Sunday, February 27, 2005

The Force of Habit, part I

I know a nifty little trick for getting the ketchup (or catsup if we want to be pretentious) out of its bottle. Most people upend the bottle and try to pound it from the back. This doesn’t work very well because the ketchup forms a plug in the neck of the bottle due to the ketchup’s viscosity. The only way for the liquid to flow is for air to enter the bottle but the neck is purposely designed to restrict the flow of air in order to make the ketchup seem “thicker”. Pounding the back of the bottle can force some of the ketchup out by overcoming the viscosity of the ketchup by the direct application of kinetic force but this tends to result in splatter and it’s not much more efficient then simply waiting for the air to slowly bubble up through the neck.

A better way to achieve this is to hold the bottle at a shallow angle above the plate and to sharply tap the bottle on the neck perpendicular to the axis of the bottle. This forces the ketchup against the opposite side of the neck, allowing air to flow past the gap. Not only doesn’t the ketchup splatter but once it starts to flow it tends to continue flowing reducing the effort it takes to get it out while simultaneously making it pour at a reasonable rate. Give it a try and see for yourself.

I’ve shown this trick to quite a few people over the years. The curious thing, though, is that, of all the people I’ve shown this little technique too, not a single one, to the best of my knowledge, has adopted it. They continue pounding the backs of their bottles, or digging the ketchup out with a knife, or simply waiting for the ketchup with a stoic patience. I’ve often wondered why no one chooses to adopt a method that is clearly superior to what they’ve been doing. Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is habit. People pick up a certain method of getting the ketchup out of the bottle at a fairly early age and become so accustomed to it that they can’t change — can’t even think to change — even when a better way is demonstrated to them.

Habits are powerful things. Some habits are good, like brushing one’s teeth after ever meal, some are bad, like picking one’s nose, but they all exert a compelling force that makes it difficult to break them. In fact, we have a special term to describe adverse habits that are nearly impossible to break by force of will: addictions. It takes no act of genius to see that habits are an important part of human behavior and that we can’t really understand why we act as we do unless we factor them into our considerations, but are habits powerful enough to explain all of our actions? Are they, in fact, required to explain why we act as though we live in a universe that is consistent and predictable? Hume thought so.

In order to understand why Hume thought this, it’s necessary to understand a bit about induction which, in turn, requires us to know a bit about logic, which requires us to know a bit about epistemology which, finally, requires us to understand something about philosophy in general. Don’t worry, unlike my last epic, this won’t take too long (I’ll be done next week — I promise!)

When you bring up the subject of philosophy, a lot of people immediately roll their eyes. To them, philosophy is nothing more or less than a bunch of ever-educated snobs splitting endless semantic hairs. To be fair, there is a lot to that stereotype. Much of what goes on in academic circles is tantamount to quibbling over definitions (although such quibbles often do have a point and a purpose) and much of what passes for deep contemplation is more than a little silly (I’ll save that discussion for when I’m in the mood to tackle postmodernism); however, the basic goal of philosophy is, I believe, worthwhile. That goal is nothing less than an attempt to pursue truth. That can be truth with a small T, meaning the pursuit of facts about the universe and certain abstracts such as justice and ethics, or it can be Truth with a big-T, meaning that which is absolute, eternal and immutable, qualities that have led some theologians to identify Truth as being synonymous with God (and lest you be tempted to pedantics, theologians are typically concerned with God and not gods but, again, that’s a topic for another time). In this essay, we’re going to be concerned with the former kind of truth.

Philosophy has two grand divisions (and various lesser ones). One division, ontology, deals with question of existence. One often finds ontologists talking about the nature of existence and asking questions about the essence of entities. The other division, which will concern us, is epistemology. The subject of epistemology is knowledge. Many of us are familiar with Descartes’ demon where Descartes posited the existence of an infinitely powerful deceiver. He asked himself what we can know given the possibility that such a deceiver exists. Descartes conclusion was that the only thing we could know was our own existence: cogito ergo sum. This is an example of an epistemological reduction, but let's not get too sidetracked.

Most philosophers believe that knowledge isn’t quite so elusive, although it is worth noting that it’s difficult to even devise a good definition of knowledge. Epistemologists contrast knowledge with belief. Beliefs are propositions that individuals hold to be true. A given belief may or may not, of course, be true. Knowledge represents a particular category of belief. It is not sufficient that one holds a true belief in order for one to have knowledge. If I believe that the planets trace out elliptical orbits around the sun because they are being tugged by invisible space elephants, my belief that the planetary orbits are elliptical is true but is, never the less, based on an ignorant belief (elephants, etc). Likewise, if I happen to accurately guess next week's lottery numbers, my guess does not indicate a state of knowledge (assuming, of course, that I’m not psychic) no matter how firmly I am convinced of its truth beforehand. One of Plato’s great contributions to philosophy was giving us a definition of knowledge that has held up fairly well for over two millennia. His definition is that knowledge is a state of true, justified belief. Of course that leaves us with the question of what constitutes justification. A general rule of thumb that I like is that one is justified in one’s beliefs if one could convince an unbiased, rational agent that your beliefs are merited. Even this can be challenging as evidenced by the so-called Gettier counterexamples which explore the question of accidental knowledge.

Leaving aside the thorny question of how we should define knowledge, epistemology also concerns itself with the generation of knowledge. How do we go about discovering truths? This is where logic enters the picture. I think the best way to think of logic is that it’s a kind of truth mill. At one end of the mill, you put in propositions which are considered to be true, you crank the handle and, from the other end, pop out new truths. The field of logic has a number of different mills to choose from. Most people have encountered the syllogism mill:

All men are mortal
Socrates is a man
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

A syllogism consists of a major premise, a minor premise and a necessary conclusion, which is to say that, if we accept both premises, we are rationally constrained to accept the conclusion. As such, syllogisms are an early form of logic known as deductive logic. The hallmark of deduction is that their conclusions necessarily follow from the arguments (or premises) that lead up to them. In this respect, logical deduction is very much like a mathematical proof (indeed, many argue that deduction is properly a type of mathematics).

Deduction is a strong form of reasoning. It has two primary limitations, however. The first limitation is that a deductive argument is only as good as its premises. By example, you will sometimes hear it said that it is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of God. Strictly speaking, this isn’t true. There are dozens of logically consistent deductive proofs for the existence of God. There are also dozens of equally consistent proofs that God does not exist. Clearly both sets of arguments can’t be true but deduction isn’t, strictly speaking, about determining truth, it’s about making conclusions that are true if the premises that lead up to those conclusions are true. This is, obviously, a major caveat. If I start with the major premise that all dogs are gods and follow it with the minor premise that all gods must be worshipped then I can logically conclude that all dogs must be worshipped. Somehow I don't see many people accepting either the major or minor premise. Unfortunately, a logical argument can’t be used to establish the validity of its own premises (such attempts represent the fallacy of circular reasoning). Logicians try to get around this by limiting their predicates to “universally accepted truths”. When it comes to addressing important questions, though, such universal acceptance is difficult to come by.

A more subtle limitation of deduction concerns the sorts of truths that you can reach using it. As noted, the conclusion of a logical argument flows directly and necessarily from its arguments. If you think about this a bit it should be clear that this means that any truth you reach via deduction was already present in its premises. As such, deduction is less about generating truths than clarifying things which have been agreed to be truth. Such clarifications can be useful (we wouldn’t knock the Pythagorean theorem by complaining that it’s already contained in Euclid’s axioms) but it doesn’t really satisfy the primary goal of logic which is the generation (or discovery, if you prefer) of new truths. Enter induction.

Next week, I’ll detail what inductive logic is all about, why Hume had a problem with it, and argue that our reliance on it is rational in spite of Hume’s convictions to the contrary.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

In the Corner

We don't talk about it
For fear that it might hear us.

It's over there
In that corner —
No, don't look at it!

We try not to think about it,
But we can't help ourselves.

It's taken too many of our friends.
I have felt it's eyeless gaze.
I know that it's going to take me.
It's going to get you, too.

I have a plan.

You and me,
We're going to steal its scythe.

this is an audio post - click to play

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Oscar Evaluation: 2005

For the last couple of years I’ve been making a special effort to see all of the movies that have been nominated for a best picture Oscar. Yes, the Oscars are as much about politics as about art and have often had a deplorable record when it has come to actually identifying the picture with the most artistic merit in a given year. Never the less, I’ve found that, more often than not, the best picture nominees have, at least, been worth seeing. I will also freely admit that I get caught up in the hype and pageantry of the Oscars. Beyond that, I’m the sort of person who can’t resist offering my two cents (and if you haven’t noticed that, you clearly haven’t been reading this blog). So, with that, here is my impression of this year’s current nominees, arranged in alphabetical order as a salute to the fundamental arbitrariness of the awards.

The Aviator

Everyone and his duck knows that this is the odds on favorite. Really, it’s hard to object to the idea of giving the award to this one given how many of Scorcese’s legitimate masterpieces have been overlooked (I’m still bitter that at the thorough and undesered snubbing that the academy gave to Goodfellas, which I consider to be the best film of the 80’s).

The sad fact, though, is that this is a mediocre Scorsese film. Mind you, mediocre Scorsese is better than most directors could ever hope to aspire to (as a point of calibration, mediocre Scorsese is equivalent to very good Spielberg). The movie has a hell of a lot of worth and if this were a weaker year, I could easily see it meriting what it’s probably going to get. I will also say that this is the film that has finally convinced me that Leonardo DiCaprio has genuine talent. I don’t think that DiCaprio has quite finished maturing as an actor, but it’s clear that great things are still ahead of him… even if he personally annoys me.

Finding Neverland

Okay, here’s the pitch: we’ve got a charming Victorian eccentric who won’t conform to societies norms, a wife who simply doesn't understand him, a struggling widow and mother to three lovely boys, one of whom has lost his ability to “believe”, and her uptight mother-in-law who doesn’t think that it’s appropriate that they associate with our eccentric protagonist… oh, did we mention that he’s the man who created Peter Pan? Why, the script practically writes itself. Unfortunately, it is all to apparent that that is precisely what happened. It’s a by-the-numbers heartwarming drama that resembles nothing so much as a Lifetime special with a Hollywood budget.

About the kindest thing that I can say about this movie is that it had some really wonderful actors (forced to play some amazingly one dimensional characters) and lavish production value (squandered on an entirely predictable and simplistic story). Given that this was the same year that produced Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Hotel Rwanda, its actually painful to consider that this entirely pointless exercise in schmaltz took a slot that should have gone to one of them.

Million Dollar Baby

Like most people, I still think of Clint Eastwood as being Dirty Harry and/or the High Plains Drifter. As such, seeing him in the role of director is about as astonishing as it would be if that damned orangutan from Any Which Way but Loose were to direct. Really, though, this isn’t a fair perspective. Not only has Eastwood made three films worthy of Oscar contention (including this one), to say nothing of winning an Oscar for Unforgiven, but he’s directed over thirty films. He’s more than paid his dues as a director and it is unfair to think of him as being some sort of sideshow curiosity.

As for Million Dollar Baby, it is simply one of the best films I’ve ever seen, period. When I dragged my girlfriend along with me to see it, she was, like myself, expecting a kind of female version of Rocky. When the movie ended, her hand on my arm was faintly trembling and she found herself speechless. Although the milieu of the movie is the world of boxing, it would be as wrong to say this it was a boxing movie as would be to say that Watership Down was an just a book about a bunch of bunny rabbits. It would, however, be entirely accurate to say that it is the movie that should, in a just universe, win this year.


How often do we see a biographical movie being promoted with the line “X is Y”, e.g., Nick Nolte is His Holiness Pope Pius III! It has become a Hollywood cliché. Never the less, in this movie, Jamie Foxx so thoroughly assumes the character of Ray Charles that I had to wonder if the real Ray Charles found himself displaced into a state of quantum limbo while Foxx was doing his job.

It is clear that Ray is a work of love. For a film like this, that can be a disadvantage. A good biographic can be sabotaged by too much love for the character. Ray, however, manages to celebrate the life of Ray Charles without descending to a fawning admiration. Charles is portrayed as a complex person with faults as well as virtues. Like a good biography should, it leaves us with the impression that we understand the man more than we did and that there’s something there that is worth understanding.

Ray isn’t epic, like The Aviator, nor does it dazzle us with special effects, like Finding Neverland, but it does make us care about the man and makes us feel that we have come to know him. If that's not enough, it also has some marvellous music, too.


Sidewise wants to be an intelligent comedy. I love intelligent comedies. Unfortunately, I didn’t think that it was either. To understand my disappointment, you should understand that, although I’m not a wine snob, per se, I am certainly a dilettante. I swirl my glass, I’ve been known to use the word “nose” to describe the scent of the liquid, and I have been in the company of otherwise sane adults who have, in all earnestness, proclaimed that a given wine had hints of blackberry, tobacco and mahogany. Yes, mahogany. In other words, I’ve been close enough to the world of dedicated wine snobbery to be able to fully appreciate how sublimely ridiculous it really is. Given this, I should have been the perfect audience for Sideways.

I hated it.

You may have noticed that film critics loved this movie. There’s a scene where one of the protagonists is explaining to a potential romantic interest why he’s so into pinot noir. He goes into this little monologue about how the grapes are delicate and difficult to nurture but that if you give them the appropriate attention, the reward more than makes up for the effort. It’s obvious that what he’s really describing is himself. Film critics eat that kind of crap up with a spoon. It’s the sort of narrative trick that makes you feel smart for spotting it. Unfortunately, a movie needs more than clever rhetorical devices to have worth. At the end of the movie I was left with two characters I couldn’t have cared less about, a set of circumstances that seemed perfectly banal, and a comedy which provoked me to laughter twice. Again, in a year where two excellent movies were snubbed, I can’t see the justification of including this other than the fact that it’s the kind of movie that appeals to erstwhile film students (i.e. critics).

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Okay, this wasn't a nominee (nor am I putting it in alphabetic order) but, dammit, it should have been. If, like most people, you haven't seen this movie, go out and rent it. Never mind that it's a Jim Carrey movie and that, nine times out of ten, he's an annoying goofball. Never mind that you aren't going to be able to find someone who can summarize the plot into a short, declarative sentence. The movie is worth it. It is, easily, one of the most original and brilliant films that I've ever had the fortune to see. It it surreal but it is also about things that are basic and fundamental to our humanity. I won't do the film an injustice by trying to explain it or even to summarize it. All I can do is implore you to go and give it a fair chance.

Hotel Rwanda

About the only bad thing I can say about Hotel Rwanda is that too many people are going to see it, feel bad, and then, later on, pat themselves on the back while they feel good about having felt bad. Be that as it may, and as sad as it is to say this, for most people this will be the only time they will have so much as heard about the genocide that happened in Rwanda.

Like many films about difficult subjects (e.g., Schindler's List which is the film that Hotel Rwanda is most prone to being compared with) it deals with a difficult and heartbreaking subject by placing the focus on a person who attained virtue in the midsts of incredible evil. Okay, let's come out and admit that it's derivative. In spite of that, it does a good job of illuminating a very dark, and very real, episode in our recent past. So long as man continues to be inhumane to mankind, it is important that we remind ourselves of the times when we lapse into atrocity. While it could have been better (because of its low budget, the movie has a hard time convincing us of the actual scale of the genocide), I think that it's more than good enough to accomplish this necessary task.

Go see this movie, please.

So, to sum it all up, here's my ordering from best to worst (including the movies I think should have been nominated):

  1. Million Dollar Baby
  2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  3. Ray
  4. The Aviator
  5. Hotel Rwanda
  6. Finding Neverland
  7. Sideways
Have fun on Oscar night.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Great Men

Do you suppose
That great men sometimes stumble,

That sometimes
They forget to zip their flies,

That they have days
When they put the milk in the cupboard
And the cereal in the fridge?

Do you think that they have
Moments of stinginess
Where they "forget" to tip their waiters,

And instances where they are
Unaccountably brusque to their wives?

Is it possible that they might
Dribble on the seat of the toilet,

Or neglect to sometimes
Put it back down when they're done?

Do they fart in public places?
Do they belch at the dinner table?
Do they forget to say I'm sorry?

Could we forgive them
If they did?

this is an audio post - click to play

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Unstructured Ants

The University of Berkeley News has a really fascinating article on a species of ants that can glide. The ants are wingless but use their bodies to direct the flow of air around them so that they can control their direction while falling. This is a useful ability for this particular species because they live high up in a forest canopy. By controlling their fall, they can steer themselves back towards the trunks of their own trees and return to their own branches, ususally within ten minutes.

In addition to the subject of the ants, themselves, the article provides a good illustration of how discovery and research work in the sciences.

There's some amazing video that goes along with the article, too. Unfortunately it's in the RealPlayer format, which is definitely not my preferred media, but you really need to see these ants in action to genuinely appreciate how amazing this is.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

On the Persistence of Religion, part VI

This is the sixth, and final, part of a multi-part essay on the persistence of religion.

In the first installment of the essay, I raised the question of the persistence of religion in individuals and sought to demonstrate that this persistence was not, as many unbelievers would like to think, genuinely akin to belief in such entities as Santa Clause. I explored a number of possibilities to account for the difference, without reaching any conclusions, and ended by suggesting that in order to explain the individual persistence of religion, we may need to consider its cultural persistence.

In the second installment I noted that religion was one of a small number of true human universals that transcends times and cultures. I also introduced and examined the hypothesis that the reason for this may be that religious beliefs persist because most humans have some sort of sense that the brain interprets as evidence of (for lack of a better word) a spiritual reality.

In the third installment I addressed a potential a priori objection to natural explanations for the persistence of religion in the form of the existence of atheists. I noted that polymorphistic features in biological organisms are permitted although they do require additional layers of explanation. I then proceeded to introduce the conjecture that religion may have adaptive value even if we don't posit that it is an adaptation whose function is to directly perceive some other sort of reality. I called this the Weak Adaptive Hypothesis and provided a few potential adaptive scenarios.

In the forth installment I introduced two new conjectures. The first conjecture was that religion may be a "spandrel", which is a non-adaptive biological feature that is the result of other adaptive features. The second conjecture, and the first one to more outside the realm of biology, was that religion may be have functional value for societies and that, as a consequence of this, those societies that successfully promote religious belief in their populations would be more stable than those societies that failed to do so. I called this the Social Preservation Hypothesis.

In the fifth installment I discussed the general theory of memetics, which states that ideas are replicators that evolve via the same processes of natural selection that biological organisms are subject to. I then introduced the hypothesis that religion can be best understood as competing meme-complexes which have adapted themselves to human being and which have evolved to overcome potential threats from counter-memes (e.g., the secular philosophies of The Enlightenment). This idea may be called The Memetic Hypothesis

At last we are ready to bring our hypotheses back together, all in one place, so that we may give them final consideration:
  • The Strong Adaptive Hypothesis: Religious beliefs persist because most humans have some sort of sense that the brain interprets as evidence of a "spiritual reality".

  • The Weak Adaptive Hypothesis: Religious beliefs persist because they provide some function which directly promotes reproductive fitness among those who embrace religious beliefs.

  • The Spandrel Hypothesis: Religious beliefs persist because they are the indirect result of some other biological feature or features which directly promote reproductive fitness among those who have said features; however, the capacity for religion and predisposition towards religion is not, itself, reproductively advantageous.

  • The Social Preservation Hypothesis: Religion positively enhances the stability of those societies that embrace it. Consequently, those societies that fail to instill religious beliefs in a majority of their populations will have a tendency to collapse leaving behind only those societies which do instill such beliefs.

  • The Memetic Hypothesis: Religion persists because religious ideas are memes. Once religious memes arise in the human population, selective pressures will favor those religious memes and meme-complexes that are better at propagating themselves against rival ideas and other cognitive obstacles.
Some may have noticed that there is one prominent hypothesis that I have not put into consideration. This hypothesis might be called, simply, The Theistic Hypothesis. The Theistic Hypothesis is that religion persists for the simple reason that it is the will of the Divine that it persists.

The central problem with The Theistic Hypothesis, for the purpose of this essay, is that such a hypothesis is good at accounting for the persistence of a particular religion but not for religion as a whole. We might, for instance, assume that Judaism has survived its thousands of years of existence because the Jews are the chosen people of the god of the Israelites. Such a hypothesis may well suffice for this particular instance, but presuming that YHWH exists and favors the Jews does nothing to explain the existence and persistence of Buddhism, or any of the other myriads of religions that do and have existed throughout human history. The Theistic Hypothesis is, in other words, not strong enough to answer the question that I am posing.

It is possible to strengthen the theistic hypothesis by adding an additional hypothesis. One might, for instance, posit an Infernal Hypothesis. The Infernal Hypothesis might be that the one true religion persists because of divine favor while all the false religions of the world persist because some powerful, malevolent agency (e.g., Satan) has duped the other members of the human race into false beliefs. A less sinister alternative to The Infernal Hypothesis might be The Faulty Receiver Hypothesis. In this hypothesis, the divine is trying to communicate to us true beliefs but, for whatever reason, most people (remember, all religions are in the minority) manage to misinterpret the message, leading to the flourishing of false beliefs.

And so forth.

I will not be including The Theistic Hypothesis, with or without supplementation, for two reasons. The first is that whenever a hypothesis requires additional hypotheses in order to account for a phenomenon, the general rule of thumb is to consider it to be less favored than hypotheses that don't require ad hoc supplementation. Many people believe that the Copernican model of a heliocentric universe supplanted the Ptolemaic model of an Earth centered universe on the weight of evidence. By the point that Copernicanism supplanted Ptolemaicism, however, there was no conclusive evidence that Copernicus was right and Ptolemy was wrong. The reason that the Ptolemaic model fell out of favor is that it required the addition of too many epicycles.

You see, the motion of the planets across the sky isn't entire simple. Some planets will occasionally appear to actually be going backwards, or retrograde, in their movements, tracing out little loops in the sky. In the Copernican model, this is just an illusion caused by the fact that the Earth, too, is moving. In a geocentric model, however, those little loops are more of a challenge. Now, the ancients weren't stupid (a common error that we moderns often make). They recognized the problem and tried to account for it. The geocentric solution was to imagine that the planets were, in fact, doing just what they appeared to be doing… tracing out loops. They were imagined to have orbits within orbits (this was all incorporated into the notion that the planets were embedded within giant crystalline spheres, but let's not get distracted). Those sub-orbits were called epicycles.

As hypotheses went, supposing that a given planet had an orbit (a cycle) and a sub-orbit (an epicycle) isn't so outlandish — in the real solar-system, that's a very near description of how planetary moons move in respect to the sun. Unfortunately, it wasn't sufficient to propose a single epicycle for a given planet. The observed motions kept deviating from the predictions. This required more and more epicycles to be introduced. Even this wasn't enough to favor the Copernican model for the simple reason that the Copernican model also deviated from observation. This was because the Copernican model was wrong in supposing that planets traced perfectly circular orbits around the sun. However, once Kepler came along and described the correct motions via his Three Laws of Planetary Motion (you've got to love a theory with such a plain description), the modified Copernican model worked just fine. Meanwhile, the Ptolemaic model kept having to suppose more and more epicycles. As such, the Copernican hypothesis became favored on the basis of parsimony.

Parsimony is a ten dollar word used by epistemologists (a fifty dollary word meaning people who study knowledge) that means that there is an economy of explanation (huh? – bear with me). You may have heard of Occam's Razor which states that one should not necessarily multiply entities when seeking an explanation. Occam's Razor is an epistemological rule of thumb. What the rule is essentially saying (and let me warn you that the Razor is very easy to misunderstand) is that when two explanations can both account for a given phenomenon, it's generally a better idea to favor the one that requires you to make the least number of assumptions. It's not an iron-clad rule of nature but, in practice, it's a pretty good tool for clearing away philosophical deadwood.

The Theistic Hypothesis, when applied to the question of the persistence of religion, isn't able to stand on its own. It needs additional hypotheses – philosophical epicycles. The other hypotheses we've been considering don't. As such, the Theistic Hypothesis lacks parsimony.

The other reason I'm not including it is more basic. The Theistic Explanation is not evidential. It's central premise — there exists a god that desires some religion to persist — and it's supporting premises — most of us are being confounded by a malevolent agent or that we are misinterpreting the word of this god — rely upon a foundation of faith. It may seem ironic that I'm counting faith as a strike against it when the topic of consideration is, after all, about the persistence of a phenomenon that is deeply associated with Faith (with a big F). Although it may seem ironic, my goal isn't to evaluate the reality of anyone's particular beliefs. I am examining something that is indisputably real. Real people in the real world are, in fact, really religious. Even though I, in my personal life, explicitly believe that there are no gods (yes, I'm that sort of atheist… but we'll save that essay for another day) I can still consider the phenomenon and practice of religion because religion is more than it's individual manifestations. It's part of the human zeitgeist and has been for a very long time… hence the reason I'd like to understand it.

If The Theistic Hypothesis and it epicyclic supports work for you, then good for you. Since it is a faith-based hypothesis, I know that there's nothing I could do to make you even consider that it might be wrong, so there's no point in trying. I hope you enjoyed the essay and I sincerely hope that you will come back for future essays on different topics. If, however, you are willing to consider the alternatives, please read on.

So we now come to the point where I tell you which of our five hypotheses I'm advocating. I'm sorry to report that I have a confession. The truth of the matter is that my goal has not been to advocate any these hypotheses.

My real goal has been to, first of all, convince you that there is a question that is worth considering. We atheists are the worst when it comes to this. By and large, we don't like religion. I'm not the pure exception to the rule. I don't think as badly of religion as a lot of my co-areligionists, but I'll freely admit that there's a lot about religion that I honestly don't like (and which I'm not going to go into… this time). This tendency to think badly of religion all too often turns into a disdain for those who are religious. Again and again, I hear my fellow atheists say that religion is infantile and that the only reason it doesn't go away is that people are so damned gullible. I've said as much myself on too many occasions. The problem is that it's an easy assertion that I don't believe holds much water. Whatever reason there is for religion being persistent and ubiquitous, I do not think that we are justified in simply trying to wave it away in this fashion.

The other thing I've hoped to accomplish has been to demonstrate that there are multiple possibilities. Too many people who have considered this question have latched on to one particular explanation and have decided that the other possibilities don't even need consideration. This is just as bad, just as narrow-minded, and just as unjustified as dismissing religion as nothing more than Santa Claus for adults. It is precisely because the topic is worth considering that it's worth considering properly. That means that we can't just leap to the first conclusion that crosses our mind and it means that we can't settle on an answer unless we have strong and compelling reasons to believe that it is the right answer. Whether you favor memes, an ndiscovered sense, or some hypothesis that I haven't considered, the burden is on the hypothesis and its proponents (and that includes you!) to demonstrate that it is the best way to account for the phenomenon. Hypotheses are never justified on the basis that they "sound right".

Now that I've laid my cards on the table, I'm going to have to admit that it would be pretty crappy for me not to offer my personal speculations. I'm willing to do so but I want to be clear that I am not saying that my own inclinations and hunches are, in any respect, to be treated as definitive or authoritative. Indeed, I want to take a moment to say that the list I've provided isn't, itself, intended to be either inclusive or mutually exclusive. By that, I mean that it is entirely plausible that the real explanation will turn out to be another hypothesis altogether or that the real solution may incorporate several of the hypotheses that I've laid out (with or without additional hypotheses). The reason I've laid out these particular five is that a) I've encountered them or their variants frequently enough to convince me that they are being given due consideration by serious investigators and b) because I think that any of them are sufficiently plausible that they could, in principle, be right. Never the less, I hope that you will only think of them as a sample of the alternatives and as a catalyst for your own speculations. Don't limit yourself to my considerations.

Okay, enough caveats already. Let my speculations begin. I'll start by giving my personal impressions of each hypothesis:

What I like about The Strong Adaptive Hypothesis is that it is both simple and direct. There isn't a whiff of epicycle here nor is there anything inherently outlandish is supposing that, if humans are perceiving something, there's something to be perceived. The old aphorism about smoke and the presence of fire isn't entirely reliable but it's not a bad rule of thumb. The fact that it does make a specific claim, however, means that it's assuming a very specific burden: advocates of the SAH are going to need to demonstrate that we have an organ that perceives a religious reality.

This isn't far different from the challenge that Noam Chomsky had when he was advancing his hypothesis that humans have a language organ. At the time, the main competing hypothesis was that humans learned language by a process called operant conditioning. Frankly, if I had lived back then, I would have probably thought that Chomsky didn't have a chance. History would have proved me wrong. Chomsky did a brilliant job of demolishing the operant conditioning hypothesis and of supporting his contention that humans do, in fact, have an innate grammar.

If there is something to the SAH, I think that Chomsky's methodology could provide a clue or two on how to go about proving the case. If.

Personally, I'm doubtful. The basic unreliability of religious experience makes me think that the hypothesis has some serious hurdles to overcome. Even supposing that we have an underdeveloped organ doesn't really, in my opinion, answer the question of the immense variation in religious beliefs (which is especially clear if we include historical beliefs, which we must). Here's why.

I'm nearsighted — very nearsighted. Without corrective lenses, I would be effectively blind. The big E on a standard eye chart is a blur, for me. In spite of the abysmal quality of my vision, though, my descriptions of what I see are consistent with the descriptions that another similarly impaired person would provide. Granted, those descriptions are going to be along the lines of "there's a large, vertically thin red blur next to a squat green blur", but the content of the descriptions will be largely isomorphic – we'd be describing blurs, but we'd be describing the same kinds of blurs.

I don't see that being the case with religious beliefs. Even people who share religious traditions can have wildly different visions of their religions. That's why stamping out heresy is such a major activity for established religions. It's too easy for people to "see" different things when it comes to religions. If the SAH is going to work, it will be necessary for it to account for that fact. I haven't seen any propositions that do so that don't, ultimately, end up introducing epicycles into the hypothesis.

There was a time, not to long ago, when I would have been similarly doubtful of the robustness of The Weak Adaptive hypothesis. Once again, it's a hypothesis where the burden is upon its proponents to demonstrate that there is something positively adaptive about religion. That's a tall order since some of the most spectacular manifestations of religion are clearly maladaptive. Forget about suicide bombing, for a moment, and consider celibacy. From an evolutionary perspective, celibacy is as good as suicide. If you don't pass your genes on to the next generation, you're nothing more than a genetic graveyard.

Given the obvious maladaptivity of religion, it was hard for me to think of an adaptive benefit that could offset its reproductive deficit. To be sure, there were any number of propositions. Most of them struck me as being just-so stories, like the idea that religion makes you do better in battle and, thus, helps you find mates. It's a good story but it doesn't have much of an empirical basis.

The recent research into religion and stress has made me a bit less confident. Stress is a real phenomenon that has been well documented to have a serious impact on both the mental and physical health of those it effects. Anything that serves to reduce stress would have a tremendous amount of reproductive worth. Perhaps enough to overcome a few deficits.

I am not yet convinced that this is sufficient to account for the persistence of religion. The reason I'm hedging is that religion is not the only way to reduce stress. You can reduce it with breathing and stretching exercises (e.g., yoga), by embracing positive affirmations, by engaging in acts of creative visualization, by indulging in certain form of recreational pharmacology, and so on. Given that there are so many avenues to stress reduction, it seems odd that natural selection would favor an avenue that comes with a reproductive deficit.

What I suspect to be the case is that humans have evolved neurological systems that help us to manage stress and that there are multiple ways for those systems to be engaged. Religion is one such method but not necessarily a built in one. More on this later.

Spandrels are, flat out, a cool idea. The Spandrel Hypothesis neatly avoids the problem of finding a direct reproductive advantage to religion while also sparing us the difficulty of justifying religion's social value. If the hypothesis is correct, religion is just a biological artifact: an artifact that is sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, sometimes inspiring, and sometimes banal, but an artifact all the same. It persists because it is part of us but not an essential element of our being. There's nothing wrong about being religious but there's also nothing wrong about not being religious. Can I get a kum ba yah?

The big problem I have with spandrels is that no one has ever done a satisfactory job of demonstrating their existence, nor do I just mean that in the context of an account for religion. No one has found an unambiguous example of a spandrel is any biological feature. If you look through the literature, the best candidates are things like bipedalism in lizards— forget about complex behaviors! Until spandrels are set on a firmer foundation, I'm just not comfortable backing that particular horse.

The Social Preservation Hypothesis kind of scares me. It's an awfully short distance from concluding that religion is good for societies to concluding that atheism is bad for societies. That leads directly to the views that atheists are bad for society. We all know what happens next. If you don't, do yourself a favor and go see Hotel Rwanda. That said, the worth of a hypothesis can not be tied to its potential social impact. Even if I could demonstrate that the SPH would lead directly to me and my fellows being led into a gas chamber, it would be wrong to say that this invalidates the hypothesis.

Fortunately for me, I think that the proposition has other issues not least being the fact that the last two hundred years have provided some very compelling demonstrations that secular nations can do at least as well, if not better, than theocratic nations. The Enlightenment didn't survive the 18th century but the Enlightenment principle that government should be disentangled from religion has been a cornerstone of modern democracy in the Western world (as well as quite a few spots in the Eastern world, thank you very much). While it is true that most secular democracies have largely religious populations, it must be remembered that the SPH includes the proposition that religion is preserved by top-down social forces. Religion is good for society, therefore society promotes religion (if it wants to remain viable, at least). In secular democracies, religion doesn't get state support, so one of the pillars of the SPH ends up being weakened.

Of course, the SPH can, itself, be preserved by broadening our definition of society. I think that we can all agree that a society is more than its government (only pausing to note, with some smugness, that, this, too, is an Enlightenment conviction). Perhaps, in countries such as the United States, society as a whole does the job of promoting religion and, therefore, social stability with or without its government's assistance.

Maybe so; however, if the SPH were true, wouldn't we expect to find that societies that works with their governments to promote religion (i.e., theocracies) were more stable than societies that did not receive official assistance? Would we also not expect to find that secular societies would, over time, become less religious since there was less support for religion from official institutions – an speculation belied by the resent rise of fundamentalism in the United States?

The SPH isn't dead (otherwise I wouldn't have included it), but I think that it clearly needs work and I have a strong suspicion that the only way to make it work is to take a trip into epicycle land.

Then there is The Memetic Hypothesis.

My own personal perspective is that memetics has a lot of potential. It is, however, important to note that memetics is not yet a science. In fact, it's important to shout it.


The reason that I need to shout it is that a lot of memetic enthusiasts treat it as being something that is absolutely established as fact. The "meme" meme has proved to be very successful at convincing people that it's a valid idea. Among other things, it has quite a bit of intuitive appeal. So did the geocentric model of the solar system.

I won't go so far as to say that memes are pseudoscience. Dawkins actually did do a very good job, in The Selfish Gene, of defending the logical existence of replicators. If the replicator hypothesis works for genes, and I think it does, there's no clear reason to reject its application to the idea of ideas, which is to say memes. The problem isn't that memes are inherently implausible – quite the contrary – the problem is that there hasn't been much progress is formalizing the study of memes. Until that happens, it ain't a science.

Because it isn't a science and because it hasn't been studied methodically (or, more importantly, methodologically) it's all too easy for people to come up with overblown speculations about memes and the role they play in human culture.

Since this section of the essay is all about my own opinions, I'll come right out and say that I am a meme guy. I would be very surprised if memetics wasn't a science a hundred years from now. I certainly believe that memes offer us the best possible hope of accounting for elements of human nature that other theories haven't been able to (or able to do well). That said, there's a lot of crap that floats to the surface when people start trying to explain things in terms of memes.

I believe that the biggest sin that's perpetuated by the memetics crowd is that memes are used to account for every last bit of human behavior and culture. Some very respectable and intelligent people have, essentially, claimed that everything that makes a person a person is their store of memes. We are, in other words, nothing but big meme buckets.

I don't buy it. I think that humans have innate characteristics that can not be accounted for by a pure theory of memes. I think that those innate characteristics include the presence of a number of features that act as memetic filters and biasing agents. I think that any theory that requires us to be treated as passive meme repositories will almost certainly be incomplete.

That said, I think that meme-theory does offer us a lot of explanatory power when it comes to explaining the persistence of religion, but I think that it needs a little help.

Let's go back to the supposition that we have evolved stress reduction mechanisms. From a meme's-eye view of the world, anything that can help you get past the critical filters that might otherwise cause an individual to reject you is something that can be used as a lever. Of course, I'm speaking metaphorically. Meme's don't actually have desires or goals. This is just a short way of saying that given a selective environment, those memes better adapted to overcoming reproductive obstacles will prosper. It's Evolutionary Theory 101.

Supposing that humans do have an evolved system that supports stress reduction, any memes that did a good job of stimulating that system would have an advantage when it came to bonding with other human beings. Now once those memes start spreading through the environment, things get interesting.

Biologists have a term to describe two or more organisms evolving in tandem. The word is coevolution. You often find cases of coevolution when organisms have a hospiïtic relationship with one another (see part V). Bees and flowers are excellent examples of this. Bees have, obviously, evolved to be efficient collectors of pollen. Flowers, however, benefit from bees carrying pollen so they, in turn, have evolved to make it easier for bees to pollinate them. The two types of being, from entirely different kingdoms, have, unconsciously, shaped one another. Similar examples abound.

Let us suppose that some religious memes had the effect of helping humans reduce stress and that some of these memes had the necessary features that allowed them to get past at least some people's selective memetic filters. Any humans that bonded with those memes would have a reproductive advantage over those that didn't (at least in this one domain). Let us further suppose that there existed genetic variations in the human population such that some people would have an easier time being "infected" by such memes. Since those people would tend to be better at spreading their genes (not memes!) than their fellows, the genetic "susceptibility" to religion would tend to spread. In other words, religious memes would get better at spreading themselves and humans would get better at receiving them.

Its important to remember that both the memes and the genes in this scenario are still "selfish". Any religious memes that could spread themselves without offering benefits to their hosts ("kill anyone that doesn't believe in Grall!") would do so, and any genes that were amenable to non-religious stress reduction (e.g., via yoga) would too.

One consequence of this is that, in addition to coevolution between religious memes and people, there would also be arms races between adverse memes and people with a genetic resistance to them. In some environments it might be better to be religiously receptive while, in others, it might be better to be religiously resistant ("I'm not going to kill my cows in order to revive the dead, thank you very much!"). Remember when I talked about polymorphism and how polymorphisms needed to be explained. Well, here was have a way to account not only for the existence and persistence of religion but also for the existence and persistence of atheism. We've come full circle!

Do I believe that this is the reality of the matter? Well… maybe. Then again, maybe not. This is, of course, just one possible account. Honestly, it's a stab in the dark and I would not be at all disappointed (although I would be a bit surprised) if the truth had absolutely nothing to do with memes and genes. Like I said, my goal isn't to convince you that my own pet theory is the right one. I'm hoping that I've stimulated your own thoughts on the subject.

I also hope you've enjoyed this little exploration. I think that the subject of religion is an exciting one and one that absolutely does deserve to be explored. Right now, there are a lot of very intelligent and creative individuals doing just that and I hope that my own efforts to hack my way through the underbrush haven't done an injustice to their labors. I would like to thank you for sticking with me through this. I know that the path has been more than a bit dense and I wouldn't be surprised if I haven't lost more than a few of your in the encroaching verbiage. I appreciate your own persistence in reading this essay.

Next week, I'll have something a bit lighter for you to snack on. Take care.

Saturday, February 12, 2005


Happy birthday, Charles.

You changed the world.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005


The wind sniffs at me,
Gathering my scent to itself
Like a child collecting
Grass strewn eggs on Easter

I watch the clouds,
Moving on tides of air,
As they wash, slowly,
Against mountain shores,

And I lift my eyes to the sky,
Making of them an offering,
As I pray for the wind
To come and collect me too.

this is an audio post - click to play

Tuesday, February 08, 2005


Tuesday Fun

As readers of this site should well know, I have a weakness for word play. Most forms of word play have to do with the way we use words or put them together (puns, palindromes, and anagrams being pertinent examples). Amibigrams, however, are unique in that they deal with the written word.

An Ambigram is, to quote, "a word or words that can be read in more than one way or from more than a single vantage point, such as both right side up and upside down."

Essentially, Ambigrams are a rather remarkable form of caligraphy. Some ambigrams contain the same word from multiple vantages, while others "encode" multiple words (such as True and False). Here are some of the better Ambigram sites that I've found (I strongly recommend printing out the non-animated examples so that you can more easily rotate them):

Special thanks to Karen Brown and Natalie Ramsey for pointing me to John Langdon's homepage.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

On the Persistence of Religion part V

This is the fifth part of a multi-part essay on the persistence of religion.

In the first installment of the essay, I raised the question of the persistence of religion in individuals and sought to demonstrate that this persistence was not, as many unbelievers would like to think, genuinely akin to belief in such entities as Santa Clause. I explored a number of possibilities to account for the difference, without reaching any conclusions, and ended by suggesting that in order to explain the individual persistence of religion, we may need to consider its cultural persistence.

In the second installment I noted that religion was one of a small number of true human universals that transcends times and cultures. I also introduced and examined the hypothesis that the reason for this may be that religious beliefs persist because most humans have some sort of sense that the brain interprets as evidence of (for lack of a better word) a spiritual reality.

In the third installment I addressed a potential a priori objection to natural explanations for the persistence of religion in the form of the existence of atheists. I noted that polymorphistic features in biological organisms are permitted although they do require additional layers of explanation. I then proceeded to introduce the conjecture that religion may have adaptive value even if we don't posit that it is an adaptation whose function is to directly perceive some other sort of reality. I called this the Weak Adaptive Hypothesis and provided a few potential adaptive scenarios.

In the forth installment I introduced two new conjectures. The first conjecture was that religion may be a "spandrel", which is a non-adaptive biological feature that is the result of other adaptive features. The second conjecture, and the first one to more outside the realm of biology, was that religion may be have functional value for societies and that, as a consequence of this, those societies that successfully promote religious belief in their populations would be more stable than those societies that failed to do so. I called this the Social Preservation Hypothesis.

Just as the Social Preservation Hypothesis sought to describe the persistence of religion in terms of non-biological factors, so will my next, and final, hypothesis. In order to understand this hypothesis, however, it will be necessary to introduce the concept of memes. In order to understand memes, however, I will need to ask you to indulge me in a few digressions. This is going to take awhile, so please be patient.

In 1976, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins published a book called The Selfish Gene. The book was almost immediately the source of immense controversy and is the principle reason that Dawkins has become simultaneously famous as well as notorious.

Much of the book's controversy has come from misunderstandings stemming from the title and the central notion of a selfish gene. Many people have erroneously concluded that the book advocates a view that either genes have emotional states (i.e., selfishness) or that because our genes are "programmed" for selfishness then we, too, should behave selfishly. Neither stance represents Dawkins position and he has gone to great lengths to make that plain.

The book's actual goal is to suggest that evolution can best be understood by taking a "gene's eye" perspective. The common view, before Dawkins, was to assume that evolution acted for the good of the species.1 One can still find nature documentaries that suggest that individuals will sometimes sacrifice themselves for the good of the species. Dawkins demonstrates that genuinely self-sacrificial behaviors would be selected against by natural selection since those animals that lacked such self-sacrificing traits would prosper at the expense of their altruistic comrades.

The central thesis of The Selfish Gene is that natural selection does not act upon species, as a whole (a notion called group selection), nor even individuals. Instead, natural selection operates at the level of genes. The reason for this, Dawkin's argues, is that genes are the only things that persist from generation to generation. While an individual animal may have a lifetime that's measured in decades (and some trees in millennia) genes can persist for millions or even billions of years.2 From the "perspective" of a gene, individual organisms are temporary receptacles whose primary function is to ensure that its genes make it to the next generation.

It is because natural selection favors genes that are good at making it into the next generation that genuinely altruistic behaviors are selected again, hence the concept of "selfishness". The genes are not, themselves, selfish (or, in any sense, aware at all) but those genes that promote "selfish" behaviors are the ones that tend to do best when it comes to the critical task of being reproduced. Now, that said, the focus of this essay is not to defend the selfish gene hypothesis (read the book if you want the best possible argument for the hypothesis); however, it is important to offer one clarification. Although the hypothesis forbids the evolution of genuinely self-sacrificial behavior, it does allow for the development of a type of altruism known as reciprocal altruism.

Reciprocal altruism is a type of behavior where an animal will act in the interests of another animal in exchange for similar acts in kind towards itself. So, let us say that I am a member of a troop of monkeys and we are foraging for food. I happen to get more food than I strictly need while another monkey in the troop gets less than he needs. In the strictest sense, it would be to my advantage to eat all the food I got and to save up extra calories against future want; however, if I give the disadvantaged monkey my extra shares, I'll be at a net advantage if he does the same thing for me when our circumstances are reversed. This works even better if the tribe, as a whole, does this as a matter of course.

Of course this only works if the other monkeys would actually reciprocate, which means that there must be ways of identifying and punishing cheaters who try to take advantage of the system without putting anything back into it. This is a relatively high bar to cross and the reason that reciprocal altruism is the exception and not the rule in the natural world; however, game theorists have constructed models that demonstrate that such systems can naturally evolve. One of the critical components is the ability to remember whether or not your conspecifics actually do hold up their end of the bargain.

It should also be noted that Dawkins specifically exempts humans from being slaves to our instincts. He rather boldly proclaims that we, alone among the animals, have the ability to rebel against our selfish genes.

In Dawkins conception of how natural selection works, the fundamental unit of natural selection is something called a replicator. In the most basis sense, a replicator is something that makes copies of itself. There is more too it, though. Dawkins uses the example of fire as something that copies itself while, never the less, failing to be a replicator. In order for something to legitimately qualify as a replicator it needs a few critical ingredients.

The first ingredient is fidelity. Heredity is the property whereby a copy is significantly (as opposed to trivially) similar to its "parent". To use the example of fire, a small fire can produce a big fire (or vice versa), a greenish blaze can produce a yellowish blaze, and so forth. In short, one type of fire can lead to a wholly different kind and there is no "essence of this fire" that gets transmitted between fiery "generations". Heredity requires that replicators are not only good at making copies of themselves, but that those copies are, more often than not, faithful. Low fidelity obliviates heredity.

Fecundity is a nice term that refers to the rate of copying that a replicator undergoes. Even the most benign environment contains dangerous. A replicator that isn't good at making copies of itself faster than those copies get destroyed by its environment can not succeed.

Longevity, as you might well guess, is a description of how long a given instance of a replicator is able to keep making copies of itself before it expires. A replicator that doesn't tend to survive long enough to make at least one copy of itself is, of course, doomed.

Finally, we have variation. Variation simply means that it's possible that any given link in a chain of replicators will be different from its "parent". As you might well guess, this is essentially the idea of mutation. Variation may seem at odds with fidelity, but perfect fidelity does not allow for evolution. By itself, variation doesn't do anything for natural selection. When you couple it with the other elements of heredity, though, you have everything you need in order for natural selection to do its work. This is especially true when replicators are competing for limited resources that they need in order to manufacture more copies of themselves. In that circumstance, variation leads to competition which, in turn, creates selective criteria that favor those replicators that do the best job of out competing their rivals.

In the biological world, genes are replicators. Individuals are not and neither are species. At this point you might well wonder why we need the term replicator when we already have the concept of genes which precisely fulfill the role. Dawkin's provided the answer to that in the very last chapter (of the original edition) by noting that even though genes are the dominant replicators on this planet, there is no reason to suppose that replicators need to be genes, so long as they fulfill all of the necessary requirements. In order to illustrate this, he suggested that a new type of replicator has recently arisen on this world: the meme.

A meme is, more or less, a small bit of information.3 Examples of memes are jingles, political slogans, recipes, chain letters, and simple superstitions (e.g., you should throw spilled salt over your shoulder). What makes memes special is that they are replicators. They have the necessary components of heredity and variation. Instead of replicating inside the mechanisms of the cell, however, memes replicate within the cognitive machinery of the human brain and spread themselves from mind to mind by way of imitation.

You may find it difficult to afford memes the same sort of reality that we give to genes. Genes, after all, are physical entities. One can pry apart genes with chemical tools and examine them using a variety of techniques, but memes seem to be rather abstract by comparison. However, before we draw to sharp of a distinction, genes, in reality, are ultimately nothing more than information encoded in nucleotides. Cells take that information and convert it into proteins that are, ultimately, used to create more cells (and, ultimately, whole organisms) but the fundamental nature of genes and DNA is abstract information. Indeed, genes are, quite literally, digital, which is one of the reasons that it has such a high degree of fidelity when it makes copies of itself. The main difference, as far as fundamental natures go, between memes and genes is that genes encode their information in nucleic acids whereas memes encode their information in human neurons.

The analogy between genes and memes goes deeper, too. Just as genes can work in concert to create more complex structures, so can memes. When genes do it, we call the result DNA, which is a long sequence of genes that are bound together. When memes become grouped, we call the result a meme-complex.4 An example of a meme might be the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (da-da-da-dum!) whereas all the Fifth Symphony, itself, is an example of a meme-complex. Some meme-complexes are so tightly bound together that they almost act like enormous memes (meaning that the whole thing tends to get replicated). Other meme-complexes are more loose with a given meme-complex having similar but divergent components from another meme-complex of the same type (just as two members of a given animal species will have similar but different DNA). As an example of this, if we were to thoroughly examine the socialist meme complexes in two individuals who have embraced socialist doctrines, we would find a lot of the same "socialist" memes, but also differences.

Accepting, for the sake of argument, that memes are real, what's so important about them? Just as genes invert our view of the way biology works, memes invert our understanding of human cultures. Memes, like genes, are in competition for a limited resource. That resource is brain space. Because they are in competition, mimetic evolution favors memes that are "selfish", meaning that those memes that do a better job of getting themselves into human brains and which do a better job of spreading themselves to other brains will be favored by natural selection. It also means that the ideas that memes encapsulate don't have any necessary benefit for the people who hold them. It is important to fully understand the implications of this, so I'm going to spend a little time exploring what this means.

Traditionally, we tend to think of ideas as being for benefit of the people who hold them. From a meme's-eye view, though, people are only vehicles that are used for the propagation of more memes. Some (including Dawkins) have, in fact, compared memes to viruses. Viruses use the machinery of cells to propagate themselves and memes use the machinery of the brain to do likewise. It is a tempting comparison, but one that I think we need to be wary of. The reason I advise caution is that viruses are almost wholly parasitic whereas the relationship between memes and meme-hosts (i.e., people) is generally more complex.

In the natural world, a parasite is an organism that utilizes a host organism in order to further its own survival. The relationship that a parasite has with its host is detrimental to the host. A symbiote, by contrast, may also exist within another organism. The difference is that the relationship between a symbiote and its host is mutually beneficial. An example of a parasite is a tapeworm, which eats the food that passes through its hosts intestines without providing anything in return. Tapeworms are parasites. By contrast, there are intestinal microorganisms that are not only harmless but necessary for digestion. Such animals are symbiotes. It must be stressed that symbiotic organisms are still being selfish. In this case, it is in their self-interest to work with their hosts for their mutual benefit. This is a special case of the sort of reciprocal altruism that I discussed previously.

We tend to think of parasites and symbiotes as being entirely different and, indeed, opposite of one another. In the real world, however, there is a spectrum of entities with parasite and symbiote simply being two poles on a continuum. To my knowledge, there is no single term which neutrally describes animals that exist in this continuum, so I would like to suggest that we call them hospiotes (hoss-'pE-Ots), from the Latin word for guest. Just as one can have welcome and unwelcome guests, a hospiote may be beneficial or detrimental to its host. Memes should be viewed as hospiïtic (hos-'pE-i-tic) organisms.

A given meme (i.e., idea) doesn't have to be good for a given person that it bonds with (again, I prefer "bond" as a neutral term to be preferred to the term "infect", which carries pejorative connotations). An easy example of a bad meme is the idea of suicide bombing. Memes that encourage suicide bombing are clearly detrimental to the survival of those who carry them (or, more precisely, to the subset of those hosts who act on the idea), but they also clearly do manage to spread themselves – which brings us to the next point about memes.

Some meme theorists also tend to cast humans as being nothing more than passive carriers for memes. I believe that this is also a misrepresentation of the theory. Humans are sapient entities. We have the ability to consider the ideas that we believe in and reject them if we feel that they are harmful. As such there is a selective pressure for memes to evolve towards the symbiotic pole of the hospiïtic spectrum – a meme that encourages people to play in poison oak is going to have a much more difficult time spreading than a meme that helps its hosts avoid poison oak ("Leaves of three, let it be!") – however, detrimental memes can (and do) have means of spreading if they can get past the critical filters that otherwise cause us to reject unfavorable memes.

Consider memes that encourage smoking cigarettes. Smoking tobacco is clearly unhealthy and most people are aware of the health risks involved. A naïve reading of meme theory might lead us to suppose that any meme that encouraged smoking would be doomed because people would reject it. Obviously that doesn't happen in the real world. So how to these memes propagate themselves? One advantage that they have is that smoking is addictive. Once a person starts smoking, it's very hard from them to stop. A given meme, however, doesn't "care" whether or not a particular host acts upon it. It's "concern" is spreading new copies of itself to other individuals. This means that "smoking" memes need to bond with individuals who haven't already embraced the idea.

One such avenue is persuasive advertisements (an example of smoking memes working together with other memes as a meme-complex5) which help to convince people that smoking is socially beneficial. Another, more direct, method is peer pressure. Although these memes are clearly not beneficial to their hosts, they able to spread by convincing new hosts that some mitigating advantage to smoking that offsets the costs (e.g., "If I smoke, I'll be popular").6

Because memes are selfish replicators, the memes themselves have no intrinsic preference for where in the hospiote spectrum they find themselves. Because we try to select good ideas and reject bad ones, there is an overall trend for obviously good ideas to do better than obviously bad ideas when it comes to finding new hosts, but a harmful meme that can get around our cognitive filters can spread just as well as a helpful meme that utilizes a strategy of mutual beneficiality. Indeed, there are circumstances where such memes will spread more rapidly than their symbiotic competitors.7

At this point, we can cautiously bring religion into the discussion. Religions can be viewed as hospiïtic meme-complexes. I wish to note that I am taking pains to use neutral terminology. This is, unfortunately, an especial necessity given that many meme-theorists go out of their way to describe religion as a viral complex (indeed, Dawkins, who is definitely not friendly towards religion, titled his essay on religious memes Viruses of the Mind). I believe that neutral language is necessary for developing a proper memetic theory of religion. A given religion may well be disadvantages to a given host (like an encouragement to smoke), neutral (like a jingle) or beneficial (like a warning against poison ivy). In fact, the very same religious meme-complex may be beneficial towards one individual and detrimental towards another depending on how that given individual reacts to it.

The advantage of viewing religions as meme-complexes is that we are freed from the necessity of having to presume that religion needs to be a biological adaptation or that it needs to serve any necessarily positive role in human society. Memes exist to spread memes. What strategies they use to do so are only constrained by the set of strategies that would be successful for the task.

If we hypothesize that religions are meme complexes, we need only presume that, at some point in the distant past, some certain proto-religious memes developed. Perhaps these were some sort of crude belief in an afterlife or a belief that certain natural forces had personalities. Whatever the case may be, all that matters is that those early memes were at least moderately successful at spreading themselves. Once we have that, the fact that they are replicators means that they will evolve via the mechanisms of natural selection.

The critical thing is that those religious memes and (eventually) meme-complexes that were better at a) finding new hosts and b) preventing rival memes and meme-complexes from co-opting those same hosts would be selected for. Those memes that weren't able to compete died out. In the simplest possible terms, this means that religion, once started, wouldn't only continue to persist in human populations, but that religion, over time, would become a more and more powerful influence among humans as those religions that were better at finding and keeping believers would out-compete those that weren't.

One corollary to this can be found in observations of how bacteria evolve in the presence of anti-bacterial agents. When an anti-bacterial agent is initially introduced into a population of bacteria, the bacteria initially experience a die-off. However, any mutant bacteria that survive the initial onslaught will eventually repopulate the environment, passing their anti-bacterial resistance to their descendants. In meme-pools, the same effect can be predicted. An idea that might initial serve to inhibit certain strains of memes (say, Enlightenment-style skepticism towards traditional Christianity) may initially inhibit the population. Those memes that are resistant to the new inhibitor, however, will quickly replace the original meme-strains (as happened with post-Enlightenment Christianity). This means that we not only have a hypothesis that allows us to account for the persistence of religion in the past, but a positive prediction that religion will continue to persist throughout the foreseeable future.

One final advantage of viewing religions as meme-complexes is that different religions can use different strategies to spread themselves, so long as their strategies are successful enough to continue leveraging them into the future. As such, some religious meme-complexes may utilizes such strategies as evangelization while others may "prefer" a strategy of generational indoctrination and others, still, may tend towards individual mystical revelations (and so on). Given this, meme theory, while giving us a unified theory of religion does not require us to have a unified account of how religions persist. Each religion can be considered a distinct case, just as every species of animal represents a distinct solution to the problems of animal survival. Where our other hypotheses may imply that all religions are fundamentally alike (having a common adaptive or social function, for instance), meme theory allows for given religions to be fundamentally different from one another.

This, at long last, brings us to our bullet for The Memetic Hypothesis:
  • Religion persists because religious ideas are memes. Once religious memes arise in the human population, selective pressures will favor those religious memes and meme-complexes that are better at propagating themselves against rival ideas and other cognitive obstacles.
This will conclude this next-to-last installment of the essay. In the next installment I will briefly consider one set of hypotheses that I will not be granting any bullets and will explain why I won't be doing so. I will then give final consideration to the hypotheses that we have explored. In doing so, I shall draw this essay to a conclusion.

There is, indeed, a light at the end of the tunnel. I'll see you next week.8

1 A similar, and equally implausible suggestion is that predators serve their prey species by weeding out the old and the sick. While that does tend to happen, it is not because lions (for instance) are being altruistic towards gazelles. The reason that the old and the sick tend to be the ones caught is simply because they are the easiest to catch. The proof that there is no inherent altruism in predation can be found in the simple observation that along with the old and the sick, predators also catch young animals in disproportionate numbers.

2 The HOX gene complex in animals is an example of a genuinely persistent gene. All animals have HOX genes, which indicates that we inherited them from the common ancestor of all animal-kind, meaning that they extend back into the Precambrian.

3 Please note that I am not using bit in the formal sense of being a single unit of information that is either true or false.

4 The memes are not, of course, themselves socialists. They merely represent bits and pieces of socialist dogma.

5 Meme-complexes are also sometimes called memeplexes. Although the word memeplex is certainly catchy, I think that it's bit too cute for my taste, so I'll stick with the compound term.

6 People often get confused by the difference between memes and the physical expression of those memes. A gene-complex (i.e., DNA) is a coded set of information for creating an organism. The actual organism is the gene-complexe's physical expression in the world. A dog is not its DNA, nor is dog DNA a dog. A meme-complex is a set of ideas that can be spread between individuals. Such a complex may find expression of those ideas in the real world. The "Porsche" meme-complex is not an actual Porsche. A Porsche is not the Porsche meme-complex. The production of physical Porches, however, does aid the dissemination of the Porsche memes (just as dog bodies help spread dog genes).

7 One of the most striking examples of this happened to the Xhosa. The Xhosa were an African tribe suffering from the effects of European colonialism. In the mid-1800's a self-proclaimed prophetess told the other members of the tribe that she had received a revelation. Her revelation was that if the Xhosa killed their own cattle and stopped plowing their fields, the dead would come back to life and that the Europeans would be expelled from their lands. Because of the desperate circumstances of the Xhosa, this idea rapidly spread through the Xhosa population, resulting in a wholesale slaughter of cattle. Because of this, the Xhosa succumbed to famine and were forced to throw themselves on the mercies of the Europeans who separated and assimilated the survivors, effectively ending the existence of the Xhosa as an independent culture.

8 There is a lot more to meme-theory than I have been able to touch on. For a fuller exploration, I would suggest starting at the Wikipedia entry on memes. The Principia Cybernetica is another excellent starting point.

Thursday, February 03, 2005


It was a quiescent meditation
That brought an enlightenment,
Bursting with Nirvanan whiteness,
Into the back of his mind.

To those of us, around him,
He did not seem to see
All the textures of the world
Descending into infinite depth
And detail,

Nor did we sense
A blossoming of benevolence,
And meaning, beyond meaning,
Fountaining out from him
Into the whole of the universe.

It was an imperceptible awaking
From this dream-woven world
As he found his way through
The uncountable blind spots
Of our being.

this is an audio post - click to play

Wednesday, February 02, 2005


For those who've been tracking my efforts to find employment, you may be happy to know that I have been hired for a long-term contract position working for the county of El Paso.

As you can well imagine, I am happy to be working again. Please wish me luck in my new role.

Getting Bugged

Once upon a time when you watched a TV show all you saw was the show. A number of years ago that changed with the introduction of bugs. Bugs are those little station icons that are typically displayed in the lower right-hand corner of the screen when a show is on. Television stations claim that they are a necessity in this modern world of a hundren-plus channels to watch.

Personally, I don't mind bugs, so much, as long as they don't obscure any text that's being shown. When they get in the way of subtitles it's annoying but, in generally, they are small enough and far enough to the right that that doesn't tend to happen. It also helps when they are semi-transparent.

Several years ago, however, some stations decided that bug technology was ideal for advertising upcomming shows. These new bugs were programmed to pop up in the middle of a show. Unlike the logo bugs, which just function as station identifiers, these new bugs were intended to attract attention. As such, they tended to be large, opaque, and animated. The worst of the lot actually make noises. They remind me of nothing so much as the pop-up ads that as the scourge of the web.

I have, over time, grudgingly accustomed myself to those bugs but, last night, I saw a new breed of bug. It happened while I was watching a history channel show on the technology of the old west. The show's host mentioned something about headaches or sore muscles (I don't recall quite what) and a bug appeared on the screen with an advertisement for Advil. Later that night, while watching American Idol (sorry, it's a deservedly guilty pleasure) one of the contestants was making a cell phone call and a bug popped up advertising Cingular's cellular service.

Yes, folks, we've entered the age of the product placement bug. I suspect that this is a direct reaction to TiVO and other DVR technologies that allow people to zip past commercials. If advertisers can't grab your attentions during breaks in the show, they're clearly going to do it during the show. I doubt that there's anything that can be done about it so, once again, we're just going to have to grit our teeth and put up with the addition of yet another small nuisance in our lives. I suppose that there are more important things in this world to worry about but it does, never the less, bug me. I suppose that's the point.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Making Feinds

Making Fiends is an animated web comic and the invention of Amy Winfrey, formerly one of the animators for South Park as well as the creator of Big Bunny and Muffin Films.

The plots, which are simple but amusing, revolve around the interaction of two little girls named Vendetta and Charlotte.

Vendetta is a young evil genius who has a talent for creating monsters (i.e., fiends) which she uses to terrorize her playmates and teacher. Charlotte, by contrast, is a happy-go-lucky girl who can't believe that Vendetta is evil and who is convinced that they are best friends.

Vendetta, naturally, hates Charlotte and, each episode, does her best to create a monster to destroy her. Naturally, and to her immense frustration, Charlotte's innocent perspective manages to thwart Vedetta's schemes. It's a simple enough formula but surprisingly enjoyable all the same.

Be warned, the opening theme will stick in your head.

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