How to Talk About Antimemes

Every so­ciety is wrong about lots of things. Ours is no differ­ent. It’s difficult to no­tice when your so­ciety is wrong be­cause we learn most things by copy­ing the peo­ple around us. By defi­ni­tion, you can’t iden­tify the things the peo­ple around you are wrong by copy­ing those same peo­ple. For this rea­son, the rules for dis­cussing an­timemes differ from the usual rules of ra­tio­nal philos­o­phy.

Ra­tional di­alogue is based on mu­tu­ally agreed-upon facts. The dis­puted ter­ri­tory is what we can con­clude from these facts. But an­timemes are defi­ni­tion­ally those things that most peo­ple are wrong about. So two peo­ple are not likely to agree upon the facts. There are sev­eral ways around this challenge, all of them bad.

  1. You can state an­timemes as you see them. This is bad be­cause two ran­dom peo­ple will usu­ally dis­agree about most of the facts. This pro­vokes coun­ter­ar­gu­ments in­stead of re­fu­ta­tions. You end up de­bat­ing about in­di­vi­d­ual an­timemes in­stead of dis­cussing an­timemet­ics.

  2. You can es­chew facts al­to­gether. This is bad be­cause you can’t climb the lad­der of ab­strac­tion down to the bot­tom rung. A var­i­ant of this ap­proach is gen­er­al­iz­ing from fic­tional ev­i­dence which is just a fancy way to cover up the es­chew­ment of facts.

  3. You can use dead an­timemes from other so­cieties and time pe­ri­ods. This is bad be­cause dead an­timemes are no longer an­timemetic and be­cause it’s hard to dis­t­in­guish sym­biotic wars from dead an­timemes.

Con­vinc­ing ex­am­ples of an­timemes are hard to come by even though an­timemes are not them­selves rare. It’s sim­ply more un­likely than not that two ran­dom peo­ple will rec­og­nize ex­actly the same an­timemes. Paul Gra­ham and I prob­a­bly agree on the an­timemetic prop­er­ties of Lisp but the ma­jor­ity of pro­gram­mers do not rec­og­nize this an­timeme for what it is.

When you’re talk­ing to an in­di­vi­d­ual per­son you can re­strict the an­timeme ex­am­ples to the small in­ter­sec­tion you both agree upon. This is im­pos­si­ble when writ­ing pub­li­cly. There’s no sin­gle an­timeme ev­ery reader will agree with you about. If you iden­tify sev­eral an­timemes then it’s near cer­tain ev­ery reader of your ar­ti­cle will dis­agree with at least one of your ex­am­ples.

I talk a lot about an­timemes so here’s a new rule for com­ments on my ar­ti­cles.

If some­one gives mul­ti­ple ex­am­ples to sup­port an ar­gu­ment and you agree with any of the ex­am­ples then just ig­nore the ex­am­ples you don’t like. If you dis­agree with what re­mains then re­fute that cen­tral the­sis in­stead.