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Memetics Pt. 4: Short Towers + Secret Gnosis

In the first 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.”

In the third video, we talked about how some of the neuropsychological patterns that drive our decisionmaking can prompt and prevent virulence and resilience (“spreadiness” and “stickiness”). In that video, we focused primarily on loss aversion.

In this video, we’re going to talk about another such pattern, called secret gnosis stimulation.

secretgnosis

We’ll find out why having and enjoying “hidden knowledge” can make you feel privileged, validated, and “rooted” to your local “tower,” even if it’s not tallest. This “hidden knowledge” often takes the form of esoteric or counterintuitive claims that can be convincing when internally consistent, and/or without a competitor recognized as viable.

We’ll also discuss several specific case examples of groups of people who are rooted to false conspiracy theories. Controversial!

Secret gnosis stimulation is very effective here, too. … It gets you locked into conspiracy theories when the body of [apparent evidence for the conspiracy] is dwarfed by reality.

Schedule

 

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Memetics Pt. 3: The Short Tower Problem

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.

Schedule

 

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Memetics Pt. 2: The Four Brothers (and Their Business Booths)

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.

booths

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…

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Rubber Sword Apologetics

Non-cogent argumentation is that which relies on incoherence and/or logical fallacy (usually non sequitur or begging the question).

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.

Rubber Swords

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”?

Yes.

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.

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Memetics Pt. 1: Introduction, and the “Fitness” Snag

Evolutionary patterns can be applied, by analogy, to anything that has similar basic mechanics of virulence (“spread-iness”) and resilience (“stickiness”).

Those basic mechanics aren’t that big of a deal and aren’t controversial. If something spreads and sticks, passing various selective “tests,” it has a better chance to flourish.

We take advantage of this fact when we utilize genetic algorithms in software. The software isn’t dealing with real organisms, cells, or DNA, but we don’t need those things — we just need mechanics analogous to those basic evolutionary principles.

Over the last few decades, we’ve all started to recognize that social information has mechanics analogous to these basic evolutionary principles.

Again, this shouldn’t really be controversial — obviously, some ideas are better than others at spread-iness and stickiness, and are tested against various selective agents in the environment.

This is important to recognize, however, because the various conceptual snags and counterintuitive patterns we recognize in genetic evolution can help us power past conceptual snags and counterintuitive patterns that have been infecting theology, philosophy, and any other social collection of ideas.

In the church, this bears itself out in:

  • Doctrinal disputes
  • Persistent error or incoherence
  • Church aesthetics and “seeker-sensitivity”
  • And much, much more

The following is the first in a four-part series of a basic introduction to memetics, and how it affects philosophy and theology.

At 7:25:

So here’s the weird thing. You can have a genotype that has great virulence and resilience, but is bad in terms of things [of which we] say, ‘We think this thing is good.’

For instance, it might be bad for justice, it might be bad for truth, it might be bad for quality of life, it might be bad for all of these things — but because it is high in virulence and resilience, it wins.

It dominates the environment over time.

Ugh! That’s lame!

Schedule

 

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Ecclesiastes and Non-Objective Meaning

Consequential decisionmaking says that given full information, an action is morally justified if the consequences are net-appreciative, and unjustified if the consequences are net-depreciative.

  • This appreciation and depreciation is in terms of what is valued.
  • By “net,” it means that you have to add up all of the consequences of the action – some might be appreciative and some might be depreciative – and figure out whether we come out ahead or behind.

Think of it like looking at your business’s quarterly results; you take your gross profits, subtract your costs, and see whether you enjoyed a net gain or suffered a net loss (you’re either doing this in hindsight, or with perfectly-informed foresight, which is equivalent).

This is a kind of meta-ethic, which means it’s a way to talk about ethics or morality without having any specific suggestions. It tells us that moral suggestions proceed from what is valued, but it doesn’t tell us what those values are.

It is a very grounded, mechanical way of talking about morality.

It is also very “general-use.” if you want to twist in a Phillips screw, given full information you should employ a Phillips screwdriver.

screwdrivers

This is a consequential fact that doesn’t really seem like a “moral” statement. But that’s okay, because we win big if we bite the bullet on treating moral decisions like any other decision with parameters and implications.

The Rig

We can use the following figure to illustrate how consequentialism works:

consequentialism

The circle on the left contains what is valued. The square on the right contains some understanding of how things are, including how things work in terms of causes and effects. Having full information — being omniscient — would afford us a square with maximally-defined content.

The round box at the bottom contains what we should do, and it follows completely from the circle’s content (what is valued) and the square’s content (what’ll happen).

The first issue that stands out is the question of the content of the circle. It isn’t enough to know how what’ll happen as a result of some prospective action; moral statements, suggestions and judgments require a value referent as well.

The Problem

The immediate temptation is to ask, “What should be valued?” But since that’s a “should” question, it needs its own modular rig:

reference

And if we continue to ask “What should be valued?” at every stage, we end up building a modular chain that never ends.

infinite

To see how these modules start chaining together, consider the earlier “screwdriver” illustration.

It’s fine to say that I value twisting in a screw, but of what “parent” goal is that in service? Certainly I don’t just like twisting screws; I have a higher goal. The successful screw-twisting might be in service of the goal of building a house. But that goal, in turn, proceeds from something that transcends it, like the goal of giving my family a comfortable place to live, among other things.

Eventually, you reach what looks like a dead end. Perhaps this happens at the point where you’re asked why you value your own happiness, or the happiness of your family. But even here, you’re asked to justify those values by appealing to a parent value.

When we insist upon continually asking, “What should be valued?,” like an incessant, implacable toddler asking “Why? Why? Why?,” the modules never stop chaining together, and we’ll never arrive at a conclusion that satisfactorily wraps everything up.

This “infinite reference” problem is the result of the following reality:

  • (A) For a value subscription to be rationally justified, it requires a justifying parent value.
  • (B) For a value to be ultimate, it must lack a parent contingency.
  • (A+B) No value can be both rationally justified and ultimate.

This problem vexed philosophers for centuries. It was only recently solved — that is, in popular fashion — in the 20th century with existentialism.

Existentialism’s solution was to stop asking “What should be valued?” at that ultimate, dead-end point. It makes the proposal that there comes a certain point, core to our very beings, when we cannot justify what we value using parent values, and so we just stop.

We might nickname such a dead end value an “axial value” (or set of axial values), because it represents the point from which other values proceed, but does not itself proceed from a parent value.

The Most Ancient Existentialist Work is In Your Bible

While both atheists and theists may count themselves among the existentialists (since existentialism doesn’t affirm or deny God), existentialism can be found in a work written thousands of years before the 20th century by a man of God whose work is found in inspired Scripture.

That Biblical book is Ecclesiastes, which expressed the futility of continuous question-asking to find ultimate moral answers. The authorship is traditionally given to Solomon, so we’ll run with that.

“Everything is meaningless,” says Solomon.

  • Do we find ultimate meaning in pleasure? No, because “What does laughter accomplish?”
  • Do we find ultimate meaning in wisdom? No, because “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”
  • Do we find ultimate meaning in ambition and accomplishment? Not there either; “All toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”
  • What about wealth? Nope. “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless.”

Ecclesiastes 8:17b

“No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.”

And so Solomon just stopped.

He concluded that enjoying our lives and our work constituted axial values, and advised obedience to God out of a sense of obligation, and because we’ll be punished if we don’t (which wouldn’t help the whole “enjoying life” thing).

The lack of ultimate meaning – in other words, the lack of a real conclusion to the infinite reference problem – troubled Solomon. In the 20th century, philosophers who realized this were themselves just as troubled, and split into two camps.

The smaller, sadder camp, called nihilism, declared that since there is no ultimate meaning, there must be no meaning at all.

The other camp, existentialism, concluded that there is no ultimate meaning because meaning and value are imputed by evaluators. Unlike the nihilists, the existentialists recognized that since evaluators are “creating” meaning in this way, there is meaning.

But, Objective Meaning is Useful

“Meaning” isn’t some ontological flower vase sitting on God’s coffee table. And “objective morality” is not required in order to make moral proclamations or stand up for what we believe in. It is, however, extremely useful for imposing our wills on others by taking implicit appeals to a consensus and pretending as if “It’s not just us or our God — the universe condemns you, too.”

“Objective meaning” and “objective morality” are incoherent by means of the “subjective-as-objective” error. This allows them to be employed as logical wildcards, which is a dangerous, memetically powerful, and vitally important thing to learn to recognize.

Logical wildcards are used in service of all manner of goals, and especially as “Godproofs.” Thus, it’s no surprise that you’ll see fellow believers trying to convince folks of objective morality as a way to open the door to a Royal Flush of “God must exist.”

This is one of many ways in which to gold-plate “Him who is unseen” in order to make him “visible to all” without need for his private intervention or a leap of faith — two things to which many misguided apologists are rather averse.

But, Not in the Bible

If I had a dollar for every time I heard an apologist say that objective meaning and objective morality are Biblical concepts!

They’re not. The constant refrain of the Bible is that God does indeed have the properties of goodness, love, wisdom, etc., but that those properties have been shown to his people in the past, and will be proven and demonstrated down the road.

If I say Usain Bolt is fast, I am saying that he has the property of fast-ness. I am not saying that he is what fast-ness is. And if I do say, “Usain Bolt is fast-ness itself,” it’s commonly understood that I am making a poetic flourish — I’ll get strange looks if I say that the restaurant down the street serves “Usain Bolt food.”

The notion that God is goodness itself, and thus the two can be used interchangeably as it suits the theologian, is an error for which we thank our Christian Neo-Platonist forebears. Not the Bible.

Needless to say, the insinuations that objective meaning and morality are Biblical, required for “The Christian worldview,” and that a lack thereof leads to nihilism are all insinuations that grind my gears, and ought to grind yours.

See the follow-up to this post:

 

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Logical Wildcards

Let’s say you’re playing poker. Five Card Draw, specifically. You ship some cards and get some back, and end up with a measly pair of deuces.

flush

This isn’t looking so hot. You’ve been bluffing a great hand this round, and don’t have the goods to back it up.

“Oh, we forgot to tell you,” says your friend Harriet, “Bernice is dealer and — while you were in the kitchen — called this round as deuces wild.”

What? Deuces wild? Just as you’re about to complain that the whole round was contaminated, you suddenly realize that with deuces wild, you have a royal flush!

The Utility of Wildcards

Wildcards are extremely useful. They can turn weak hands into kingmakers. They can turn low pairs into royal flushes.

Their power is that they don’t mean anything discrete and coherent unless and until they’re integrated into a final, optimal hand resolution. At that moment, they mutate and solidify into whatever the player pleases.

There is an analogous object, with analogous utility, in logic and rhetoric. Any claim that has no discrete and articulable truth value can qualify, and there are many ways that a claim can be “amorphous” in this manner.

  • A claim may be many-faced. “My car is pleasing.” Well, what does that mean? Jake could call his car pleasing, when it doesn’t even work, but looks nice in his driveway. Vera could call her car pleasing, when it looks like junk, but performs great on the road.
  • A claim may be nonsensical. “My house is a thing against which there house is no house my house isn’t my house in transcendence, cannot it being.” The preceding sentence probably invokes various images in your mind’s eye, but it does not cohere, and thus can’t have a truth value.
  • A claim may be otherwise vague, unclear, ambiguous, or wide open to interpretation.
  • A claim may have a hidden referent. The many-faced example above is also a good example here. If the referent is explicated (what pleases Jake versus what pleases Vera), it can cohere. But as long as the question is without its necessary referent, it lacks a truth value. Subjective claims that are mistakenly put into objective language are very often guilty of this referent-lacking problem.

If any of these problems are present and yet are undetected, and treated like coherent and solid claims with discernible truth values, they can mutate and solidify around whatever the hand-holder desires.

Bridge-Making

Cheryl is late to my party, and I’m worried that she might be lost. In a misguided effort to comfort me, Brent claims the following:

  • “Cheryl is flawless at finding a house if she knows its address.
  • Thus, Cheryl is not lost.”

Of course, at this point, I think, “But what if she doesn’t know my address?” Brent suspects I might be thinking this, but doesn’t himself know whether she has my address or not. So he tells me something deliberately vague:

  • “Cheryl has quasi-panomic knowledge.”

What does that even mean? Further inquiry yields only more such strange statements from Brent, each more unclear than the last, but all in supposed service of clarifying that odd term.

He hopes that I will eventually give up and accept his statement as a bridge. This happens when the images conjured by what he’s saying — a sense of “knowledge” and “full,” at least — come to a rest at some inferred coherent place, like, “She has my address.”

But I refuse to quit, and shout, “Brent! Does she have my address or not?”

“I’m trying to tell you the answer to that!” he says, “You see…” and then continues with the ambiguity.

Now, instead of coming to rest at something vaguely conjured, I can instead say, “Brent, what you’re saying is not cohering. So while it might express some manner of truth, I can’t use it as a premise in service of any conclusion.”

Bridge-Breaking

Soon, Brent appears to be drunk. “How many drinks have you had, Brent?” I say.

“Eight,” he says.

“In an hour??” I say.

“Yeah,” he answers.

“You’re drunk,” I proclaim.

“No I’m not! I’ve got a just-firm and nigh-set constitution,” he says.

“A ‘just-firm and nigh-set constitution?'” I ask.

“Absolutely,” he responds. “It means that eight drinks in an hour does NOT mean that I’m drunk. Such a thing would be unthinkable.”

I press him for a more dissected meaning of “just-firm and nigh-set constitution,” in order to determine whether he “has that,” whatever it is, but only ambiguity and dangling references (like circular references) come forth.

How on Earth can I determine whether he has the thing that invalidates my conclusion when the thing’s definition is “that which invalidates your conclusion” and nothing more?

Now, instead of coming to rest at the vaguely-conjured image of someone exceptionally tough who can hold a lot of alcohol without issue, I can instead say, “Brent, what you’re saying is not cohering. So while it might express some manner of truth, I can’t use it as a premise that would stop the accepted premises — how many drinks you’ve had in this period of time — from yielding the conclusion that you’re drunk.”

Brents Everywhere

These examples are rather silly, but in the abstract and confusing worlds of philosophy and theology, Brents abound.

And they’re incentivized to proliferate! Wildcard-loaded hands are “better.” And confusion, “subjective-as-objective,” and ambiguity all yield exciting conversations in fruitless attempts to reach cohesion.

This is especially the case in theology, where it is accepted and acknowledged that various revelatory statements are mysterious and beyond our comprehension. The error comes when those mysteries are treated as non-mysteries for the purposes of bridge-making and bridge-breaking.

As believers, we hold to revealed mysteries faithfully. But we should regard them with enough humble reverence not to treat them like pilons or sledgehammers.

In the meantime, if someone employs some strange term as a premise and refuses to articulate it in a coherent way, treat that term like it’s toxic glowing green and reject their logic until they take a break and figure out what they’re trying to say.

Bonus Video

This video, called “The Difficult Ds we Get for Free,” talks about how formal logic gets us “free truth” as corollaries of benign premises, but how the “dirty tricks” of ambiguity can be used as logical wildcards.

 

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