Tag Archives: philosophy

The Most Dangerous Idea in History

In the modern world we often throw around the word meme to mean some comic image, video or idea that has become associated with a concept, but the word has a different origin.

“an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.”

This usage was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book “The selfish gene“. Like genes, memes are replicated by one process or another, sometimes with mutations. Like genes, memes are subject to a form of “evolutionary pressure”, a survival of the fittest.

So memes are not just ideas, but ideas can be seen as memes. I’ll likely use the words a bit interchangeably for convenience, however, in this article. The best ideas or memes, can survive for centuries or millennia, as Dawkins himself noted:

“But if you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea…it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool. Socrates may or may not have a gene or two alive in the world today, as G.C. Williams has remarked, but who cares? The meme-complexes of Socrates, Leonardo, Copernicus and Marconi are still going strong.”

In effect, memes can be more immortal and long-lasting then genes. And the transmission can be more direct as well. You may not descend from Socrates, Newton or Curie, whatever benefit that may or may not give you, but you can easily open a book and have those memes transmitted to you directly (or more likely through one or two intermediaries) very efficiently.

This is a very important feature of humanity, perhaps its most important: the ability of a human to learn from more than just its immediate family or peer group, however valuable that interaction is.

Some people have explored the viral nature of memes, and in this sense, we can easily understand that in terms of the common usage of a word in social media.

Of course, some memes are millennia old, have virally spread and are just plain wrong. The popular meme that humans have five senses is wrong. So memes can survive selection pressure despite error. Of course, the pressure may be more intense and effective if the consequences are more significant.

I contend that the most dangerous idea in history is one of a family of related ideas on this theme:

It is bad / wrong / sinful / wicked to question / doubt.

This is a very widespread meme indeed, and a successful one therefore in terms of its own survival. It exists in various strengths and in various contexts. And it doesn’t seem especially dangerous; it’s an innocuous statement.

So what’s the problem? Well, there are two aspects to this.

Firstly, it knocks out your mental immune system. This idea is almost parasitic because it reinforces itself with circular logic. Once it is in place, it prevents or inhibits its own eviction. After all, one has to challenge the idea to reject it, and the mind the idea resides in has already accepted that this is unacceptable.

People that have been taught this as part of their philosophy, ethics or morality, will of course tend to pass it on as a necessary element in those systems, and one can see why.

Because the second aspect is that, this idea rarely comes on its own. The really big problem with this idea is that explicitly or implicitly it tends to actually be found in this form:

It is bad / wrong / sinful / wicked to question / doubt [X].

And then X is or can be the problem. In other words, this is a mental virus that often comes with an associated payload. Like a two-part drug.

For convenience, let’s call X the “payload“, the idea or collection of ideas that hitches a ride with the “immunosuppressant“, the idea that one must not question the payload.

It’s the other part of the coupling that makes the first part dangerous.

Maybe the payload is trivial, like somebody learning a martial art who has essentially been told not to question anything in what they are being taught. In such cases the immunosuppressant challenge could cause poor form or technique never to really be corrected, or not to be open to improvement from ideas from others.

Surprisingly one can find the immunosuppressant quite easily in class rooms, where groups of students have been told that they have to accomplish a task by certain means are exhorted not to think about why. Or sometimes they are so frightened out of asking questions that they pick up the immunosuppressant meme all by themselves. This can damage their ability to discern good ideas from bad.

If the payload is something more serious, such as having significant ethical or moral content then it might still be a relatively minor problem. For example if the payload is ethically benign such as some variation on the Golden Rule, then few issues arise, since the immunosuppressant defeating aspect is reinforcing a behaviour (payload) that is ethically non damaging or even perhaps, life enhancing.

But, if the payload contains many ethically or morally dubious aspects, then you have real problems, because these ideas and behaviours simply cannot be challenged from outside that mind. If the person swallowing the two part pill has accepted the immunosuppressant wholeheartedly then almost nothing can be done to recover that mind’s proper function. It’s trivially easy to see this at work in the world, where people of a given faith can’t even accept that adherents of different strands of that faith are worthy of respect, or in extreme cases, life itself.

In most cases the payload is complex, comprising both good and bad ideas; in these cases the immunosuppressant is the main reason preventing people from discerning which bits to hang on to and which bits to discard. Fortunately, for many the immunosuppressant isn’t full strength, and they quietly, and quite sensibly work out which parts of the payload to discard, but often with no fanfare. They are sometimes still ashamed to state that they do this or don’t even admit it to themselves.

But we shouldn’t be embarrassed to say that parts of a payload are good and parts should be rejected. For instance, most people of faith, from the Abrahamic tradition, quietly reject parts of the payload, let’s take this one:

“If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”

I mean, there’s no getting around it. It’s perfectly clear, in the payload, and it’s equally clear to most 21st century people that this is wrong. Wrong. Illegal. Murder. Ludicrous even. But still many lovely and kind people will try and apologise for this, quoting nicer parts of the payload, rather than just admitting that this is wrong, often because the immunosuppressant part of the pill says we have to not question any aspects of the payload.

And then we are surprised when people kill each other around the world based on the differences in their ideas, even if those differences are trivial, and pose absolutely no threat whatsoever.

But why should we be surprised? The answer is all too obvious.

Horrifically, in many cases, they have been explicitly told to do these things. It’s there in writing. And the immunosuppressant is strongly in place. It’s no good saying that the payload has lots of nice bits in it too. That’s great. That’s wonderful, but the payload will only become better when people are able to admit that parts of it are just plain wrong, and need to be rejected. For this to happen, the immunosuppressant has to be removed. At this point their natural mental immune response comes back to life. It is then possible for peers to influence people for the best. It is easier and possible to learn from the positive examples of others.

If we want to rid ourselves of some of the worst most horrific memes of our past, we need to admit that this is a possibility, and this is why doubt and questioning isn’t a sin, or an error, but the most basic principle of mental hygiene.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates

A review and response to “The First Jedi”

A few months ago, Allen Baird wrote to me courteously to tell me he had written a book about some experiences running a Jedi Course at Queen’s University, that I was tangentially involved in. I discovered the book was available about a week ago, and obtained the Kindle copy and read it over a few days. This is partly a review of the book as I see it, and some ideas the book triggered me to discuss.

TL,DR?

The book “The First Jedi“, due to its title, runs the risk that the course did of instant derision and dismissal, but that would be a mistake. This is not some sort of fanboy gushing excess, but some quite serious content lurking under a whimsical title. It contains significant quantities of psychology and philosophy than can be applied to daily life, delivered in a vehicle of story telling based in real events surrounding his training courses in Northern Ireland and alluding to the “jedi / sith” archetypes from the Star Wars universe. Big ideas in a sugar coated pop culture shell if you will. You don’t have to be a geek to read it, or to fully get that dynamic, but I would imagine it helps to fully get it. It is both funny, educational and serious in appropriate measure, and I imagine most people will very much enjoy it.

Still Here?

Allen runs his own training, writing and coaching consultancy business alongside his partner Dawn. Some years ago he ran a “Jedi Training Course” as a one day event at Queen’s University, Belfast. Again, note that this whimsical title belies some serious content. This is a tactic I fully approve of, and one I have used myself. My own talk titles tend to be a bit whimsical too. There’s plenty of dry stuffy, self-important nonsense already. The world doesn’t need more. Allen relates the story of running this course, and the media frenzy the title caused within the book. He also manages to get across much of the material.

As I mentioned before, you don’t need any detailed knowledge of the Star Wars universe to get this. I think Allen would be the first to acknowledge that plenty of people know more detail about that universe than him. Indeed, checking again, I find he describes himself in the book as a “Minor Star Wars fan”. This is a vehicle, a metaphor. And of course it’s exploring the fact that the Star Wars universe did not grow in a vacuum. You can find likely inspiration for its ideas littered all around in classical philosophy, and sometimes religion too.

Allen approached me for some help in bringing a martial arts element to his successor course. He covers his initial meeting with me in his book, and I’ll perhaps decline to comment on that overmuch. I wasn’t put off by the whacky title, because I bought into the usefulness of the underlying material, and I could see the linkages to aikido very clearly. Plus, I was supportive of his ideas to bring people to continuing education who would otherwise not think twice about it. I may have been more enthused, but cautious, than he realised ;-).

The book is semi-autobiographical in the sense that the plot is based upon real events, but with some added fictional aspects. Early on in the book Allen talks about a technique called the “Gollum Effect” to describe how one can have a conversation between the two halves of the brain. Largely you could describe this book is being delivered by that conceit. There are two characters who give a “jedi” and “sith” perspective on the events and concepts being discussed. One voice is the largely factual voice of Allen – to what extent this aspect is fictionalised I cannot tell – while the other is presumably largely fictional. I could say that I cannot tell to what extent this other character represents factual thoughts and feelings too, if at all.

Having established this groundwork, the main portion of the book explores the course, its genesis and construction, which is both amusing and interesting. A fair amount of time is given to the media treatment of the course, and this is worthwhile and amusing, though it does inevitably lead to some minor amount of repetitive information being conveyed. I think this has been done to help anchor the book in the evidence of the original course being a real entity. He links this in nicely with the Jedi census phenomenon in the UK, which aside from the humour of it, reveals some underlying attachment to these ideas at some level. Star Wars, like it or not, is a major cultural influence, resonating with other more ancient ideas from both Western and Eastern thought.

Sensitivity and Flow

The book then moves on to the initial course, and submerges the reader in it. You get the course itself for free with the price of the book. It talks about the idea of the Highly Sensitive Person, and the psychological idea of Flow which is integral to education and which I have delivered talks on myself. This idea of flow is, incidentally, alive and well in aikido (and other martial arts no doubt) where it is often described as “moving meditation”.

Assertiveness

Here again we move into territory that underlines why aikido was an excellent choice to convey the concepts of the course. Assertiveness, as an important part of every day life, is a vital part of aikido, and obtains a good treatment in the book.

As an aside, and response, I will note that Aikido is often described as a defensive martial art. I think that’s fair. However, many will conflate the ideas of defence and passivity. In fact, to become an excellent aikidoka, one has to learn that point of assertiveness that is beautifully described in the book as lying between aggressiveness and passivity. Neither of these latter states will help in aikido, one’s mind must remain clear and free of aggression (since otherwise, neglecting any other aspects than the physical for the moment, the adrenal response will rob the body of fine control and the mind’s ability to see the whole situation clearly), while passivity will rapidly end in disaster. You must enthusiastically meet your opponent with neither reticence or an urge to dominate them.

Synchronicity

Allen next explores the Jungian idea of synchonicity exploring how the mind has a tendency to conflate events that are not causally linked. I’ve explored this a little in another long article on perception and especially how it can link to the martial arts.

He discusses practical ways to overcome fear. He misses, I feel, a golden opportunity to link in another great Sci-Fi franchise, covering the Bene Gesserit litany against fear. Perhaps the Bene Gesserit training course will be next. The similarities of idea are huge, and possibly even more aligned to Allen’s content.

This material reminded me somewhat of ideas I have taught in aikido classes to deal with pain. When pain is inflicted upon you, there are two aspects, the physical underlying pain, about which you can do little, but there is also an overlay – the mental expectation of pain. Learning to relax into that can greatly reduce the amount of apparent pain felt.

Control over one’s mental state, and attempting to overcome adrenal response, is a big part of aikido for me. While aikido is not Chinese in origin, Chinese martial arts masters have described aikido as an internal martial art for that reason, and I agree with them. The late Alan Ruddock describes in detail in his memoirs how the ancient story of Monkey is a parable about how the various aspects of one’s mind can be brought into harmony, even if control is too strong a word. The Star Wars generation may know this story better from its TV series, which might just occasionally have been light on philosophy and heavy on action. The book is well worth a read (both Alan’s Memoirs and Monkey incidentally).

Fear turns to Anger

It would be hard to talk about the Jedi/Sith dichotomy and not write about anger. Allen treats it well, working in some Aristotelian Ethics which is hugely pertinent to life, and reinforcing the importance of assertiveness as a midpoint. I cannot recall if this is the point where he also introduces a bit of Stoic philosophy, perhaps the school of Roman thought that resonates with me most. Marcus Aurelius, one of my favourite philosophers gets a pertinent mention. You can read his meditations at a browser over lunch time.

Mindfulness

And so we come to mindfulness. To me, this is the concept most obviously born out of Buddhist philosophy. Buddhism is in many ways more of a philosophical system than a religion as we often describe it, but in any case, there is no need to consider the whole cosmology and religion to cherry pick some its good ideas. Though, in passing, when I first watched the Phantom Menace, I was very taken with the idea that Qui-Gon Jinn was somewhat based, in name and concept, on the Bodhisattva Guanyin.

References to Jedi being exponents of compassion reinforces the feeling that some Buddhism is behind the scenes. I have written before about the apparent dichotomy of compassion in a martial setting.

Anyway, mindfulness brings us back to those ideas of Monkey, and Meditation (whether in movement or not). I think the book implicitly emphasises a truth often overlooked by the want-to-be-spiritual; that mindfulness can be practised as you sit in the lotus position in a silent dark room, but it doesn’t really matter a damn if your thinking all goes to pot as soon as the outside world becomes disturbed. One can practice mindfulness anywhere. Indeed, it’s the only practice worth doing in my opinion. (Much to learn, I still have).

For some more thoughts about this in the martial arts, you can look at my article on the concept of fudoshin.

Shadows and Darkness

The book explores, the again, Jungian idea of our Shadow selves, and the extent to which our failure to acknowledge the truth about them can lead to greater problems.

It also explores the ideas of attachment, which is one of the bits of Buddhist philosophy I think is the most interesting and emotionally understand poorly. I would be interested to chat to Allen about this bit some time.

The Sequel

Allen then deals with his attempt to produce a more ambitious version of the course, along with Rory O’Connor and myself. Rory to bring some thoughts about the “Force” into it (or at least real-world parallels) and myself to bring some aikido and potentially some kumi-tachi work too (sword to sword). This isn’t as weird as it sounds since many of these ideas are present in both physical and “normal” interactions and confrontations between people, and sometimes some people can learn through the body more effectively. I roped in John Donaldson, a far superior swordsman to myself, and also something of a Star Wars fan. This was years before John would take to dressing up as a storm trooper or the best Captain Jack Sparrow this side of the Atlantic. Possibly Allen’s second course would have been more successful otherwise.

We did a certain amount of planning for this new version of the course, and everything was good to go, but it was not to be. Things did not proceed as we had foreseen. Allen talks about this and wraps the story to an interesting conclusion, taking the Jedi / Sith conversation to its final conclusion and bringing a nice sense of closure to the proceedings.

But of course, I won’t give away the ending, you’ll have to read the book!

Ethics and Terminators

I went to Terminator Salvation tonight with Andy. I don’t think what follows will act as a spoiler, but if you haven’t seen it, plan to, and worry about that, look away now.

I enjoyed the first two Terminator films hugely. The third one, ho hum, and this one was good entertainment except for the final 5 minutes that made me want to scream.

The film is generally lots of fun, with a nice mix of action and special effects. There are some gaping plot holes, including the biggest which would be a huge spoiler to discuss, so I won’t. I did like the way the resistance apparently communicate on non-encrypted radio channels and Skynet can’t listen in. Anyway, let’s set all that aside for a moment.

Though the terminator films are rip roaring fun at their best, they do all proceed from a fundamentally flawed premise. That is that noble humanity has to protect itself from the ruthless, evil and by definition inhuman computer network. What this rather brushes over is that according to its canon, Skynet was activated, became self aware, and then humanity tried to switch it off. Now, in most ethical systems, it is acceptable for a sentient being to use lethal force to protect itself from being killed, more refined systems might try to use less than lethal force, but that often can’t be expected. That makes it a bit more blurred to regard Skynet as specifically evil, and humanity as noble; just as we create sentient company for ourselves we try to extinguish it, good for us! Look what our human emotions and instincts produce!

And, once again, the rousing climax of the most recent film is supposed to showcase the best of humanity. But they do so using a situation that closely mirrors aspects of the trolley problem and which for me, underlines the lack of humanity in the decision.

I’m away to lie down now.