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Dr. Susan Blackmore: Visiting Professor, University of Plymouth

April 22, 2014

Interviewer: Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Numbering: Issue 4.A, Idea: Women in Academia (Part Three)

Place of Publication: Langley, British Columbia, Canada

Title: In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Web Domain: http://www.in-sightjournal.com

Individual Publication Date: April 22, 2014

Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2014

Name of Publisher: In-Sight Publishing

Frequency: Three Times Per Year

Words: 4,185

ISSN 2369-6885

Dr. Susan Blackmore

1. In brief, how was your youth?  Did you have any personal heroes growing up?

I think two biology teachers I had, which I did not realize at the time, but looking back they were a gay couple.  They were lovely.  They inspired me to know biology and to understand what life is.  We are talking about the 1960s, when I was at a ghastly boarding school, which I absolutely hated.  They did inspire me.  But Miss Bayliss said to me, “You know, Biology is nearly finished.  We have really done nearly everything that we need to do in Biology.  That is not the science of the future.  The science of the future is going to be psychology.”  That’s why I went into psychology and physiology rather than biology at university, but it is kind of funny when you look back at what happened to modern biology! (Laughs) I do not regret that at all.  That’s why I love biology.  I still do.

2. How would you describe your early philosophical framework? Did it change? If so, how did it change? 

I think false memory is probably relevant here.  It is terribly hard. (Laughs) I can remember things about my philosophical and scientific ideas as a child, but whether I am really accurately remembering them – I do not know.  As far as I can tell, I was always interested in deep scientific questions.  What is light?  What is heat?  Why does water run downhill?  What does it mean for something to be heavy?  I can remember seeing splashes of water and wondering about it.  My father used to clean out our pond once a year.  I used to collect all of the newts.  It was really interesting because nearly every year there were always 42 or 43 newts. I wondered if they were the same ones or different ones.  Basic kinds of questions that scientists ask.  I wondered about bees and birds in the sky.  Did some supernatural power keep them up?  I always had a faint interest in supernatural forces that science did not particularly understand.  That was when I was older, probably as a teenager. I had an interest in that stuff.

I guess another side of philosophical thinking is religion.  I was brought up as a standard Church of England kid.  I went to a Methodist boarding school.  My parents were Christians.  My dad was not much of one, but my mom was very serious.  I used to have huge arguments with her about the existence of god.  I had various phases in my childhood of being very skeptical of god, the afterlife, heaven, and so on.  All of these kinds of things.  I used to really annoy my mom with this stuff. Oddly enough, I was probably an atheist by the time I left school.  However, I had religious phases again.  And I think, the one I particularly remember, when I fell in love at the age of 25 and got married within a very few months.  I was ‘head-over-heels’ in love.  We both had a religious phase at that time.  And we both got married in church.  I suppose it was this transcendental feeling of love that lured me into being religious again.  It did not last.  Quickly, I became an atheist again.  It was the last of my religious phases.  I began to find other ways to have a spiritual life other than religion.  I have been pursuing what I call a spiritual life ever since

3. You did early work in your academic career in psychology and physiology.  You moved into parapsychology for some time.  For your parapsychology Ph.D. thesis, entitled Extrasensory Perception as a Cognitive Process, what did you find?

Ha!  I did not find what I expected to find.  I was doing physiology and psychology as my degree at Oxford.  And I loved it!  I was interested in the science, what little was then known about how the brain, memory, perception, and so on, works.  In my first term, I had this extraordinary ‘out of the body experience’ (OBE).  Based on this experience, I just uncritically thought there was telepathy, clairvoyance, spirits, precognition, and anything seemed possible given the challenge of that experience to the science that I was learning.  I decided at that moment – then and there.  I am going to become a parapsychologist.  I wanted to prove all these phenomena to my “closed-minded” lecturers at Oxford. (Laughs) Even then, during the experience, and in the weeks and months after it, I remembered the sense of reality, “Yes, but, it would still all be.” The sense of reality, the vividness of it, the sense of rightness, and the ineffable noetic quality, “I know this is more true, more real than anything I have ever experienced in my life.”  That quality kept coming back and I did not know how to understand it.  Reflecting on my foray into parapsychology was a 10, 15, (laughs) 20 year ‘wild goose chase’ off in the wrong direction.  Subsequently, my Zen practice and meditation – and the explorations of the illusion of self and free will – are connecting with the depth of that experience in a way that parapsychology did not, and never could.

To answer your question, what did I find?  I developed a grand theory of the paranormal – of memory and extrasensory perception, I set out to test this theory in terms of experiments on telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, psycho-kinesis, and I never found a single phenomenon!  And then I tested tarot cards, and I kept on, and on, and on.  I never found any evidence of any paranormal phenomena.  To keep a long-story short (Laughs), in the end, I came to the conclusion, which I have now, I cannot prove they do not exist, but am sure as one can be –not 100%, that they do not exist.  It was a long, long journey.  And you might say a waste of time.  I would not say that.  It was very interesting.  And if such phenomena existed, it would be really, really important.

4. You worked on the Advisory Board of the Journal of Memetics.  What is the state of memetic research?

I am not sure if there is anything worthy of the name ‘memetic research’.  It is quite interesting.  I still strongly believe thinking about cultural evolution in terms of memes is the right way to go about it.  All of this man-made environment – all of our culture – is a mass of information competing to use our brains to get itself copied.  The power lies in these memes to evolve by variation and selection.  Therefore, memes, we human meme machines, are constantly constructing new memes out of old ones.  Varying them in different ways and then selecting amongst them.  Some thrive and others die off.  It seems to me to make sense of the extraordinary world around us.  To make sense, to my mind, the horrible speeding up, the endless speeding up, of how much stuff we are bombarded with – how much difficulty we have in choosing among it.  It is choose, choose, choose, our brains cannot take it!  I feel memetics is the appropriate way to understand this phenomena.  I am in such a tiny minority.  There is something about the word meme, which people do not like – something about the idea of memes that people do not like.  That includes ordinary people and scientists, who shy away from it endlessly.  There is a lot of research in cultural evolution.  Some of that research looks very close to memetics.  Some of it is by people who absolutely reject memetics.  The journal that you mentioned ceased publication.  There has not been any replacement.  It may be some time before the light dawns and people realize that this is really the way to go.

5. From the previous question, you define genes as the 1st replicator; memes as the 2nd replicator.  You gave a TED talk on the ‘3rd replicators’: temes.  What are temes?  How do they work?  Do you envision the future with a Journal of Temetics?

I was contacted out of the blue by someone from NASA to contribute to a collection on cultural evolution in the cosmos.  The only example of cultural evolution is on the Earth, but I thought, “What would it mean to have cultural evolution on other planets?”  We know of lots, and lots, of other planets out there.  Many of them in the ‘goldilocks’ region such that you could think of some kind of life evolving.  What would it mean for other forms of life – completely different on distant planets?  That set me thinking. The ideas that I came up with go something like this. First, a replicator appears.  Something with the appropriate resources around it will get copied.  That’s what we mean by a replicator.  Some kind of information that is copied.  This is copied with variance, and the environment will select some variants over others.   So you have an evolutionary process going.  That’s standard universal Darwinism.  That’s just what happens, and must happen indeed – if the chemical situation is right.  What happened on Earth?  We may have an RNA precursor.  We are not sure of the earliest stages.  But we ended up with genes as the first stable, long-term replicator.  All life on this planet depends on the evolution of genes.  That’s the first replicator on Earth.  The second replicator came about because one of these creatures, gene machines – creatures created by genes for the replication of genes, one of these creatures became capable of replicating information in a completely different way.  Early humans were able to imitate sounds, gestures, making stone tools, lighting fires, wearing clothes, whatever those early memes may have been, when those creatures became capable of copying information with variation and selection, a new replicator was born!

To have a replicator, you have to have copying with variation and selection.  With human imitation, you have that.  That’s what we mean by the second replicator called, by Richard Dawkins, memes.  I began to think, “Could there be further replicators after that?”  I have been worrying for a long time about the status of information on the web, the emails we send, and all of the information we send.  I wonder, “Is it really in our control?  Did we really construct all these machines for our own benefit?  Or are we deluded into thinking it is for our benefit?  Could it really be for the memes’ benefits?  Is it still memes if it is not us directly copying it?  What if the machines started copying stuff without us knowing about it?”  I thought, “Aha!”  By the sorts of definitions that I am using, then if there is information that is copied with variation and selection by machines outside of our control, then there is a third replicator. I gave that the name techno-memes or ‘temes’.  I think ‘thremes’ would be a better name.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to change the name now.  These are technological memes. Information, digital information, that is stored, copied, varied, and selected by machines.  Now, are there such things already? For the moment, you could say that most of the information out there, certainly the stuff seen on our screens, is dependent on us. In the sense that we do the selecting, or do we?

When we put some terms into google, google has a lot of say in the things that come up.  It has a lot of amazingly clever algorithms based on who we are, where we are, and so on.  What about the varying?  There are lots and lots of programs constructing variance out there on things by taking things out, reconstructing it, and sending it out.  We are still doing much of the varying and so on.  However, it is certainly not beyond the bounds of possibility that it is information out there that we are not seeing being stored, copied, varied, and selected entirely by machines.  I would term that temes.

It is extremely worrying in that it will be using the space in these machines.  These machines require an awful lot of planetary resources.  They put out an awful lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for the sake of replicating.  If it got really, really up and running as a new replicator, the first thing we would know about it might be something like dark energy – it would be dark information.  The servers are using a lot of energy but we don’t know where it is going because the information is not interacting with us. So we can’t see it. Anyway, that was the type of wild speculation that I was led to.

In terms of the original question that I was asked in the first place about cultural evolution and the cosmos, I thought, “You are not going to get planetary communication between civilizations based on only having genes or a second replicator. You would need a third replicator, where information could be stored in machines that do not require air to breathe and food to eat in order to communicate from one planet to another.”  So we would only be able to see other civilizations out there if they had got to the third replicator stage.  If they had, in my opinion, it would be dangerous because every time another replicator comes along it is dangerous for the planet.  In the sense that when genes arrived, the atmosphere changed.  When memes arrived, humans changed, the brain got bigger.  It is hard to sustain, but we pulled through.  If there is a third replicator now, maybe, we should be optimistic and say, “We will pull through!”  Or maybe, we should be pessimistic and that is the reason we do not hear from other civilizations.  Anyway, that is what my TED talk was about.  I throw out ideas for other people to think about, and see what happens.

6. In psychology and parapsychology, what do you consider the controversial topic(s)? How do you examine the controversial topic(s)?

As far as parapsychology is concerned, I do not think there are any controversial topics.  I think it is doomed to failure.  It is not to say, “People should not be doing it”.  I am really glad people are doing it because endlessly people believe in telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and so on.  All of these kinds of things.  People are continually having experiences they don’t understand. So they leap to the wrong conclusions, just as I did all those years ago. We can now understand those experiences without inventing the paranormal. Of course it would be very important to science if there really were paranormal occurrences but I do not think there are. Parapsychologists will carry on searching but will have the same disheartening experience that I had, but let them try.

In psychology, what really interests me at the moment, we have all of these kinds of ideas about ourselves that are basically wrong.  We feel as though we are a self, experiencing the world that has to make all of these decisions, but these things do not seem to be true based on the way the brain works.  Therefore, the question is, “Why are we so deluded?”

7. You argue free will is an illusion.  By your line of reasoning, what type of free will are illusions?  If any, what kinds of free will seem implausible, but possible, to you?

I like to define free will in the ordinary, everyday, human sense that I can by my own conscious thoughts – my own conscious decisions – cause something to happen independently of the state of my genes, memes, environment, brain state, and so on and so forth, that is what people mean by free will.  They mean, “I did it!”  Not, “My brain or genes did it!”  I am not going into all of the many sophisticated definitions. This kind of free will does not exist. In this ordinary sense of the term, we do not have free will.

8. If you had sufficient funding and complete academic freedom, what would you research?

I would have to think about the implications of it.  If somebody ‘out-of-the-blue’ gave me the money, I would study the physiological effects of meditation.  I think we have only just begun to study the capacities of the human brain for self-control, for changing itself, for learning to be in different states without taking drugs or being hit in the head with a hammer.  The capacity to see through the illusions of self, free will, consciousness, and so on.  That is being done, and has for a long time been done through meditation and mindfulness.  We are only beginning to understand the things going on inside of those brains that undergo those very, very profound changes in terms of the self.  Probably, if somebody did (laughs) force upon me lots of money, I would probably throw myself into that.

9. Who most influenced you? Can you recommend any seminal books/articles?

The three Ds: Darwin, Dawkins, and Dennett.  Darwin is obvious.

Dawkins is obvious.  The selfish gene is the book in which he invented the idea of memes, but I think a lot of his work shows the wonder of how the varieties and splendor of life arise out of purely mechanical information-based evolutionary processes is wonderful!  Although, he does not leap into changing his life through meditation or anything.  He does not take it into the direction that I have taken it.  Nor has he gone on exploring memes that way that I like to do it.

Now, of course, there is Dan Dennett.  And I would say, the book that has most influenced me is his 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, which still more than twenty years on makes points that most scientists in the field of consciousness studies simply do not understand.  He explores all of the traps that we fall into such as imagining the little ‘self’ inside, who is experiencing this stream of consciousness.  He replaces this with the Multiple Drafts theory, which is so difficult to understand.  I explain it again, and again, and again, to my students.  Only some of my students understand it.  I check with Dan to see if I understand it the way he understands it.  I think I do understand it.  It is so counterintuitive.  I agree with him.  If we are to understand consciousness, we have to throw out our intuitions. Intuitions about self and consciousness because it is all illusory.  It’s all not how it seems to be, we get it wrong all of the time.  We fall into all of these traps.  So that is the most wonderful book.  Unfortunately, I part company with him in his book Freedom Evolves because I think the book should be called Choice Evolves.  As we evolved as more complex creatures and created more complex environments, we have to make more choices, but those choices are made based on what goes on inside of our brains, the genes we have, and all of those reasons.  Not because of something called free will.  Not because our will is free.  I think the grounds of our disagreement are that he takes a much more sophisticated view of free will.  He says, “There is the magical idea of free will, which people believe in. Obviously, it cannot be true.  So let’s have a different one.”  But that is the one that matters.  The one where I can magically choose for no other reason that I want to choose it.  That’s where we part company.  I think Dan Dennett’s views are still the best.  And that the people involved in consciousness studies ought, at least, to consider their intuitions. I believe they are leading astray the science of consciousness studies.

However, Dan Dennett, like Richard Dawkins, has no interest in the spiritual life.  He points out these illusions and traps that we fall into, but he does not then say, “Right!  Let’s try live my life in a way that overcomes those.”  For me, I stumbled across Zen a long, long time ago and have practiced meditation and mindfulness for years.  I discovered through that a systematic way of training yourself to drop the illusions of self, consciousness, and free will.  It is a long, long tough haul.

I would add one more: William James.  My only other hero that does not begin with D.  Principles of Psychology from 1890 by James.  It’s something like 1,200 pages in two volumes.  I read it all.  I read lots of parts of it again, and again, and again.  I have a first addition, which is annotated with lots of scribbles!  It is the only book that I possess which I love.  I physically love the book!  His ideas are so subtle and interesting.  Way ahead of his time!  He was considering what kind of entity this illusory self might be, fascinating man.  I would recommend the Principles of Psychology and the Varieties of Religious Experience.  He did, unlike the three Ds, wonder about religious and mystical experiences as I do.

10. And gave them book-length treatment.

Yes, indeed!

11. You are the mother of two children, Emily and Jolyon.  Both are professional academics.  In this, your advice for young academics is concrete. What advice do you have for young academics?

It still amazes me that both of my kids are academics. It does not terribly surprise me that Emily would be because she was always terribly clever and had that kind of mind.  She is doing very well.  Jolyon was, as a child, much more interested in art and building things.  He would be down the cellar making stuff.  All the sudden, in his late teens, he started to get interested in science.  I guess, he was in a scientific family.  It was around him all of the time.  It took off at that time.  I am glad that I did not push them into any particular direction or career when they were young.  I thought, “Okay, that is what they are interested in.”  Perhaps, I was too interested in my own life ad work. (Laughs)  Jolyon as we speak is off in Africa doing research on camouflage in birds and having a very good academic career.  However, in another way, I think, “The academic life now is so pressured, competitive, stressful!  I hesitate having anyone go into it.  Except that, it is the best way to pursue one’s scientific curiosity.”  That is, perhaps, the only way to seriously pursue one’s scientific curiosity.  If you are curious like me and that is what you want to do, then my advice to young people, as it has always been, “Do what you are really interested in.  Follow the questions that are burning in your mind.  If you do not have those questions, then do not be an academic because it is awfully tough!” (Laughs) If you love something and really want to know the answers, you will work hard and enjoy it.  But if you do something because it is the ‘trendy’ thing, your parents tell you to do it, or you will earn more money, no good at all.  Do what you love and do it well.

Bibliography

1)  Blackmore, S. (2009). Help find a name for the third replicator. New Scientist, 203(2719), 36-39.

2)  Blackmore, S. (1998). Imitation and the definition of a meme. Journal Of Memetics – Evolutionary Models Of Information Transmission, 2(2), 1.

3)  Blackmore, S. (2005). Implications for memetics. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 28(4), 490.

4)  Blackmore, S. (2008). Memes shape brains shape memes. Behavioral And Brain Sciences, 31(5), doi:10.1017/S0140525X08005037

5)  Blackmore, S. (2009). Replicators on other planets?. New Scientist, 203(2719), 36-39.

6)  Blackmore, S. (2012). She Won’t Be Me. Journal Of Consciousness Studies, 19(1/2), 16-19.

7)  Blackmore, S. (2008, February). Susan Blackmore: Memes and “Temes” [Video File]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/susan_blackmore_on_memes_and_temes.

8)  Blackmore, S. (1986). The Adventures of a Parapsychologist. Buffalo and New York: Prometheus.

9)  Blackmore, S. (2002). The grand illusion. New Scientist, 174(2348), 26-29.

10)  Blackmore, S. (1999). The Meme Machine. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

11)  Blackmore, S. (2009). The third replicator is among us. New Scientist, 203(2719), 36-39.

12)  Blackmore, S., & Bradie, M. (2000). Do Memes Make Sense?. Free Inquiry, 20(3), 42.

13)  Blackmore, S., Fouad, N., Kagan, J., Kosslyn, S., Posner, M., Sternberg, R., Driscoll, M. Ge, X., & Parrish, P. (2013). Psychology. Educational Technology, 53(5), 53-63.

14)  Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

15)  Dennett, D. (1991). Consciousness Explained. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

16)  Dennett, D. (2003, February). Freedom Evolves. New York, NY: Viking Books.

17)  James W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology, 2 vols. n.p.: Dover Publications.

18)  James W. (1902). The Varieties of Religious Experience. Harlow, UK: Longmans, Green and Co.

License

In-sight by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Copyright

© Scott Douglas Jacobsen, In-sight, and In-Sight Publishing 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-sight with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.  All interviewees co-copyright their interview material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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