August 25, 2012
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Just over a month ago, around my birthday, I saw this rather interesting film that was airing on the BBC’s iPlayer… The main reason it caught my eye was because I was looking to buy a DVD copy an old blues documentary that Martin Scorsese had directed that traced the origins of blues music from the birth of the Delta-blues to the slave-experience and finally to Africa, which was entitled “The Blues“. However, as so often seems to be the case when on-line recently, I got slightly side tracked when I noticed a somewhat odd search result place near the top of the Google list… It read something like, “Scorsese – Executive Producer – Surviving Progress”.
Obviously I’m quite a big fan of Scorsese’s past works, especially his recent foray into the world of 3D animation that was highlighted with his loveable film “Hugo”, a heart felt story of a young orphaned lad who looks after the Gare Montparnasse’s clocks in Paris, ensuring they’re all well maintained and running on time. Anything that he decides/chooses to get involved in, for me, is a curiosity I rarely fail to miss… Mainly because they’re usually so well crafted and brilliantly realised. However, this one particular listing about “Survivng Progess” I had not heard anything about: neither in the tabloids nor on-line. Why that should be, I have no idea, especially as it is something I’ve broached the subject of here within this website before. So, as it was airing on the BBC’s iPlayer, I just couldn’t turn down a ‘free’ viewing of something Scorsese had chosen to get involved in when the chance arose.
To be fair, it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. Partly because I didn’t read the introduction to it on the BBC’s website… But predominantly because I had clocked the 1 hour and 22 minute run time and, so, automatically expected it to be a feature length fictional movie/film of some kind or another (oh, damnable presumptions)… However, from the very outset, I have to say, with it’s dulcet musical score and languid, ponderous content, it left me feeling somewhat engrossed and uneasy all at the same time, almost as though I was witnessing my own death and, yet, was still fully aware of all that going on around me.
During the course of the film, it touchingly brought an obvious – and yet, of late, once again much overlooked question – to the forefront of my thoughts… As a race of living beings, would WE actually make it through the coming hard times, most of which are predominantly and presently of our own making… ? Could we make sufficient changes right now to allow a decent bit of progress to be made on the path to cultivating a more balanced way of life within nature’s cradle of a planetary ecosystem… ?
Alfred Montapert, the Amercian author who wrote the “The Supreme Philosophy of Man: The Laws of Life”, is quoted as once saying “Don’t confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but doesn’t make any progress.” Certainly I see a lot of motion going on all around me in daily life… And whenever I’ve asked whether it’s really a holistic, healthy type of progress, most people I meet say that it will do for the time being… But, my instinct keeps nudging me, and I can’t help asking “Really? Is it really good enough for the time being?” Certainly I’m still not convinced by most people’s appraisal of the situation… And it seems, as this film suggests, the answer is a lot more astounding that most could (or would) dare to imagine…
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Documentary telling the double-edged story of the grave risks we pose to our own survival in the name of progress. With rich imagery the film connects financial collapse, growing inequality and global oligarchy with the sustainability of mankind itself. The film explores how we are repeatedly destroyed by ‘progress traps’ – alluring technologies which serve immediate need but rob us of our long term future. Featuring contributions from those at the forefront of evolutionary thinking such as Stephen Hawking and economic historian Michael Hudson. With Martin Scorsese as executive producer, the film leaves us with a challenge – to prove that civilisation and survival is not the biggest progress trap of them all.
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To find out where I originally saw this movie, please visit the BBC’s website by clicking here.
OR to visit the official website for the film, which should be released on DVD sometime this October, please click here.
August 24, 2011
In some ways it’s amazing… But in other ways, I wonder if I’m really surprised… ? I’ve been observing fractal patterns now for quite a few years in what many refer to as seemingly unrelated fields of occurrence i.e. hearing them in reverb simulations that I build within Max/MSP, OR while observing the patterns with which the Penicillium fungi grows on the bread that I want to avoid using in the toaster most mornings, through to markets and their ever shifting price-scapes… They’re everywhere. Yes… Everywhere.
They’ve even managed to naturally find their way into the experiential textures of my mind’s dynamic… Textures that the brain seems to weave together through strange attractor like eddies that occur between various nodes and hierarchical synaptic electrical discharges that fire so readily between various clusters within the brain’s overall structure… This in turn allows a type of consciousness to form i.e. myself, to perceive the material ‘aspects’ of the environment that I presently find myself in… ‘Aspects’ that are continually changing/moving/shifting. Most of these transformations are commonly seen as material changes i.e. day to night OR hot water turning into cold water… Changes that are forged from the same principles and materials i.e. atomic debris/fabric of the universe, that ‘I’ find myself a result of.
It’s amazing that ‘my’ five senses can somehow distinguish between these multifarious ‘aspects’ simply by observing the ever changing environmental interplay that unfolds in the world around me – and within me – allowing my body to cross-reference these abstractions (such as smell, sight, touch, taste, sound, etc…) into a functional braid of linear temporal registers that are plied together into a complex feedback loop of conscious awareness that correlates all of them into the fabric of experience. Through the natural evolution of this holographic image of universal dynamics – one that has been naturally selected for in most living organisms here on Earth in some manner or another – it’s pretty obvious that memetic evolution has given rise to – and certainly has benefited from – these unfolding fractal patterns of the mind, brain, body and environmental continuum… And, thus, so have I allowed myself – through much diligent study – to hang a myriad of meanings and socially accepted constructs onto the continuous flow of this biochemically experiential unfolding.
When I sit with this feeling, it seems very natural for everything to be just as it is… For us to be the way we are… Mortal, soft, delicate and changing… Prone to aging and death… Giving way to new progeny in an evolving loop of atomic re-awakening… And environmental readjustment/realignment… Suddenly it becomes okay to accept that one day I will die… And that my patterns of behavior will continue to ripple through the surrounding people I have met and the environment I once lived in, slowly being diluted, intermingling with other people’s activities, every evolving… Ever changing. Perhaps we don’t ever really die… ! Then I see that ‘I’ am not as free as many might imagine we are… Rather we are more willfully able to do whatever it is we choose to with the time we have here, acting within defined parameters of being… Operating to prolong our activities. I find acceptance in these limited modes… And I find true freedom in the limitless possibilities within my imagination. Just as chaos is limitless, and as the brain’s basis for functional ordering uses chaos to operate from… So I find myself not really being surprised that the universe ‘may’ have a fractal structure. When is see my lungs on a X-ray that had recently, there they are again… When I look at my arm closely and see the veins of blood flowing under my skin, fractal shapes come into focus… And I’m just amazed at the beauty of these patterns as they release their energetic uncoiling of potential energy into kinetic displays of wonder and marvel, spreading out over various timings into the delicately interconnected chaos of universal change.
So what I thought was originally surprise… Has in fact turned out to be more of a sense of discovery… A rediscovery of my connectedness… My roots… My interlinked existence to everything – absolutely everything – around me. In many ways it has been an important rediscovery for me because this feeling of interconnectedness seems to have been masked over, obscured from obvious sight, by the daily meanderings of advertising, fictional drivel (mainly in the form of film and pulp fiction), political discussion, religious debate, scientific enquiry and general distraction, all of which seem to come from the supposed “perks” of Western modern day living…
But, thankfully, while immersing myself in this tangled mess of experiential twine – mainly by reading many, many scientific journals/publications over the last fifteen or so years, ones that concern themselves with how universal structure and function came into being (whether on the astrological and/or microscopic levels OR within the dynamics of the mind, brain, body, environmental continuum) – I’ve been unwittingly reconnecting myself with this feeling of interdependence. While closely keeping my eye on how the present theories (yes, theories, in the plural, because there are many of them out there) are continually evolving and changing… I’ve been unintentionally observing another form of natural selection at work… Much like Darwin did. One that is occurring within our minds. And, on the whole, it’s doing exactly what any good evolving form/system does i.e. works through the plethora of memetic constructs that are being formulated from experience by scrubbing the obviously impractical and blatantly cumbersome theories, revealing only the ones that best fit the observations. Then, while subjecting these selected few to yet more stringent tests, each idea/theory is further developed… OR revealed to be a fraud. Eventually one idea/theory in particular is found… One that fits better than all the rest. One that can generate self-similar observed data by repeating the experiments over and over again. This idea/theory then becomes a sort of fact… One that can be expounded further into more developed and concise levels of understanding… Where each idea/theory can interconnect and interrelate to other seemingly unrelated areas of scientific inquiry. Time and again, further cross-referencing and testing ensues, scrutinizing each novel idea/theory/notion… If one doesn’t fit, it is then modified, tweaked, or reconfigured to work into the overall account produced thus far… OR EVEN, if an idea is so obvious, then the other areas might find themselves being revised. This continues ad-infinitum, moving even onwards into finer details… Heading towards the vanishing point of a complexity that knows no bounds… A sort tailor made fitting for a more concise scientific understanding that will never be found.
In fact… So to does the evolution of animal form work in much the same way… As Professor Armand Marie Leroi states, “Species give rise to other species, and as they do so, they change. The changes are minute and subtle, but given enough time, the results could be spectacular. And so they are!” So to do our mind streams change and evolve over time… Allowing us to see more clearly whatever it is we are looking at.
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What Darwin didn’t Know
Documentary which tells the story of evolution theory since Darwin postulated it in 1859 in ‘On the Origin of Species’.
The theory of evolution by natural selection is now scientific orthodoxy, but when it was unveiled it caused a storm of controversy, from fellow scientists as well as religious people. They criticised it for being short on evidence and long on assertion and Darwin, being the honest scientist that he was, agreed with them. He knew that his theory was riddled with ‘difficulties’, but he entrusted future generations to complete his work and prove the essential truth of his vision, which is what scientists have been doing for the past 150 years.
Evolutionary biologist Professor Armand Marie Leroi charts the scientific endeavour that brought about the triumphant renaissance of Darwin’s theory. He argues that, with the new science of evolutionary developmental biology (evo devo), it may be possible to take that theory to a new level – to do more than explain what has evolved in the past, and start to predict what might evolve in the future.
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As time has gone on, I’ve been fortunate enough to rediscover how similar basic patterns permeate almost every single aspect of our lives as human beings… This rediscovery – for me at least – occurred because I had the fortunate experience of studying many dynamical systems for musical analogy… That is, I studied them over and over again, looking at how to translate these natural never-ending patterns into sonic textures for art’s sake. When you see them, though, you begin to spot them everywhere you care to look. It’s almost like it’s so obvious that they’re there, just staring us in the face, that because of it, we just haven’t noticed them… They’ve always been there… In plain sight. So why would we notice them? In some ways it’s just like when the astronauts of Apollo 11 landed to the moon for the first time… When they got there, they couldn’t see any trace of the Earth around them anymore. Their home of a planet was now just a beautiful jewel hanging in the moon’s inky black sky, just out of their reach. Everything that they had taken for granted i.e. an abundance of air, all the trees, plants, life, all the oceans of water, our homes, the people they loved, movies, the abundance of food, animals, clouds, rain, wind, etc… They just weren’t there around them anymore… And it stood out like a soar thumb as to how fortunate they were to live on a planet that had all those things… Things that were so common on Earth. This voyage to the moon profoundly changed the way they i.e Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr and pilot Michael Collins saw the Earth afterwards. In fact it changed ever astronaut who ever went to the moon’s perspective… So that when they returned, they couldn’t help but wonder why people couldn’t see what they now could see so clearly i.e. how precious the Earth is and all the beings that live on it… How connected we all are to one another… To everything around us… How much we need our planet… And how futile all our wars and disagreements are in the greater scheme of everything.
Something similar is going on in science now… Over the last year or so I’ve been coming across many publications wherein scientists are seemingly wanting to let go of some of their earlier preconceptions about how the textbook ideals – one’s which their contemporaries wrote down with absolute certitude for their students to learn from – concerning universal flow and other areas of scientific interest, don’t really quite fit with what these students are actually observing in the “real world…” And along with how they are having to “pull-out-of-the-hat” seemingly bizarre concepts, such as dark matter, in order to balance their predecessors equations… Many are beginning to feel that it’s time to evolve again. Thus it can be noticed that many of the new generation of scientists are looking for novel ideas to re-evaluated what they have learned… And as the models get more and more complex, so to do we see that complexity needs to be better understood… Revealing many types of fractal structures and all sorts of non-linear dynamics residing within the natural flow of universal unfolding.
As I have mentioned before in several blogs contained in this website… Until fractal/chaotic dynamics are properly introduced and included into the equations of physicists, chemists, biologists, psychologists, etc… There will always be a thin vale of mist that detaches their efforts from discovering the true order of things. For, until this time, discrepancies and vague approximations on how universal flow actually functions will cloud the depth of understanding that lies waiting to be seen beneath this mist.
Saying that… There are those who are already daring to go beyond… As Francesco Sylos Labini clearly demonstrates with his intuitive proposition below… The universe may have a fractal structure…
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Largest Cosmic Structures ‘Too Big’ For Theories
Space is festooned with vast “hyperclusters” of galaxies, a new cosmic map suggests. It could mean that gravity or dark energy – or perhaps something completely unknown – is behaving very strangely indeed.
We know that the universe was smooth just after its birth. Measurements of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), the light emitted 370,000 years after the big bang, reveal only very slight variations in density from place to place. Gravity then took hold and amplified these variations into today’s galaxies and galaxy clusters, which in turn are arranged into big strings and knots called superclusters, with relatively empty voids in between.
On even larger scales, though, cosmological models say that the expansion of the universe should trump the clumping effect of gravity. That means there should be very little structure on scales larger than a few hundred million light years across.
But the universe, it seems, did not get the memo. Shaun Thomas of University College London (UCL), and colleagues have found aggregations of galaxies stretching for more than 3 billion light years. The hyperclusters are not very sharply defined, with only a couple of per cent variation in density from place to place, but even that density contrast is twice what theory predicts.
“This is a challenging result for the standard cosmological models,” saysFrancesco Sylos Labini of the University of Rome, Italy, who was not involved in the work.
The clumpiness emerges from an enormous catalogue of galaxies called the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, compiled with a telescope at Apache Point, New Mexico. The survey plots the 2D positions of galaxies across a quarter of the sky. “Before this survey people were looking at smaller areas,” says Thomas. “As you look at more of the sky, you start to see larger structures.”
A 2D picture of the sky cannot reveal the true large-scale structure in the universe. To get the full picture, Thomas and his colleagues also used the colour of galaxies recorded in the survey.
More distant galaxies look redder than nearby ones because their light has been stretched to longer wavelengths while travelling through an expanding universe. By selecting a variety of bright, old elliptical galaxies whose natural colour is well known, the team calculated approximate distances to more than 700,000 objects. The upshot is a rough 3D map of one quadrant of the universe, showing the hazy outlines of some enormous structures.
Coagulating dark energy
The result hints at some profound new physical phenomenon, perhaps involving dark energy – the mysterious entity that is accelerating the expansion of space. Dark energy is usually assumed to be uniform across the cosmos. If instead it can pool in some areas, then its repulsive force could push away nearby matter, creating these giant patterns.
Alternatively, we may need to extend our understanding of gravity beyond Einstein’s general theory of relativity. “It could be that we need an even more general theory to explain how gravity works on very large scales,” says Thomas.
A more mundane answer might yet emerge. Using colour to find distance is very sensitive to observational error, says David Spergel of Princeton University. Dust and stars in our own galaxy could confuse the dataset, for example. Although the UCL team have run some checks for these sources of error, Thomas admits that the result might turn out to be the effect of foreground stars either masking or mimicking distant galaxies.
“It will be essential to confirm this with another technique,” says Spergel. The best solution would be to get detailed spectra of a large number of galaxies. Researchers would be able to work out their distances from Earth much more precisely, since they would know how much their light has been stretched, or red-shifted, by the expansion of space.
Sylos Labini has made such a map using a subset of Sloan data. It reveals clumpiness on unexpectedly large scales – though not as vast as these. He believes that the universe may have a fractal structure, looking similar at all scales.
A comprehensive catalogue of spectra for Sloan galaxies is being assembled in a project called the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey. Meanwhile, the Dark Energy Survey will use a telescope in Chile to measure the colours of even more galaxies than Sloan, beginning in October. Such maps might bring hyperclusters out of the haze – or consign them to the status of monstrous mirage.
by Stephen Battersby
Journal reference: Physical Review Letters, DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.106.241301
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For some continued viewing on the subject, please watch the following BBC documentary entitled, “The Secret Life Of Chaos”.
The Secret Life Of Chaos
Chaos theory has a bad name, conjuring up images of unpredictable weather, economic crashes and science gone wrong. But there is a fascinating and hidden side to Chaos, one that scientists are only now beginning to understand.
It turns out that chaos theory answers a question that mankind has asked for millennia – how did we get here?
In this documentary, Professor Jim Al-Khalili sets out to uncover one of the great mysteries of science – how does a universe that starts off as dust end up with intelligent life? How does order emerge from disorder?
It’s a mindbending, counterintuitive and – for many people – a deeply troubling idea. But Professor Al-Khalili reveals the science behind much of beauty and structure in the natural world and discovers that far from it being magic or an act of God, it is in fact an intrinsic part of the laws of physics. Amazingly, it turns out that the mathematics of chaos can explain how and why the universe creates exquisite order and pattern.
And the best thing is that one doesn’t need to be a scientist to understand it. The natural world is full of awe-inspiring examples of the way nature transforms simplicity into complexity. From trees to clouds to humans – after watching this film you’ll never be able to look at the world in the same way again.
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To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.
May 5, 2011
I remember a very long time ago i.e. 25 years or so, I read a vivid work of science fiction by Issac Asimov while I was at school. It was called “I Robot” and was a collection of several short stories about the moral interactions between humans and robots along with resulting conundrums that would manifest. It was a particularly good read, I seem to remember, and enjoyed the ideas it presented in hindsight. In fact it made me think quite a bit about artificial intelligence (AI)… Though I was still rather unversed in what AI actually was… In fact, for that matter, I was even unversed in understanding what and who this “I” was at that time.
I mean… For me to even produce a list of functions that a robot would have to fulfill in order to become “human-like” was a daunting task… Especially when I began doing so on my then novelty of a computer, the ZX Spectrum. To be honest, the games that came with the machine i.e. Hungry Horace, Horace Goes Skiing, Horace and the Spiders, etc… left me somewhat wondering whether computers/robots would ever get as far as biological organisms had done. But that was then… And this is now.
So when articles pop up regarding artificial intelligence, talking about the way in which robots develop their behaviour, I jump at the opportunity to digest these insights and ponder on whether they i.e. robots, might well one day surpass most biological organisms here on Earth in both form, function and intelligence. In fact, I have already noted several interesting pointers that sufficiently demonstrate that our mechanoid counterparts are already well on the way to developing an artificial intelligence all of their own (see “TED Talks – Henry Markram Builds A Brain In A Supercomputer” and “Self-Organized Adaptation Of A Simple Neural Circuit Enables Complex Robot Behavior“)… So would it surprise if we one saw natural selection cleaning up robotic behavior into ever more refined modes of altruism? In fact… Would it be so surprising, even, if one day we saw robots evolving too? Well… Apparently, it’s already happening.
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Robots Evolve To Look Out For Their Own
A robot must protect its own existence.
This mid-20th-century dictate to the robotic clade from science fiction author and biochemist Isaac Asimov seems cleanly in step with Darwinian theory and the biological world of survival of the fittest.
But as scientists continue to witness animals and other organisms habitually sacrificing themselves for the greater good of their colony or kin, the picture of self-interested behavior in the natural world has become murkier. Might robots also learn to cooperate for the betterment of their own kind?
They already have. Meet the Alice bots. Some robots have been programmed to help each other out, but these automatons have “evolved” over generations to be more helpful—that is, to like robots.
The version of this behavior in animals is known as Hamilton’s rule of kin selection. Put forth by biologist W. D. Hamilton in the 1960s, it aimed to explain why organisms—from ants to humans—would sometimes help others at their own expense. This altruistic impulse—to spend time, energy and resources on others—is thought to be especially strong toward those who might help pass along our own genes. But just how close of kin does a person have to be for us to be compelled, under Hamilton’s rule, to help out?
Given the complexity of animal environments and actions and their relatively slow evolution, it’s been difficult to actually demonstrate Hamilton’s rule in organisms.
Cue the robots.
Researchers in Switzerland developed a band of small, rolling robots equipped with sensors and their own “genetic code”—a unique string of 33 1′s and 0′s functioning as individual “neurons” to determine sensor use and behavior—and tasked with foraging for small “food” objects and pushing them to a designated area. Those robots that failed to collect the objects were weeded out of the “gene pool” by the research team, whereas those that were successful could choose whether to collect the food object for themselves or share it with another robot.
“Over hundreds of generations,” the researchers concluded, “we show that Hamilton’s rule always accurately predicts the minimum relatedness necessary for altruism to evolve,” they wrote in a new paper describing the results, published online May 3 in PLoS Biology. The levels of relatedness that the researchers tested included full clones as well as the digital equivalent of siblings, cousins and non-kin.
“This study mirrors Hamilton’s rule remarkably well to explain when an altruistic gene is passed on from one generation to the next, and when one is not,” Laurent Keller, a biologist at the University of Lausanne and co-author of the new study, said in a prepared statement.
Each test consisted of 500 generations of eight robots. To mimic what might happen in nature, the successful robots from each generation were “randomly assorted and subjected to crossovers and mutations…forming the next generation,” the researchers explained. And although the 33 “genes” were randomly distributed at first, “the robots’ performance rapidly increased over the 500 generations of selection,” the researchers noted. And along with acuity at collecting the food, “the level of altruism also rapidly changed over generations,” with those robots around more closely “related” individuals becoming the most altruistic.
Aside from demonstrating Hamilton’s rule in a quantifiable—if artificial—system, the work also shows that “kin selection does not require specific genes devoted to encode altruism or sophisticated cognitive abilities, as the neuronal network of our robots comprised only 33 neurons,” the researchers noted in their paper.
“We have been able to take this experiment and extract an algorithm that we can use to evolve cooperation in any type of robot,” Dario Floreano, a robotics professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and co-author of the new study, said in a prepared statement. Any type of robot? Does that mean it’s time to run for the hills?
Nope—should the bots decide to discard the other two of Asimov’s laws for robots (obeying humans and not harming them), they’ll surely be able to find us there. “We are using this altruism algorithm to improve the control system of our flying robots, and we see that it allows them to effectively collaborate and fly in swarm formation more successfully.”
by Katherine Harmon
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To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.
Or to read other articles that Katherine Harmon has writen, please click here.
And to find out more about the British evolutionary biologist, William Hamilton, please click here.
Plus… To find out how we can test for his rule on evolutionary altruism, please click here.
April 4, 2011
February 20, 2011
What can I say… I’ve been away for a while… A wee while… Four months to be exact… And it’s the first blog of the new year… So a big happy new year to anyone reading this.
Yes, I know… I’ve been slack on the blog front recently. No excuses for it really… Other than the endless days that I’ve been spending down at the farm… Ah… Yes… That’s the reason I haven’t been inside much recently. And that’s why I haven’t been in front of a computer screen as much as I usually like to… Not to mention it’s the reason why I find my comfort zone diminishing to an almost non existent pin prick of a bubble’s ‘pop’ reminder that change and uncertainty, no matter how big or small, is going on beyond all my deluded, insulated ideals of settled, homely stability… Yes… That’s right… I am presently engaged in setting up an organic farm somewhere in the South East of the UK. Not telling anyone quite yet where exactly… Not for the moment, at least… And I’m breaking those old chains of die hard habits i.e. soft living, staying in when it rains or snows, etc… By putting on my wellies and getting my hands, arms, face and clothes completely mud ridden and down right dirty… So, I’m now doing what I’ve been actually ‘preaching’ (although I don’t really like that word much, another doesn’t come to mind) about in this blog. And boy, let me tell you, it’s blooming hard work. Anyway… More on that to follow soon.
Basically, the reason why I find myself here in front of the computer once again… Is that I recently read this article, which was taken from a transcript of a speech by the late (or early, depending on which way you look at his input here on Earth) Douglas Adams, while he was talking at Digital Biota 2… And it resonated deeply in my being… Reminding me about why I was doing what I was doing… Not to mention how clunky my writing is in comparison to the sheer wall of towering genius that Adams was… I cower in shame! LOL!
Anyway… I’m tired. And so I’ll leave it here… For those of of you who have been following these blogs here at polynomial.me.uk, you will no doubt see the connection to all my previous musings…
So here’s the intro…
In honour of Douglas’ memory, Biota.org presents the transcript of his speech at Digital Biota 2, held at Magdelene College Cambridge, in September 1998. I would like to thank Steve Grand for providing this to us. Douglas presented this “off the cuff” which only magifies his true genius in our eyes.
by Bruce Damer
And here’s the transcript of Adams’ speech/debate…
Is There An Artificial God?
This was originally billed as a debate only because I was a bit anxious coming here. I didn’t think I was going to have time to prepare anything and also, in a room full of such luminaries, I thought ‘what could I, as an amateur, possibly have to say’? So I thought I would settle for a debate. But after having been here for a couple of days, I realised you’re just a bunch of guys! It’s been rife with ideas and I’ve had so many myself through talking with and listening to people that I’d thought what I’d do was stand up and have an argument and debate with myself. I’ll talk for a while and hope sufficiently to provoke and inflame opinion that there’ll be an outburst of chair- throwing at the end.
Before I embark on what I want to try and tackle, may I warn you that things may get a little bit lost from time to time, because there’s a lot of stuff that’s just come in from what we’ve been hearing today, so if I occasionally sort of go… I was telling somebody earlier today that I have a four-year-old daughter and was very, very interested watching her face when she was in her first 2 or 3 weeks of life and suddenly realising what nobody would have realised in previous ages—she was rebooting!
I just want to mention one thing, which is completely meaningless, but I am terribly proud of—I was born in Cambridge in 1952 and my initials are D N A!
The topic I want to introduce to you this evening, the subject of the debate that we are about to sort of not have, is a slightly facetious one (you’ll be surprised to hear, but we’ll see where we go with it)—“Is there an Artificial God?” I’m sure most of the people in this room will share the same view, but even as an out-and-out atheist one can’t help noticing that the rôle of a god has had an enormously profound impact on human history over many, many centuries. It’s very interesting to figure out where this came from and what, in the modern scientific world we sometimes hope against hope that we live in, it actually means.
I was thinking about this earlier today when Larry Yaeger was talking about ‘what is life?’ and mentioned at the end something I didn’t know, about a special field of handwriting recognition. The following strange thought went through my mind: that trying to figure out what is life and what isn’t and where the boundary is has an interesting relationship with how you recognise handwriting. We all know, when presented with any particular entity, whether it’s a bit of mould from the fridge or whatever; we instinctively know when something is an example of life and when it isn’t. But it turns out to be tremendously hard exactly to define it. I remember once, a long time ago, needing a definition of life for a speech I was giving. Assuming there was a simple one and looking around the Internet, I was astonished at how diverse the definitions were and how very, very detailed each one had to be in order to include ‘this’ but not include ‘that’. If you think about it, a collection that includes a fruit fly and Richard Dawkins and the Great Barrier Reef is an awkward set of objects to try and compare. When we try and figure out what the rules are that we are looking for, trying to find a rule that’s self-evidently true, that turns out to be very, very hard.
Compare this with the business of recognising whether something is an A or a B or a C. It’s a similar kind of process, but it’s also a very, very different process, because you may say of something that you’re ‘not quite certain whether it counts as life or not life, it’s kind of there on the edge isn’t it, it’s probably a very low example of what you might call life, it’s maybe just about alive or maybe it isn’t’. Or maybe you might say about something that’s an example of Digital life, ‘does that count as being alive?’ Is it something, to coin someone’s earlier phrase, that’ll go squish if you step on it? Think about the controversial Gaia hypothesis; people say ‘is the planet alive?’, ‘is the ecosphere alive or not?’ In the end it depends on how you define such things.
Compare that with handwriting recognition. In the end you are trying to say “is this an A or is it a B?” People write As and Bs in many different ways; floridly, sloppily or whatever. It’s no good saying ‘well, it’s sort of A-ish but there’s a bit of B in there’, because you can’t write the word ‘apple’ with such a thing. It is either an A or a B. How do you judge? If you’re doing handwriting recognition, what you are trying to do is not to assess the relative degrees of A-ness or B-ness of the letter, but trying to define the intention of the person who wrote it. It’s very clear in the end—is it an A or a B?—ah! it’s an A, because the person writing it was writing the word apple and that’s clearly what it means. So, in the end, in the absence of an intentional creator, you cannot say what life is, because it simply depends on what set of definitions you include in your overall definition. Without a god, life is only a matter of opinion.
I want to pick up on a few other things that came around today. I was fascinated by Larry (again), talking about tautology, because there’s an argument that I remember being stumped by once, to which I couldn’t come up with a reply, because I was so puzzled by the challenge and couldn’t quite figure it out. A guy said to me, ‘yes, but the whole theory of evolution is based on a tautology: that which survives, survives’ This is tautological, therefore it doesn’t mean anything. I thought about that for a while and it finally occurred to me that a tautology is something that if it means nothing, not only that no information has gone into it but that no consequence has come out of it. So, we may have accidentally stumbled upon the ultimate answer; it’s the only thing, the only force, arguably the most powerful of which we are aware, which requires no other input, no other support from any other place, is self evident, hence tautological, but nevertheless astonishingly powerful in its effects. It’s hard to find anything that corresponds to that and I therefore put it at the beginning of one of my books. I reduced it to what I thought were the bare essentials, which are very similar to the ones you came up with earlier, which were “anything that happens happens, anything that in happening causes something else to happen causes something else to happen and anything that in happening causes itself to happen again, happens again”. In fact you don’t even need the second two because they flow from the first one, which is self-evident and there’s nothing else you need to say; everything else flows from that. So, I think we have in our grasp here a fundamental, ultimate truth, against which there is no gain-saying. It was spotted by the guy who said this is a tautology. Yes, it is, but it’s a unique tautology in that it requires no information to go in but an infinite amount of information comes out of it. So I think that it is arguably therefore the prime cause of everything in the Universe. Big claim, but I feel I’m talking to a sympathetic audience.
Where does the idea of God come from? Well, I think we have a very skewed point of view on an awful lot of things, but let’s try and see where our point of view comes from. Imagine early man. Early man is, like everything else, an evolved creature and he finds himself in a world that he’s begun to take a little charge of; he’s begun to be a tool-maker, a changer of his environment with the tools that he’s made and he makes tools, when he does, in order to make changes in his environment. To give an example of the way man operates compared to other animals, consider speciation, which, as we know, tends to occur when a small group of animals gets separated from the rest of the herd by some geological upheaval, population pressure, food shortage or whatever and finds itself in a new environment with maybe something different going on. Take a very simple example; maybe a bunch of animals suddenly finds itself in a place where the weather is rather colder. We know that in a few generations those genes which favour a thicker coat will have come to the fore and we’ll come and we’ll find that the animals have now got thicker coats. Early man, who’s a tool maker, doesn’t have to do this: he can inhabit an extraordinarily wide range of habitats on earth, from tundra to the Gobi Desert—he even manages to live in New York for heaven’s sake—and the reason is that when he arrives in a new environment he doesn’t have to wait for several generations; if he arrives in a colder environment and sees an animal that has those genes which favour a thicker coat, he says “I’ll have it off him”. Tools have enabled us to think intentionally, to make things and to do things to create a world that fits us better. Now imagine an early man surveying his surroundings at the end of a happy day’s tool making. He looks around and he sees a world which pleases him mightily: behind him are mountains with caves in—mountains are great because you can go and hide in the caves and you are out of the rain and the bears can’t get you; in front of him there’s the forest—it’s got nuts and berries and delicious food; there’s a stream going by, which is full of water—water’s delicious to drink, you can float your boats in it and do all sorts of stuff with it; here’s cousin Ug and he’s caught a mammoth—mammoth’s are great, you can eat them, you can wear their coats, you can use their bones to create weapons to catch other mammoths. I mean this is a great world, it’s fantastic. But our early man has a moment to reflect and he thinks to himself, ‘well, this is an interesting world that I find myself in’ and then he asks himself a very treacherous question, a question which is totally meaningless and fallacious, but only comes about because of the nature of the sort of person he is, the sort of person he has evolved into and the sort of person who has thrived because he thinks this particular way. Man the maker looks at his world and says ‘So who made this then?’ Who made this? — you can see why it’s a treacherous question. Early man thinks, ‘Well, because there’s only one sort of being I know about who makes things, whoever made all this must therefore be a much bigger, much more powerful and necessarily invisible, one of me and because I tend to be the strong one who does all the stuff, he’s probably male’. And so we have the idea of a god. Then, because when we make things we do it with the intention of doing something with them, early man asks himself , ‘If he made it, what did he make it for?’ Now the real trap springs, because early man is thinking, ‘This world fits me very well. Here are all these things that support me and feed me and look after me; yes, this world fits me nicely’ and he reaches the inescapable conclusion that whoever made it, made it for him.
This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in—an interesting hole I find myself in—fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for. We all know that at some point in the future the Universe will come to an end and at some other point, considerably in advance from that but still not immediately pressing, the sun will explode. We feel there’s plenty of time to worry about that, but on the other hand that’s a very dangerous thing to say. Look at what’s supposed to be going to happen on the 1st of January 2000—let’s not pretend that we didn’t have a warning that the century was going to end! I think that we need to take a larger perspective on who we are and what we are doing here if we are going to survive in the long term.
There are some oddities in the perspective with which we see the world. The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be, but we have done various things over intellectual history to slowly correct some of our misapprehensions. Curiously enough, quite a lot of these have come from sand, so let’s talk about the four ages of sand.
From sand we make glass, from glass we make lenses and from lenses we make telescopes. When the great early astronomers, Copernicus, Gallileo and others turned their telescopes on the heavens and discovered that the Universe was an astonishingly different place than we expected and that, far from the world being most of the Universe, with just a few little bright lights going around it, it turned out—and this took a long, long, long time to sink in—that it is just one tiny little speck going round a little nuclear fireball, which is one of millions and millions and millions that make up this particular galaxy and our galaxy is one of millions or billions that make up the Universe and that then we are also faced with the possibility that there may be billions of universes, that applied a little bit of a corrective to the perspective that the Universe was ours.
I rather love that notion and, as I was discussing with someone earlier today, there’s a book I thoroughly enjoyed recently by David Deutsch, who is an advocate of the multiple universe view of the Universe, called ‘The Fabric of Reality’, in which he explores the notion of a quantum multiple universe view of the Universe. This came from the famous wave particle dichotomy about the behaviour of light—that you couldn’t measure it as a wave when it behaves as a wave, or as a particle when it behaves as a particle. How does this come to be? David Deutsch points out that if you imagine that our Universe is simply one layer and that there is an infinite multiplicity of universes spreading out on either side, not only does it solve the problem, but the problem simply goes away. This is exactly how you expect light to behave under those circumstances. Quantum mechanics has claims to be predicated on the notion that the Universe behaves as if there was a multiplicity of universes, but it rather strains our credulity to think that there actually would be.
This goes straight back to Gallileo and the Vatican. In fact, what the Vatican said to Gallileo was, “We don’t dispute your readings, we just dispute the explanation you put on them. It’s all very well for you to say that the planets sort of do that as they go round and it is as if we were a planet and those planets were all going round the sun; it’s alright to say it’s as if that were happening, but you’re not allowed to say that’s what is happening, because we have a total lockhold on universal truth and also it simply strains our personal credulity”. Just so, I think that the idea that there are multiple universes currently strains our credulity but it may well be that it’s simply one more strain that we have to learn to live with, just as we’ve had to learn to live with a whole bunch of them in the past.
The other thing that comes out of that vision of the Universe is that it turns out to be composed almost entirely and rather worryingly, of nothing. Wherever you look there is nothing, with occasional tiny, tiny little specks of rock or light. But nevertheless, by watching the way these tiny little specks behave in the vast nothingness, we begin to divine certain principles, certain laws, like gravity and so forth. So that was, if you like, the macroscopic view of the universe, which came from the first age of sand.
The next age of sand is the microscopic one. We put glass lenses into microscopes and started to look down at the microscopic view of the Universe. Then we began to understand that when we get down to the sub-atomic level, the solid world we live in also consists, again rather worryingly, of almost nothing and that wherever we do find something it turns out not to be actually something, but only the probability that there may be something there.
One way or another, this is a deeply misleading Universe. Wherever we look it’s beginning to be extremely alarming and extremely upsetting to our sense of who we are—great, strapping, physical people living in a Universe that exists almost entirely for us—that it just isn’t the case. At this point we are still divining from this all sorts of fundamental principles, recognising the way that gravity works, the way that strong and weak nuclear forces work, recognising the nature of matter, the nature of particles and so on, but having got those fundamentals, we’re still not very good at figuring out how it works, because the maths is really rather tricky. So, we tend to come up with almost a clockwork view of the way it all works, because that’s the best our maths can manage. I don’t mean in any way to disparage Newton, because I guess he was the first person who saw that there were principles at work that were different from anything we actually saw around us. His first law of motion—that something will remain in its position of either rest or motion until some other force works on it—is something that none of us, living in a gravity well, in a gas envelope, had ever seen, because everything we move comes to a halt. It was only through very, very careful watching and observing and measuring and divining the principles underlying what we could all see happening that he came up with the principles that we all know and recognise as being the laws of motion, but nevertheless it is by modern terms, still a somewhat clockwork view of the Universe. As I say, I don’t mean that to sound disparaging in any way at all, because his achievements, as we all know, were absolutely monumental, but it still kind of doesn’t make sense to us.
Now there are all sorts of entities we are also aware of, as well as particles, forces, tables, chairs, rocks and so on, that are almost invisible to science; almost invisible, because science has almost nothing to say about them whatsoever. I’m talking about dogs and cats and cows and each other. We living things are, so far, beyond the purview of anything science can actually say, almost beyond even recognising ourselves as things that science might be expected to have something to say about.
I can imagine Newton sitting down and working out his laws of motion and figuring out the way the Universe works and with him, a cat wandering around. The reason we had no idea how cats worked was because, since Newton, we had proceeded by the very simple principle that essentially, to see how things work, we took them apart. If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have in your hands is a non-working cat. Life is a level of complexity that almost lies outside our vision; is so far beyond anything we have any means of understanding that we just think of it as a different class of object, a different class of matter; ‘life’, something that had a mysterious essence about it, was god given—and that’s the only explanation we had. The bombshell comes in 1859 when Darwin publishes ‘On the Origin of Species’. It takes a long time before we really get to grips with this and begin to understand it, because not only does it seem incredible and thoroughly demeaning to us, but it’s yet another shock to our system to discover that not only are we not the centre of the Universe and we’re not made of anything, but we started out as some kind of slime and got to where we are via being a monkey. It just doesn’t read well. But also, we have no opportunity to see this stuff at work. In a sense Darwin was like Newton, in that he was the first person to see underlying principles, that really were not at all obvious, from the everyday world in which he lived. We had to think very hard to understand the nature of what was happening around us and we had no clear, obvious everyday examples of evolution to point to. Even today that persists as a slightly tricky problem if you’re trying to persuade somebody who doesn’t believe in all this evolution stuff and wants you to show him an example—they are hard to find in terms of everyday observation.
So we come to the third age of sand. In the third age of sand we discover something else we can make out of sand—silicon. We make the silicon chip—and suddenly, what opens up to us is a Universe not of fundamental particles and fundamental forces, but of the things that were missing in that picture that told us how they work; what the silicon chip revealed to us was the process. The silicon chip enables us to do mathematics tremendously fast, to model the, as it turns out, very very simple processes that are analogous to life in terms of their simplicity; iteration, looping, branching, the feedback loop which lies at the heart of everything you do on a computer and at the heart of everything that happens in evolution—that is, the output stage of one generation becomes the input stage of the next. Suddenly we have a working model, not for a while because early machines are terribly slow and clunky, but gradually we accumulate a working model of this thing that previously we could only guess at or deduce—and you had to be a pretty sharp and a pretty clear thinker even to divine it happening when it was far from obvious and indeed counter-intuitive, particularly to as proud a species as we.
The computer forms a third age of perspective, because suddenly it enables us to see how life works. Now that is an extraordinarily important point because it becomes self-evident that life, that all forms of complexity, do not flow downwards, they flow upwards and there’s a whole grammar that anybody who is used to using computers is now familiar with, which means that evolution is no longer a particular thing, because anybody who’s ever looked at the way a computer program works, knows that very, very simple iterative pieces of code, each line of which is tremendously straightforward, give rise to enormously complex phenomena in a computer—and by enormously complex phenomena, I mean a word processing program just as much as I mean Tierra or Creatures.
I can remember the first time I ever read a programming manual, many many years ago. I’d first started to encounter computers about 1983 and I wanted to know a little bit more about them, so I decided to learn something about programming. I bought a C manual and I read through the first two or three chapters, which took me about a week. At the end it said ‘Congratulations, you have now written the letter A on the screen!’ I thought, ‘Well, I must have misunderstood something here, because it was a huge, huge amount of work to do that, so what if I now want to write a B?’ The process of programming, the speed and the means by which enormous simplicity gives rise to enormously complex results, was not part of my mental grammar at that point. It is now—and it is increasingly part of all our mental grammars, because we are used to the way computers work.
So, suddenly, evolution ceases to be such a real problem to get hold of. It’s rather like this: imagine, if you will, the following scenario. One Tuesday, a person is spotted in a street in London, doing something criminal. Two detectives are investigating, trying to work out what happened. One of them is a 20th Century detective and the other, by the marvels of science fiction, is a 19th Century detective. The problem is this: the person who was clearly seen and identified on the street in London on Tuesday was seen by someone else, an equally reliable witness, on the street in Santa Fe on the same Tuesday—how could that possibly be? The 19th Century detective could only think it was by some sort of magical intervention. Now the 20th Century detective may not be able to say, “He took BA flight this and then United flight that”—he may not be able to figure out exactly which way he did it, or by which route he travelled, but it’s not a problem. It doesn’t bother him; he just says, ‘He got there by plane. I don’t know which plane and it may be a little tricky to find out, but there’s no essential mystery.’ We’re used to the idea of jet travel. We don’t know whether the criminal flew BA 178, or UA270, or whatever, but we know roughly how it was done. I suspect that as we become more and more conversant with the role a computer plays and the way in which the computer models the process of enormously simple elements giving rise to enormously complex results, then the idea of life being an emergent phenomenon will become easier and easier to swallow. We may never know precisely what steps life took in the very early stages of this planet, but it’s not a mystery.
So what we have arrived at here—and although the first shock wave of this arrival was in 1859, it’s really the arrival of the computer that demonstrates it unarguably to us—is ‘Is there really a Universe that is not designed from the top downwards but from the bottom upwards? Can complexity emerge from lower levels of simplicity?’ It has always struck me as being bizarre that the idea of God as a creator was considered sufficient explanation for the complexity we see around us, because it simply doesn’t explain where he came from. If we imagine a designer, that implies a design and that therefore each thing he designs or causes to be designed is a level simpler than him or her, then you have to ask ‘What is the level above the designer?’ There is one peculiar model of the Universe that has turtles all the way down, but here we have gods all the way up. It really isn’t a very good answer, but a bottom-up solution, on the other hand, which rests on the incredibly powerful tautology of anything that happens, happens, clearly gives you a very simple and powerful answer that needs no other explanation whatsoever.
But here’s the interesting thing. I said I wanted to ask ‘Is there an artificial god?’ and this is where I want to address the question of why the idea of a god is so persuasive. I’ve already explained where I feel this kind of illusion comes from in the first place; it comes from a falseness in our perspective, because we are not taking into account that we are evolved beings, beings who have evolved into a particular landscape, into a particular environment with a particular set of skills and views of the world that have enabled us to survive and thrive rather successfully. But there seems to be an even more powerful idea than that, and this is the idea I want to propose, which is that the spot at the top of the pyramid that we previously said was whence everything flowed, may not actually be vacant just because we say the flow doesn’t go that way.
Let me explain what I mean by this. We have created in the world in which we live all kinds of things; we have changed our world in all kinds of ways. That’s very very clear. We have built the room we’re in and we’ve built all sorts of complex stuff, like computers and so on, but we’ve also constructed all kinds of fictitious entities that are enormously powerful. So do we say, ‘That’s a bad idea; it’s stupid—we should simply get rid of it?’ Well, here’s another fictitious entity—money. Money is a completely fictitious entity, but it’s very powerful in our world; we each have wallets, which have got notes in them, but what can those notes do? You can’t breed them, you can’t stir fry them, you can’t live in them, there’s absolutely nothing you can do with them that’s any use, other than exchange them with each other—and as soon as we exchange them with each other all sots of powerful things happen, because it’s a fiction that we’ve all subscribed to. We don’t think this is wrong or right, good or bad; but the thing is that if money vanished the entire co-operative structure that we have would implode, but if we were all to vanish, money would simply vanish too. Money has no meaning outside ourselves, it is something that we have created that has a powerful shaping effect on the world, because its something we all subscribe to.
I would like somebody to write an evolutionary history of religion, because the way in which it has developed seems to me to show all kinds of evolutionary strategies. Think of the arms races that go on between one or two animals living the same environment. For example the race between the Amazonian manatee and a particular type of reed that it eats. The more of the reed the manatee eats, the more the reed develops silica in its cells to attack the teeth of the manatee and the more silica in the reed, the more manatee’s teeth get bigger and stronger. One side does one thing and the other counters it. As we know, throughout evolution and history arms races are something that drive evolution in the most powerful ways and in the world of ideas you can see similar kinds of things happening.
Now, the invention of the scientific method and science is, I’m sure we’ll all agree, the most powerful intellectual idea, the most powerful framework for thinking and investigating and understanding and challenging the world around us that there is, and that it rests on the premise that any idea is there to be attacked and if it withstands the attack then it lives to fight another day and if it doesn’t withstand the attack then down it goes. Religion doesn’t seem to work like that; it has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. That’s an idea we’re so familiar with, whether we subscribe to it or not, that it’s kind of odd to think what it actually means, because really what it means is ‘Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? — because you’re not!’ If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it, but on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say, ‘Fine, I respect that’. The odd thing is, even as I am saying that I am thinking ‘Is there an Orthodox Jew here who is going to be offended by the fact that I just said that?’ but I wouldn’t have thought ‘Maybe there’s somebody from the left wing or somebody from the right wing or somebody who subscribes to this view or the other in economics’ when I was making the other points. I just think ‘Fine, we have different opinions’. But, the moment I say something that has something to do with somebody’s (I’m going to stick my neck out here and say irrational) beliefs, then we all become terribly protective and terribly defensive and say ‘No, we don’t attack that; that’s an irrational belief but no, we respect it’.
It’s rather like, if you think back in terms of animal evolution, an animal that’s grown an incredible carapace around it, such as a tortoise—that’s a great survival strategy because nothing can get through it; or maybe like a poisonous fish that nothing will come close to, which therefore thrives by keeping away any challenges to what it is it is. In the case of an idea, if we think ‘Here is an idea that is protected by holiness or sanctity’, what does it mean? Why should it be that it’s perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows, but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe, no, that’s holy? What does that mean? Why do we ring-fence that for any other reason other than that we’ve just got used to doing so? There’s no other reason at all, it’s just one of those things that crept into being and once that loop gets going it’s very, very powerful. So, we are used to not challenging religious ideas but it’s very interesting how much of a furore Richard creates when he does it! Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you’re not allowed to say these things. Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn’t be.
There’s a very interesting book—I don’t know if anybody here’s read it—called ‘Man on Earth’ by an anthropologist who use to be at Cambridge, called John Reader, in which he describes the way that… I’m going to back up a little bit and tell you about the whole book. It’s a series of studies of different cultures in the world that have developed within somewhat isolated circumstances, either on islands or in a mountain valley or wherever, so it’s possible to treat them to a certain extent as a test-tube case. You see therefore exactly the degree to which their environment and their immediate circumstances has affected the way in which their culture has arisen. It’s a fascinating series of studies. The one I have in mind at the moment is one that describes the culture and economy of Bali, which is a small, very crowded island that subsists on rice. Now, rice is an incredibly efficient food and you can grow an awful lot in a relatively small space, but it’s hugely labour intensive and requires a lot of very, very precise co-operation amongst the people there, particularly when you have a large population on a small island needing to bring its harvest in. People now looking at the way in which rice agriculture works in Bali are rather puzzled by it because it is intensely religious. The society of Bali is such that religion permeates every single aspect of it and everybody in that culture is very, very carefully defined in terms of who they are, what their status is and what their role in life is. It’s all defined by the church; they have very peculiar calendars and a very peculiar set of customs and rituals, which are precisely defined and, oddly enough, they are fantastically good at being very, very productive with their rice harvest. In the 70s, people came in and noticed that the rice harvest was determined by the temple calendar. It seemed to be totally nonsensical, so they said, ‘Get rid of all this, we can help you make your rice harvest much, much more productive than even you’re, very successfully, doing at the moment. Use these pesticides, use this calendar, do this, that and the other’. So they started and for two or three years the rice production went up enormously, but the whole predator/prey/pest balance went completely out of kilter. Very shortly, the rice harvest plummeted again and the Balinese said, ‘Screw it, we’re going back to the temple calendar!’ and they reinstated what was there before and it all worked again absolutely perfectly. It’s all very well to say that basing the rice harvest on something as irrational and meaningless as a religion is stupid—they should be able to work it out more logically than that, but they might just as well say to us, ‘Your culture and society works on the basis of money and that’s a fiction, so why don’t you get rid of it and just co-operate with each other’—we know it’s not going to work!
So, there is a sense in which we build meta-systems above ourselves to fill in the space that we previously populated with an entity that was supposed to be the intentional designer, the creator (even though there isn’t one) and because we—I don’t necessarily mean we in this room, but we as a species—design and create one and then allow ourselves to behave as if there was one, all sorts of things begin to happen that otherwise wouldn’t happen.
Let me try and illustrate what I mean by something else. This is very speculative; I’m really going out on a limb here, because it’s something I know nothing about whatsoever, so think of this more as a thought experiment than a real explanation of something. I want to talk about Feng Shui, which is something I know very little about, but there’s been a lot of talk about it recently in terms of figuring out how a building should be designed, built, situated, decorated and so on. Apparently, we need to think about the building being inhabited by dragons and look at it in terms of how a dragon would move around it. So, if a dragon wouldn’t be happy in the house, you have to put a red fish bowl here or a window there. This sounds like complete and utter nonsense, because anything involving dragons must be nonsense—there aren’t any dragons, so any theory based on how dragons behave is nonsense. What are these silly people doing, imagining that dragons can tell you how to build your house? Nevertheless, it occurs to me if you disregard for a moment the explanation that’s actually offered for it, it may be there is something interesting going on that goes like this: we all know from buildings that we’ve lived in, worked in, been in or stayed in, that some are more comfortable, more pleasant and more agreeable to live in than others. We haven’t had a real way of quantifying this, but in this century we’ve had an awful lot of architects who think they know how to do it, so we’ve had the horrible idea of the house as a machine for living in, we’ve had Mies van der Roe and others putting up glass stumps and strangely shaped things that are supposed to form some theory or other. It’s all carefully engineered, but nonetheless, their buildings are not actually very nice to live in. An awful lot of theory has been poured into this, but if you sit and work with an architect (and I’ve been through that stressful time, as I’m sure a lot of people have) then when you are trying to figure out how a room should work you’re trying to integrate all kinds of things about lighting, about angles, about how people move and how people live—and an awful lot of other things you don’t know about that get left out. You don’t know what importance to attach to one thing or another; you’re trying to, very consciously, figure out something when you haven’t really got much of a clue, but there’s this theory and that theory, this bit of engineering practice and that bit of architectural practice; you don’t really know what to make of them. Compare that to somebody who tosses a cricket ball at you. You can sit and watch it and say, ‘It’s going at 17 degrees’; start to work it out on paper, do some calculus, etc. and about a week after the ball’s whizzed past you, you may have figured out where it’s going to be and how to catch it. On the other hand, you can simply put your hand out and let the ball drop into it, because we have all kinds of faculties built into us, just below the conscious level, able to do all kinds of complex integrations of all kinds of complex phenomena which therefore enables us to say, ‘Oh look, there’s a ball coming; catch it!’
What I’m suggesting is that Feng Shui and an awful lot of other things are precisely of that kind of problem. There are all sorts of things we know how to do, but don’t necessarily know what we do, we just do them. Go back to the issue of how you figure out how a room or a house should be designed and instead of going through all the business of trying to work out the angles and trying to digest which genuine architectural principles you may want to take out of what may be a passing architectural fad, just ask yourself, ‘how would a dragon live here?’ We are used to thinking in terms of organic creatures; an organic creature may consist of an enormous complexity of all sorts of different variables that are beyond our ability to resolve but we know how organic creatures live. We’ve never seen a dragon but we’ve all got an idea of what a dragon is like, so we can say, ‘Well if a dragon went through here, he’d get stuck just here and a little bit cross over there because he couldn’t see that and he’d wave his tail and knock that vase over’. You figure out how the dragon’s going to be happy here and lo and behold! you’ve suddenly got a place that makes sense for other organic creatures, such as ourselves, to live in.
So, my argument is that as we become more and more scientifically literate, it’s worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it’s worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there. I suspect that as we move further and further into the field of digital or artificial life we will find more and more unexpected properties begin to emerge out of what we see happening and that this is a precise parallel to the entities we create around ourselves to inform and shape our lives and enable us to work and live together. Therefore, I would argue that though there isn’t an actual god there is an artificial god and we should probably bear that in mind. That is my debating point and you are now free to start hurling the chairs around!
Q – What is the fourth age of sand?
Let me back up for a minute and talk about the way we communicate. Traditionally, we have a bunch of different ways in which we communicate with each other. One way is one-to-one; we talk to each other, have a conversation. Another is one-to-many, which I’m doing at the moment, or someone could stand up and sing a song, or announce we’ve got to go to war. Then we have many-to-one communication; we have a pretty patchy, clunky, not-really-working version we call democracy, but in a more primitive state I would stand up and say, ‘OK, we’re going to go to war’ and some may shout back ‘No we’re not!’—and then we have many-to-many communication in the argument that breaks out afterwards!
In this century (and the previous century) we modelled one-to-one communications in the telephone, which I assume we are all familiar with. We have one-to-many communication—boy do we have an awful lot of that; broadcasting, publishing, journalism, etc.—we get information poured at us from all over the place and it’s completely indiscriminate as to where it might land. It’s curious, but we don’t have to go very far back in our history until we find that all the information that reached us was relevant to us and therefore anything that happened, any news, whether it was about something that’s actually happened to us, in the next house, or in the next village, within the boundary or within our horizon, it happened in our world and if we reacted to it the world reacted back. It was all relevant to us, so for example, if somebody had a terrible accident we could crowd round and really help. Nowadays, because of the plethora of one-to-many communication we have, if a plane crashes in India we may get terribly anxious about it but our anxiety doesn’t have any impact. We’re not very well able to distinguish between a terrible emergency that’s happened to somebody a world away and something that’s happened to someone round the corner. We can’t really distinguish between them any more, which is why we get terribly upset by something that has happened to somebody in a soap opera that comes out of Hollywood and maybe less concerned when it’s happened to our sister. We’ve all become twisted and disconnected and it’s not surprising that we feel very stressed and alienated in the world because the world impacts on us but we don’t impact the world. Then there’s many-to-one; we have that, but not very well yet and there’s not much of it about. Essentially, our democratic systems are a model of that and though they’re not very good, they will improve dramatically.
But the fourth, the many-to-many, we didn’t have at all before the coming of the Internet, which, of course, runs on fibre-optics. It’s communication between us that forms the fourth age of sand. Take what I said earlier about the world not reacting to us when we react to it; I remember the first moment, a few years ago, at which I began to take the Internet seriously. It was a very, very silly thing. There was a guy, a computer research student at Carnegie Mellon, who liked to drink Dr Pepper Light. There was a drinks machine a couple of storeys away from him, where he used to regularly go and get his Dr Pepper, but the machine was often out of stock, so he had quite a few wasted journeys. Eventually he figured out, ‘Hang on, there’s a chip in there and I’m on a computer and there’s a network running around the building, so why don’t I just put the drinks machine on the network, then I can poll it from my terminal whenever I want and tell if I’m going to have a wasted journey or not?’ So he connected the machine to the local network, but the local net was part of the Internet—so suddenly anyone in the world could see what was happening with this drinks machine. Now that may not be vital information but it turned out to be curiously fascinating; everyone started to know what was happening with the drinks machine. It began to develop, because in the chip in the machine didn’t just say, ‘The slot which has Dr Pepper Light is empty’ but had all sorts of information; it said, ‘There are 7 Cokes and 3 Diet Cokes, the temperature they are stored at is this and the last time they were loaded was that’. There was a lot of information in there, and there was one really fabulous piece of information: it turned out that if someone had put their 50 cents in and not pressed the button, i.e. if the machine was pregnant, then you could, from your computer terminal wherever you were in the world, log on to the drinks machine and drop that can! Somebody could be walking down the corridor when suddenly, ‘bang!’ — there was a Coca-Cola can! What caused that? — well obviously somebody 5,000 miles away! Now that was a very, very silly, but fascinating, story and what it said to me was that this was the first time that we could reach back into the world. It may not be terribly important that from 5,000 miles away you can reach into a University corridor and drop a Coca-Cola can but it’s the first shot in the war of bringing to us a whole new way of communicating. So that, I think, is the fourth age of sand.
by Douglas Adams
To find out where I sourced this article from, please click here.
And to find out more about Biota.org, please click here.
August 12, 2010
This is a picture that hangs from the living room wall at home… Everyday ‘I’ see it, it triggers a deep reminder of the treachery of delusion and of all wasted narrative. This is my point of entry into a daily meditation that rests upon the delusion of ‘self.’ As my ‘self’ sits cross legged under this framed print, the memetic ideals of my ‘self’s’ identity slowly dissolve into ‘emptiness.’
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We should always remember… Any interpretation always remains – and only can ever be – an interpretation. The actual ‘something’ that is being interpreted i.e. the object of interpretation, say, within an artistic work such as Magritte’s “The Treachery Of Images,” is merely a means of transmission… Means that relay the ‘key’ to the idea of/about ‘something’… That is, the notion of the ‘something’ can be conjured up in the mind of the viewer through simply seeing the ‘imperfect’ painting. Thus the painting of the object becomes a sort of sign… One that is housed, in this case, within two dimensions i.e. laid flat on canvas, allowing us to observe the unambiguous and unequivocal nature of its physical presence, just as it was viewed through the eyes of the artist who originally painted it… But never, at any time, are we viewing the pipe directly! And yet, when many of us look at the pipe in Magritte’s modest reinterpretation, and are asked what we are looking at, a majority will reply, “It is a pipe!”
In many ways, experience itself is like this… What we interpret from our senses – our senses being the artist that paints what he sees/hears/feels/tastes/touches – is not as clear, defined, nor even as present, as the actual ‘object’ itself… Always our ‘minds’ become involved beyond immediate appropriateness, and acts as if everything is on trial; as if it was the high judge him/herself presiding over the case called our ‘Life’ as it unfolded moment by moment… And yet all we can do to support any decision we arrive at – decisions regarding what we perceive through our senses i.e. hardness, softness, colour, hue, shape, etc… – comes not only from all good sense data derived from our eyes, ears, nose, taste buds and sense of touch alone, but from our good (or maginalised) intentions too.
The real interpretation of the pipe in Magritte’s picture is done by the viewer using a set of past observations, which act as points of references through which one compares the observed ‘picture’ to the picture of mind… Through these a priori ideas/memes/schemas, we find meaning in the picture being observed… When we understand this, we can see that the meaning imposed upon experience comes solely from within ourselves… And not from within the picture itself.
No doubt ALL of our interpretations regarding the pipe will not exactly agree with one another. One must only consider all the possible variances in experiencing a pipe i.e. the diversity of each individual’s direct or indirect experience with one, in order to understand this… For example, I remember first hand my uncle smoking a pipe, using pipe cleaners to clean the accumulation of tar from within the pipe, their sticky fur left coated with sweet aromatic gumminess in used ash trays… While after every smoke, is vividly remember the way he ceremoniously and gently tapped out the soft grey ash… Along with the rich aromatic scent of honey-dew tobacco that permeated and lingered on all the apartment’s upholstery… While, on the other hand, my friend George simply has never come across a smoker of pipes in real life… The only way he can relate pipes to comes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s fictitious character, Sherlock Holmes, which he read avidly as a child. How different are our experiences? While we can agree on the conceptual aspects of what a pipe is, we have had totally different experiences concerning them. But the important thing remains… Despite these differences, all of our own interpretations and observations about what a pipe is, which have been derived through our experiences, do regularly – and commonly – overlap with other people’s ideas about what a pipe is.
Here, in “The Treachery Of Images,” Magritte reminds us that these interpretations and inspections are not based on direct, or first degree, observations of the object itself… The pipe we observe follows from the sensory input that, when seen from the right angle, merges together with the minds previous experience of a pipe i.e. the shape and coloration, giving rise to what the mind – after all its programming – can only naturally want to call a pipe. But, in actual fact, what our minds sees and recognises as the pipe is nothing more than canvas and paint brushed in a manner that seems to resemble what we think we see as a pipe.
From this ‘brushed’ representation, when we really think about what we are seeing through our eyes, we can all deduce a clear conclusion that, what we are looking at, resembles a pipe… In other words, we all interpret what we see, so as to expose the implicit meaning behind the painter’s ‘subject,’ just like our senses watch temporal events unfold before us in our daily waking lives… But it is our own programming that paints the meaning of this picture. Thus I ask… Are we in error when we reply that we are viewing a pipe instead of a picture of a pipe?? Is our interpretation of life, via religious and scientific modes of understanding, actually real???
With our experiences we paint the abstract meanings we have been taught to ‘bear’ by family, friends and society. But before this ‘rude’ imposition of mankind’s own making, the world was a subject who at first refused to be defined… The blank canvas of our minds saw through the bizarre reality of present day understandings. Then, as we became more laden with successive ideas about the world around us – ideas that no doubt relayed survival tactics and skills, which natural selection seemed to chose prudently – these memes started to forge the schemas of our ‘fantastical’ world, causing us to operate somewhat ‘out-of-alignment’ with our original purpose i.e. to simply survive. Thus, in this strange state of memetic frenzy, we seem to have forgotten what exactly it is that we were really looking at. And so we over pollute, over consume and never question what we see.
We recognise the pipe from Magritte’s perspective… But, despite this recognition, it is not really the pipe. We see the world and all Life through human social constructs i.e. all the mythological and scientific understanding we have learnt… But it is not the real world. Nor is it what Life really is.
“We are faced with the paradoxical fact that education has become one of the chief obstacles to intelligence and freedom of thought.”
If we reply that what we see is a pipe, then we have lost sight of reality… We have become disconnected with the pattern behind our Being… We have lost the simple essence of Life’s organic and fluid form. Like the Tao, Life has no meaning… It requires none to exist. To talk about it misses the point. It simply is, always has been, and always will be a part of the infinite universal flow.
So I ask… Can you see through the fantasy of society’s drama? Can you cut through the taut/taught memetic structures that echo through your own mind to reveal the haunting delusion of society’s limited schema’s of Being? Can you free yourself from the social inertia – those heavy ‘herd’ like constraints – that bind the majority of us to pointless routines and epic errors of under estimating and limiting our own potential? Can you help us break free from the over consumption of raw materials, monetary hoarding for luxurious goods, pointless pollution and en-mass over population? Can we survive the Tao’s “gom jabbar?” Or will we die at the hands of our own insatiable appetites, like the “animal’s” who failed the “Bene Gesserit‘s” test, all because we/they could not see the pain for what it really was i.e. it is nothing more than a sensation that links into a reactive habit for preserving an instinctual and complacent desire to remain in comfortable bubbles of blasé subsistence, and thus withdrew their hand from the box?? Will we simply get lost in the memetic sea of illusion and forgot to exercise any honest measure of self-control, so that we might pay honest concern to the Mother who bore us???
Surely if we have come this far… Then shouldn’t we go all the way? Perhaps it’s time to put the expensive, week long holidays abroad on hold, and instead put solar panels on your roof? Perhaps it’s time to avoid all plastic packaging, and buy your food from a local farm that is slightly further out of town than the immediate convenience of the big, unenlightened supermarket?? Shouldn’t we be discouraging the big petrol companies from digging for more oil by giving up our cars and going electric??? Or even just cycling to where we need to go if only locally??? Perhaps it’s time to consider how you want to love the children you have brought into this world… ??? Shouldn’t we give them the greatest gift of all i.e. a clean planet that can support the complex web of Life for generations to come???
As I walked through town this morning I saw, in a Building Society’s shop window, a slogan on a bill board… It simply read, “Protect what is most important.” Followed underneath, in slightly smaller writing, by the words “Car Insurance.” So I wonder… When I see the amount of this BS littering the high street, I shudder a mighty spinal wriggle. Can we still not really see that the ‘pipe’ that we are all looking at is not the ‘pipe’ itself??? As Gael García Berna’s character in Jim Jarmusch’s “The Limits Of Control” mentions, “The old men in my village used to say… Everything changes by the colour of the glass you see it through… You don’t think that’s true? Everything’s imagined…” Then, a moment later, he adds… “Do you notice reflections? For me, sometimes the reflection is far more present than the thing being reflected.”
No doubt we must become what we feel we should become… I, nor anyone else, can – or even should – tell you how to be or what to do… First one must find their ‘self.’ Then, through honesty and a keen sense of observation, one can begin the formidable task of changing themselves. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “You must become the change you wish to see in the world.”
No doubt reality is arbitrary… And so I leave it to you to create what fate you feel should be ours… Shall we float – here in this garden of Eden – a garden that we call the Earth… Which is really a dot of lively, rare moving magic in the vast inky black void of space and time – where a select group of atoms have been given the chance to spin into an ecstasy of human Beingness – wondering at how fortunate WE ALL ARE to have won this lottery of existence… This lottery of experience… ??? Being naturally so in moderation and with ultimate concern and awareness of where we’re at in the universal pattern… ??? Or should we hang ourselves upon our own fantasies and fictions, obsessively clinging to the very thing that will bring about our concluding demise… ???
Pour en savoir plus sur René Magritte, s’il vous plaît cliquez ici.
July 5, 2010
What can I say… Too much XAOS and a funny five minutes gave rise to these two little oddities.
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If you’d like to learn more about the M-Set and why our world is a fractal world, then please click here.
OR if you’d like to learn more about nonlinear dynamical systems, please read James Gleick’s “Chaos: The Making Of A New Science.” The first three people to E-mail me by clicking here will receive a free copy of the book! Just remember to enter the address you’d like the book to be delivered to…
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.