tastes and the genetic make-up that inclines him towards carbohydrates in the morning, especially this morning when he was rather hungry. He lives in a rich society where cornflakes have been invented and he has enough money to buy them. He responds positively to the picture on the packet and the advertisements he sees. Memes and genes together produced this behaviour in this environment. If asked, Benjamin will say that he chose the cornflakes because he likes them, or that he made a conscious decision to eat them today. But this explanation adds nothing. It is just a story Benjamin tells after the fact.

So does Benjamin have free will or not? The critical question to ask is who do you mean by Benjamin? If by ‘Benjamin’ you mean a body and brain, then certainly Benjamin had a choice. Human beings make decisions all the time. Like frogs, cats, and even robots, they have plans, desires, and aversions, and they act accordingly. The more memes they acquire the cleverer are the things they can do, and the larger the range of options. They can find themselves in situations in which they have many potential choices, or few, or one. Is this sufficient for what we call free will?

I think not, because at the heart of the concept of free will lies the idea that it must be Benjamin’s conscious self who made the decision. When we think of free will we imagine that ‘I’ have it, not that this whole conglomeration of body and brain has it. Free will is when ‘I’ consciously, freely, and deliberately decide to do something, and do it. In other words ‘I’ must be the agent for it to count as free will.

But if the memetic view I have been proposing here is right, then this is nonsense, because the self that is supposed to have free will is just a story that forms part of a vast memeplex, and a false story at that. On this view, all human actions, whether conscious or not, come from complex interactions between memes, genes and all their products, in complicated environments. The self is not the initiator of action, it does not ‘have’ consciousness, and it does not ‘do’ the deliberating. There is no truth in the idea of an inner self inside my body that controls the body and is conscious. Since this is false, so is the idea of my conscious self having free will.