The Knowledge Project
On the need for an applied philosophy.
Knowledge is a mysterious thing. So mysterious, in fact, that after thousands of years of inquiry into its nature, we remain uncertain as to whether or not it’s even a thing. In fairness, though, skepticism — of the epistemological variety — is a largely academic view. Most who pay the matter little mind take knowledge for granted — of course it exists. How else do we tie our shoes, or factor a quadratic? Knowledge is, at least it seems, self-evident — an intuitive fact of our existence. Our intuitions here are, I believe, well-founded. Not only is knowledge a seeming fact of our existence, it is, I suggest, an actual fact of our existence — a phenomenon stitched into the fabric of Reality, in just the same way as love and joy and sorrow and iPhones. But that’s not what I’m here to argue. Much ink has been spilled arguing for — and against — the existence of knowledge — to no apparent effect, it seems. We are no closer to consensus, with respect to the metaphysical status of knowledge, than we were in Plato’s time, and I see no reason why that should change (however convinced of my own abilities I may be). Instead, what I’m here to argue — persuade is more the word —is that while philosophy has been committed to the pursuit of knowledge since it began pursuing knowledge, that is only part of the project. Indeed beyond the mere pursuit of knowledge, there is another — largely neglected and, as I see it, far more important — piece of the philosophical puzzle; that is, taking whatever knowledge we get our hands on and instantiating it in the context of our culture/s.
What I’m talking about here is something like drawing a distinction between what we might call “theoretical philosophy” — that is, the pure discovery and investigation of ideas — and “applied philosophy” — the practical program of taking the best of those ideas and embedding them in the fabric of our societies. See, it is one thing to have knowledge of some thing, another to have embodied such knowledge. In the same way as there is often a discord between what we know to be enlightened behaviour, under a certain set of hypothetical circumstances, and our actual behaviour under actual circumstances, there is a chasm between what we know to be good and right — as a culture — and what we have instantiated in everything from our norms and customs to our buildings and businesses. The task of applied philosophy — indeed the task of civilisation — is to minimise that chasm. To bring the best of ideas, wherever they live, to life.
Let me illustrate the idea by way of example. Though it’s little appreciated, there’s a rich variety of contemplative traditions that have gleaned, and then developed sophisticated systems of practice around, key insights into the nature of mind — insights that, when embodied, result in a profoundly positive transfiguration of one’s experience. Or so it’s at least claimed. The killer product at the heart of these traditions — meditation — you’ve probably heard of. Chances are, however, you’re not yet a fully enlightened being — an Arhat, a Buddha. Chances are you don’t even meditate.
To be clear, I don’t intend this offensively — I don’t mean to rub your face in the evidence of your own unenlightenment. You’re probably busy, after all — you’ve surely got better things to be doing than nothing with your legs crossed. Rather, I put this out there only to make the point that, should the claims of these contemplative traditions hold true — if the nature of mind is indeed already and always perfect, and that all we have to do is recognise the fact — it is a most curious fact of our present situation that we don’t all already know this — that we’re not all already “fully cooked”, so to speak.
There’s two apparent possibilities here. Either there isn’t anything particularly unique at the centre of these traditions —certainly nothing worth starting a religion over — or they really are hitting on something fundamental and we simply can’t get the word out. I take the latter view, for the record. As I’ve argued here, the core contemplative insight — the insight into the non-dual nature of awareness — is something of a revolutionary one. Were the entire world to grock this insight, I’m convinced, it would be an entirely different place — indeed an entirely better one. Why, then, doesn’t the world grock whatever there is to be grocked here? Why, if there are ideas so powerful — so positive — do they not take? One way to reconcile this seeming paradox is to take the meme’s eye view of things.
When most of us think of memes, we think of something like pictures of Keanu Reeves with cute/clever captions — funny shit you scroll your way onto. However, memes — in the sense in which I’m using the word — are a much more general kinda thing. While they include funny shit on the internet, for sure, they encompass much more, too. Indeed memes are the fundamental units of culture — just as genes are the fundamental units of biological systems. Memes aren’t just part of the culture, they’re what culture is made of.
Just as the gene-flow through any given culture is governed by the adaptive logic of evolution, a similar logic determines the proliferation of memes. Although there are exceptions, those ideas which render us most fit for survival are, as a rule, most likely to spread — most likely to be adopted. That’s why, perhaps, the moral arc seems to bend towards justice, and why history appears to be coming to a conclusion — the best, most adaptive ideas, over time, tend to win out. Now this paints a somewhat rosy picture of things. But remember, nowhere in the laws of physics — those mechanical principles that underpin evolution — is there something mandating that things must, by necessity, tend towards the Good, the Just, or the Beautiful. To the degree that such has occurred, if such has indeed occurred, it’s somewhat of a fluke — a lucky break of sorts. For just as our nature hasn’t evolved according to some moral or aesthetic optimisation function, neither has our culture and the ideas that make it up. Rather, the genes and memes most prevalent in our species and civilised world are those which have, at one point or another, served — or been associated with — an adaptive, survival function. They’re the stuffs that have gotten the job done, whatever that happened to be, whenever that happened to be. We are, as it were, multitudes; multitudes that have survived circumstance by any means necessary — and ‘any means’ isn’t always pretty.
Our cultures are thus hodgepodges — hodgepodges, what a f*cking word — of ideas, strange assemblages of memes and meme complexes we’ve constructed to advance our evolutionary agenda. They’re not at all perfect — and nor, against the background of evolution, should we expect them to be. Indeed all we should expect them to be is relatively adaptive — that is, adaptive enough . The reason we shouldn’t expect them to be perfectly adaptive is two-fold. One, the cultures we inhabit are, for the most part, built for other times — they represent our best conjectured solutions to problems of the past. And two, that’s just not how evolution works — there is no principle of perfection, no ultimate end its striving towards.
Take our financial and legal systems, for instance. Both were built, largely in tandem, in the context of a much smaller population, as well as a very different technological situation. There was no internet, say, let alone Tik-Tok. When we built these systems — collectively, our “economic system” — our actions had a relatively small impact, both in terms of space and time. The impacts of our decisions were relatively confined, both geographically and temporally. Today, however, they’re not so confined — we now have enormous reach along both axes. It stands to reason, therefore, that what was optimal hundreds of years ago is, today, approximately much less so. The set of technologies — in the broadest sense — we developed were, after all, for a different evolutionary niche, a different set of problems. Since then, not only has our environmental context changed — the context of our lives — but we now have new ideas, new memes that, were we to build things from scratch, we would surely include.
This, in a nutshell, is the problem of change, that beautiful bitch of a thing. Thanks to change, we build something — when something was a good idea —and then all of a sudden said thing is no longer such a good idea, yet we remain stuck with it because things take time to change — even change. A few cars putting along cobblestone roads — no problem. A whole world of gas-guzzling engines — bit of a problem. While crystal balls would be great, in the absence of any, we must intentionally build the best of ideas, as they emerge from wherever they emerge, into our systems and processes, as they evolve. Civilisation is, in this sense, something like building a plane while you’re flying it — a shit job, to be sure, but one we’re stuck with. So we might as well do it with a smile.
The beautiful thing about this world is that we’re not stuck with it. Nor is change something that just happens to us — it’s something we can deliberately implement ourselves, whether that be at the individual or civilisation scale. Where for the majority of human history we’ve had scarcely any control over our trajectories, today we have power — and it’s growing. For where biological evolution was once the sole, driving force behind human affairs, cultural evolution now runs the show. We are entering, for better or worse (and almost surely both), a chapter of the human story wherein we can subvert the vagaries of evolution — take fate into our own hands — by engineering ourselves, both genetically and culturally. Survival and procreation are no longer the only relevant developmental forces — so too are our cultural objects, the physical and cognitive artefacts that mediate our actions in the world. We are, and our future is, our memes as much as our genes.
Genetic engineering, as a discipline, is — when you think about it — auxilary to what we can think of as “memetic engineering”. For it is the ideas — the memes — behind and around genetic engineering that determine whether or not the program goes ahead, and if so, to what extent. This is true at two levels. First, there would be no possibility of genetic engineering, in the first place, without the cultural — that is, memetic — developments responsible for the relevant technologies. Second, now that we have the technologies — albeit a relatively primitive set — it will be our memes — our “applied philosophy of genetic engineering”— that govern how, why and when we use them.
What to do?
Some questions… Given the apparent primacy of memes, what are we to do? What does any of this mean in terms of how we ought to actually go about our business here? Where, for instance, does memetic engineering fit in the ‘civilisational development stack’, so to speak? Who, for that matter, is a memetic engineer?
Some answers (but mostly more questions)… In the first place, a most important piece, it seems, is to develop an awareness around what’s going on here — to cultivate an understanding of the ways in which our own lives interface with and perpetuate, or don’t, the existing meme complexes. What, we might ask, are the dominant memes? What are the ways in which they’re manifest? How do our actions reflect them? How do they serve — or not serve — us? Why, if they don’t serve us, do they persist nonetheless? This is the theoretical piece, of course, what philosophy is ordinarily about — discussion, analysis, understanding. That kind of thing.
As for the applied piece — well, that’s the question, isn’t it? That is, how do we actually go about taking the best of ideas and putting them into the culture? How, in other words, do we ensure that such ideas come to life beyond the page, such that they make a difference for real?
At a high level, applied philosophy — memetic engineering — is about finding and then developing the most suitable form-factor for the substance of any particular idea. In other words, working out the medium for one’s message. Take meditation, for instance. If you happen to become convinced that meditation is a genuinely useful thing and you decide you want to spread the good word, the next step is working out how to most effectively do so. You might post on your Instagram, maybe. You could write a book about it. You might start an app, perhaps. Or, maybe you’ll go about setting up meditation centres around the place. In any case, you’re engineering the culture — you’re officially a ‘memetic engineer’.
In this sense, aren’t we all memetic engineers? Absolutely. We’re all walking billboards for ideas — memetic displays. We’re all tinkering with the culture. What separates a memetic engineer proper from someone who simply participates in the culture, though, is that the former goes about their business intentionally — they’re deliberately working towards the promotion of a certain set of ideas. They’re doing the thing with eyes wide open.
Now where does memetic engineering fit in the civilisational development stack? Well, the closest thing to memetic engineering, in terms of an existent discipline, is entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is, after all, about the same thing — in principle — as memetic engineering. Fundamentally, it’s about bringing ideas to the world. It is, as with all forms of memetic engineering, inherently interdisciplinary — it’s science meets art meets design meets philosophy meets marketing meets, in this case, business.
Where entrepreneurship is unique — as a form of memetic engineering — is that it’s, of course, inherently commercial. It must, by necessity, make a buck. Entrepreneurship, with an explicitly memetic focus, is thus about finding and promoting memes that exist at the nexus of economic and civilisational value. It’s about developing an internal financing mechanism — an economic flywheel — that allows for the sustained promotion of whatever one is attempting to promote — rather than being reliant upon, say, donations or one’s own pocket money. It’s, in effect, about leveraging economic logic to accrue resources, resources which are then used to amplify and refine the message. It’s about harnessing the power of organisations to coordinate human talent. It’s biz-ness, baby.
To be clear, though it should go without saying, one need not become an entrepreneur in order to have an impact on the culture. Karl Marx, after all, is among history’s most impactful memetic engineers — and he wasn’t exactly capitalism’s biggest fan. Although entrepreneurship is an especially potent means of making a difference, it’s far from the only. One could instead become an artist, a designer, a shaman, hell, a shoe cobbler. There are many ways to skin a cat, after all.
One last thing
I said at the start of this thing that I wouldn’t bang on about knowledge. I put it on the table as a primitive — a fundamental axiom — and left it there. But knowledge is, in the end, too fundamental to this whole memetic program to leave it at that. This is the Knowledge Project, after all, and so we should — it makes sense — have an explicit conception of knowledge in mind. So here it is. Knowledge is a property of the universe, something like — if not exactly — a substance. Functionally, it works as an abstract catalyst — it catalyses change. Knowledge is the sort of thing that, in a certain kind of physical system, affects physical transformations — with an arbitrary degree of reliability. Human organisms, and civilisation writ large, are precisely such systems — systems capable of imbibing, and being transformed by, knowledge. Certain kinds of knowledge affect certain kinds of physical transformations. Knowledge as to, say, how to build a rocket will, when applied to the requisite physical material, result in the transformation of matter into a rocket. In just the same way, knowledge as to the fundamental nature of mind will, when instantiated in the requisite kind of mind, result in a specific kind of transformation to said mind — it will make of one a Buddha.
Now what exactly does this have to do with the memetics program? Well, what we’re trying to do here, as a culture, is instantiate, in the culture, just the kind of knowledge capable of affecting normatively positive transformations — the kind of knowledge that makes the world a better place. Such “positive knowledge” is, according to this conception, a particular class of meme — the class of meme we ought to be most concerned with. Where Knowledge is a meme that is True — one that maps faithfully onto Reality — positive knowledge is a True meme that makes things better. It’s the stuff utopias are made of.
“What I call optimism is the proposition that all evils are due to a lack of knowledge, and that knowledge is attainable by the methods of reason and science.”