Self, No-Self, Viral Ideas, and the Melding Plague


Award-winning science fiction author Alastair Reynolds wrote at least two novels about a distant possible future, “Revelation Space” and “Chasm City,” in which he describes, among the elements of his novels’ universe, a disease called the Melding Plague. A strange mixture of biology, cybernetics, chemistry and software, it is a viral disease that infects both carbon-based and silicon-based entities. It is itself sort of an amalgam of both, although at its core it’s simply a program capable of running in biological neuron networks and cybernetic electronic ones, and can transmit/duplicate forms of itself from one to the other.

It’s really a scary fictional premise. And I didn’t realize why it was so scary to me. And here’s a caveat: I’m speaking of the Melding Plague concept based on my memory of the story, having read “Revelation Space” some time ago. I’ve not read “Chasm City,” although it’s here at home with me and W., but I’ve read on the inside cover notes that it does deal with the Melding Plague again.

Okay, so what got my mental cogs really going about this was that while I was at work in Azkaban, somebody blogged about ubiquitous mobile technology and possible next steps for it, to include thin layers of circuitry that would allow things like cell phones to be implanted at a subcutaneous level, making them essentially electronic tattoos. The blogger talked about how neat they would be, how much he wanted one, and all such. I began feeling old and out of touch with what motivates the twenty-something crowd (of which that blogger is a member), but then what I thought of as real red warning lights popped on in the back of my mind. The blogger’s post was quite popular and generated a lot of comments, a lot of different threads of discussion.

And then my mind cast about, and The Melding Plague dropped into the Zone of Relevance to the topic. I mentioned the viral way in which ideas can spread, regardless of their merit, as documented by Dennett, Dawkins and others. And I talked about my worries that there’s a real danger inherent in putting rapidly-spreading highly-profitable technology INSIDE ME. The original blogger, possibly a bit crestfallen, simply commented, “I think I just lost this game.” I was at least a little sad to have burst his bubble — he’s someone I actually know — but a little tiny part of me, the part that ACTUALLY LIKES TO WIN ARGUMENTS, whispered, “Boo Yah.”

But the danger isn’t nearly so dangerous if I don’t realize that it’s not futuristic. It’s not even a ready-to-be-deployed new development. The danger is in viral ideas themselves. Daniel Dennett’s book, “Consciousness Explained,” which I’ve discussed before on my LiveJournal blog, takes its cue from Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene” and raises the possibility (again, to my reading of it) that the Ego, the Self itself, is a viral idea we human organisms developed and propagated among our membership, handing it down to our children, spreading it not only because it benefited us, but because we benefited the spread of it.  Somehow, something happened to the brains of homo sapiens to allow us to construct and transmit the thought patterns of “self” and consciousness of same.

Existentialist philosophy teaches that consciousness is a disease. It’s certainly got a lot of characteristics, to my observation, of a symbiotic virus, a parasitic thought pattern. And it gives rise to the development of other viral thoughts: the spread of music, of merchandising, of money; the importance of thinking certain thoughts and not thinking about other ones; survival tactics; media messages; moral codes on which you depend for everlasting or at least temporal happiness and which depend on you to spread them to others; blog memes; languages and the ideas they make easy and difficult to communicate.

I thought of the danger of swallowing whole any or many of these viral ideas, and the advisability of becoming conscious of the fact that we’ve done it since soon after we were formed in the womb, we’ve started our branch of the meme-machine, the linguistic/cognitive/neural Melding Plague of our own, the moment we perceived the “I and thou” relationship… perhaps even before we could understand the words “I and thou,” and likely before we could say “Mama” and “Baby”, certainly the most useful mental programs to verbalize first.

And a lot of what I first picked up when I started self-training in Zen practice came back to me: the possible wisdom of shucking it all away from the core of The One Who Is Contemplating, the one that is zero, the no-self at the non-core of it all/nothing.


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