September 17, 2010
A somewhat strange question, I know… But still… I’m going to ask it, none the less. What is time? How do we define it? Something popped into my head this morning regarding the passage of time, and I just couldn’t shake it off. While lying there in bed, I was meditating upon a spot on the ceiling… And I heard my wrist watch ticking away down by this chest of mine, as my left hand lay motionless on it. “Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…” it uttered in the silent darkness of the early morning. And I couldn’t help but wonder what it was counting… Observe the thoughts coming into to my mind… And they dissipate… Stillness… Awareness… My eyes resting on the ceiling’s spot… Subtle and distinct, it goes beyond words… And then the bizarre, “tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…” murmured back into the gap of mind. “It’s the watch”, I thought… “BUT what is it measuring?” Again the cycle repeats itself, bringing the mind gently back around to observing the thoughts… “Free to come, free to go…” repeat the words of Lama Chodrak as I remember the technique we were recently taught. “But still… What is that sound measuring?”
Up I get… I have no idea how long its been since I went to bed. Was it two hours now… Maybe three… Possibly even four… ? The wrist watch states clearly that it is 3 hours 47 minutes and 32 seconds past in the morning. But ‘past’ what? It’s past midnight… So what? What does that tell me? It tells me that its three hours and forty seven minutes… Oh! It’s now forty eight minutes past the third hour of the morning of the 17th of September, of the year 2010… BUT… So what… ??? It’s just a blindingly stupid social construct to linearise a strange passage of some abstract notion… Some abstract objectification of this essence that we call ‘time’. I know it feels like time is passing by… But is that because time actually exists… OR is because I’ve been conditioned to believe it somehow exists… !?!?
So down to the kitchen I go… I put the kettle on in the chill morning’s still of night. The silence is deceptive… Until the slight roar of the kettle begins… The stars glisten wildly in the clear dark skies above… Everything seems so slight… Jupiter is setting in the west near the horizon, a big white star-like beacon of light in the sky… Only a few hours earlier had I been watching it in the inky sky through an 80mm APO telescope. “Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…” once again broke through the ambient noise as the kettle boiled down to a silent plume of undulating steam that poured wildly forth from its spout… There, in the steam, I saw the same currents of turbulence that were also writhing about over the gas giant’s surface some 900 million kilometres away… Movement… The planet had moved… “Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…”
And that’s when it happened… That’s when I realised what time is… I know it might sound somewhat silly… But in that moment I realised that time is not about seconds passing by… Nor is it built from minutes or hours… Even the days fluttering past (or dragging by, whatever they do for you) don’t really make time what it is. Time is about change… It’s change that really matters. Our notions of time give us a linear representation of something that is not linear at all from the point of the observer. What many of us understand time to be i.e. seconds, minutes, hours, days, etc… Is not really what time is… I know, I’m repeating myself… But it’s so obvious that it had me fooled for quite a while… It’s like looking at a meter long piece of string… Measuring it and then writing it down on a piece of paper i.e. “it is 1 meter long…” And then forgetting how long 1 meter is… And forgetting totally that “it” refers to a piece of string, which is 1 meter long… Because the notion of time is so abstract i.e. it’s not something we can view directly with any certainty like we can a meter rule, for example… We can take two meter rules and place them side by side and see that they are of the same length… And with a weight we can roughly feel that two 1 kg masses are similar to one another in their pull downwards… However with the notion of time, we cannot see it… It’s hard to define… Thus we simply use a device, like a clock or watch, to measure what it is that we think is a unit of time i.e. a second, or a minute, or even an hour, is… But in this notion of a unit of time, we (well, I did) totally forget what it is that is being measured… And that is the dynamic of material change as it unfolds in the world/universe around us.
So I poured the hot water from the kettle into the big mug that held a Rooibos tea bag in it… And, as I was doing this, I placed my hand around the mug. The cold surface turned from cold to warm, to an almost sudden hot… “Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…” Time passed by in a linear clock/watch like fashion as the energy moved from the hot water in the mug to the ceramic of the mug itself. Change… Energetic change… As I slowly eased my grasp on the mug, I saw the colour from the tea bag diffuse into the clear, hot water around it. As I placed the spoon inside the mug and gently stirred, more colour broke free from the leaves, and the colour became a darker red, which almost resembled a black inky colour under the dim kitchen light that was shinning from the cooker’s fume hood. Change… More change… As I stirred the tea further, and then went to get the milk, I became aware of the vast orchestration of changes that were going on in my body’s biochemistry, all of which effected the contraction of various muscles that allowed me to move coherently across the kitchen, to the fridge, open the door, grab the soya milk, removing it from the fridge carefully, closing the fridge door and then returning to the mug of tea standing, steaming by the hot kettle… My desire for a warm drink had effected a change in my body’s biochemistry… A change that was carried out with a precision that avoided any accidental spillage or vague awareness… All the time, during this change, “tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…”
There is a universal dynamic that allows things to move and things to change. One direction i.e. letting the colour and flavour out of the dried tea leaves and into the hot water in a mug, is obvious and easy… But doing the reverse i.e. putting the colour and flavour from the hot water back into the dried tea leaves is obviously a somewhat harder action. There is a natural entropy of cause and effect, whereby what goes in one direction does not necessarily mean that it can go back in the opposite direction with the same amount of ease… Change goes in the obvious direction… From a greater energy to a more diffuse and lower energy state… A state of greater entropy… Thus, there is a crazy direction to this ‘time’ thing… An arrow of sorts, that points to how change can occur in a particular, or given, system. That’s when I realised that someone here had sent me a web link to a lecture on ‘time’… One that I hadn’t yet watched, even though I said I was going to… Cheers Tim!
So I effected another biochemical change as I moved to the living room and sat down with my tea in order to search through my comments here on this website to find Tim’s reference… And there it was. As I played the video I was aware of more change occurring within the code of the computer in front of me… Muffled, and almost inaudibly, it procured a gentle “click, dit, click, dit, dit, click, dit…” of the processor, as the screen colours changed to form one picture to the next – with sound (of course) – of Dr Sean Carroll giving a talk about what I had been previously thinking about…
But before I discuss this video, I’d like to have a look at what we generally perceive to be ‘time…’ How do we – the human race – define what is ‘generally’ known as time… And why do we perceive it thus… Why did I think that time was the passing of seconds… Why did the units of time come to mind before the idea of entropy and change? And for that I want to look to a dictionary in order to initially find what everyone else might discover if they decided to use this common repository of understanding and meaning.
time – noun
1. the system of those sequential relations that any event has to any other, as past, present, or future; indefinite and continuous duration regarded as that in which events succeed one another.
2. duration regarded as belonging to the present life as distinct from the life to come or from eternity; finite duration.
3. ( sometimes initial capital letter ) a system or method of measuring or reckoning the passage of time: mean time; apparent time; Greenwich Time.
4. a limited period or interval, as between two successive events: a long time.
5. a particular period considered as distinct from other periods: Youth is the best time of life.
6. Often, times.
a. a period in the history of the world, or contemporary with the life or activities of a notable person: prehistoric times; in Lincoln’s time.
b. the period or era now or previously present: a sign of the times; How times have changed!
c. a period considered with reference to its events or prevailing conditions, tendencies, ideas, etc.: hard times; a time of war.
7. a prescribed or allotted period, as of one’s life, for payment of a debt, etc.
8. the end of a prescribed or allotted period, as of one’s life or a pregnancy: His time had come, but there was no one left to mourn over him. When her time came, her husband accompanied her to the delivery room.
9. a period with reference to personal experience of a specified kind: to have a good time; a hot time in the old town tonight.
10. a period of work of an employee, or the pay for it; working hours or days or an hourly or daily pay rate.
11. Informal . a term of enforced duty or imprisonment: to serve time in the army; do time in prison.
12. the period necessary for or occupied by something: The time of the baseball game was two hours and two minutes. The bus takes too much time, so I’ll take a plane.
13. leisure time; sufficient or spare time: to have time for a vacation; I have no time to stop now.
14. a particular or definite point in time, as indicated by a clock: What time is it?
15. a particular part of a year, day, etc.; season or period: It’s time for lunch.
16. an appointed, fit, due, or proper instant or period: a time for sowing; the time when the sun crosses the meridian; There is a time for everything.
17. the particular point in time when an event is scheduled to take place: train time; curtain time.
18. an indefinite, frequently prolonged period or duration in the future: Time will tell if what we have done here today was right.
19. the right occasion or opportunity: to watch one’s time.
20. each occasion of a recurring action or event: to do a thing five times; It’s the pitcher’s time at bat.
21. times, used as a multiplicative word in phrasal combinations expressing how many instances of a quantity or factor are taken together: Two goes into six three times; five times faster.
22. Drama . one of the three unities. Compare unity ( def. 8 ).
23. Prosody . a unit or a group of units in the measurement of meter.
a. tempo; relative rapidity of movement.
b. the metrical duration of a note or rest.
c. proper or characteristic tempo.
d. the general movement of a particular kind of musical composition with reference to its rhythm, metrical structure, and tempo.
e. the movement of a dance or the like to music so arranged: waltz time.
25. Military . rate of marching, calculated on the number of paces taken per minute: double time; quick time.
26. Manège . each completed action or movement of the horse.
So there you go… There are quite a few notions of how the word ‘time’ can be used, along with the various subtleties in how the noun ‘time’ can affect another word’s respective definition. The aspect of time seems to remain fairly similar throughout though i.e. it remains closely linked to the idea of a ‘period’ of time… To the measure of time itself… Without any mention as to what it is necessarily measuring. Yes, it mentions events… But what is an event? In its ultimate notion, an event specifies, or even denotes, change… So change is really what is occurring… Not time itself.
But still… That doesn’t explain why I was seeing seconds fluttering by in my mind’s eye, a second hand on a big universal clock that was counting numbers in as linear fashion as possible, while lying in bed listening to my wrist watch… !?!? So perhaps it was the devise that we use for measuring time that had clouded my apparent judgement of what time actually was…
The hands on every watch the world over count in seconds, minutes, hours and even days as they flutter past in our daily routines. Whenever we ask ourselves, “what is the time?” we effectively are asking what time is it in relation to the social construct of time that our human civilisation had forged for itself. Thus seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years spring to mind so prominently. Not once will anyone answer, when asked the question of what time is it, something like, “Well… It’s that time of day just after breakfast, when you’re grabbing your coat and rushing out the door to cycle to work…” Rather they’d automatically say, “It’s half past eight in the morning.” So often we don’t see the change that happens in between asking what the time is… We miss the HUGE elephant in the room!
In this regard it is our over dependence on the clock and watch to visualise the abstract temporal passage of change that blinds us to the change itself… So here I’d like to have a look at these humble and innocuous machines that attempt to allow us to perceive time in a linear fashion… The use of a clock/watch, a devise that is found commonly throughout our everyday lives and which has a sort of sacred place within society, is our crutch to seeing change… To knowing the tricky and “apparently” painful subject of uncertainty… So what exactly is a clock/watch? Well… I’m no expert on the subject, so I’m going to refer to a dictionary’s definition before I proceed any further.
clock – noun
1. an instrument for measuring and recording time, esp. by mechanical means, usually with hands or changing numbers to indicate the hour and minute: not designed to be worn or carried about.
2. time clock.
3. a meter or other device, as a speedometer or taximeter, for measuring and recording speed, distance covered, or other quantitative functioning.
4. biological clock.
5. ( initial capital letter ) Astronomy . the constellation Horologium.
6. Computers . the circuit in a digital computer that provides a common reference train of electronic pulses for all other circuits.
So, again, there appear to be several definitions… However, in this instance I’m particularly taken by the first entry, as it references the machine like devises that I’ve been referring to. But still, this is hardly an adequate description of the instrument that has fooled me for so long… And, with regards to trying to understand what time actually is, it doesn’t remotely touch on why time is necessary to understand. So why were clocks invented? What follows on from this scentence, I’ve borrowed from the Wikipedia website, and describes the history of clocks, along with their uses.
A clock is an instrument used to indicate, keep, and co-ordinate time. The word clock is derived ultimately (via Dutch, Northern French, and Medieval Latin) from the Celtic wordsclagan and clocca meaning “bell“. For horologists and other specialists the term clockcontinues to mean exclusively a device with a striking mechanism for announcing intervals of time acoustically, by ringing a (wendell) bell, a set of chimes, or agong.[dubious – discuss] A silent instrument lacking such a mechanism has traditionally been known as a timepiece. In general usage today a “clock” refers to any device for measuring and displaying the time. Watches and other timepieces that can be carried on one’s person are often distinguished from clocks.
The clock is one of the oldest human inventions, meeting the need to consistently measure intervals of time shorter than the natural units: the day; the lunar month; and theyear. Devices operating on several different physical processes have been used over the millennia, culminating in the clocks of today.
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Sundials and other devices
The sundial, which measures the time of day by using the sun, was widely used inancient times. A well-constructed sundial can measure local solar time with reasonable accuracy, and sundials continued to be used to monitor the performance of clocks until the modern era. However, its practical limitations – it requires the sun to shine and does not work at all during the night – encouraged the use of other techniques for measuring time.
Candle clocks, and sticks of incense that burn down at approximately predictable speeds have also been used to estimate the passing of time. In an hourglass, fine sand pours through a tiny hole at a constant rate and indicates a predetermined passage of an arbitrary period of time.
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Water clocks, also known as clepsydrae (sg: clepsydra), along with the sundials, are possibly the oldest time-measuring instruments, with the only exceptions being the vertical gnomon and the day-counting tally stick. Given their great antiquity, where and when they first existed are not known and perhaps unknowable. The bowl-shaped outflow is the simplest form of a water clock and is known to have existed in Babylon and inEgypt around the 16th century BC. Other regions of the world, including India and China, also have early evidence of water clocks, but the earliest dates are less certain. Some authors, however, write about water clocks appearing as early as 4000 BC in these regions of the world.
The Greek and Roman civilizations are credited for initially advancing water clock design to include complex gearing, which was connected to fanciful automata and also resulted in improved accuracy. These advances were passed on through Byzantium andIslamic times, eventually making their way to Europe. Independently, the Chinese developed their own advanced water clocks（钟）in 725 A.D., passing their ideas on toKorea and Japan.
Some water clock designs were developed independently and some knowledge was transferred through the spread of trade. Pre-modern societies do not have the same precise timekeeping requirements that exist in modern industrial societies, where every hour of work or rest is monitored, and work may start or finish at any time regardless of external conditions. Instead, water clocks in ancient societies were used mainly forastrological reasons. These early water clocks were calibrated with a sundial. While never reaching the level of accuracy of a modern timepiece, the water clock was the most accurate and commonly used timekeeping device for millennia, until it was replaced by the more accurate pendulum clock in 17th century Europe.
In 797 (or possibly 801), the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid, presentedCharlemagne with an Asian Elephant named Abul-Abbas together with a “particularly elaborate example” of a water clock.
In the 13th century, Al-Jazari, an engineer who worked for Artuqid king of Diyar-Bakr, Nasir al-Din, made numerous clocks of all shapes and sizes. The book described 50 mechanical devices in 6 categories, including water clocks. The most reputed clocks included the Elephant, Scribe and Castle clocks, all of which have been successfully reconstructed. As well as telling the time, these grand clocks were symbols of status, grandeur and wealth of the Urtuq State.
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Early mechanical clocks
None of the first clocks survive from 13th century Europe, but various mentions in church records reveal some of the early history of the clock.
The word horologia (from the Greek ὡρα, hour, and λέγειν, to tell) was used to describe all these devices, but the use of this word (still used in several Romance languages) for all timekeepers conceals from us the true nature of the mechanisms. For example, there is a record that in 1176 Sens Cathedral installed a ‘horologe’ but the mechanism used is unknown. According to Jocelin of Brakelond, in 1198 during a fire at the abbey of St Edmundsbury (now Bury St Edmunds), the monks ‘ran to the clock’ to fetch water, indicating that their water clock had a reservoir large enough to help extinguish the occasional fire.
A new mechanism
The word clock (from the Latin word clocca, “bell”), which gradually supersedes “horologe”, suggests that it was the sound of bells which also characterized the prototype mechanical clocks that appeared during the 13th century in Europe.
Outside of Europe, the escapement mechanism had been known and used in medieval China, as the Song Dynasty horologist and engineer Su Song (1020–1101) incorporated it into his astronomical clock-tower of Kaifeng in 1088. However, his astronomical clock and rotating armillary sphere still relied on the use of flowing water (i.e. hydraulics), while European clockworks of the following centuries shed this old habit for a more efficient driving power of weights, in addition to the escapement mechanism.
A mercury clock, described in the Libros del saber, a Spanish work from AD 1277 consisting of translations and paraphrases of Arabic works, is sometimes quoted as evidence for Muslim knowledge of a mechanical clock. However, the device was actually a compartmented cylindrical water clock, whose construction was credited by the Jewish author of the relevant section, Rabbi Isaac, to “Iran” (Heron of Alexandria).
Between 1280 and 1320, there is an increase in the number of references to clocks and horologes in church records, and this probably indicates that a new type of clock mechanism had been devised. Existing clock mechanisms that used water power were being adapted to take their driving power from falling weights. This power was controlled by some form of oscillating mechanism, probably derived from existing bell-ringing or alarm devices. This controlled release of power – the escapement – marks the beginning of the true mechanical clock.
These mechanical clocks were intended for two main purposes: for signalling and notification (e.g. the timing of services and public events), and for modeling the solar system. The former purpose is administrative, the latter arises naturally given the scholarly interest in astronomy, science, astrology, and how these subjects integrated with the religious philosophy of the time. The astrolabewas used both by astronomers and astrologers, and it was natural to apply a clockwork drive to the rotating plate to produce a working model of the solar system.
Simple clocks intended mainly for notification were installed in towers, and did not always require faces or hands. They would have announced the canonical hours or intervals between set times of prayer. Canonical hours varied in length as the times of sunrise and sunset shifted. The more sophisticated astronomical clocks would have had moving dials or hands, and would have shown the time in various time systems, including Italian hours, canonical hours, and time as measured by astronomers at the time. Both styles of clock started acquiring extravagant features such as automata.
In 1283, a large clock was installed at Dunstable Priory; its location above the rood screen suggests that it was not a water clock. In 1292, Canterbury Cathedral installed a ‘great horloge’. Over the next 30 years there are brief mentions of clocks at a number of ecclesiastical institutions in England, Italy, and France. In 1322, a new clock was installed in Norwich, an expensive replacement for an earlier clock installed in 1273. This had a large (2 metre) astronomical dial with automata and bells. The costs of the installation included the full-time employment of two clockkeepers for two years.
Early astronomical clocks
Besides the Chinese astronomical clock of Su Song in 1088 mentioned above, in Europe there were the clocks constructed by Richard of Wallingford in St Albans by 1336, and by Giovanni de Dondi in Padua from 1348 to 1364. They no longer exist, but detailed descriptions of their design and construction survive, and modern reproductions have been made. They illustrate how quickly the theory of the mechanical clock had been translated into practical constructions, and also that one of the many impulses to their development had been the desire of astronomers to investigate celestial phenomena.
Wallingford’s clock had a large astrolabe-type dial, showing the sun, the moon’s age, phase, and node, a star map, and possibly the planets. In addition, it had a wheel of fortune and an indicator of the state of the tide at London Bridge. Bells rang every hour, the number of strokes indicating the time.
Dondi’s clock was a seven-sided construction, 1 metre high, with dials showing the time of day, including minutes, the motions of all the known planets, an automatic calendar of fixed and movable feasts, and an eclipse prediction hand rotating once every 18 years.
It is not known how accurate or reliable these clocks would have been. They were probably adjusted manually every day to compensate for errors caused by wear and imprecise manufacture.
Water clocks are sometimes still used today, and can be examined in places such as ancient castles and museums.
Clockmakers developed their art in various ways. Building smaller clocks was a technical challenge, as was improving accuracy and reliability. Clocks could be impressive showpieces to demonstrate skilled craftsmanship, or less expensive, mass-produced items for domestic use. The escapement in particular was an important factor affecting the clock’s accuracy, so many different mechanisms were tried.
Spring-driven clocks appeared during the 15th century, although they are often erroneously credited to Nürnbergwatchmaker Peter Henlein (or Henle, or Hele) around 1511. The earliest existing spring driven clock is the chamber clock given to Peter the Good, Duke of Burgundy, around 1430, now in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum. Spring power presented clockmakers with a new problem; how to keep the clock movement running at a constant rate as the spring ran down. This resulted in the invention of the stackfreed and the fusee in the 15th century, and many other innovations, down to the invention of the modern going barrel in 1760.
Early clock dials did not use minutes and seconds. A clock with a dial indicating minutes was illustrated in a 1475 manuscript by Paulus Almanus, and some 15th-century clocks in Germany indicated minutes and seconds. An early record of a second hand on a clock dates back to about 1560, on a clock now in the Fremersdorf collection. However, this clock could not have been accurate, and the second hand was probably for indicating that the clock was working.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, clockmaking flourished, particularly in the metalworking towns of Nuremberg and Augsburg, and in Blois, France. Some of the more basic table clocks have only one time-keeping hand, with the dial between the hour markers being divided into four equal parts making the clocks readable to the nearest 15 minutes. Other clocks were exhibitions of craftsmanship and skill, incorporating astronomical indicators and musical movements. The cross-beat escapement was invented in 1584 by Jost Bürgi, who also developed the remontoire. Bürgi’s clocks were a great improvement in accuracy as they were correct to within a minute a day. These clocks helped the 16th-century astronomer Tycho Brahe to observe astronomical events with much greater precision than before.
A mechanical weight-driven astronomical clock with a verge-and-foliot escapement, a striking train of gears, an alarm, and a representation of the moon’s phases was described by the Ottoman engineer Taqi al-Din in his book, The Brightest Stars for the Construction of Mechanical Clocks (Al-Kawākib al-durriyya fī wadh’ al-bankāmat al-dawriyya), published in 1556-1559. Similarly to earlier 15th-century European alarm clocks, it was capable of sounding at a specified time, achieved by placing a peg on the dial wheel. At the requested time, the peg activated a ringing device. The clock had three dials which indicated hours, degrees and minutes. He later made an observational clock for the Istanbul observatory of Taqi al-Din (1577–1580), describing it as “a mechanical clock with three dials which show the hours, the minutes, and the seconds.” This was an important innovation in 16th-century practical astronomy, as at the start of the century clocks were not accurate enough to be used for astronomical purposes.
The next development in accuracy occurred after 1656 with the invention of the pendulum clock. Galileo had the idea to use a swinging bob to regulate the motion of a time telling device earlier in the 17th century. Christiaan Huygens, however, is usually credited as the inventor. He determined the mathematical formula that related pendulum length to time (99.38 cm or 39.13 inches for the one second movement) and had the first pendulum-driven clock made. In 1670, the English clockmaker William Clement created the anchor escapement, an improvement over Huygens’ crown escapement. Within just one generation, minute hands and then secondhands were added.
A major stimulus to improving the accuracy and reliability of clocks was the importance of precise time-keeping for navigation. The position of a ship at sea could be determined with reasonable accuracy if a navigator could refer to a clock that lost or gained less than about 10 seconds per day. This clock could not contain a pendulum, which would be virtually useless on a rocking ship. Many European governments offered a large prize for anyone that could determine longitude accurately; for example, Great Britain offered 20,000 pounds, equivalent to millions of dollars today. The reward was eventually claimed in 1761 by John Harrison, who dedicated his life to improving the accuracy of his clocks. His H5 clock was in error by less than 5 seconds over 10 weeks.
The excitement over the pendulum clock had attracted the attention of designers resulting in a proliferation of clock forms. Notably, the longcase clock (also known as the grandfather clock) was created to house the pendulum and works. The English clockmaker William Clement is also credited with developing this form in 1670 or 1671. It was also at this time that clock cases began to be made of wood and clock faces to utilize enamel as well as hand-painted ceramics.
Alexander Bain, Scottish clockmaker, patented the electric clock in 1840. The electric clock’s mainspring is wound either with an electric motor or with an electro-magnet and armature. In 1841, he first patented the electromagnetic pendulum.
The development of electronics in the 20th century led to clocks with no clockwork parts at all. Time in these cases is measured in several ways, such as by the vibration of atuning fork, the behaviour of quartz crystals, or the quantum vibrations of atoms. Even mechanical clocks have since come to be largely powered by batteries, removing the need for winding.
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How Clocks Work
The invention of the mechanical clock in the 13th century initiated a change in timekeeping methods from continuous processes, such as the motion of the gnomon‘s shadow on a sundial or the flow of liquid in a water clock, to repetitive oscillatory processes, like the swing of a pendulum or the vibration of a quartz crystal, which were more accurate. All modern clocks use oscillation.
Although the methods they use vary, all oscillating clocks, mechanical and digital and atomic, work similarly and can be divided into analogous parts. They consist of an object that repeats the same motion over and over again, an oscillator, with a precisely constant time interval between each repetition, or ‘beat’. Attached to the oscillator is a controller device, which sustains the oscillator’s motion by replacing the energy it loses to friction, and converts its oscillations into a series of pulses. The pulses are then added up in a chain of some type of counters to express the time in convenient units, usually seconds, minutes, hours, etc. Then finally some kind of indicator displays the result in a human-readable form.
This provides power to keep the clock going.
- In mechanical clocks, this is either a weight suspended from a cord wrapped around a pulley, or a spiral spring called amainspring.
- In electric clocks, it is either a battery or the AC power line.
Since clocks must run continuously, there is often a small secondary power source to keep the clock going temporarily during interruptions in the main power. In old mechanical clocks, a maintaining power spring kept the clock turning while the mainspringwas being wound. In quartz clocks that use AC power, a small backup battery is often included to keep the clock running if it is unplugged temporarily from the wall.
- In mechanical clocks, this is either a pendulum or a balance wheel.
- In some early electronic clocks and watches such as the Accutron, it is a tuning fork.
- In quartz clocks and watches, it is a quartz crystal.
- In atomic clocks, it is the vibration of electrons in atoms as they emit microwaves.
- In early mechanical clocks before 1657, it was a crude balance wheel or foliot which was not a harmonic oscillator because it lacked a balance spring. As a result they were very inaccurate, with errors of perhaps an hour a day.
The advantage of a harmonic oscillator over other forms of oscillator is that it employs resonance to vibrate at a precise naturalresonant frequency or ‘beat’ dependent only on its physical characteristics, and resists vibrating at other rates. The possible precision achievable by a harmonic oscillator is measured by a parameter called its Q, or quality factor, which increases (other things being equal) with its resonant frequency. This is why there has been a long term trend toward higher frequency oscillators in clocks. Balance wheels and pendulums always include a means of adjusting the rate of the timepiece. Quartz timepieces sometimes include a rate screw that adjusts a capacitor for that purpose. Atomic clocks are primary standards, and their rate cannot be adjusted.
Synchronized or slave clocks
Some clocks rely for their accuracy on an external oscillator; that is, they are automatically synchronized to a more accurate clock:
- Slave clocks, used in large institutions and schools from the 1860s to the 1970s, kept time with a pendulum, but were wired to amaster clock in the building, and periodically received a signal to synchronize them with the master, often on the hour. Later versions without pendulums were triggered by a pulse from the master clock and certain sequences used to force rapid synchronization following a power failure.
- Synchronous electric clocks don’t have an internal oscillator, but rely on the 50 or 60 Hz oscillation of the AC power line, which is synchronized by the utility to a precision oscillator. This drives a synchronous motor in the clock which rotates once for every cycle of the line voltage, and drives the gear train.
- Computer real time clocks keep time with a quartz crystal, but are periodically (usually weekly) synchronized over the internet to atomic clocks (UTC), using a system called Network Time Protocol.
- Radio clocks keep time with a quartz crystal, but are periodically (often daily) synchronized to atomic clocks (UTC) with time signals from government radio stations like WWV, WWVB, CHU, DCF77 and the GPS system.
This has the dual function of keeping the oscillator running by giving it ‘pushes’ to replace the energy lost to friction, and converting its vibrations into a series of pulses that serve to measure the time.
- In mechanical clocks, this is the escapement, which gives precise pushes to the swinging pendulum or balance wheel, and releases one gear tooth of the escape wheel at each swing, allowing all the clock’s wheels to move forward a fixed amount with each swing.
- In electronic clocks this is an electronic oscillator circuit that gives the vibrating quartz crystal or tuning fork tiny ‘pushes’, and generates a series of electrical pulses, one for each vibration of the crystal, which is called the clock signal.
- In atomic clocks the controller is an evacuated microwave cavity attached to a microwave oscillator controlled by amicroprocessor. A thin gas of cesium atoms is released into the cavity where they are exposed to microwaves. A laser measures how many atoms have absorbed the microwaves, and an electronic feedback control system called a phase locked loop tunes the microwave oscillator until it is at the exact frequency that causes the atoms to vibrate and absorb the microwaves. Then the microwave signal is divided by digital counters to become the clock signal.
In mechanical clocks, the low Q of the balance wheel or pendulum oscillator made them very sensitive to the disturbing effect of the impulses of the escapement, so the escapement had a great effect on the accuracy of the clock, and many escapement designs were tried. The higher Q of resonators in electronic clocks makes them relatively insensitive to the disturbing effects of the drive power, so the driving oscillator circuit is a much less critical component.
This counts the pulses and adds them up to get traditional time units of seconds, minutes, hours, etc. It usually has a provision forsetting the clock by manually entering the correct time into the counter.
- In mechanical clocks this is done mechanically by a gear train, known as the wheel train. The gear train also has a second function; to transmit mechanical power from the power source to run the oscillator. There is a friction coupling called the ‘cannon pinion’ between the gears driving the hands and the rest of the clock, allowing the hands to be turned by a knob on the back to set the time.
- In digital clocks a series of integrated circuit counters or dividers add the pulses up digitally, using binary logic. Often pushbuttons on the case allow the hour and minute counters to be incremented and decremented to set the time.
This displays the count of seconds, minutes, hours, etc. in a human readable form.
- The earliest mechanical clocks in the 13th century didn’t have a visual indicator and signalled the time audibly by striking bells. Many clocks to this day are striking clocks which strike the hour.
- Analog clocks, including almost all mechanical and some electronic clocks, have a traditional dial or clock face, that displays the time in analog form with moving hour and minute hand. In quartz clocks with analog faces, a 1 Hz signal from the counters actuates a stepper motor which moves the second hand forward at each pulse, and the minute and hour hands are moved by gears from the shaft of the second hand.
- Digital clocks display the time in periodically changing digits on a digital display.
- Talking clocks and the speaking clock services provided by telephone companies speak the time audibly, using either recorded or digitally synthesized voices.
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Types Of Clock
Clocks can be classified by the type of time display, as well as by the method of timekeeping.
Time Display Methods
Analog clocks usually indicate time using angles. The most common clock face uses a fixed numbered dial or dials and moving hand or hands. It usually has a circular scale of 12 hours, which can also serve as a scale of 60 minutes, and 60 seconds if the clock has a second hand. Many other styles and designs have been used throughout the years, including dials divided into 6, 8, 10, and 24 hours. The only other widely used clock face today is the 24 hour analog dial, because of the use of 24 hour time inmilitary organizations and timetables. The 10-hour clock was briefly popular during the French Revolution, when the metric system was applied to time measurement, and an Italian 6 hour clock was developed in the 18th century, presumably to save power (a clock or watch striking 24 times uses more power).
Another type of analog clock is the sundial, which tracks the sun continuously, registering the time by the shadow position of its gnomon. Sundials use some or part of the 24 hour analog dial. There also exist clocks which use a digital display despite having an analog mechanism—these are commonly referred to as flip clocks.
Alternative systems have been proposed. For example, the Twelve o’clock indicates the current hour using one of twelve colors, and indicates the minute by showing a proportion of a circular disk, similar to a moon phase.
Digital clocks display a numeric representation of time. Two numeric display formats are commonly used on digital clocks:
- the 24-hour notation with hours ranging 00–23;
- the 12-hour notation with AM/PM indicator, with hours indicated as 12AM, followed by 1AM–11AM, followed by 12PM, followed by 1PM–11PM (a notation mostly used in the United States).
Most digital clocks use an LCD, LED, or VFD display; many other display technologies are used as well (cathode ray tubes, nixie tubes, etc.). After a reset, battery change or power failure, digital clocks without a backup battery or capacitor either start counting from 12:00, or stay at 12:00, often with blinking digits indicating that time needs to be set. Some newer clocks will actually reset themselves based on radio or Internet time servers that are tuned to national atomic clocks. Since the release of digital clocks in the mainstream, the use of analogue clocks has declined significantly.
For convenience, distance, telephony or blindness, auditory clocks present the time as sounds. The sound is either spoken natural language, (e.g. “The time is twelve thirty-five”), or as auditory codes (e.g. number of sequential bell rings on the hour represents the number of the hour like the bell Big Ben). Most telecommunication companies also provide a Speaking clock service as well.
. . . . . . . .
Clocks are in homes, offices and many other places; smaller ones (watches) are carried on the wrist; larger ones are in public places, e.g. a train station or church. A small clock is often shown in a corner of computer displays, mobile phones and many MP3 players.
The purpose of a clock is not always to display the time. It may also be used to control a device according to time, e.g. an alarm clock, a VCR, or a time bomb (see: counter). However, in this context, it is more appropriate to refer to it as a timer or trigger mechanism rather than strictly as a clock.
Computers depend on an accurate internal clock signal to allow synchronized processing. (A few research projects are developing CPUs based on asynchronous circuits.) Some computers also maintain time and date for all manner of operations whether these be for alarms, event initiation, or just to display the time of day. The internal computer clock is generally kept running by a small battery. Many computers will still function even if the internal clock battery is dead, but the computer clock will need to be reset each time the computer is restarted, since once power is lost, time is also lost.
An ideal clock is a scientific principle that measures the ratio of the duration of natural processes, and thus will give the time measure for use in physical theories. Therefore, to define an ideal clock in terms of any physical theory would be circular. An ideal clock is more appropriately defined in relationship to the set of all physical processes.
This leads to the following definitions:
- A clock is a recurrent process and a counter.
- A good clock is one which, when used to measure other recurrent processes, finds many of them to be periodic.
- An ideal clock is a clock (i.e., recurrent process) that makes the most other recurrent processes periodic.
The recurrent, periodic process (e.g. a metronome) is an oscillator and typically generates a clock signal. Sometimes that signal alone is (confusingly) called “the clock”, but sometimes “the clock” includes the counter, its indicator, and everything else supporting it.
This definition can be further improved by the consideration of successive levels of smaller and smaller error tolerances. While not all physical processes can be surveyed, the definition should be based on the set of physical processes which includes all individual physical processes which are proposed for consideration. Since atoms are so numerous and since, within current measurement tolerances they all beat in a manner such that if one is chosen as periodic then the others are all deemed to be periodic also, it follows that atomic clocks represent ideal clocks to within present measurement tolerances and in relation to all presently known physical processes. However, they are not so designated by fiat. Rather, they are designated as the current ideal clock because they are currently the best instantiation of the definition.
Navigation by ships and planes depends on the ability to measure latitude and longitude. Latitude is fairly easy to determine through celestial navigation, but the measurement oflongitude requires accurate measurement of time. This need was a major motivation for the development of accurate mechanical clocks. John Harrison created the first highly accurate marine chronometer in the mid-18th century. The Noon gun in Cape Town still fires an accurate signal to allow ships to check their chronometers.
I like the idea that there was a 10-hour clock, which became briefly popular during the French Revolution, when the metric system was applied to time measurement. And this raised in me a curiosity as to why there are 24 hours in a day… !? Why 24??? Okay, okay… I know… Why not 24… ? But still, there must have been a fairly comprehensive reason as to why 24 hours was chosen… Rather than 20, or 15, or whatever… ? Well, there are several websites that recount reasons as to why this is so…
But ultimately, the purpose of this blog is not really interested in why there are 24 hours in a day… For me, all this seems to demonstrate clearly is mankind’s ability to give meaning to things that didn’t have (or even, really need) any meaning. Whatever “memes” were floating around at that “point in time” i.e. when the clock was invented, gave credence and importance to the number 24 over other numbers… I mean, it’s certainly not the case that some righteous ‘dude’ sat down one day, and feeling the need to divide up the day into smaller units – mainly so that he could allocate his time more equally to specific pursuits that he had/wanted to do – sat there experimenting with 10 hour days, 15 hour days, 40 hour days, etc… and eventually choose 24 hour days, simply because the groove this gave his days felt good. I mean, come on… It’s another one of those social constructs, which apparently allow us humans to function better within the confines of our social conformity, similar to some of those that I’ve already discussed in previous blogs i.e. Imaginez… Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe!
All this 24 hour business shows us is that we’ve chosen to describe – as linearly as possible – the passing of time with 24 equally divided hours. Why is this? Well… When you’re a human being i.e. a big hairless ape-like-creature, creatures who – through memetic evolution – become curious about our own passage through entropy… Oops… I mean time… We begin to notice that ‘time’ can sometimes fly-by (especially when having fun), while sometimes it can crawl along, sluggish and sloth like, dragging the moments out into gruelling hours of torment. So how do we measure it? How can we tell if our perception of its passing is going slowly or quickly? And bang… There’s the devise… A clock springs forth from someone’s imagination.
Here I would like you to take a moment to view the following video on how the perception of time can distort due to certain pressures and/or stresses that are induced within the perceiver.
So… What I’m really curious about is… What limits our perception of time. ??? Even… What regulates our perception of time. ??? Just like the internal workings of watch, which cannot go beyond a certain speed, otherwise the gears and cogs that are integral to its function would fall apart and/or wear out with the increased strain… So too the human body’s biochemical system for perception has certain limitations. For example, neurones can only fire/trigger a certain number of times per second. Mainly as the discharge of ions, along with the re-uptake of the ions, throughout the neuronal structure takes a certain period of time before an action potential can be re-established. The molecules do not teleport themselves into and out of the cell without consequence… Otherwise they would simply bypass the natural order of things and the neurone would not be able to serve any function whatsoever. What is important here, is that this is a system of diffusion gradients. One that is delicately balanced on the genetic blue prints upon which the system is all built… This came about through trial and error… And this trial and error yielded the present structures that we have in our bodies here today on Earth, with their relative sizes and structures that, in relation to the organism and the atom, function in the ways that yield the best adaptive and survival results for organism in question… And that applies to all those organisms found here on Earth presently. These survival mechanisms i.e. the release of adrenaline, for example, can directly affect the complex interplay between the natural workings in the biochemical pathways of perception. Which in turn affect the way we perceive things around us… Such as the passage of time.
Time isn’t some objective quantity like the kilo or mile… The material clocks and watches that recount time’s so-called “passing” throughout our lives – along with their unit of seconds, minutes, etc… – do provide us with a linear idea of how time flows… But still, the passage of time is very intricately linked, even woven, into the fabric of our own body’s bio-mechanisms. Our bodily functions are governed by a vast and intricately array of complex cellular machinery, all of which is regulated by inter and intra cellular processes – a load of feedback loops – as well as a “bunch” of natural physical chemistry, much like those that Jack Szostak discussed in the article “Biologists On The Verge Of Creating New Form Of Life” with regard to the formation of cellular walls. These natural limitations are all interdependent on a vast and long line of cause and effect… A chain of events that allowed Life, as we know it, to come about… And, thus, these present conditions are the very limits to how the delicate systems of our current human physiology and anatomy can function… And at what rates they can function… Thus time is dependent on the environment in which it is being perceived, as well as the mechanisms i.e. our bodies, which are what we use to perceive time’s “passing”, utilising our own internal system of changes (firing of neurones, biochemical pathways eliciting changes in muscle tissue for movement, etc…).
As I’ve said earlier… Time is ultimately about change. Without change, things do not happen. We must understand that change is what drives our need to understand time… And, having seen how our bodies are really one big complex, biochemical reaction that is unfolding temporally, We – the observers – directly affect the viewing/observing of environmental changes that we witness, all through the use of our own internal biomechanical pathways, which – we must realise – can change due to stimulus, and thus alter the way in which we perceive time’s “passing.” Thus time is not objective i.e. like a second or an hour… Why did I even think that!?!? Rather it is a subjective occurrence that, through our own imposed linear division of it, has become a subjective/objective interdependent duality.
Cellular functions are all limited by diffusion gradients within the solutions of our bodily/cellular fluids, which are all at specific concentrations and temperatures, etc… Like the internal mechanisms of an overly strained watch that is running way to fast for its own design, if our bodies ran too fast, things would natural cease to function in the way that they do presently. The nonlinear dynamics of our current state of being would collapse and chaos would redesign us from the inside out. And natural selection would temper those of us hardy enough to continue into better, more functional biochemical machines. Such is evolution.
As I sit here writing this… “Tick-tock-tick-tock-tick-tock…” The change in the watch’s internal mechanism makes itself heard… What I am hearing is change within the air pressure… Sonic pulses of rarified and pressured air. Change is everywhere… Impermanence here is important with regards to understanding what time is. We are not permanent beings who never change. Change continually goes on inside of us on a daily basis. Change allows us to perceive events in the forward motion of accruing figures of time, and allows us to develop and modify ineffectual habits with new ways of doing things… So we learn… Change shapes the landscape around us, and the cradle of the universe that our solar system rests in. Change is all important, especially when trying to understand what the “self” is… I know some of our words and ideas seem permanent and fixed… But that is delusion… That is fear of change preventing you from seeing that meaning is empty… Meaning changes… When we cling to something so strongly, we forget that it’s ALL in a constant state of flux… We forget that it is ALL changing… All the time… This is something which I am about to discuss further in a future blog on “self”… Why? Because change allows us to understand what is happening to us on a daily basis, without clinging to solid definitions of apparently real, ultimate, and constant meaning… With this idea we might well glimpse how impermanent things really are. Seconds are not concrete… They flex into and out of standard perceived notion of what a second “should” be… Our perception of these apparently solid units of temporal passing are not concrete… Why do we feel sad sometimes… ? Perhaps it is because we have lost touch with what change really is, and how common it is. I know I had until last night… Or that this morning… !?!?
Whatever it is… Or even was… I know this day will never happen again in quite the same way that it did. Change is all encompassing… Difference continually blooms everywhere… The chaos in this universal system is what makes things worth living for… It’s what drives us forward… Nothing ever truly stagnates… Only the rigid ideas of our egocentric certainty… A permanence driven by pride and self-assured delusion… Prevent us all from seeing this ocean of change that surrounds us… That washes around me… And yet sometimes I will probably still wake up and feel like it’s the same day as it was last week. “Oh, it’s Friday… AGAIN!?!?” But it’s not… Delusion and illusion is so pervasive in our society’s perception of the world that it is really no wonder so many of us here in the UK – apparently 15% in 2006 – suffer from depression. I mean, if you looked at time like I did until recently, I can understand that change is a really dizzying and bizarre concept… One that breaks open the bubble of conformity and certainty… Allowing uncertainty to wash over you on a daily basis… Sometimes the change is so subtle that we barely even notice it occurring through the rigid and seemingly unbending social constructs that we use to define time and other seemingly permanent, well established ideas… And it is for this very reason that I am driven to despair when people look to science for ultimate and unbending truths… “But you said it works like that… And now you’re saying it doesn’t do that anymore… It now works like this!? What’s that all about then… You obviously haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about…” jive that I’ve seen time and again in news reports concerning climate change and other issues… When something is too clear, it becomes hard to see. It is said that a dunce once searched for fire with a lighted lantern. Had he known what fire was, he could have cooked his rice much sooner.
Even so… There is still hope… Because ultimately, through these little steps – and with big awareness – we can peer into seemingly obvious notions that we’ve taken for granted for so long, and see something new, something fresh and real… Nothing lasts forever. Not even sadness… Time is testament to this… It’s not about the seconds or the minutes… These seemingly unbendable units of time’s eternal flow… Nope… It’s about change. Even time changes near big gravitational distortions in space time… And when we look closely at things around us, we may discover that even they change.
So… To bring this posting to an end, and to focus on what exactly (well, nearly exactly) ‘time’ is, I’d like to finish this exposé with that video that Tim provided me with a link to… A video that shows Dr Sean Carroll’s lecture on “The Origin Of The Universe And The Arrow Of Time”, clarifying why time moves seemingly in one direction… Why time denotes change and destroys any idea of permanence…
To find out more about Dr Sean Carroll, please click here.
Or to see another version of this lecture, the one that I originally viewed, please click here.
I’ve spoken about it before… Patterns reside at all levels of life, whether we see them or not. Patterning is everywhere within and without of ourselves. We like to think we can grasp it and change its functionality, desiring to know what it’ll do next… But to control something so sensitive and so fickle is pure delusion upon our part. Rather we are set adrift on a sea of chance, which is so sensitive, that to even think about it seems to change the essence of what it actually is and how it behaves.
Lao Tzu once wrote about “the mysterious quality of the Tao…” For he must have glimpsed at man’s never ending and intrinsic need to understand nature’s flow and design… Why would man want to do this? So as to control and utilise – perhaps even exploit – the essence of all things under heaven… And possibly even within heaven itself. Certainly nothing is held sacred anymore… For understanding seems to explain away any mystical edge that the unknown might have held. Even chaos, while the principles behind its essence certainly are being developed and refined in clearer modes of understanding, still can never be predicted exactly with so many sensitive variables housed within its delicate and susceptible mechanism. Still, from this vague understanding of “God, or Nature’s” ways, our morality seems to disregard this untouchable divinity and aims to solely tighten mankind’s own egocentric and self-imposed purpose here on Earth. If only we could connect with the Tao… How soft and yielding we would all learn to be.
“The Tao produces all things and nourishes them; it produces them and does not claim them as its own; it does all, and yet does not boast of it; it presides over all, and yet does not control them. This is what is called ‘the mysterious Quality’ of the Tao.”
Here I feel Lao Tzu essentially tapped into the essence of what modern science came to know as “chaos…” And where chaos begins, classical science seems to have trouble with its own steadfast footing. To understand concepts behind something which is practically impossible to predict, let alone control, is fair play… But to desire to control something which is unpredictable is dim-witted idiocy. Lao Tzu knew that the unpredictable nature of all things was the essence of that which created and gave life to all things. It does not obviously present itself to any investigator, as Edward Lorenz discovered while using differential equations to create a virtual weather system. And thus, with its hidden and subtle being, it does not boast of its own wonder… As we now know, nonlinear dynamical systems are found literally everywhere in nature and the universe. The chaos within these dynamical systems “presides over all…” Yet the flexibility of these modes of interaction between all discrete units can never yield to, nor allow, any predictable control. Why? For all the subtle, minuscule, almost indiscernible changes made within the system, give rise to eddies that writhe and bubble over the edge of certainty and thus can never be forecast with any indubitable conviction. Here in lies the essence of the Tao… Of chaos itself.
No doubt some of you have realised by now that the main theme running through this website is centred around aspects of chaos and nonlinear dynamics – what one perceptive philosopher, namely Baruch Spinoza, termed to be “God, or Nature.” The end aim of this is to demonstrate how the complexity of our universal experience and of universal being, which look at notions of who and what we really we are, all interlink into one vastly complex, and almost unknowable picture of order woven out of a fabric of disorder. As if this essence was what man’s notions of God were developing into. Or if if we were to look at it all more rationally, then to somewhat summarise this long chain of interlinking events, the Buddhists chose to call this majestic tapestry “Interdependent Origination.”
Chaos admittedly has notions of disorder and irregularity running through out its rough and irregular flow… But it is this disorder that acts as an amazingly complex function of universal discourse, providing order and consistency at congruent levels of flexibility, thus generating immense diversity… In my humble opinion it is this juxtaposition of order and disroder that allows a stability within a mode of suppleness which feeds-back into itself, allowing us to learn within standards of conformity, and yet evolve, over time, into ever modifying manners of new understanding and functionality. For example, our perception of the passing of time is directly associated with the dynamical discharge of our neural net. We are limited to states of temporal regularity through the mechanisms of our own bodily designs. We only have to try to swat a fly to see this.
Evolution is occurring within – and upon – all levels of dynamical interaction, whether these are social discourses within society or mental arrangements of schemas within our minds… OR even if they are atomic and molecular interactions within chemical systems, such as goes on within our brains and bodies… These processes even stretch to encompass vast expanses of gaseous shapes that are being tugged and pulled by gravitational forces of moving/shifting suns, solar systems and black holes within nebulous areas of space… Change, no matter how sharp or quick, ever so softly folds back onto itself into new renditions of behavioural patterning. No doubt we will be hard pressed to see all these levels if we know nothing about chaos theory OR the Tao.
Some might well ask why we should even bother to try to see these elusive processes… And yet all of these processes deeply penetrate our society’s totality, affecting us in ways that are far too subtle to mention with our rudimentary understand of things… Only a Buddha could possibly ‘see’ them clearly enough to understand them truly, without corrupting the purity of their nature with society’s own crass and cumbersome perception of things. We, as human beings – who are made from this algorithm of Life: a vast interacting net of chaotic flow – rely upon the “mystery” of the Tao’s essence to function. So profound and all pervading is it, that it operates on – and across – so many levels of energetic continuity, all of which are intertwined in a complexity that only “God, or Nature” could ever truly become self-aware of… And yet I feel we need to see this, even if it is only in part. Especially because of our present extremely self-centred and heavy modes of living and being i.e. pollution of the environment, destruction of forests, etc… When we see the interconnectedness of everything we will notice that these levels of universal interplay are so ethereal and disarming that, when understood with the patterns within ourselves, we will find it easier to truly open ourselves up to the universe in a way that will shed light on understanding why so many human beings choose to do such seemingly silly things with their lives i.e. believe in a deity of some kind, etc… Once we become familiar with these chaotic ebbs and flows, we may see anew through cleansed insight, so as to understand why altruistic behaviour has naturally been selected for (religions, whether you like it or not, do possess the marks of altruistic behaviour)… And why, as Susan Blackmore discusses in her book entitled “The Meme Machine,” altruism spreads more altruism.
So, before we get to the point of this blog, let’s look at what Susan Blackmore wrote about Altruism in her book, “The Meme Machine.”
The Altruism Trick
In today’s world I am going to assume that we can ignore meme-gene coevolution. This might be an oversimplification, because as long as there are two replicators they will interact with one each other. However, the pace of memetic evolution is now so fast, relative to that of genetic evolution, that we can safely ignore the latter for most purposes. The genes cannot keep up. What we cannot ignore is the legacy left by the long process of coevolution. The brains we have are the big and clever brains created by meme-gene coevolution. The way we think and feel is a product of that evolutionary process, and now determines which memes do well and which do not. We like sex, so sex memes get a head start: different ones for men and for women. We like food and we like power and excitement. We find maths hard, and so mathematical memes need a lot of encouragement. The structure of our language affects which memes are more easily passed on. The theories and myths we have created affect the way we deal with new memes. And so on.
Note that sociobiology has made a different simplifying assumption and has ignored the role of memes. For many purposes this has been an adequate approach, and we can use many of the findings of sociobiology to provide insight into the brains we have and the ideas and behaviours that come easily, but it cannot provide the whole picture. Our concern now will be what happens when vast numbers of memes compete to get into, and stay in, limited numbers of increasingly educated and overworked brains.
We must resume the meme’s eye view; remembering that all that counts in the life of a meme is whether or not it survives and replicates. I shall find myself saying that memes ‘want,’ ‘need,’ or ‘try to do’ something. But we must remember that this is only shorthand for saying that the ‘something’ will improve the chances of the meme’s being copied. Memes do not have conscious intentions; nor do they actually strive to do anything at all. They are simply (by definition) capable of being copied, and all their apparent striving and intentionality comes from this. When anything can be copied it can end up having few or many copies made. Memes may be successfully copied because they are good, true, useful or beautiful – but they may be successful for other reasons too. It is those reasons I now wish to explore.
A meme that gets into a meme-fountain will do better than one that only gets into meme-sinks. We can guess who the meme-fountains are. Indeed, many experiments in social psychology show who is most often emulated. Powerful people (and people who dress in the trappings of power), people perceived as experts, and people in authority are all examples of ‘imitate-the-successful.’ All these people are more likely to get others to do what they say or to accept their ideas; as salesmen, advertisers and politicians have long known. In discussing the ‘power button’ Brodie (1996) suggests that TV shows use large cars, guns and flashy clothes to gain more air time and so promote their kinds of memes. Fames spreads memes, as when television and film stars are watched by millions of viewers, so changing the fashions in clothes, speech, smoking or drinking, cars, food and lifestyle. But not everyone is powerful, and there are other kinds of meme-fountain. For example, we are more likely to be persuaded by someone we perceive as similar to ourselves, and a clever sales trick is to mirror the actions of the potential buyer or to pretend to having similar beliefs or hobbies (Cialdini 1994).
I have already suggested that one way to spread memes is to behave altruistically, and I now want to consider some of the consequences of this less obvious way of becoming a meme-fountain. First, altruistic behaviour spreads copies of itself – so making us more altruistic. Second altruism helps to spread other memes – so providing a trick that memes can use to get themselves copied.
Altruism spreads altruism
Let us consider first the copying of altruistic behaviour itself. Imagine two different memes (or sets of memes). One is a set of memes for helping your friend when she is in trouble – whether it is giving her a lift when her car breaks down or listening to her troubles when her boyfriend leaves her. The other is a set of memes for ignoring what your friend needs. These are behaviours that can be copied from one person to another and so they must be memes. Note that I uese the phrase ‘a meme for something.’ This is potentially dangerous because it might be taken to imply that there is a particular instruction explicitly stored somewhere in a brain which tells the person to help their friend – and this can easily be made to look ridiculous. This interpretation is not necessary, however. All that is necessary is to assume that people imitate aspects of each other’s behaviour and that when they do so something is passed on from one to the other. We do not need to agonise about what that something is. The simple fact is that if imitation happens (as it surely does) then something has been passed on and that something is what we call the meme. So when I say a ‘meme for helping your friend’ I only mean that some aspect of helping behaviour has been passed on by one person copying the other.
Now we can ask the important question: which of these two memes will do better? The first meme will – it will make your friend like you more and want to spend more time with you. She will therefore become more helpful to her other friends, and so the meme will gradually spread. The same simple logic applies to any meme which helps its carrier to become more popular. The people who pick up these memes are not aware of what they are doing, they just find themselves wanting to be more like the nice people, not the nasty ones. They find they want to help and be kind and feel bad if they do not. Just as many of our human emotions serve the genes, so these ones serve the memes – and they are no less noble for that.
Does this mean that everyone will become nicer and nicer and nicer without limit? Of course not. The main reason why not is that being kind and generous and altruistic is expensive in terms of time and money. There are always pressures acting against altruism, and there are always other strategies for memes to use. However, in general it means that people will be more altruistic than they would be if they were incapable of imitation.
This is an example of meme-driven altruism in a modern context (and note that this is different from the memetic driving of genes for altruism which I considered at the end of the previous chapter). In this kind of meme-driven altruism, actions that are costly and done for someone else come about through memetic competition. Because these actions are driven by memes and not genes they need not necessarily be in the person’s genetic interest. These cases, in which the genes do not benefit and the memes do, provide test cases for a memetic explanation. People who devote their entire lives to charitable work or to the caring professions while having no children of their own are examples. Their sacrifice cannot easily be explained in terms of genetic advantage, but can be simply explained in terms of memetics.
In principle, meme-driven altruism ought to be able to produce the most pure and selfless generosity. Indeed, it may occasionally do so. However, altruism not only works to spread itself but also acts to spread other memes as well. This provides a mechanism open to exploitation by other memes. This, I suggest, is exactly what happens. I shall describe several ways in which memes can exploit the process of meme-driven altruism. These are all versions of what I shall call the ‘altruism trick.’
The altruism trick depends on the simple idea that a meme that gets into an altruistic or likeable person (like Kevin) is more likely to be copied than one that gets into a meany (like Gavin). So what kinds of meme (other than memes for altruism) can get into the altruist?
First, some memes look like altruism even if they are not, and so they can fit easily in an already altruistic person, and second, memes can group together into memeplexes that use various tricks to get into altruists.
Looking like altruism
The first is an obvious trick, to look like altruism. A meme that makes a person appear to be kinder and more generous will increase the chances of that person being imitated and so of that meme being spread, without incurring great costs. There are many examples of this kind of behaviour. We smile at people a lot, and we smile back at people who smile at us first. We say kind and polite things to them – ‘How are you?’ ‘I do hope your parents are well’ ‘Have a nice time at the party’ ‘How may I help you?’ ‘Have a good day’ ‘Happy New Year.’ With all these common memes we give the impression of caring about the other person, even if we do not. That is why they are successful memes. Our ordinary everyday conversation is full of such memes.
Closely related to this is the sort of meme that sneaks easily into an altruist. Memes do not exist in isolation. All memes, at least at some phases of their lives, are stored in human brains, and humans are complicated creatures who strive to maintain some kind of consistency to their ideas. This ‘consistency principle’ is crucial in understanding a lot of human thought and action. If a given person tends to be altruistic, whether because of a genetic tendency to act that way, or because he has picked up lots of altruistic memes during his/her lifetime (or most likely because of both), then other altruism memes are more likely to gain a foothold there.
Let us suppose a new meme comes along in the lives of Kevin and Gavin; suppose they both hear a plea to save their used stamps and send them to some charity. This new meme is far more likely to be accepted and acted on by Kevin than Gavin. It fits well with his other behaviour. He thinks of himself as a caring person and so on. If he refused to take part he would suffer ‘cognitive dissonance,’ the unpleasant consequence of holding two incompatible views – in this case, his idea of himself as a caring person and refusal to help with the stamps. Many psychological studies have shown that people will work to reduce dissonance between incompatible ideas, and also that consistency itself is generally admired and emulated (Cialdini 1994; Festinger 1957). This idea is less likely to take hold of Gavin. He would suffer no cognitive dissonance by refusing to help in this or any other way.
The need for consistency and the avoidance of dissonance provide the context in which memes club together in different people. Once someone is committed to a particular set of memes, other memes are more or less likely to find a safe home in that person’s repertoire of arguments, beliefs, and behaviours. We find this kind of generalisation of memes in all sorts of contexts. You might think it is just common sense that nice people do nice things and nasty people do nasty things but memetics puts this common-sense fact in a slightly different light. Memes can succeed or fail because of the genetic propensity of the people they come across, also because of the memes already present in those people.
The situation is all the more complex because of changing fashions. The memes which are acceptable will shift as the whole meme pool changes. At one time, certain types of charitable giving will seem appropriate, but a few years later, completely different kinds will take over. But this complexity should not cloud the basic principle. Once meme-driven altruism has got going it will generalise. Memes for all sorts of kind and generous acts can take hold more easily in people who are already infected with altruistic memes and who have invested in a particular view of themselves. These people are copied more than other people and so these memes spread more widely.
This process can be used to understand all sorts of otherwise rather baffling actions. Let us take kindness to animals, Many people go out of their way to help animals in distress. There are homes for dogs and cats, and refuges for sick donkeys and injured wildlife. There are game parks and great international attempts to save species from extinction. There are ‘Save the Animals’ charity shops, and greetings cards that support wildlife organisations.
I say this is baffling because there is no easy explanation of all this inter-species kindness in terms of rational self-interest, genetic advantage, or evolutionary psychology. Rescuing an injured tiger would not benefit a hunter-gatherer. Animals were not domesticated until about ten thousand years ago in the ‘Fertile Crescent’ to the east of the Mediterranean, as recently as one thousand years ago in America, and not at all in some parts of the world (Diamond 1997). Therefore during most of our evolutionary past, the animal around us have mostly been either been potential prey for eating or predators trying to eat us. Saving them from death makes no genetic sense; nor does working to relieve their suffering. I have never come across a sociobiological explanation of kindness to animals, although I can think of several possibilities. Animals cannot, on the whole, pay back the favours; so direct reciprocal altruism is no explanation. However, a possible argument is that reciprocal altruism has given us the emotions that drive this behaviour. We feel empathy with suffering animals and want to relieve it; we feel guilt if we do not, and so on. Another possibility is that we raise our status in the reciprocal altruism stakes by appearing kind. I am not convinced that this makes sense, because of the high potential costs of such behaviour. Surely, natural selection would have weeded out any tendencies to be too kind to animals, especially wild and dangerous. These theories are also hard to test.
Why do we do it then? I suggest that kindness to animals can easily take hold because it fits well in people who are already infected with altruism memes. They see themselves as kind people and have an investment in continuing to be so. The way they behave makes them more likely to be imitated, and so kindness to animals spreads.
Exactly the same argument applies to the increasingly widespread practise of refusing to eat meat. Humans were clearly designed to eat a certain amount of meat. Meat is high in protein and fat, and was probably necessary to feed the increasingly large brain of our far ancestors. Yet now many people, myself included, do not eat meat. Some argue that they feel better on a vegetarian diet and a few do not like meat, but most say they are affected by the suffering of the animals bred and killed for food. I suggest that vegetarianism succeeds as a meme because we all want to be like the nice people who care about animals, and so we copy them. Not everyone will get infected by this meme; some like meat too much and others have sets of memes that are not very compatible with this one. Nevertheless, it does quite well. Vegetarianism is a mimetically spread altruistic fashion.
If this is right we should expect to be able to trace the historical origins of such memes as they gradually appear and take hold of whole populations. We should not expect to find such actions in societies with little communication and few ways for memes to spread. We would expect them to be most common in societies in which people have plenty of resources to spare and plenty of opportunities for picking up new memes. We should not necessarily expect people to brag about being kind to animals, but simply to find themselves wanting to be so.
Note that it is not necessary that the superficially kind actions should actually help the animals in question. An injured animal that is rescued is helped in the short term, and a potential battery hen that is never hatched is almost certainly better off for never having existed. But the long-term prospects are dubious, especially when it comes to schemes for saving whole habitats or species. The memetic approach makes it easy to understand why particular behaviours spread even when they do not achieve what they are supposed to achieve. It is not just that people make mistakes in their reasoning, which we know all too well, but that they are especially likely to make certain sorts of mistakes – in this case copying behaviours that look altruistic.
A final example of this kind is recycling waste. Recycling is certainly a meme – that is, a behaviour that people pick up by copying other people, whether they read about it, see it on television or discover that all their neighbours are doing it. Many people put a great deal of effort into separating different kinds of waste, storing them in their house or garage, taking them to recycling points, and buying recyclable goods. The recycling meme has been an enormously successful one, spreading far and wide in the developed world an driving a massive amount of human activity. Some experts argue that the energy thus used is far more than would be needed if the materials were simply dumped and new ones made. I have no idea whether this is true, but from the memetic point of view it does not matter. We would expect these kinds of behaviour to spread because they are easily picked up by people who already do all kinds of generous, caring ‘green’ activities, who are therefore seen as altruistic and are therefore copied. The whole ‘green-movement,’ and the effort put into it, is just what you would expect of meme-driven altruism in action.
Memeplexes and the altruism trick
Memes which have nothing to do with altruism can benefit from ‘copy-the-altruist’ by just tagging along for free. Like Kev the caveman’s flashy blue-feathered arrows, some memes may just by luck happen to be carried by more altruistic people, but this luck is not a memetic process that can be relied on. Instead, we can expect memes to have devised strategies for getting into altruistic people without actually being altruism memes themselves (or more accurately – memes that happened to have such strategies should have survived better than those without, and we should be able to observe them around us). Are there such examples?
Yes. They range from little groups of co-memes to very complicated memeplexes. Remember that the essence of any memeplex is that the memes inside it can replicate better as part of the group than they can on their own. Some simple ones will show the principle. For the first type we need to assume that people want to be liked. This part of the principle I have been following that people imitate people they like more than people they do not. Imitating people you like should be a good way to become liked yourself and being liked should ensure that people are nicer to you.
Now, let us take some actions a parent might try to persuade a child to do, such as clean, say please and thank you to Auntie Dawn, or stay a virgin until after marriage. Why should children obey the instructions? They might obey out of fear or coercion, but a common trick is to turn the instruction into ‘Good children keep their clothes clean,’ ‘Nice people say people and thank you,’ or ‘Good girls don’t have sex before marriage.’ These simple memeplexes consist of just two parts; the instruction and the idea of being good. ‘People won’t like you if do that’ is another, as are hints that nice people vote conservative, people like us eat dinner at eight, or kind people go to church.
More complicated memeplexes can build up around the kinds of altruism I considered before, such as kindness to animals and recycling, and lots of other memes can jump on board. The recycling symbol is a little scrap of information that has been successfully copied around the world. The names and logos of all the charities are other examples, as are collecting boxes that are rattled in the street, the practises of having charity shops, of distributing special bags to collect goods in, and many other activities that thrive in the world of charitable giving. As memeplexes evolve and become more complicated, new niches are created in which new kinds of meme can thrive. In the examples I have given here, the spread of charitable giving opens up niches for all sorts of other memes to thrive.
You can even sell music and fashion using altruism. Bob Geldof really did give money to the starving in Africa but he sold millions of record at the same time. Princess Diana’s memorial fund really is funding her charities but it is spreading millions of Diana memes in the process – pictures, stories, personal reminiscences, speculations and scandals, videos of her life and times, not to mention the words and tune of Candle in the Wind.
These are simple examples, but they are sufficient to show that meme-driven altruism is an obvious meme-trick read for exploitation. It should not, therefore, surprise us to find that many of the most powerful and widespread memeplexes use it in various forms. Pre-eminent are the religions. One of the mechanisms is simple, once you think about it memetically. a religion which persuades its follows to be more altruistic will spread because of the altruism trick.
I once was cycling in the park in Bristol when my bicycle chain fell off. Before I could jump off to put it back two young men raced up to me, politely offered help, expertly put the chain back on, and stood smiling kindly at me. ‘Thank you very much,’ I said, feeling a little bewildered. For I had never seen them before and I was not a ravishing sight in my Felix-the-cat bike helmet. God was soon on their lips, quickly followed by Joseph Smith and Salt Lake City. The Mormon faith is ably and deliberately spread by the altruism trick. It doesn’t work on everyone, but it works well enough to keep the memes alive.
The altruism trick works like this. Take a political party, a religious sect, a cult, a local benevolent society, or any complex belief system. Incorporate within it the idea that its follower should do good works. These good works will then make the followers more likeable and so people will copy them – copying in the process all the other memesin the belief system. Of course, this mechanism does involve actual ‘good works,’ as did Geldof and Diana. Others only give the appearance of doing good, or just persuade their followers to think they are doing good. Others exploit the sense of obligation induced by giving gifts – the proselyte does you a good turn, now feel obligated to him/her, and the obvious way to repay this obligation is to do what he wants, that is, to take on his memes (or at least give the appearance of doing so). There are many variations on this basic ‘altruism trick.’ I will consider how some of them work, as well as further implications of Allison’s (1992) beneficent norms, when dealing in more detail with religions.
Note that this trick effectively makes people work for the memes they carry. People who join the cults or adopt the ideologies give away their possessions, do good works, or help others, because this helps copy the memes that have infected them. Other people then copy them and they also begin to work for the memes. This is one reason why memeplexes that use this trick have survived in the past and why there are so many of them around now. This is the second time we have met the idea of people working for their memes (the first was in relation to sex and spreading memes rather than genes) and we will meet it again. In this sense we can say that the memes are driving human behaviour.
If this seems frightening then we need to ask ourselves why. What does drive human behaviour? Much of the antagonism towards Darwinism, sociobiology, and indeed any science of human behaviour, stems from an apparent desire to see ourselves as magical autonomous agents in charge of our own destinies. I shall tackle the basis of this view later, but for now just say that yes, memetics does undermine this view. We can describe any behaviour in numerous different ways for different purposes, but underneath them all lies the competition between replicators. Memes provide the driving force behind what we do, and the tools with which we do it. Just as the design of our bodies can be understood only in terms of natural selection, so the design of our minds can be understood only in terms of memetic selection.
Debts, obligations and bartering
Can the theory of memetic altruism be tested? One approach would be to test the basic assumptions on which it rests. the main assumption is that people preferentially copy people they like. I have assumed this because there are substantial hints in the literature that this is so. In his widely cited book on the psychology of persuasion, the American psychologist, Robert Cialdini (1994) reviews the evidence that people are more easily influenced by, and more likely to agree to a request or buy a product from people they like. Tupperware parties work because the host/hostess invited friends who like them and therefore more likely to buy products they do not want. Successful car dealers charm their intended purchasers by complimenting them, appearing to be similar to them, giving away small concessions or appearing to take their part against the boss, all of which increases their client’s liking for the dealers and hence the ease with which the victims can be separated from their money. The major factors that increase liking include physical attractiveness, similarity, cooperativeness, and the belief that the other person likes you. One record-breaking salesman even used to send out thirteen thousand cards a month to his clients saying ‘I like you’ – and presumably he was not wasting his money.
What is not so clear is whether liking leads directly to imitation. This has not been much studied by social psychologists, perhaps, because the importance of imitation per se has not been emphasised. If it does, the other consequences should follow; that people buy more products from, are persuaded to change their minds by, and often agree with people they like. In other words, the social psychological findings described above may be a consequence of a deeper underlying tendency to want to copy people we like. The experiments that need to be done, therefore, should look more closely at the imitation of actions carried out by likeable and unlikeable people. For example, we might ask people to watch ‘liked’ and ‘disliked’ models of carrying out a task in different ways, and then do the task themselves. Experiments could then go on to find out just how best to manipulate liking so as to produce the most effective imitation. If the same manipulations affect simple imitation of actions as well as persuasion and agreement with beliefs, this would be suggestive that a similar process is going on in both. I have also assumed altruistic behaviour makes people more likeable. This may seem too obvious to need testing, but we could use similar experiments to test the main consequence of this – that is, that acting altruistically will induce people to imitate you. If these predictions were not born out of the entire basis of this kind of meme-drive altruism would be undermined.
The outcome of such experiments might be complicated by the effects of the ‘reciprocal rule.’ It is well known in social psychology that people obliged to repay any kindness shown to them, and feel obligated if they do not (Cialdini 1995). This tendency is culturally widespread and probably related to the fact that aid from rich to poor countries is not always well received (Moghaddam et al. 1993). Presumably, reciprocity stems from our evolved use of reciprocal altruism. Now, if an observer in one of our experiments has a kindness done to them they may feel obligated to the model – an unpleasant feeling which might disincline them to like the model and so complicate the issue. The most interesting outcome from the memetic point of view would be if imitating the altruist (i.e. taking on their memes) acted as a kind of reciprocation. By this I mean that one person could ‘pay back’ a kindness by taking on the other person’s ideas.
This effect can be seen to follow from a combination of the ‘reciprocation rule’ which derives from reciprocal altruism, and Allison’s beneficent norm ‘Be good to those who imitate you.’ According to this rule, if A imitates B, B should now feel obliged to A. So, for example, not only does the professor want to be nice to her students but all of us should be kinder to people who agree with us, or take on our ideas, or imitate us in other ways. If the process works both ways then if C gives D a gift, D will feel obliged to C and may pay back the obligation by agreeing with C (or taking on her memes in some other way). In ordinary life we may be seeing this in the tendency of guests to agree with their host’s ideas, or of people in subordinate positions to agree with those who have power over them, or in the tricks used by religions that I discussed above. Finally, this could lead to people trading off their obligations by bartering goods against imitation in all possible combinations. So, for example, the guest who brings a fine present should feel under less obligation to agree with the host than the one who does not.
If the idea of exchanging goods for taking on memes seems unfamiliar, we might think of the bartering of memes that goes on all around us. We are used to the idea of paying for the information we want, by buying books or newspapers, paying our TV licence, or buying tickets to the cinema, but if people want to impose their ideas on us then they should have to pay to get our attention, like advertisers and politicians do. I shall return to this in considering the way information is put onto the Internet at the cost of the provider, not the user.
All these exchanges could be investigated. Imagine an experiment in which James expresses some unpopular idea, or solicits people to join his organisation, or whatever. Among a group of people present, Greg gets up and publicly agrees with James. Now James should feel obliged to Greg and so be more likely to act generously towards him than to the others. Such experiments could find out whether exchanging memes could become a kind of currency like exchanging goods.
Other experiments might bring together people of opposed view points, or people who disagree about the right way to do something, and find out what methods they actually use to change one another’s minds. Studies of attitude change have often been done where material gain is at stake, such as in advertising and political persuasion, but this theory predicts that people will, if given the chance, be more generous to people who already agree with you, nor to those whom you judge as being beyond conversion. The greatest altruism should be shown to those who are capable of being convinced (Rose 1997).
The effects of reciprocation are a little more complex, however. Imagine the following experiment. Just two people are involved (though in practice we would need to repeat it with many pairs). Janet is asked to express her opinion on some controversial topic while Meg listens in silence. Janet now acts generously in some way towards Meg (perhaps by buying her a coffee or offering to help with something). Meg is then asked to say how much she like Janet. We should obviously expect that Meg will express greater liking for Janet when she has been generous towards her than when she was not. Now we give Meg the chance to say what she thinks about the controversial topic and again measure her liking for Janet. The theory makes two predictions. The first is more obvious, that Meg is more likely to express agreement when Janet has given her something. The second is less so, that expressing agreement acts as a kind of repayment of the kindness. so we should predict that if Meg now publicly agrees with Janet (whether that is really her opinion or not) she will now like Janet more than if she does not. In other words, Meg likes Janet not only because she was kind to Meg, but because Meg has paid off her debt by agreeing and so need no longer feel under any obligation to Janet.
This is an extremely artificial situation but I have tried to keep it simple. More realistic ways of taking on someone’s memes might be to copy their actions in some more concrete way, to agree to pass on information to someone else, to write down what they say, to join a group they belong to, and so on, but I hope the principle is clear – that liking for a generous model would be increased if the subject were given the chance to imitate her, because the sense of obligation was reduced. This is, I suggest, a counter-intuitive outcome that could not readily be predicted or explained on any other theory.
If these predictions are correct they suggest that memes and resources can be bartered against each other in all sorts of ways. We should be able to pay people to accept or ideas, agree with people to pay of debts, and force people into agreement by what appears to be generous actions. There are interesting implications here for the power of money to coerce people into agreement. Some of the predictions are fundamental to the processes underlying meme-driven altruism and therefore, if they do not work out, my theory is wrong.
by Susan Blackmore
Also… I’d like to present Blackmore’s take on religions as memeplexes, as I feel – combined with an understanding that religions originate in the ways that either Elizabeth Culotta describes in “On The Origin Of Religion” and/or Matthew Taylor discusses in “God On My Mind” – it uses memetics as a truly revolutionary tool for understanding why we are so prone to producing delusions of reality and then forget not to take them with “a pinch of salt,” showing us why and how these beliefs are prone natural selection for their altruistic properties, which ensure a better survival mechanism of our species.
Religions As Memeplexes
Like it or not, we are surrounded by religions. The ‘Great Faiths’ of the world have lasted thousands of years and affect our calendars and holidays, our education and upbringing, our beliefs and our morality. All over the world people spend vast amounts of time and money worshipping their gods and building glorious monuments in which to do it. We cannot get away from religions, but using memetics we can understand how and why they have such power.
All the great religions of the world began as small-scale cults, usually with a charismatic leader, and over the years a few of them spread to take in billions of people all across the planet. Imagine just how many small cults there must have been in the history of the world. The question is why did these few survive to become great faiths, while the vast majority simply died out with the death of their leader or the dispersal of their few adherents?
Dawkins was the first to give memetic answers (Dawkins 1986, 1993, 1996b), although his ideas on religion have frequently been criticised (Bowker 1995; Gatherer 1998). He took Roman Catholicism as an example. The memes of Catholicism include the idea of an omnipotent and omniscient God, the belief that Jesus Christ was the son of God, born of the virgin Mary, risen from the dead after his crucifixion and now (and for ever) able to hear our prayers. In addition, Catholics believe that their priests can absolve them from their sins after confession, the Pope literally speaks the word of God, and when priests administer the mass, the bread and wine literally change into the flesh and blood of Christ.
To anyone uninfected with any Christian memes these ideas must seem bizarre in the extreme. How can an invisible God be both omnipotent and omniscient? Why should we believe a two-thousand-year-old story that a virgin gave birth? What could it possibly mean to say that the wine ‘literally’ becomes the blood of Christ? How could someone have died for our sins when we were not even born? How could he rise from the dead, and where is he now? How could a prayer, said silently to yourself, really work?
There are many claims for the efficacy of prayer in healing the sick, and even little experimental evidence (Benor 1994; Dossey 1993), but few of the experiments have controlled adequately for placebo effects, expectation, and spontaneous recovery, and some have shown that people with the strongest religious faith were less likely to recover from acute illness (Kind et al. 1994). Against the claims are hundreds of years of people praying for the health of their royal families or heads of state with no apparent effect, and the inability of modern-day religious healers to make any obvious difference in hospitals. Then there are all those countless wars in which both sides routinely pray for God to help their side and kill the enemy. Yet millions of people all over the world profess themselves Catholics and pray to Jesus, his mother Mary, and God the Father. They spend vast amounts of their valuable time and money supporting and spreading the faith to others, and the Catholic Church is among the richest institutions in the world. Dawkins (1993) explains how religious memes, even if they are not true, can be successful.
The Catholic God is watching at all times and will punish people who disobey His commandments with most terrible punishments. – burning forever in hell, for example. These threats cannot easily be tested because God and hell are invisible, and the fear is inculcated from early childhood. A friend of mine showed me a book he once treasured as a child. It had pictures of a little good boy and a little bad boy. You could open up the flaps of their blazers and inside the good boy find a white and shinning heart, while the bad boy had a black spot for every sin he had committed. Imagine the the power of that image when you cannot see inside your own body and must only imagine the little black spots piling up and piling up – when you talk in class or cheat in a test, when you take your sister’s toy or steal a chocolate biscuit, when you think a bad thought, or doubt God’s truth and goodness… every one a black spot.
Having raised the fear, Catholicism reduces it again. If you turn to Christ you will be forgiven. If you honestly repent of your sins, bring up your children as Catholics, and go regularly to mass, then, even though you are unworthy and sinful, God will forgive you. God’s love is always available but at a price, and that price is often overlooked completely because it is paid so willingly. It is the price of investing massive amounts of time, energy and money in your religion – in other words, working for their memes. As Dawkins pointed out, Catholics work hard to spread their Catholicism.
I previously described several meme tricks that New Age memeplexes use. All these can be found in religions too. First, like alien abduction and near-death experience memes, religions serve a real function. They supply answers to all sorts of age-old human questions such as: Where do we come from? Why are we here? Where do we go when we die? Why is the world full of suffering? The religious answers may be false but at least they are answers. Religious commitment may give people a sense of belonging, and has been shown to improve social integration in the elderly (Johnson 1995). Religions may also incorporate useful rules for living, such as the dietary laws of Judaism or rules about cleanliness and hygiene which may once have protected people from disease. These useful functions help carry other memes along.
The truth trick is liberally used. In many religions, God and Truth are virtually synonymous. Rejecting faith means turning away from Truth; converting others mean giving them the gift of the true faith. This may seem odd when so many religious claims are clearly false, but there are many reasons why it works. For example, people who have a profound experience in a religious context are inclined to take on the memes of that religion; people who like or admire someone may believe their truth claims without question. At the extreme, people will even tell lies for God and manage to convince themselves and others that they do so in the name of truth – as when when ‘Creation Scientists’ proclaim ‘The Truth’ that the early earth is only six thousand years old, and back it up with denials of the fossil record, or claims that the speed of light has slowed since the creation so as to give the illusion of a vast universe and an ancient planet (Plimer 1994).
I’d like to add a foot note here regarding an aspect of Buddhism. Within Buddhist doctrine there is the comprehension of rebirth i.e. reincarnation of ourselves OR our ‘souls’/'selves’ into new future lives. Having read several books and watched several films concerning the this phenomena of reincarnation, my instinct is still dubious about whether this aspect of Buddhist belief is really an actual fact… Or whether it is really a convenient ‘myth,’ designed with the ultimate intention of spreading as much good will and compassion between as many human beings as possible, as soon as possible, while we are here on Earth. I mean… If I became an enlightened being, with great compassion and love guiding my every action toward all fellow sentient beings, then I would ultimately realise that not all human beings would be ready to give up their existence in Saṃsāra. I would also clearly see that not all beings would be willing to develop and become compassionate to their fellow men and women, let alone other sentient beings… The main reason being is that the “delusion of consciousness” would be way too deeply ingrained in our very essence for the majority to give up in an instant. And, while I would be aware that ‘change’ will take time, especially in a world where people try to instil consistency and homogeneity into their lives, blanking any distressing chances that may occur… My ultimate goal – to prevent/minimise the suffering of all living beings here in Saṃsāra – should be achieved as quickly as possible to minimise the amount of suffering endure in this moment. Thus, due to the inertia of delusion within the fabric of society, along with all of our self-centred tendencies created at the dawn of time – and Life – here on Earth, as the ultimate survival mechanism powered by the process of natural selection… I would need some serious leverage to get people to believe and understand that selflessness, sacrifice, material asceticism, along with unbiased generosity and diverse altruistic behaviour towards all sentient beings, were the only way to minimise OR prevent the totality of all suffering. And, as I would be well aware of how easily the unenlightened mind might grasp to false understandings and delusions about its present reality, I would be very well inclined to develop a meme that would get all of humanity to contemplate their own social impact upon all others within this and future times. In preparing this meme, I would certainly devise a strategy that would exploit every aspect of our human traits of selfishness and self-centred tendencies, thus provoking people to consider their future lives and their future suffering in terms of how well they perform here, in the present. Because of the inertia of these tendencies, the majority of human beings who listened to this meme would primarily act out of selfish, evolutionary driven concern their own happiness. However, somewhere along the way they might well develop a genuine compassionate stance towards all Life here on Earth, and thus awake from self-centred tendencies and delusions to see the interconnectedness of all reality and being.
Beauty inspires the faithful and brings them closer to God. Some of the most beautiful buildings in the world have been constructed in the name of Buddha, Jesus Christ, or Mohammed. Then there are the beautiful statues and alluring stories in Hinduism; stained glass, inspiring paintings, and illustrated manuscripts; uplifting music sung by tremulous choir boys and vast choirs, or played on great organs. Deep emotions are inspired to the point of religious ecstasy or rapture which then cries out for – and receives – an explanation. The ecstasy is real enough, but from the memes’ point of view, beauty is another trick to help the reproduce.
The altruism trick permeates religious teachings. Many believers are truly good people. In the name of their faith they help their neighbours, give money to the poor, and try to live honest and moral lives. If they are successful then generally people come to lie and admire them and so are more inclined to imitate them. In this way not only does good and honest behaviour spread, but the religious memes that were linked to that behaviour spread too. Alongside this comes merely the semblance of good behaviour. Hypocrisy can flourish when goodness is defined not only as kind and altruistic behaviour, but as sticking to the rules and obligations of the faith. Much of the money donated to churches, temples, or synagogues is not used for the poor or needy, but to perpetuate the religion’s memes by erecting beautiful buildings or paying for clergy. Activities that spread memes are also defined as ‘good’ even though their benefit is questionable, such as saying prayers at specified times, saying grace at every meal, and keeping one day of the week as a day of worship. In this way huge chunks of every believer’s time are willingly devoted to maintaining and spreading the faith.
Many people think of Mother Teresa as a saint. Indeed, she may soon be officially canonised by the Catholic Church. She is many people’s idea of the truly selfless and altruistic heroine. But what did she actually do? Some of the inhabitants of Calcutta accuse her of diverting attention from the real needs of the city’s poor, giving Calcutta a bad name and of helping only those who were prepared to take on Catholic teachings. Certainly, she was fiercely anti-abortion and anti-birth control. Many of the people she helped were young women with no access to contraceptives, little ability to avoid being raped, and almost no access to health care if they became pregnant. Yet she steadfastly maintained her Catholic opposition to the one thing that would have helped them most of all – control over their reproductive lives. Whatever we may think about how much she really helped the starving people of Calcutta there is no doubt that her behaviour effectively spread Catholic memes by using the altruism tick.
Even evil and cruelty can be redefined as good. The Koran states that it is good to give hundreds of lashes to an adulteress and to have no pity on her. You might well think that Muslim women can avoid this by not committing adultery, but Warraq (1995) explains in unpleasant detail what life can be like in countries that adhere strictly to Islamic law. Women may be powerless to resist sexual abuse, and afterwards must take the punishment while the men who abused them them get off free. Since women are objects of disgust, a man is supposed to not to touch a women he does not have rights over. Women are routinely locked away and, if they are allowed out, must walk behind the man and suitably covered – which in many countries means being covered head to toes in a smothering garment with just a tiny little grille to look out of. Obeying such rules to the letter makes a Muslim ‘good,’ regardless of the misery it creates.
Returning to more honest uses of goodness and altruism, Allison’s (1992) theory of ‘beneficent norms’ applies especially well to religions One of his general rules is ‘Be good to your close cultural relatives’; the memetic equivalent of kin selection. But how do you know who they are? This rule tracks biological kinship in cultures with predominantly vertical transmission, since in these cultures you acquire most of your memes from biological relatives, but with horizontal transmission other means of recognition are needed. One is ‘Be good to those who act like you.’ It works like this. If you see someone else who acts the same way as you do, it is likely that you both have cultural ancestors in common. If you now help him you make it more likely that he will be successful, and hence that he will pass on his memes, including the rule ‘Be good to those who act like you.’ Allison calls this a ‘marker scheme.’ He gives the examples of wearing a turban or abstaining from certain foods, but we might add supporting Manchester United or listening to hip-hop, as well as genuflecting or wearing a little portrait of your guru round your neck. He adds that markers that are costly or difficult to learn can deter exploitation by outsiders. Apart from languages, a good example is religious rituals. Many of these require years to learn and others, such as ritual circumcision, are certainly costly for an adult.
The result of this kind of altruism is that people are kind and generous to the in-group and not to outsiders. This boosts the well-being of the group’s members and hence makes them more likely to be imitated, and so pass on the faith. This is exactly what we see in many of the world’s greatest religions. Although the instruction to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ is commonly taken to mean ‘love everyone,’ in a tribal context in which it was first written it may have been meant more literally – in other words love your own tribe, and your own family, but not everybody else (Hartung 1995). Even the admonition not to kill may originally have applied only to the in-group. Hartung points out that the rabbis of the Talmud used to hold an Israelite guilty of murder if he intentionally killed another Israelite, but killing other people did not count.
Some religions positively encourage murder and war against people of other faiths. Islam has fatwas and jihads to justify killing unbelievers, and especially those who harm or renounce the faith. In February 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini delivered his famous fatwa on the author Salman Rushdie. This is a direct call to all Muslims to murder Rushdie for daring to blaspheme against the holy Koran in his book Satanic Verses. When the punishment for renouncing or criticising a religion is so severe, the memes are very ably protected.
Hindus, Muslims, and Christians alike have gone to war again and again in the name of God. When a few hundred Spaniards murdered thousands of Incas, leading to the destruction of an entire civilisation, they did it for the glory of God and the holy Catholic Faith. In a subtler way religious missionaries are still destroying ancient cultures even today. People have been tortured, burned alive, and shot because they believed the wrong thing. Religions teach that God wants you to spread his True understanding to all the world and it is therefore good maim, rape, pillage, steal and murder.
We see how the conspiracy theory protects UFO memes; similar mechanisms protect religious memes. As Dawkins (1993) points out, good Catholics have faith; they do not need proof. Indeed, it is a measure of how spiritual and religious you are that you have faith enough to believe in completely impossible things without asking questions, such as that the wine is really turned into blood. This assertion cannot be tested because the liquid in the cup still tastes, looks and smells like wine – you must just have faith that it is really Christ’s blood. If you are tempted by doubt, you must resist. Not only is God invisible but he ‘moves in mysterious ways.’ The mystery is part of the whole package and to be admired in its own right. This untestability protects the memes from rejection.
Religious memes are stored, and thus given improved longevity, in the great religious texts. The theologian Hugh Pyper (1998) describes the Bible as one of the most successful texts ever produced. ‘If “survival of the fittest” has any validity as a slogan, then the bible seems a fair candidate for the accolade of the fittest of texts.’ (p.70) It has been translated into over two thousand languages, exists in many different versions within some of those languages, and even in a country like Japan, where only one or two per cent of the population are Christians, more than a quarter of all households possess a copy. Pyper argues that Western culture is the Bible’s way of making more Bibles. And why is it so successful? Because it alters its environment in a way that increases the chances of its being copied. It does this, for example, by including within itself many instructions to pass it on, and by describing itself as indispensable to the people who read it. It is extremely adaptable, and since much of its content is self-contradictory it can be used to justify more or less any action or moral stance.
When we look at religions from a meme’s eye view we can understand why they have been so successful. These religious memes did not set out with an intention to succeed. They were just behaviours, ideas and stories that were copied from one person to another in a long history of human attempts to understand the world. They were successful because they happened to come together into mutually supportive gangs that included all the right tricks to keep them safely stored in millions of brains, books and buildings, and repeatedly passed on to more. They evoked strong emotions and strange experiences (see William Sargant’s “Battle For The Mind”). They provided myths to answer real questions and the myths were protected by untestability, threats, and promises. They created and then reduced fear to create compliance, and they used the beauty, truth and altruism tricks to help their spread. That is why they are still with us, and why millions of people’s behaviour is routinely controlled by ideas that are either false or completely untestable.
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No one designed these great faiths with all their clever tricks. Rather, they evolved gradually by memetic selection. But nowadays people deliberately use memetic tricks to spread religions and make money. Their techniques of memetic engineering are derived from long experience and research, and are similar to those used in propaganda and marketing; with radio, television and the Internet, their memes can spread far further and faster than ever before.
by Susan Blackmore
Here I am going to make a bit of an assumption. One that, for me, has proven to be – on the whole – a fact. When it comes to ultimate truths and emotional happiness, these two aspects of choice in modern day human life are very interchangeable with one another. Over the last few years I have noticed that people tend to prefer, and thus, gravitate towards, agreeable circumstances in which they can flourish socially and personally, rather than seek out ultimate and/or painful truths/realisations/understandings. No doubt, believing is certainly easier than thinking. Especially when some incentives are thrown in to prevent thinking, as Blackmore discusses above in “Religions As Memeplexes” i.e. death, social outcasting, etc… We all crave some form of social contact, and to be outcast from a social tribe that we belong to can be almost as destructive as death. As Adolf Hitler once said, “What luck for rulers, that men do not think.” And from this warped basis of being the second World War came about. Either way, many choose agreeable circumstances in which to flourish, over disagreeable circumstances. As Barbara L. Fredrickson and Marcial F. Losada discuss in their paper entitled “Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing,” positive affect plays a major role in people’s lives, bringing contentment, good health – and thus longevity and greater chances to spread their genes – as well as increased creativity and output… All of which I think we can call ‘good’ things for natural selection.
What predicts whether people will flourish or languish? Are the predictors similar for individuals, relation- ships, and larger groups? Drawing together existing theory and research on affect and nonlinear dynamic systems, we propose that a key predictor of flourishing is the ratio of positive to negative affect.
Over time, and in both private and social contexts, people experience a range of pleasant and unpleasant emo- tions and moods, and they express a variety of positive and negative evaluative sentiments or attitudes. We use affect to represent this spectrum of valenced feeling states and attitudes, with positive affect and positivity interchangeably representing the pleasant end (e.g., feeling grateful, upbeat; expressing appreciation, liking) and negative affect and negativity representing the unpleasant end (e.g., feeling contemptuous, irritable; expressing disdain, disliking). The affective texture of a person’s life—or of a given relation- ship or group—can be represented by its positivity ratio, the ratio of pleasant feelings and sentiments to unpleasant ones over time. Past research has shown that for individu- als, this ratio predicts subjective well-being (Diener, 2000; Kahneman, 1999). Pushing further, we hypothesize that— for individuals, relationships, and teams—positivity ratios that meet or exceed a certain threshold characterize human flourishing. Although both negative and positive affect can produce adaptive and maladaptive outcomes, a review of the benefits of positive affect provides a particularly useful backdrop for our theorizing.
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Benefits of Positive Affect: Empirical Evidence
A wide spectrum of empirical evidence documents the adaptive value of positive affect (for a review, see Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, in press). Beyond their pleasant subjective feel, positive emotions, positive moods, and positive sentiments carry multiple, interrelated benefits. First, these good feelings alter people’s mindsets: Experiments have shown that induced positive affect widens the scope of attention (Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005; Rowe, Hirsch, & Anderson, 2005), broadens behavioral repertoires (Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005), and increases intuition (Bolte, Goschkey, & Kuhl, 2003) and creativity (Isen, Daubman, & Nowicki, 1987). Second, good feelings alter people’s bodily systems: Experiments have shown that induced positive affect speeds recovery from the cardiovascular aftereffects of negative affect (Fredrickson, Mancuso, Branigan, & Tugade, 2000), alters frontal brain asymmetry (Davidson et al., 2003), and increases immune function (Davidson et al., 2003). Third, good feelings predict salubrious mental and physical health outcomes: Prospective studies have shown that frequent positive affect predicts (a) resilience to adversity (Fredrickson, Tugade, Waugh, & Larkin, 2003), (b) increased happiness (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002), (c) psychological growth (Fredrickson et al., 2003), (d) lower levels of cortisol (Steptoe, Wardle, & Marmot, 2005), (e) reduced inflammatory responses to stress (Steptoe et al., 2005), (f) reductions in subsequent-day physical pain (Gil et al., 2004), (g) resistance to rhinoviruses (Cohen, Doyle, Turner, Alper, & Skoner, 2003), and (h) reductions in stroke (Ostir, Markides, Peek, & Goodwin, 2001). And fourth, perhaps reflecting these effects in combination, good feelings predict how long people live: Several well-controlled longitudinal studies document a clear link between frequent positive affect and longevity (Danner, Snowdon, & Friesen, 2001; Levy, Slade, Kunkel, & Kasl, 2002; Moskowitz, 2003; Ostir, Markides, Black, & Goodwin, 2000).
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The Broaden-and-Build Theory
The varied good outcomes empirically linked with positive affect support the broaden-and-build theory, which asserts that positive emotions are evolved psychological adaptations that increased human ancestors’ odds of survival and reproduction (Fredrickson, 1998). The theory holds that unlike negative emotions, which narrow people’s behavioral urges toward specific actions that were life-preserving for human ancestors (e.g., fight, flight), positive emotions widen the array of thoughts and actions called forth (e.g., play, explore), facilitating generativity and behavioral flexibility. Laboratory experiments support these claims, showing that relative to neutral states, induced negative emotions narrow people’s momentary thought–action repertoires, whereas induced positive emotions broaden these same repertoires (Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005).
The theory holds that in contrast with the benefits of negative emotions—which are direct and immediately adaptive in life-threatening situations—the benefits of broadened thought–action repertoires emerge over time. Specifically, broadened mindsets carry indirect and longterm adaptive value because broadening builds enduring personal resources, like social connections, coping strate- gies, and environmental knowledge. As an illustration, consider the link between interest and exploration. Re- search shows that initially positive attitudes—like interest and curiosity—produce more accurate subsequent knowl- edge than do initially negative attitudes—like boredom and cynicism. Positivity, by prompting approach and exploration, creates experiential learning opportunities that con- firm or correct initial expectations. By contrast, because negativity promotes avoidance, opportunities to correct false impressions are passed by (Fazio, Eiser, & Shook, 2004). These findings suggest that positive affect—by broadening exploratory behavior in the moment—over time builds more accurate cognitive maps of what is good and bad in the environment. This greater knowledge be- comes a lasting personal resource.
Although positive affect is transient, the personal re- sources accrued across moments of positivity are durable. As these resources accumulate, they function as reserves that can be drawn on to manage future threats and increase odds of survival. So experiences of positive affect, al- though fleeting, can spark dynamic processes with down- stream repercussions for growth and resilience.
Whereas traditional perspectives hold that positive affect marks or signals current health and well-being (Die- ner, 2000; Kahneman, 1999), the broaden-and-build theory goes further to suggest that positive affect also produces future health and well-being (Fredrickson, 2001). Put dif- ferently, because the broaden-and-build effects of positive affect accumulate and compound over time, positivity can transform individuals for the better, making them healthier, more socially integrated, knowledgeable, effective, and resilient. Supporting this view, prospective studies by Fredrickson and colleagues have shown that positive affect at initial assessment predicts increases in well-being sev- eral weeks later, in part by broadening people’s mindsets (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002) and building their psycholog- ical resources (Fredrickson, Brown, Cohn, Conway, & Mikels, 2005). This evidence motivates our prediction that positive affect is a critical ingredient within flourishing mental health.
by Barbara L. Fredrickson & Marcial F. Losada
I doubt we really have to go into why “negative emotions tend to bring about a malaise in health”. Any one who has suffered from depression will know how negative states of mind can radically alter one’s life in its unfolding. Bearing in mind the crippling nature of negative emotions, on the whole, natural selection will tend to favour those of us who are experiencing more positive emotional states. Certainly we can all notice within ourselves that we will tend to gravitate towards favourable conditions which fit with our schemas and memetic dispositions… We seek out good will and fun times… Nearly all of us love a laugh and joke every now and then… And the majority of us prefer them more often than not.
Somewhere in this understanding, it is my belief that religions provided – and probably still does provide – a sort of “broaden-and-build” aspect for positive emotions that broaden’s one’s awareness and encourage novel, varied, and exploratory thoughts or actions. While religions on the whole are a tough meme to deviate from nowadays, they no doubt provided our earlier ancestors – who were more prone to barbaric idiosyncrasies, which could easily cause negative repercussions within any social dynamic i.e. war, death, loss, starvation, etc… – with a means of social bonding with other men and women by way of similar belief systems, regardless of personality type, tribal stature, and/or ethnic origin. Thus, in my humble opinion, religion probably propagated one of the first type of truly universal social dynamics between multicultural races and creeds, thereby opening up cultural barriers and clearing obstacles of language and social fear.
While we know some zealots use religion to prevent this dissolution of cultural barriers – whatever their reasons are i.e. memetic pride, ego-centric righteousness, etc… – we shouldn’t think of religions as negative. These obsessives hijack the essence of the constructive memeplex and destroy any modicum of goodwill left in their sanctuary. We should be aware that religions were probably the evolutionary mechanism that brought about our present global society to the state of functionality that it presently resides in. Thus it was an important factor within our history’s social fabric. Everywhere we look, religion was the reason why trade and social harmony blossomed… And why wars devastated nations. Within social circles of religious pragmatism, human beings were able to flourish and transcend petty disputes and fears. Who cares that they were not based on real veritable and empirical facts… They, on the whole, provided a basis for good health and positive affect within everyone’s social dynamic. This in turn provided our ancestors – and us indirectly – with a basis for better adaptive evolutionary forms and modes of being and behaving towards one another.
Despite the advantages that religious follower were endowed with… We might well have forgotten in our hearts how deeply interconnected to mother Earth we all are. No doubt capitalism and religious decree in this “Battle For The Mind” has loosened our understanding of how we link to the Tao… To chaos itself. But we will be reminded of them when we fall from grace by taking any capitalist or religious motive too literally and/or seriously. If we do not awake from this literal delusion of self-supporting corporate enterprise that can apparently exist and create solutions that go beyond mother nature’s natural ways to provide us with all we need independently within Earth’s limited biosphere, wars might well destroy many of us, or changes in the Earth’s delicate balance will ensure that climatic repercussions will dwarf anything seen before, as well as occurring more quickly than anything that our ancestors might have known, breaking the habits of our developed nations. We will need to understand these aspects that lie behind religious and group memetics before any catastrophic events occur… Mainly because our survival will depend upon them once again.
Certainly Blackmore’s ideas regarding the ‘Altruism Trick’ are most interesting and somewhat familiar, and I have, without a doubt, noticed many similar pressures for memetic agreements within social exchanges, most of which have been posited from altruistic donations between people within my ‘circle’ of friends. All of these memetic agreements seem to yield to a similar dynamical flow that allows us all to interact and relate to one another across varying levels of social collaboration. Only one person that I know seems to hold back from any such yielding to others… While I find this trait endearing on many levels within her character, I have noticed that her seemingly unshakable preserve toward her own memetic ideals/schemata sometimes becomes inverted, mainly when she deliberately chooses to agree to disagree with everyone else, especially when placed under any pressure to conform, even if it is to conform to her already professed memetic make-up!? Saying that, I am very aware of the reasons behind her remaining independent of the ‘pack,’ and cannot fault her for doing so.
If one remains mindful to one’s own mental processing while undergoing social exchanges between their friends, family, colleagues and even complete strangers – noting in particular the reasons as to why we might sometimes agree with presented ideals that might otherwise countermand one’s own basic principles and intuition, I feel Blackmore’s theory on altruism – presented above – will satisfy some of the criteria for these ‘slips-of-mind’ rather succinctly.
But regardless of whether Blackmore’s theory is really correct or not, there lies an even deeper process that allows us to understanding how we make these decisions… As we all know, we are “attracted” to acts of kindness shown towards ourselves and others, and might even be disposed to allow our own views to temporarily disseminate while we repay of a debt of kindness acceding to a donor’s meme (see William Sargant’s “Battle For The Mind”).
A Nonlinear Dynamic Systems Perspective
We favor a nonlinear dynamic systems approach to positive affect for several reasons. First, theory and research on affective phenomena have already established that emotions are multicomponent systems that simultaneously alter patterns of thinking, behavior, subjective experience, verbal and nonverbal communication, and physiological activity. Second, such multicomponent affect systems are dynamic: They change over time as the various components within the affect system mutually influence one another. For instance, just as positive thinking and positive actions can trigger pleasant feeling states, so too can pleasant feeling states trigger positive thinking and positive actions (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002).
by Barbara L. Fredrickson & Marcial F. Losada
This process of choosing to perform an altruistic act – this behaviour of selecting – utilises the disorder of ordering chaos. Thus I feel that Barbara L. Fredrickson and Marcial F. Losada’s suggestion that a nonlinear dynamical systems perspective best fits a psychological model for understanding the complex dynamics of human flourishing is right on the money. Surely it is obvious that the behavioural net of our brain/mind continuum has a naturally selective and highly dynamic method for choosing and selecting appropriate methods for optimal habitual survival mechanisms. And this chaotic mental continuum of ours is one which has been naturally selected for as the best collective survival mechanism that posits a ‘healthy’ type social flourishing for our species within any given environment here on Earth. No doubt I have already written about observations that suggest that this chaotic mechanism of neuronal behaviour exists – see “Self-Similarity ~ Fractals, fractals everywhere…” But having been given the chance to read this amazing paper (thanks to a ‘happyseaurchin’), entitled “Positive Affect And The Complex Dynamics Of Human Flourishing,” which discussed the notions and processes surrounding how we choose “up-beat” behaviour over “down-cast, just plodding through life” behaviour made deep intuitive sense in a way that I hadn’t felt before. Seems that the same basins of attraction found within Earth’s weather systems also present their familiar ‘lemniscate’ shapes within our patterns of selective mind.
So I ask… Is there a tendency for chaos to be built into naturally successful dynamical systems? If so… Why would this be the case? Could it be because this nonlinear complexity yields truly amazing adaptive qualities within the systems that utilise its open-ended modus operandi, and thus, because of its robust and varied behavioural patterning, overcomes nearly all obstacles/threats to its survival and so becomes naturally selected for? Thus… Could we reason that altruistic behaviour spawned from the sea of chaos inherent within our own being… Allowing us to develop in a multi-cultural and – on the whole – peaceful society??? After all, a ratio of 2.9 from ‘positive affect’ over ‘negative affect’ is apparently the key to human flourishing.
I ask these questions because – while on an intuitive level I am certain these notions will point us in the right direction to understanding the essence of our Being – I do not want to be presumptuous about whether they are in actual fact correct. That I will leave up to the scientists who might happen upon this this page and feel inspired enough to test this hypothesis.
To find out more about Susan Blackmore, please click here.
Or to read more about positive affect and health, please click here.