In the last two videos on memetics (see schedule below), we talked about how truth — and other things we like — may not be decisive when it comes to the “spreadiness” and “stickiness” of certain ideas. In other words, “goodness” does not necessarily yield “fitness.”
But that’s not the whole picture. Vital to memetics is an understanding of how neuropsychological patterns can prompt and prevent virulence and resilience (“spreadiness” and “stickiness”).
Today, we’re going to talk about one of the most important patterns to understand — loss aversion — and how it impacts memetics.
We’ve already talked about loss aversion twice on this site:
- In “Bibliopsychology: Why the Servant Did Nothing,” we talked about the reluctance to commit our charity, a failing against which we must fight.
- In “Up a Tree,” we talked about a good way to think about loss aversive rooting behavior. Today’s video will echo some of these themes.
Its impact on memetics is manifold, and I think you’ll enjoy how the breakdown plays out through the story of the tower seeker.
(For those familiar with genetic algorithms, this is “local maxima” in function.)
Get out there and really investigate. I can’t believe this guy when he says, “I’m an authority,” “I’m Dr. Tower (even if he is Dr. Tower),” “They have a conspiracy”… These things might all be the case, but you are the final gatekeeper to the keep of what you believe.
- Memetics Pt. 1: Introduction, and the “Fitness” Snag
- Memetics Pt. 2: The Four Brothers (and Their Business Booths)
- Memetics Pt. 3: The Short Tower Problem
- Memetics Pt. 4: Short Towers + Secret Gnosis
For us Christians who believe in absolute sovereignty in the classical sense — that is, a God with an optimal predetermined plan for everything — we see appellate prayer not as a way to derail God’s plan of action, but to express ourselves and establish a conduit by which a communicative connection can be made between ourselves and God.
1 John 5:14
“And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.”
That is, when we pray for something in service of his will, and that thing comes to pass in startlingly, apparently significant ways, it’s not as if we think those prayers surprised or jarred God into action.
With All of Our Hearts
We who reject such a “surprising God” paradigm say instead that, by praying for something, we engage in two important Graces.
First, we’re given a release to express our tensile poverties and weaknesses.
“The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Second, we’re establishing a “flagpost A,” and when the thing comes to pass as “flagpost B,” we ostensibly have communicative evidence and, as such, appellate prayer is a vital “faith-helper.”
Jeremiah 20:13, 33:3
“[To the exiles in Babylon:] You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. … Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.”
1 Chronicles 16:11
“Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always.”
That’s what it means to say that God answers prayer, even while being completely sovereign (in the classical sense) and non-contingent. This is also why we echo Christ and say in our hearts to the Father, after every appeal, “Yet not my will, but yours be done.”
We temper and humble ourselves also because we know that we’re really bad at asking for what we really need.
Sometimes this is due to selfishness, but other times it’s merely due to our woefully volatile and corrupt interest sets, combined with our pathetic faculties of discernment and foresight.
“You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions… Come near to God and he will come near to you.”
As a result, “Flagpost B,” is very often completely unexpected, very often shrewdly timed, and very often startlingly profound, because the Spirit transforms our subpar vocalizations into secret prayers that conform to the Father’s sovereign will.
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.”
With All of Our Minds
At the same time, if we’re to have the kind of faith that is reasonable, we have to be self-critical and temper our faith with careful scrutiny.
It’s all-too-easy to go from what we Christians consider healthy faith into destructive superstition, over-attributing every little thing to miraculous divine intervention. You’ve seen this happen when reckless Christians claim God’s miraculous stamp of approval for every decision they make, and when certain Christians, like modern-day Dr. Panglosses, arrogantly and sinfully make false prophesies about the specific reasons for natural disasters and the like.
We have all sorts of skeptic’s considerations to keep our judgments prudently humble which we must diligently employ.
- Littlewood’s Law. Given enough time, weird stuff is bound to happen naturally and without discernible purpose. (Be careful with this one; “enough” is an ungrounded antecedent.)
- Confirmation bias. We tend to recklessly rush to conclusions when we’d prefer them to be true.
- Placebo. Thoughts and attitudes can have recursive psychological and physiological effects on ourselves. This isn’t inherently bad or good; there are healthy and unhealthy ways that this can affect us.
That said, there may come a threshold, in an individual’s experience, after this healthy scrutiny, at which it can be reasonable to conclude “God.”
Counterintuitively, this can be reasonable even if God doesn’t exist or doesn’t answer prayer. Reason (in the Kantian sense) proceeds from fully-considered experience tempered by fully-employed logic, and is not synonymous with “truth,” because an appeal is made to an individual’s corrupt faculties of observation and contemplation.
At the same time, we’re not Solipsists in practice, and so we come to conclusions given imperfect evidence. We do our best prep, then make our best guess. Relentless skepticism is not a religion, but relentless skepticism risks an opportunity cost, just like any religion.
Between Heart and Mind
Prayer is our tether to an interactive God, who is nonetheless “He Who Is Unseen.” It’s a prerequisite for reasonable faith, essential for genuine humility, and a conduit to unload our anxieties to he who is in complete control of the global situation.
But his activity is subtle and shrewd, and the wisdom underpinning it — beyond human understanding or dissection — warrants humble, diligent seeking and sifting, and not reckless prophesying.
Is it good to push what we consider “Biblical morals” into law?
The answer is often “no,” for two very important reasons:
When church and state are mixed, the church is corrupted by the state, and the state is corrupted by this new church.
“My small church disagrees with your mega-church.”
Koinodoxy is not orthodoxy; what is popular is not always right, and what is right is not always popular.
A Heuristic for Moral Legislation
It’s fine to legislate morality under the following set of conditions only:
- Without the law, things are (or would be) gravely harmful in terms of values near-universal to people.
- This harm is demonstrable (we can’t just declare the harm).
- The law would be demonstrably effective at fixing this problem (we can’t just assume the fix will work).
- The “costs” of the law and its byproducts would not outweigh its “benefits.”
It goes without saying that many Biblical proclamations would not qualify under the above conditions. Many come down to issues of discipline or scruple. Many are rooted in a bygone culture, like where braided hair was considered immodest. And many are explicitly meant only for the church.
This is why:
- We don’t make laws against lying except under grave and demonstrable circumstances.
- We don’t make laws against getting angry except under grave and demonstrable circumstances.
- We don’t make laws against coveting, gossip, etc.
… even though the Bible clearly generally frowns upon lying, anger, coveting, and gossip.
Something in the world may irritate you or violate a tenet of moral propriety to which you hold. But if your first thought is, “There oughtta be a law!,” it may be a symptom of hasty prohibitionism.
Prohibitionism from Simple Thought
Many do not realize that “Is X morally wrong?” and “Should there be a law against X?” are two completely different questions.
Prohibitionism from Memetically Strong Fictions
In the heuristic above, you may have noticed that demonstrability is required at several stages. This is necessary to maintain a “sandbag wall” of careful criticism to defend ourselves against urban myths, “common sense” nonsense, and various other memetically strong fictions.
For example, did you know that in the late 19th century, American public schoolchildren — particularly in the culturally “drier” states — were taught that drinking alcohol could cause spontaneous combustion?
However ludicrous this was, memetic fiction can have a life of its own if left unchecked. Over-demonizing was one of the many factors that helped catalyze the later nationwide prohibition, which is now universally regarded as a complete disaster.
Prohibitionism from Tribal Pride
The attempt to inject religious prescriptions into state law without qualifying under the above conditions comes often from pride.
Consider pride in a hometown football team. If I love the Spearmen, I might put a “Go Spearmen!” banner in my window.
But as soon as I spraypaint “Go Spearmen!” on my neighbor’s house, I am a vandal, which is a certain brand of property thief.
It doesn’t matter if I feel great pride in my Spearmen. I may say, “I feel that spraypainting my neighbor’s house would be standing up for my team, and expressing my support for the Spearmen.”
Unless I can demonstrate a grave harm in universal terms that would be fixed by my vandalism and that it would lack significant side-effects, my vandalism cannot be justified.
In the first of our four-part series on memetics, we talked about how the virulence (“spread-iness”) and resilience (“stickiness”) of ideas determines the flourishing of those ideas, even if those ideas are bad in terms of things we call “goodness,” like truth, justice, and quality of life.
This has the counterintuitive result of labeling really bad things as “fit.”
Today, we’re going to apply this to a thought experiment in which four brothers try to make their businesses successful through four different strategies.
First, we’ll meet Reilly, Murtagh, Shane, and Lochlan.
Later in the video, we’ll also be introduced to a fifth (bonus!) brother, Gerrard, and see what strategy he employs, and how it works out for him.
The illustration of the brethren and their booths will demonstrate how:
… memetic action — resilience and virulence — is what matters [for flourishing]. Truth kinda goes by the wayside. Making sense can kinda go by the wayside. And if you and I care about truth and making sense — which I’m sure we do — then we’ve gotta watch out…
- Memetics Pt. 1: Introduction, and the “Fitness” Snag
- Memetics Pt. 2: The Four Brothers (and Their Business Booths)
- Memetics Pt. 3: The Short Tower Problem
- Memetics Pt. 4: Short Towers + Secret Gnosis
The problem is that incoherence can be very powerful when employed as a logical wildcard. And logical wildcards can “build bridges” that appear to account for those fallacy-accusations.
This cloaks such argumentation in the veil of cogency.
Whenever a faction thinks a line of argumentation works in its favor, it will employ that argumentation as a rhetorical weapon in order to win debate “battles.”
The problem is that when a line of argumentation is thought to be cogent, and it is not cogent, that weaponry will be made of “rubber,” so to speak.
Sure, it’ll look like a real sword when untested. It may even work to frighten off lesser opponents.
But as soon as a rubber sword is really applied to an armored opponent, it will bend.
Anyone Can be Fooled
Logical wildcards are fueled by ambiguous terminology and many-faced concepts. This makes them notoriously difficult to root out. They subsist on the language problems they create, and even very, very, very intelligent people will not and cannot recognize them unless and until those underlying language problems are identified.
This is the driving force behind philosophical and theological quietude.
Everyone Can be Fooled
When it comes to claims of which the truth values are difficult to discern or demonstrate, the veracity of an idea (or lack thereof) is much less relevant in the memetic arena than other properties of the idea, including:
- Aesthetic stimulation (using rhymes, juxtapositions, alliteration, clever and catchy paraphrasing, etc.).
- Subscription by formal authorities.
- Subscription by forebears.
- Resonance with “common sense” folk ideas.
- And much, much more.
This means that you can expect false ideas to gain widespread subscription when they meet the “difficult to test” and “has many memetically powerful qualities” criteria.
Admiring Rubber Swords
A faction is very likely to lay their rubber swords on a table and admire them, and feel pride over them.
Relying on Rubber Swords
Without rubber swords, an armory may be perceived to be ill-stocked. Furthermore, it may be the case that a faction will win more battles via sword-waving than they would have won wielding genuine, solid instruments.
This further reinforces the loyalty and subscription to them.
Criticizing Rubber Swords
A faction is very likely to react with alarming hostility to forces within the faction that declare, “The emperor has no clothes,” with regard to these rubber swords.
This is due to the “Up a Tree” problem of loss-aversion.
Rubber Swords of Apologetics
From what I’ve discovered, almost all of the so-called “Godproofs” are rubber swords.
This is not to say that we have no reason to believe. It just means that, in our zeal to see “He who is unseen,” we’ve created — over the centuries — many bad reasons to declare that “He must exist.”
In the coming months, I’ll be covering each of the “Godproofs,” showing their weaknesses (and why they don’t work against armored opponents), the fallout of rejecting them, and the Biblical faith and hope to which we should instead cling.
Already, we’ve talked about how “objective meaning” is not coherent and lacks a Biblical foundation. Without “objective meaning” as a given, the Argument from Moral Realism “Godproof” has lost its standing legs.
Is It Okay to Criticize “Godproofs”?
In the 11th century, a monk named Anselm formulated the Ontological Argument, which he deemed a “Godproof.”
I believe that I have shown by an argument which is not weak, but sufficiently cogent, that in my former book I proved the real existence of a being than which a greater cannot be conceived; and I believe that this argument cannot be invalidated by the validity of any objection.
For so great force does the signification of this reasoning contain in itself, that this being which is the subject of discussion, is of necessity, from the very fact that it is understood or conceived, proved also to exist in reality, and to be whatever we should believe of the divine substance.
To whom did Anselm write the above remarks? He wrote them to a fellow Catholic monk named Gaunilo.
Gaunilo thought it a work for the Lord to root out what he perceived to be non-cogent argumentation from his brethren in Christ.
Counterintuitively, Gaunilo correctly felt that it serves God to rebut a bad “Godproof.”
Anselm did not accept Gaunilo’s refutation. But did he fault Gaunilo for being critical? Not at all.
Rather, Anselm wrote:
I thank you for your kindness both in your blame and in your praise for my book.
Later, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote critically of an ontological argument. 18th C. philosopher Immanuel Kant refuted it, and more recently philosopher David Lewis criticized ontological arguments in his work, “Anselm and Actuality.”
It’s okay to be critical of arguments that don’t really work.
Why Would a Christian Do This?
Cancer surgery is difficult and painful, but it’s also a healing action that removes malignant elements that have ruinous implications.
Similarly, rubber swords are terrible patterns within Christianity. Each person who wields them — tricked by those facades of cogency — will become a carrier for toxic theology.
Further, as they lose these debates with truly-armored non-believers, they’ll retreat deeper and deeper into intra-faction choir-preaching.
Methodological naturalism is the idea that it’s imprudent to invoke supernatural intervention as an explanation when such miraculous intervention may not be necessary. This is a pillar of mainstream science.
And how do you determine whether supernatural intervention was necessary for some observation?
By assuming, for the sake of argument, that something supernatural did not intervene, and then genuinely attempting to find a sufficient natural (that is, mechanistic) explanation.
The Relentless Robot Thought Experiment
You live on planet Chalybos, and you’ve been taught from birth that the core of the planet is made of an indestructible substance. You begin a mission to search for that indestructible substance.
You’re not the first Chalyban to have this idea. Many people have before begun similar digging adventures.
The first such explorer hit a really tough substance 50 meters down. He was convinced that this was the indestructible core. He wailed on the substance for weeks, but it wouldn’t break. Finally, after failing to dig any deeper, he proclaimed that he had, indeed, found the core.
Later, a different explorer brought a team along with him. After months of working at the stubborn material, they broke through. The material wasn’t indestructible at all; the core had not been reached.
This happened again and again in the history of Chalybos. A team would reach a layer seemingly invulnerable, and proclaim their victory in terms of having discovered the planet’s core. But then a subsequent team would work a little harder and longer and break through what before was claimed to be the core.
And then, the cycle would repeat.
To deal with this, you decide to build a robot that is programmed to dig downward. Even if the robot hits a surface that he has trouble with, he never gives up. He always treats anything he encounters as if he can break through.
- In some ways, this robot has a weakness: He is stuck in full-throttle dig-mode. He has no perceptions and no decisionmaking faculties. Furthermore, if indeed he does hit the true core one day, he’ll continue digging into it, fruitlessly, forever.
- In other ways, this robot has a strength: He will never give up too soon and falsely proclaim victory, as so many explorers before you had done.
Here are a few opinions of fellow Chalybans:
- Seeing this repetitive pattern of false victories and deeper digs, some conclude that there is no indestructible core at all. There is only an “indestructible core of the gaps,” shrinking every time a team breaks through and digs deeper.
- Eventually, the robot hits a surface that he spends years working against with no success. Some, at this point, say, “We believe the robot has finally arrived at the core — but we must keep him powered, forever, because there is a chance that we’re wrong.”
- Others say, “He has certainly arrived at the core. We should save our energy and shut the robot off. His job is finished.”
No Obvious Answer
Can you see the reasoning behind the skeptics who reject the idea of an indestructible core? Can you see the reasoning behind those who believe the core has been found, but refuse to disconnect the robot? And can you see the reasoning behind those who believe the core has been found, and thus the robot should be disconnected?
I can see the reasoning behind all of these perspectives. None of them are completely meritless nor certainly meritorious.
Methodological naturalism is like the relentless robot. It chews through superstition and baseless supernatural conjecture. Layer after layer, it refuses to quit. To some, this is evidence that there’s no indestructible core at all, that is, there is nothing in existence that does lacks an mechanistic and explanatory underpinning. But I don’t think that necessarily follows. Methodological naturalism is a preference heuristic, not dogma.
I say, “keep the robot going,” while simultaneously putting faith in a God who I believe has interacted with my life in a meaningful, powerful, and efficacious way. This is what Stephen Jay Gould meant by “non-overlapping magisteria.” My beliefs about the core are orthogonal to the activity and revelations of the robot, though they are updated if and when the robot forces it.
The following story is about a man who’s been living in trees. But it’s really about something more psychological, that has a grave impact on philosophical and theological discussions. Can you figure out what it is, before the reveal?
Above is a video of environmental activist Josh Eng climbing into his home in the treetops. When I first heard this story last month, he’d been up in the trees with his friends for nearly 10 weeks.
He and his friends are living in these trees in order to stall or prevent logging projects on a small grove recently purchased by a private logging company.
But there’s a twist.
The manner in which this logging would take place is by a strategy called “variable retention.” Variable retention projects are designed by forestry ecologists to harvest selectively, in order to simulate natural events like wildfires — which we stop every year in Oregon, but which have the beneficial consequence of promoting diverse and vibrant forest ecosystems. This project in specific was designed by university professors with “long track record[s] in conservation.”
Variable retention is annoying for logging companies. It’s “more laborious, tedious, time-consuming, and expensive than clear-cutting.” But it’s a workable solution in places where harvesting and conservation often butt heads.
When asked about the fact that this environmentally-friendly strategy would be employed at the new purchase, Eng replied, “It would be a real heartbreaking thing to see it go the way of a variable retention harvest,” his words soaked with derision.
When I heard this story, I had a disheartening realization: This man and his friends have been living up in the treetops, cold and bored, for over 2 months. It doesn’t matter if variable retention is ecologically friendly, but let’s assume it is. How could they possibly admit that their cause was needless?
This story powerfully illustrates how loss-aversion — where “having been mistaken all along” is an extraordinarily potent sort of loss — can build not just a sandbag, but a bastion against competing argumentation.
The further up the tree you go, and the more effort you expend, the worse the “friction” becomes. By “friction” I mean “memetic friction” — the tendency to get rooted to local maxima (“decent-looking ideas that may not be the best ideas”) because you don’t have enough mutative power to leave.
You know the saying. “A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush.” You also know the refrain that begins so many of our contemplations: “I’d sure be an idiot if…”
That psychological quirk of loss-aversion — life-and-death useful long ago when catching birds was a matter of survival — affects even the learned, intelligent, and confident in the worlds of philosophy and theology.
The original story from OPB Radio, by Amelia Templeton and Tony Schick. This post uses their images and video.
Wikipedia: “Variable Retention.“
You’re at a church social gathering, eating at a table with three of your friends. You mention how your legs move around at night, bothering your spouse, and you say that you think you might have restless leg syndrome.
- “Restless legs? It’s probably a demon,” proposes Steve. “Have you considered asking Christ to pray the restless leg demon out of you?”
- “Restless leg syndrome is a myth,” claims Buck. “You’re the one causing your legs to move around, of your own free will. Why don’t you take some responsibility and stop your legs from moving around like that?”
- “It’s irrational for your brain to cause your legs to move like that,” says Sophia, “so why not try reasoning with yourself? Just convince yourself that there’s no point in doing that.”
The next week, you invite your friend Mike to church and, afterward, are again talking to your three friends. Mike, who visibly shakes, explains that he has Parkinson’s disease.
- “Can’t stop shaking? It’s probably a demon,” proposes Steve. “Have you considered asking Christ to pray the shaking demon out of you?”
- “Parkinson’s disease is a myth,” claims Buck. “You’re the one causing yourself to shake, of your own free will. Why don’t you take some responsibility and stop yourself from shaking around like that?”
- “It’s irrational for your brain to cause your body to shake like that,” says Sophia, “so why not try reasoning with yourself? Just convince yourself that there’s no point in doing that.”
A few weeks later, you bring your cousin Deborah to church and, after the service, are again talking to your three friends. A while into the conversation, Deborah explains how she’s been grappling with depression.
- “Feeling a persistent sense of despair? It’s probably a demon,” proposes Steve. “Have you considered asking Christ to pray the demon of despair out of you?”
- “Depression is a myth,” claims Buck. “You’re the one causing yourself to be sad all the time, of your own free will. Why don’t you take some responsibility and stop yourself from being so depressed?”
- “It’s irrational for you to despair like that,” says Sophia, “so why not try reasoning with yourself? Just convince yourself that you are valuable and the future is not bleak.”
It’s vitally important, especially as Christians, to remember to ground ourselves on what is observable and understood (or, becoming more understood), even though we have a convicted faith in what isn’t very observable or understood.
We are understanding more and more than emotions aren’t magical. They are our experiences of physiological activity in our bodies, of which our brains are a part.
We are also understanding more and more the absolutely pivotal role played by the neurotransmitter “dopamine.” Dopamine stimulation is like pattern recognition nitro — it’s all about hopeful expectations and deciphering patterns in service thereof.
Take a look at this 3 minute clip from neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky:
Dopamine underpins almost everything we consider entertaining and/or psychologically addictive: rhyming, jokes, gambling, hoarding, story twists, conspiracy theories both true and false, wonder/awe, mysteries, chord progressions (I-V-vi-IV is perhaps the most resonant progression ever for Western listeners because of its cyclical and dramatic rising and falling), video games, watching sports, turning pages, etc.
When something is wrong with your dopamine transmission, it can cause life-altering problems. Parkinson’s disease is the most well-known, where the cells that generate dopamine die. The shaking typical of Parkinson’s, restless leg syndrome, and shaking when afraid are all related to dopamine deficiency or over-stimulation.
Chronic depression is a neurotransmitter problem, often related to dopamine (among other neurotransmitters, e.g., serotonin) issues. When the ability to create hopeful expectations is hobbled or killed, then everything turns hopeless. Our conscious brains respond to this crippling problem by dwelling on the unclaimable, like the nostalgic past, and concluding nonsensical or irrational conclusions, like that a future full of potential is actually bleak.
This isn’t something that you can, generally, “think your way out of.” You can “think your way through and during,” as people with Parkinson’s do every day, but your thoughts alone don’t typically cause alleviation. Reliable alleviation comes through physiological treatment (like medicine that stimulates neurotransmitters), or through natural remedial brain activity (which makes depression merely temporary for some people). But this truth is complicated by the fact that some depression is the result of hopeless thoughts (usually a sudden or intense new realization of the limitations of, or recent reductions in, one’s prospects), like during existential crises or cataclysmic life events, and can be remedied in various ways (the most popular being anchor-setting and/or distractions).
Concluding Ought Thoughts
In any case, chronic depression is a chemical issue, as “non-magical” as Parkinson’s and RLS, but it has the sinister symptom of convincing us that it IS something in our “magical minds.”
- We ought to avoid jumping to supernatural conclusions recklessly, like “Superstitious” Steve.
- We ought to avoid treating all brain activity as a libertarian product of conscious will, like “Buck-Stops-Here” Buck.
- We ought to avoid pretending like the brain is magical and can reason itself out of various thoughts and behaviors, like “Dualistic Philosophy” Sophia.
Evangelical Pastor Tom Nelson of Denton Bible Church, on his experiences with physiological depression and anxiety (especially 24:55+).
Robert Sapolsky’s Standford lecture on depression in the U.S.