Tag Archives: Philosophy

a strange document from the undusted shelves of the internet

I just read an interesting essay on the subject I discussed some time ago with a labmate: does the scientific worldview imply some kind of faith… The most I could claim was that the enterprise of science rests on the idea that there are universal and consistent laws of nature… but I was forced to concede that the practice of science does not require “faith” in universal consistency. Practicing science on a daily basis only requires that these laws appear consistent to us at any given moment.


I think that science is philosophically void if physical laws are inconsistent beyond a certain degree. Interestingly, I suppose that they could be inconsistent to a certain (calculable?) extent before it would be possible to notice. But in the extreme case that the laws of nature are totally inconsistent, the both science and philosophy are bankrupt in general. So for the purposes of any discourse, it’s sort-of a fundamental premise. Even so, it doesn’t mean you have to believe science is philosophically valid to keep doing it. It might just be fun.

At the same time, all of this got me thinking. Here’s a quote that really summed it all up: “The dominant belief in all Western Cultures is that this universe runs on material causality and is thus comprehensible to reason.” -Peter Carroll

If we don’t take some form of physical determinism as a working theory, then we might as well give up on trying to figure out how the world works by science. But I don’t know if a ‘working theory’ is the same thing as faith. Certainly it’s not the same thing as the faith some religious ‘authorities’ seem to require. That ‘faith’ is just loud, stubborn (sometimes violent) insistence. Like a little kid who says ‘Yes it is! Yes it is a million times no backsies!” Faith, right?

Well, I see a stronger faith in someone who allows honest scrutiny and change… and who makes it a working assumption that the “universe runs on material causality and is thus comprehensible to reason.” A person of faith accepts this without proof… and is willing to admit that there might not be such a thing as proof for some beliefs.


ideas can ‘hijack’ a person’s mind and make them do things

I think that some people are uncomfortable with the memetic perspective because it presupposes that an idea can ‘hijack’ a person’s mind and make them do things. Dan Dennett speaks at length about this notion. A meme is a semi-autonomous thing: it is an idea that spreads through minds as if it had a will of its own. People don’t like to think of ideas as things that control them. For most people who think of “ideas” in the abstract, they are like items in a catalog, not programs resident in memory. A post over at meme-weaver gave me an interesting example of exactly the hijacking that poeple are afraid of (and that fear is not without reason).

Here is the example. What Derren Brown implants into his mark’s brain is not a meme per se, since it does not spread. But it does show that an idea can be implanted in such a way that it hijacks a person’s brain rather than becoming a passive item within it.

Here is one explanation for how this was done. Based on neurolinguistic programming

There are a bunch of tricks that D. Brown has played that expose deeply the vulnerabilities of our minds. He’s a magician; he doesn’t want his memes to spread. A magician never reveals the trick.  But the tricks are out there, spreading by inducing people to spread them.  The marketing magicians know it.  I think we should too.


two examples to illustrate the usefulness of the memetic paradigm

I can think of two examples to illustrate the usefulness of the memetic paradigm. The first is a post on VilralOne , a blog on memetics. The blog entry describes the philosophical underpinnings and history of memetics. It is thorough. It goes into a great many criticisms of the memetic paradigm and how they might be countered. And, eventually, discourse of this kind might win memetics a grudging place in academia. From there, it could spread (a meta-meme) into the popular consciousness of young students who would then put it to (presumably) good use. Eventually, it could influence the development of good ideas in a similar fashion to how Darwins’ ideas helped influence the development of molecular genetics. This would validate the current memeticist’s perspective and efforts, but probably not in their lifetime.

In a sense, this is an example of the old method for memetic success. Problem: memetics is not an accepted science. Solution: write a careful, long description of why it is worth accepting, then wait 100 years.

There is another way for memetics to gain acceptance, and that is the direct and immediate application to current problems. Take the example of Godwin’s law. Godwin noticed that when discussion on the ‘net got heated, it was almost inevitable that someone would make a Nazi comparison. He wanted to design a meme to combat it, so he wrote Godwin’s law. The new form is that “once a discussion reaches a comparison to Nazis or Hitler, its usefulness is over,” but that is not how Godwin phrased it originally. He started a meme, and it evolved. And it was, arguably, successful. People seem to be more careful about making comparisons to Nazism, as they don’t want to be the person who takes the discussion over the line into uselessness (or at least they don’t want people to call them out by invoking Godwin’s law).

Godwin designed this idea specifically as a meme. And so it stands as a success story of the memetic perspective. Memetics, philosophically sound or not, is useful. It is an intellectual tool and need not be a philosophy of life. I’m neither a social scientist nor a committed materialist. Both of those people might have reason to be threatened by memetics if they refuse to adapt. Social scientist may well have to learn a new vocabulary as their field is eclipsed by a new one. Strict materialists may have to accept that a new perspective explains human behavior without specific reference to biology. Of course, genetics was a successful science long before the specifics of DNA replication were known, and it’s probable that neurobiology and memetics will be reconciled eventually.

But in the end, reconciling these disparate ideas (sociology, biology, memetics) by way of philosophical discourse is inefficient. It will happen eventually if all of them prove to be useful descriptors of the same thing. Look at the history of M-theory or Quantum Electrodynamics. The big upshot is in that key word: useful. And the marketing companies already know that memetics is the wave of the future.


GTD, consumerism, meaningful pursuits and their effect on motivation

I read a great post not long ago about how we could all slow down and do something meaningful. Then we wouldn’t need GTD tricks to get things done. We would want to get them done. I would like to call that desire to get things done, ‘gumption,’ in the spirit of Robert M. Persig and the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Clay Collins’ post was great in part because it recognized the plain and simple truth that we are often stuck not on some organizational issue, but a motivational issue. The GTD mentality can get you out of the overwhelmed inaction gumption trap, but there are plenty of other gumption traps.

The biggest, I think, is doing something that is not really important. If you find yourself thinking that you don’t care if a thing gets done or not, then no amount of external force, tricks, emotional speeches or anything else will make it seem like it is worth doing for long. Yet, somehow, for some of us, not doing this unimportant thing causes anxiety. That’s an amusing situational irony if I’ve ever found one.

On the other hand, if the project is meaningful, then it will be a lot easier.

Determining what is meaningful may be a pretty hard task in itself. It might take a lot of time and emotional energy. And being stuck in the grind is not the best place to start. But how can you get out of the grind without some greater passion to pull you away? That is the dark underbelly of consumerism. Don’t think. Buy. Unhappy? Buy more. That make you less happy and in debt? More depressed? Too overwhelmed to think of a better way of life? Perfect. Keep buying. It’s the addict cycle. The easiest cure for withdrawal symptoms is to not withdraw.


Sam Harris, reason, the common agenda, discussion of Deep Topics

Sam Harris gave a speech to the American Athiest Alliance about how he doesn’t think atheists should identify themselves as such.He wants atheists to be champions of reason, maybe, but campaigners against belief?No.He makes an interesting case. I think the video would be interesting for any person who thinks about these things. Sam Harris, by the way, wrote The End of FaithOne of Sam Harris' books and Letter to a Christian NationOne of Sam Harris' books, of which I have read neither.

There are some really subtle issues here that surround the contention that atheism constitutes just another religion.The idea is this: there are a lot of people who identify themselves as atheists, and they have a social agenda based on their stated and committed belief.Based on this, they form a de facto religion.The fact that the core belief of this “religion” is that there is no god is somewhat irrelevant; if the group of people take up the structure of a religion, so the theory goes, so it should count as one.

I can see the logic in that argument, but most atheists I know are not that kind of atheist.They don’t belong to an atheist club and they don’t see themselves as ascribing to an external social agenda.They don’t commit themselves to the belief that there is not a god; they simply don’t care.It might be better called Apatheism (apathy-ism). That’s different again from agnosticism, which holds that the issue might be important, but we just don’t have an answer.

Apatheism can’t be called a religion in the same way that the American Athiest Alliance can be called a religion, even in the superficial sense.The point is that, on the whole, the agenda of thinking, caring people is not served by anyone representing themselves as anti-religion. For people who care to talk about these issues like truth and morality (the non-apatheists) the common ground is the desire for reason and understanding what is going on.Those desires are served by people being kind and reasonable to each other.

And when it comes to intellectual pursuits, intellectual honesty and integrity are things upon which people of any creed may insist.Even people without any other creed can insist on intellectual honesty and integrity.And that’s enough to accomplish our shared agenda.Nobody needs to insist on anybody giving up a belief as long as it is either (1) held up to standards of reason, or (2) held only as a private conviction and not as a social standard.

Reason is the cornerstone of a civil social space for a diversity of opinion and perspective.The Big Upshot is that I am not going to insist that people agree, but in the interest of a discussion I insist only that they be reasonable – that is that the views that they contend that I should also hold must be internally consistent and consistent with the observations of the world which we can all share.And even then, I certainly acknowledge silence as another option.

Thanks for reading.