Dennett discusses evolution of religion
Posted: 22 January 2009 09:00 AM   [ Ignore ]  
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Published yesterday:
http://thedartmouth.com/2009/01/21/news/religion/

All right, he nails it. Beautifully. Please correct if you know this to be wrong, but I think it’s a lancet fluke embryo (Dicrocoelium) he’s talking about that turns infected ants into mind-controlled robots, climbing against their natural will to the tips of grass blades so they will be eaten by larger animals. 

But in terms of human behavior: the basic mechanism by which these memes replicate, so powerfully and mindlessly passing themselves from one generation to the next is…???

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Posted: 22 January 2009 11:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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SteveThomas - 22 January 2009 02:00 PM

But in terms of human behavior: the basic mechanism by which these memes replicate, so powerfully and mindlessly passing themselves from one generation to the next is…???

I’m troubled by the concept of “memes.”  Maybe because of my old leftist prejudices, I think ideology arises from the material conditions of life, including the very material brain as it exists in a material set of social relations.

From Wikipedia (hey, I don’t have all day to pull sources together):

Some prominent researchers in evolutionary psychology and anthropology, including Scott Atran, Dan Sperber, Pascal Boyer, John Tooby and others, argue the possibility of incompatibility between modularity of mind and memetics. On their view, minds structure certain communicable aspects of the ideas produced, and these communicable aspects generally trigger or elicit ideas in other minds through inference (to relatively rich structures generated from often low-fidelity input) and not high-fidelity replication or imitation. Atran discusses communication involving religious beliefs as a case in point. In one set of experiments he asked religious people to write down on a piece of paper the meanings of the Ten Commandments. Despite the subjects’ own expectations of consensus, interpretations of the commandments showed wide ranges of variation, with little evidence of consensus. In another experiment, normal subjects and autistic subjects interpreted ideological and religious sayings (for example, “Let a thousand flowers bloom” or “To everything there is a season”). Autistics showed a significant tendency to closely paraphrase and repeat content from the original statement (for example: “Don’t cut flowers before they bloom”). Controls tended to infer a wider range of cultural meanings with little replicated content (for example: “Go with the flow” or “Everyone should have equal opportunity”). Only the autistic subjects—who lack inferential capacity normally associated with aspects of theory of mind—came close to functioning as “meme machines”.

I suspect that the concept of “memes” arises from the “lab envy” of certain investigators of ideology.

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Posted: 22 January 2009 11:32 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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SteveThomas - 22 January 2009 02:00 PM

But in terms of human behavior: the basic mechanism by which these memes replicate, so powerfully and mindlessly passing themselves from one generation to the next is…???

That depends upon the person. For some, a religious practice is inculcated at an early age and simply becomes part of the person’s basic psychology - it is part of the cultural socialization process. For others, a particular religion fulfills a particular emotional or social need, and the basic dogmas of that faith are then accepted just like one adopts the membership rules of a club. Still others have a conversion or enlightenment experience that personally convinces them of the truth of the particular faith that gave rise to the experience. This last group really does not represent the passing of a “meme” (if such a thing exists) from one generation to another, but of the power of a particular faith to have a new, life-changing impact upon certain individuals. There is no “one size fits all” phenomenon when it comes to people adopting a specific religious belief.

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Posted: 22 January 2009 10:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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Thanks, teuchter, for reply and the effort.

I’m troubled by the concept of “memes.”

Songs, for instance, do get “stuck” in people’s heads, though, usually whether they like it or not.  Is there reason to think other thoughts or actions can’t? (Songs stuck in my own head I doubt I could characterize as exactly “high fidelity”.)

The word “Memes” appears in the article; it’s a word I generally stay away from myself—though it’s hard to argue certain absurd behaviors (destructive ones) have repeated themselves for a very long time, apparently out of the reach of reason’s ability to do much of anything about.  And, more incidentally than anything: since political ideology is itself very much a group thing: couldn’t the urge to decide “I’m a this” or “a that” be a variation of the same trick that religions use?  A force that seeks to persuade others to “Copy me”?  (Precisely what genes, even more incidentally, are themselves all about?)

The experiment you cite regarding consensus is interesting, though since Muzafer Sherif’s experiments with consensus and social norm formation were done in 1936, and since the researchers named in that article were all apparently themselves social psychologists or anthropologists, I’d think the only people involved who ought to have been much surprised by the results should have been the subjects.  I appreciate the point about the autistics being the only carbon-copy-like repeaters in that scenario, but it strikes me that general, low-fidelity obedience suits most religions’ purposes, most of the time, just fine.  (Note the tremendous ‘diversity’ of it.)

Whatever terms are used, Dennett advocating studying the thing as a natural phenomenon is something that I think deserves applause. 

There is no “one size fits all” phenomenon when it comes to people adopting a specific religious belief.

Bruce:
Maybe not, especially viewed from the surface.  But maybe underneath there does exist a common thread.

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Posted: 23 January 2009 05:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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Bruce Burleson - 22 January 2009 04:32 PM

That depends upon the person. For some, a religious practice is inculcated at an early age and simply becomes part of the person’s basic psychology - it is part of the cultural socialization process.


Here in the West and probably almost everywhere else religion and religious ideology is part of our socialization process, period. Not for some, for all of us. We’re all socialized to be geared toward religious belief.

Bruce Burleson - 22 January 2009 04:32 PM

Still others have a conversion or enlightenment experience that personally convinces them of the truth of the particular faith that gave rise to the experience. This last group really does not represent the passing of a “meme” (if such a thing exists) from one generation to another, but of the power of a particular faith to have a new, life-changing impact upon certain individuals.


Right ... as if memes aren’t part of the socialization process.

People like Francis Collins may have genuine spontaneous emotional experiences (I’ve had several, two that were powerful to the point of being overwhelming), but oddly enough people tend to interpret them within the context of how they were socialized to interpret such experiences. This is unmistakably clear, particularly to those who aren’t wearing heavily tinted dogma-colored glasses (more particularly those of us who have taken them off and remember what the world looked like with them on). In no way does such a conversion suggest it’s free from the influence of socialization. Pretty much nothing anyone consciously does is free from the influence of socialization. The real question here is why believers would think otherwise, particularly for a special situation, and do those who claim to really.

Bruce Burleson - 22 January 2009 04:32 PM

There is no “one size fits all” phenomenon when it comes to people adopting a specific religious belief.


There is one—they didn’t get there through intellectually responsible, critical, analytical processes, but rather they eschewed them, if by act of will or by having been geared to do so through socialization, or by some combination of the two. In any case religious faith is inherently a failure of genuine, sincere, responsible critical thinking.

Byron

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Posted: 23 January 2009 08:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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SkepticX - 23 January 2009 10:24 AM

a failure of genuine, sincere, responsible critical thinking.

And the way to coerce people into embracing and defending blindness and denial while dropping the truth as though it were the anthrax sandwich is…?

How about plain, simple cruelty?  The deliberate use of fear, pain, humiliation on those less powerful.  It’s systemic in the world, pervading relationships in the family, religions, schools (through all educational levels) and government. 

Religion has been one of the most blatant dispensers of stupification there has ever been.  Has very much the Concorde Syndrome as well as the Stockholm syndrome (or some variant) going for it.  But it’s been very good for me personally these last few years to see it become more and more effectively unmasked as nothing more than the simple bully that it is.  I like Dennett’s optimism; I hope he’s right (that religion will lose its “perceived dominance” soon).  But I hope those looking at it in the meantime will also recognize that religion is not the only institution in which blindness, stupidity and fear is “nurtured”.

Steve

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Posted: 23 January 2009 10:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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SteveThomas - 23 January 2009 03:07 AM

Whatever terms are used, Dennett advocating studying the thing as a natural phenomenon is something that I think deserves applause.

If all that was meant by “natural phenomenon” was a rejection of supernatural phenomena, who could argue with him?  But that isn’t what he means.

Dennett [...]advocated studying religion as a “natural phenomenon” and compared religious ideas to viruses, which thrive by replicating and passing themselves from one generation to the next.[...]

Religion is a type of “meme,” an idea passed from person to person that evolves much like a virus, Dennett said. Viruses, like memes, are not alive, but still develop according to the laws of natural selection, he said.

If religion “is a type of ‘meme,’” then “meme’ has no meaning at all.  That would be like trying to talk about the “feeling yucky virus” if you were a virologist.

The memeologists suffer from the same defect as the social theorists who came up an economic theory of “survival of the fittest” to justify the expropriation of wealth by a capitalist oligarchy:  take a half-baked theory that justifies your conclusion, dress it up with a few trappings of the theory of evolution, and announce you are the Darwin of social inequality or, in Dennet’s case, the investigation of ideology.

Change the word “meme” to “god” and I wonder whether Dennet’s position as set forth in the linked article (I am not offering a critique of Dennet’s entire work, just the linked article) would not seem entirely agreeable to our resident christian apologist, Bruce Burleson.

Ideology exists because meme/god, existing outside human experience and perservering for its own independent purpose, infects/reveals itself to man and thereby affects man’s behavior.  I don’t buy it.

Take the “meme” middle-class. If “religion” can be a meme, surely “middle class” can be.  And yet the concept of a “middle class” arose only after very open discussions as late as the 1930’s—1940’s of the contradiction between the “working class” (proletariat) and the capitalist class (bourgeoisie).  This discussion centered on the question of “class struggle.”  I don’t think the most probable, or helpful, understanding of our current obsession with “Middle Class Values” (during our recent election, you may have heard about “working families” but you sure as hell didn’t hear a lot about “the working class”) arose because some “meme,”  seeking to propagate itself for its own purposes, infected our culture.  It is more probable that as a way to diffuse this unpleasant talk of class struggle, a “middle” class, which obviously could not stand in opposition to another class by definition, was invented; note that any discussion that seeks to remedy the conflation of the working class and the petit bourgeoisie of professionals and shopkeepers is now met with complaints about “class war.”

SteveThomas - 23 January 2009 03:07 AM

since political ideology is itself very much a group thing: couldn’t the urge to decide “I’m a this” or “a that” be a variation of the same trick that religions use?  A force that seeks to persuade others to “Copy me”?  (Precisely what genes, even more incidentally, are themselves all about?)

And genes don’t exist and propagate themselves for their own benefit.  Brown eyes may give an organism a natural advantage, or they may be irrelevant, but genes don’t lead to brown eyes for the sake eye color.  Likewise, belief in, or at least acquiescence in, the divine right of kings never existed as a value in and of itself.  It served a specific political and economic formation inextricably bound to a specific time and place.

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Posted: 23 January 2009 10:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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‘Faith’ might be a more important Meme than religion. One leads to the other. Once this idea of believing in things that there is no evidence for is accepted, religions can be constructed to justify the belief.(confirmation bias in psychology) ‘Faith’ seems to be the culprit, not religion, per se. I think SH would agree. Religion may be a secondary Meme spawned by a primary Meme.

Damn, made up my own theory in 1.3 minutes.

Sorry, I am a slow typer.

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Posted: 23 January 2009 10:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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McCreason - 23 January 2009 03:24 PM

‘Faith’ might be a more important Meme than religion. One leads to the other. Once this idea of believing in things that there is no evidence for is accepted, religions can be constructed to justify the belief.(confirmation bias in psychology) ‘Faith’ seems to be the culprit, not religion, per se.

Congratulations on your new theory, and I hope it brings you lucrative speaking engagements.

But what is gained by calling “faith” a meme (a self-replicating “thing” transforming itself independent of its human “host.”)  If “idea of believing in things that there is no evidence for” is explicable by the material and concrete understanding of the way the human brain works, then I see no need to invent some process independent of the human brain to explain this phenomenon.  As I said earlier, it makes “meme” sound too much like “god.”

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Posted: 23 January 2009 11:03 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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McCreason - 23 January 2009 03:24 PM

‘Faith’ might be a more important Meme than religion.


Yup.

Faith is like an intellectual enzyme that allows the mind to digest putrid ideas.

Byron

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Posted: 23 January 2009 11:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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Thanks teu. I don’t speak well however, or type well either so….not looking forward to any engagements.

Dawkins refers to memes as like viruses. Thoughts, ideas etc., that infect the brain and get and passed on. Controversial of course but…an explanantion of sorts.

All the worlds great thinkers would die to know the answer as to why some people believe in or partake in ‘faith’ and some do not. It is one of our greatest mysteries. Along with why people think the USA is a christian nation. grin That one is almost as befuddling.

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Posted: 23 January 2009 11:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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Nice Byron. Except that I would rephrase. A meme is like an ‘anti-intellectual’ enzyme.  tongue wink

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‘Every reflecting mind must acknowledge that there is no proof of the existence of a Deity’

‘If ignorance of nature gave birth to gods, knowledge of nature destroys them’

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Posted: 24 January 2009 07:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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teuchter - 22 January 2009 04:01 PM

I think ideology arises from the material conditions of life, including the very material brain as it exists in a material set of social relations.

Hello teuchter,

It’s difficult for me to understand what you say above. I can understand how being oppressed can cause one to feel oppressed and even how that can lead to the original memetic birth of dogmatic political and economic ideologies, (that are themselves oppressive), but I don’t see how that causes religious dogmatism to arise at all.

Dogmatic m ideas or meme’s originate with individuals, but are adopted by swarms of individuals. It is not necessary that the replication of the meme be high fidelity, as Atran suggests. Fidelity is only necessary in science, where the faithful reproduction of specific meme’s is how we describe objective reality. You believe that E=MC2 because you have faith that that meme has been objectively verified by some number of independent subjects.

For those meme’s with no objective basis in reality, there are as many variations as there are believers. There is no objective verification to which believers might refer their faith.

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