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Entry 677, on 2008-01-18 at 22:45:35 (Rating 3, Science)
Yesterday I discussed the idea of memes, but I didn't get a chance to tell the whole story that the POI podcast covered. The guest, Keith Stanovich, had just completed a book called The Robot's Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin. His message was that humans are controlled by their genes and memes but we have the power of reason which can overcome these limitations and we can rebel against the slavery imposed especially by false beliefs.
Obviously this appeals to me because I would like to see false beliefs eliminated from modern society. Well, maybe that's not really true, because it would be a bit boring if people didn't believe any crazy stuff. If no one thought that UFOs were real, that fairies really exist, or that the Earth is 6000 years old, we would lose a lot of the variety and interest we currently have. Maybe what I really want is for people with crazy beliefs to be treated less seriously.
The idea that creationism (or intelligent design) should be taught in biology class is just about as bad as teaching that crop circles are made by alien visitors in an astronomy class. But why are creationists taken seriously when UFO believers aren't? Obviously its because some countries (notably the US) are strangely protective of religion. This doesn't really happen in most other western countries and I really just can't figure out what's wrong with the US that they have this attitude there.
Stanovich says that the first step in the rebellion must be consciousness raising. To reject and defeat these memes we must first admit that they exist. So when religious people examine their beliefs objectively they will see that they don't make sense and that they are a slave to that belief. Once a person accepts this they can make the necessary changes to escape.
One point I should make here is that religion is not the only harmful belief we should escape from. There are many social, political, and economic ideas which should also be overthrown although they are probably harmful to a lesser extent. In fact everyone, hosts memes so we should all look at our lives and think about whether what we believe really makes sense.
The main danger signal I would suggest to look for is the one I mentioned yesterday: successful memes protect themselves by discouraging the individual from hosting competing ideas. The obvious example is religions: most forbid the person from believing or even considering other belief systems. But other beliefs also have these mechanisms. For example, most people I know with right-wing political affiliations don't read the point of view of more left leaning people because they believe they are full of false ideas of various sorts (they say the left doesn't understand economics, for example). And the opposite happens when the left refuse to consider the right's opinions.
So I hope that a bit of critical self-examination might lead to some people's freedom from the tyranny of their beliefs. On second thoughts, its probably not likely because some memes have survived for thousands of years they are obviously well adapted to survival. Its just basic Darwinism in action!
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