What’s in a name?

When I explained why I blog, I said I’d also explain the “weird name” and why it changed from Memetic Selection to Memetic Syns — although blog names tend to be quirky and often admit no explanation other than writer whim.

I explained that that this blog is a forum for me to structure and articulate thought through explanation to a — possibly fictional — audience. The name reflects that, being a blend of two ideas.


The first idea is that of Memetics. Finding definitions for Memetics, Memes, and related concepts on the web is simple, but I’ll articulate my own interpretation of what is meant by the related cluster of concepts (or Memeplex) of ideas around memetics.

At the base of everything is the existence of an objective reality. Philosophers can argue back and forth as whether there is any such thing as an objective reality, but my current working assumption is that it exists.

If objective reality exists, its nature as it seems to be described by modern physics is not a system composed of discrete elements or particles, but instead a reality which is a complex interaction of “fields of probability”. A subatomic particle does not exist at any one point in space, but is best described as a “probability cloud” which tells us where it might be. Occasionally, the universe must know where a particle is, and in these cases the “probability cloud” collapses momentarily into a particle, the “function” for which the particle is needed for is performed (did the neutron hit the nucleus or not?), and the “particle” disperses back into a “probability cloud”. This isn’t a function of measurement error, or just not knowing with enough precision where a particle is; it is a physical reality. Particles whose “probability cloud” extends past a physical barrier can suddenly “decide” to be on the other side of the barrier, and appear there – something that it could not do if it really was a particle all the time, and we just couldn’t describe it’s position except by probabilities (see Quantum tunneling).

This means that the universe isn’t a bunch of “chunks” of matter milling around according to a set of predictable physical laws, like a gigantic clockwork mechanism – even though the Enlightenment era scientists and philosophers thought this, and were delighted by the idea (especially Sir Issac Newton). Instead the universe is a collection of waveform equations, or since waveforms can be composited, one single probability equation of mind staggering complexity (almost certainly even the level of complexity of such an equation is beyond human comprehension, much less the equation itself).

People just are not capable of conceiving of this massive probability equation that is objective reality. We don’t have the mental capacity to process that much information.

So what do we do? Humans “break down” reality into manageable pieces, and treat them as if they were discrete, concrete, “chunks” of reality. In your everyday thought you don’t think of the amazingly complex set of waveform equations occupying every point in the universe, but having a much higher “spike” of probability right in front of you (but also blending imperceptibly into everything else around it at the quantum level); you think of it as a computer. You are not aware of the staggering complexity of waveforms in anything – you just think there’s a pen, a plate, a car, or even a cat. You project arbitrary divisions onto the reality around you and act and think as if they were single discrete entities.

We do all sorts of interesting things in our minds with these artificial divisions of reality, but for the purpose of discussing the idea of memetics (and the name of this blog), we’re going to concentrate on two.

  1. Analysis and Synthesis: We break down these “chunks” into smaller chunks. This is called analysis. We might think of a “car” as a single concrete entity (my car, your car, the car that just took my parking spot), but we also know that we can break a “car” down into other apparently discrete units: tire, windshield, spark plugs, bumper, etc. We can keep breaking down apparently discrete chunks this way. Analysis comes from the Greek and Latin roots for dissolve, loosen, or otherwise take apart. When we break something down into its parts and see how those parts go together we are performing analysis. The opposite action is synthesis. We take discrete chunks and see how we can put them together, and in the end, we will probably place a label on the result and treat it as a discrete chunk of reality: I can take pasta, a cream sauce, cheese, bread crumbs, spices, and tuna – which are all discrete “things” – and make another discrete thing called a casserole.
  2. Create relations: This is the place where human intelligence really comes into its own. We can create relations and operations between these discrete concepts (we did that a little in the previous example). It allows us to model reality, and make predictions. Not only can I classify, abstract, and find relations between things, but I can also abstract events in the universe, and mentally combine the two and make predictions about the future. In my mind, I can take my idea of an object (coffee cup), place it in a perceived relationship (above) to another arbitrary division of reality (the floor), apply an abstracted “function” of reality between the first object-abstraction and a second (the earth), mentally apply that re-occuring “event” that I’ve abstracted out of reality (things fall down), and have an idea of what the result will be if I let go. According to “objective reality” none of these exist! The cup, the earth, the floor, and the operation “things fall down” are all arbitrary divisions imposed on your perception of reality. Still, you know what will happen to the cup.

These discrete, arbitrary division of reality are simple memes. Compound memes are known as memeplexes (the idea of a casserole above is a memeplex) , and it is really memeplexes that we are used to thinking about and thinking with. We seldom spend a great deal of time pondering the concept of red; we’re more likely to think about something like “my job”, which if you reflect on for awhile, you will realize that something that seems fairly simple is really an amazingly complex system of compound memes.

To be accurate, we could call these concepts. Memetics really describes the idea that memes are concepts which can be transmitted from mind to mind – thus they “reproduce” – and the idea that they will survive and reproduce if they conveys a benefit to the “host mind”. The meme “It is a bad idea to play in the street” will help the host survive. The meme “you should run up and down the street during rush hour” will probably kill the host mind. Therefore the host, and the idea, won’t survive long enough for the idea to be passed onto other – and thus the idea (and the poor host!) die off. Drawing parallels between the behavior of ideas and the behavior of genes is the core of memetics.

When we create new relations and operations between memes, building up new memes, we are performing memetic engineering. Scientists, philosophers, political thinkers, and religious thinkers create brand new memeplexes when they are performing memetic engineering. Students also do this, the only difference is that they are trying to recreate memeplexes in their own minds, not create totally novel ones. Teachers are memetic engineers, only they work to create memetplexes in the minds of others. (As an aside, I believe that creativity is the ability to create new relations between memes, combine memes in novel ways, or even finding ways to combine memes using functions that have not yet been applied to those memes in that way, or have been thought to be inapplicable to those memes).

This blog (yes, we were talking about this blog, and its name, remember?) is my place to try and perform my own memetic engineering, by articulating ideas (memes) and their relations, through explanation and description. This blog is my own memetic engineering laboratory. Whether I am creating new memplexes, or just recreating existing memeplexes in the blog and (hopefully) in my head, is something you’ll have to decide on your own.


So, why not call the blog Memetic Engineering? Well … the idea was already taken. So I was forced to come up with a variant on the term.

For that, I turned to the works of the science fiction author Pat Cadigan, particularly her short story “Rock On”, (published in the anthololgy Patterns) and her novel Synners.

In these stories, Cadigan explores some of the practical, moral, and artistic implications of the development of direct brain-computer interface technology.

The concept that I found facintating was the idea that a group of minds could be so connected so that a single individual could channel the creative and artistic abilities of a group into a single coherent output, creating a sort of “group mind creative effort”. Such individuals were highly sought in artistic circles, for they could make artistic creation a group effort, with results far superior to the output of any single human mind. Such people were known as synthesizers or synners.

It seemed somewhat appropriate. What I am attempting to do here is to weave the multiple threads of intellectual, artistic, and experential input of things that I do and experience, and create a coherent whole. While I in no way think that I am going to create something “far superior to the output of any (other) human mind” (let us have some perspective here, this is just me!), in a way, I am attempting to be a memetic synner here, and this blog – the result of my synning would therefore be a collection of my intellectual syns.

May these syns be forgiven.


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