Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Memes and Cultural Programming

FD sent me a link to the Wikipedia article on ‘Memetic Engineering’. We had been discussing her intention to enlist in the US Army. Her husband, A, had been wounded in conflict and had received less than satisfactory treatment from the US Armed Services.
Many thanks for the link. And many more thanks for meeting me online this morning/evening.
As far as ‘memetics[1]’ is an expression of concern for the way people can be easily led and their world view manipulated it is a ‘good thing’. Whether it has any credibility as a scientific discipline is another question about which I am not so sure. I suspect rather that it is an attempt to find analogies where perhaps there are none, which is part of the human drive to categorise. The drive to derive categories is both a strength and a weakness when it comes to forming hypotheses. It is a strength, as mathematics is a strength, by trying to simplify and remove redundancy and fluff. It is a weakness if it creates the illusion of associations where there are none or strengthens or simplifies associations which are in reality complex and indirect. I am not sure that concepts and world views (memes) behave in the same way that genes do and I am not sure that they spread in the same way that viruses do. I am also not sure of the usefulness of the memetic hypothesis. I suspect that Richard Dawkins is as much a zealot for his particular viewpoint and that memes are a sort of marketing tool in themselves: a meme within a meme, if you like, which has been taken up and refined by his ‘disciples’. That suspicion should not be taken as an irrational negative criticism without having studied the literature. It is just a question.
The question of belief is a fascinating one which seems to play a fundamental role both collectively in human society and in the individual psyche. It is a very strange psychological phenomenon. I suspect that it may not be wise to reject it as an irrational and unscientific mental process per se because, for some strange reason, the very rejection seems to turn into a mirror image of belief itself. The prophets of ‘unbelief’ take on the role of unreligious leaders themselves which have their own followers and doctrines which also risk being slavishly followed.
I am intrigued by the role of my own belief system in my mental and social well-being. I know that I must have a belief which is easy to reconcile with a view of the world which requires ‘belief’ in the fewest number of absurdities. But belief itself is essential, for me at least, because without it I am unacceptably uncomfortable.
For me Islam presents the best approximation as an extant system of concepts and values. I view religion in much the same way as a scientific hypothesis. That is not a particularly conventional view of religion but it does allow me not to swallow wholesale what I do not like and do not feel comfortable with. It is a working belief that helps me to live and come to terms with events and circumstances. It is not the only working mental model and it is not the over-riding one.
For example, I believe in God. I believe in God because for me to be happy means to be grateful and to be grateful is a transitive verb phrase. Ipso facto I am grateful to God. I am in wonder at His creation. I feel dependent on Him and when I pray to Him to express my dependency and love I feel better and refreshed. I feel a more positive outlook.
I do disagree with some aspects of Islam. Capital punishment, for example, is illogical on religious grounds. If the idea of life on earth is to have the choice between good and evil intent and the chance of repentance, then to remove that ability to make amends by taking someone's life away is bizarre. For a ‘Department of Correction’ to do so is doubly bizarre.
In the Qur’an there is a verse which states categorically that there is no compulsion in matters of faith. Yet in so-called Islamic societies there is an awful lot of compulsion. The most difficult of all to accept is that, the Qur’an being God's last law, there is inherently no process by which the laws can be amended and modified. In real societies, the way we interact with each other and the way we build concepts and world views about what is, and is not, acceptable, change. 
For example, most monotheistic religions absolutely condemn homosexuality. If God is Love then how can we condemn love however it may manifest itself? There is a problem in the west that everything seems to be sexualised and there is a pressure to identify ourselves in sexual terms. This is a pity. Sex is just one of a range of elements that make up our being. There are masculine and feminine aspects to each of us. We should not be afraid of feeling affection to someone just because such affection would carry with it a label. In the west we have become afraid even to hug our own children or even take videos of school events because society deems that such actions amount to child abuse.
People, in my view, are more hard on other people than God is. After all, God made us and made us with all our ‘imperfections’ as living, soft, crazy, beings. We are not programmable machines, which is perhaps why I react rather negatively to the ‘meme’ theory. All religious, cultural or pseudo-scientific attempts to programme us are doomed to failure and are, by and large, cruel and unnecessary anyway.
In the west we over-sexualise. In the east we over-value silly things such as hair covering and virginity. The consequences for both viewpoints can be catastrophic for the individual.
People are wonderfully diverse. We should allow ourselves to form whatever relationships and commitments, and have them recognised officially, as we want as long as it does not harm those who are dependent on us. We should celebrate those commitments and support them with wholehearted love. Jealously is the most negative of human emotions. A belief system that embraces the concept that we are all, all creatures great and small, made by the same Hand is positive and encourages that love and celebration. An empty heart without that belief and relying on a mechanistic view of cosmic evolution is from my perspective difficult to sustain. I accept it might not be so for others.
The ‘problem’ that memetics is supposed to address is how people can be manipulated. The solution is to teach us the value of refusal. We do everything because we have a choice. We allow ourselves to be manipulated. We allow ourselves to accept what the other person wants us to believe even though it seems absurd. We allow ourselves to get into debt. We allow ourselves to become addicts and dependents. We allow our governments to use fear to take away our freedoms. We must re-learn the power to say, ‘No’.
It was lovely to meet you and talk briefly. I fear that your mind is too big for the US Air Force. Do not sell your soul for the 30 pieces of silver represented by a degree and promises of healthcare and child education. The world is bigger than the US. Remember how Uncle Sam let A[2] down. The commitment to the armed forces is for longer than 7 years you sign up for. You will always be ‘on call’. It is not about defending your people and your home. It is about sacrificing your freedom to defend mega-corporations and banks. Your people and your home are not under threat. You will be working on systems to undermine[3] the freedom that you and others have.
Forgive my words if they seem unwelcome and intrusive. They are not meant with anything other than love.