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

More to a book than its cover

Today I have found myself reading about three authors. These three men had various levels of fame and in each case, the interest today was more about them than it was about their work.

Samuel Clements aka Mark Twain, the great American writer was coming to my attention because his century long delay in publishing his memoirs is coming to an end. I must confess that I’ve never been the biggest fan of Twain’s works, though many I have enjoyed. His life is very interesting however, filled as it was at times with great pathos and controversy as well as success. There are many theories as to why his memoirs have been so delayed, but one of the front runners is that some of his comments about (at least orthodox, in the broad sense) religion attracted attention. I’m sure it will be broader than that. Nevertheless, one of his quotes is already in the random section in my blog.

Also it has another name – The Word of God. For the Christian thinks every word of it was dictated by God. It is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies. But you notice that when the Lord God of Heaven and Earth, adored Father of Man, goes to war, there is no limit. He is totally without mercy – he, who is called the Fountain of Mercy. He slays, slays, slays! All the men, all the beasts, all the boys, all the babies; also all the women and all the girls, except those that have not been deflowered. He makes no distinction between innocent and guilty. What the insane Father required was blood and misery; he was indifferent as to who furnished it.

I have great sympathy for this quote, and it puzzles me when I meet people who cannot remotely consider the possibility that, even if there is a perfect God, perfect in His grace, that it might be the case that the humans who wrote the bible might not have listened so well. Because the only other possibility is that such acts are, in fact, OK to be committed by people when protected by divine wrath.

You may recognise this quote, it is possible that it is illegal to publish it in the Republic or Ireland which is another story altogether. Anyway, it will be interesting to see what else Mark Twain will offer the world in his memoirs.

Martin Gardner is my second author under discussion. I read of his death today, albeit at a ripe old age. His collection of mathematical puzzle books adorned my shelves (they currently languish in a box for now) for many years and with collections of his own puzzles and those of many others, they gave me insight into the nature of mathematics. I still use some of the puzzles I read about in my classes.

I was quite surprised to read that he had written extensively about Lewis Carroll and his work, although as a mathematician I was long aware of the mathematical implications of Carroll’s works. So I’ll perhaps have to acquire that book for summer reading. However I have long suspected that the more controversial aspects of Carroll have prevented him being enthusiastically claimed by mathematics in the public imagination.

Gardner’s book introduced me the Fibonacci Sequence, and so it is fitting that I saw this the day before. I think he would have loved it.

Nature by Numbers from Cristóbal Vila on Vimeo.

Douglas Adams was the third author. I couldn’t write about authors on Towel Day and not mention him. I have been marking much of the day, but when I’ve been out and about running a few errands, I have always known where my towel was. I reflected how Douglas would have marvelled at the fact that already, many of us already have the closest thing to Hitch Hiker’s Guide in our back pocket, a smart phone connected to Wikipedia, and the rest of the total of human knowledge on the Internet (and the sum total of gibberish too).

Hmm. And having just added more to that pile with more rambling even than usual, I’ll say so long and thanks for all the fish.

Models, Perception, Science, Religion, Martial Arts

This is quite a long and detailed article, if you have no vague interest in meta-physics or philosophy and associated ideas, it may hold little value for you. You have been warned!

I doubt that any human being lives directly in reality. None of us has an exact understanding of reality and generally I suspect that’s a good thing. Those human beings who are gifted with an ability to see reality more uncloaked often pay a heavy cost for that, you can see this from reading biographies of our greatest scientists and artists. So in fact, we compose models of reality in our mind. Actually our very brains use models to simplify the massive processing required from our senses, magicians exploit the limitation of these models all the time to entertain us. Martial artists can exploit them for self defence.

Models usually start off simply, along the principles of Occam’s Razor. So for example when we are young we observe the Sun rising and setting in the sky and we take it as the simplest, and reasonable explanation that the Sun is moving around the Earth and not the other way round. The stars appear as a fixed background that wheels around the Earth, reinforcing the idea of a geocentric universe. But they are not uniformly distributed, and now we hit a factor that can often run contrary to Occam’s razor; humanity’s ability to discern patterns in the environment. It’s an important ability, and lies at the heart of the innate mathematical ability that defines us a species as much as our gift of language. But it often misfires. It leads us to see agents where there are none, and we are predisposed to suspect and fear agents that are essentially like us – anthropomorphic. This is also, incidentally, the root of our fondness of conspiracy theories although the irony of that cartoon appealing to one agency about our intrinsic ability to perceive agency should be considered.

We begin to construct theories as to the distribution of the stars, and we prefer solutions of order and agency to randomness. So we see constellations, and we name them by appearance. But why do the stars look like these things? It must have a meaning, so we build stories bringing all of these things together. And then, we notice things that wander against the stellar background, and indeed today we still use the word planet, derived from the greek observation of this wandering. These must be great, special things. And to these we attach godhood. An increasingly, some might say ludicrously complex model of the world emerges.

This pattern was, of course, repeated across the world. In the western world we have been significantly shaped by the beliefs of the Egyptians, Jews, Greeks, Romans and the old Norse models of the world. Most of those where themselves derived from others. Each became progressively more complex and intricate as time progressed. Depending on your perspective, Christianity is often blamed or praised for being the greatest influence on our world model today in the west, but in fact I would argue that the Greeks have that dubious honour. And to illustrate how ideas from old models are often patently false but very hard to leave behind, many (perhaps you) still believe Aristotle that there are five senses when there are more and we still use words like “quintessential” without much thought as to what they actually meant. Indeed what we think of as Christianity today is heavily influenced by Greek philosophy.

The ideological battle within us between the simple and complex, rich models continued. Most of the world moved towards belief in a single God, laughing at old beliefs of many spirits or many gods. Without commenting on the validity of these religions, it’s worth noting that if for example we look at very early Christianity, it was a very simple model of the world. In the centuries that have followed more and more layers of tradition have been tacked on to make a richer, more complex cosmology. Every so often, a schism occurs and a faction tries to return to fundamental simplicity, but usually every branch continues to grow in complexity thereafter.

Returning to physics and meta-physics, for a time, we knew the Earth was a sphere, and then forgot again in favour of flatness as a simpler model. Many suspected the Earth was still round, and then apparently we discovered it (though of course we were mistaken in fact). But the idea of the geocentric universe was generally still very secure, as was our model of humanity being the very purpose of the universe itself.

When Galileo constructed his telescope he used it to look at the greatest planet in our Solar System, named after the greatest Roman God, Jupiter. He saw what anyone alive can see today with a cheap telescope or binoculars, up to four dots near the great planet. Sometimes not all these dots were visible. It was extremely difficult to understand what could be going on. If everything orbited the Earth then the motion of these dots must be exceptionally complicated. But there was a much simpler solution, that these were moons of Jupiter, orbiting the distant planet directly. Four moons, the largest of the numerous moons of Jupiter and still collectively named for Galileo today. To us, living within a well established (more accurate) model of the Solar System that we have today this seems of no consequence, but this is an example of that overused phrase a paradigm shift. In other words, it required Galileo to make that leap that the model of the world espoused by Aristotle was quite simply wrong. There is an enormous mental inertia to be overcome in such an act; we become very attached to our models, they are nothing short of our perception of the reality we exist in. Remember, one branch of the Christian church only pardoned Galileo for this “heresy” in 1992! But when we can and do embrace the improved model, other deepening of understanding can rapidly follow. So for example, once we accept that moons can directly orbit an entity other than the Earth, we begin to question all the assumptions of what goes around the Earth.

And so in a short time, we move from a model, that began so simply and became so complex, where the Sun, Moon, planets and stars revolve around our beloved Earth, to a much simpler model where only the Moon keeps us company in this way. There is massive resistance because of our huge investment in our model; and also because it diminishes us as a species, and our home. But when we accept the truth, or at least our improved model of it, we come to an understanding of the astonishing grandeur of the universe, so much greater than we could ever have believed before.

It’s happened again since of course, odd little inconsistencies in the Newtonian model of the universe emerged. The pattern observed by Kuhn appears again and again. We greatly resist the evidence against our current model. The model is again, our very perception of reality. Eventually the evidence mounts up so much that we can no longer ignore it; it has to be explained. The explanation that eventually comes is again, shattering intellectually to us. And in fact that is getting worse.

Specifically, most people still happily live with the Newtonian model of reality (even most scientists). That’s because it’s an astonishingly successful approximation to reality, it works brilliantly well in almost all situations. As I write, near the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission I should note that Newtonian mechanics alone were sufficient to land a man on the Moon. (Incidentally, note that the names of the missions that took us there, first Mercury, then Gemini, then Apollo in the great Saturn V rocket show how we drag our old obsolete models with us centuries later). However, we know the Newtonian model to be wrong. We know that General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are better models, and unfortunately, they are not simpler. In fact they are so complex, we fight our mind and brain, evolved to understand a Newtonian world, as we try to encompass these theories.

And for the first time physicists are facing a shocking possible addition to reality, one that rocks them to the core in the same way the incompleteness theorem did for mathematicians. We may simply not have a sufficiently evolved brain to totally perceive reality. Perhaps all our models are such a simplification of reality that in the same way a dog cannot understand general relativity or quantum electro-dynamics, we shall never be able to understand the true Theory of Everything if it exists. Certainly it is harder than ever to train young humans to the summit of current understanding in their twenties, when their brains are still supple enough to probe reality (few great discoveries in science and mathematics were made by older people).

But suppose for a moment that the theory of everything exists, and is simple. Many people believe this would give us full predictive power over all the emergent behaviour that arises (i.e. literally everything, including love, music and art). Of course that doesn’t reckon with, just to begin with, chaos theory which actually doesn’t mean what most lay people think it means, especially since Jeff Goldblum propounded it in Jurassic Park in a way, that to me, sounded much more like the totally different catastrophe theory. (By the way, following that film, I have watched the total bemusement on the face of a kindly elder pure mathematics professor as he was asked by a prospective student if he was a “chaotician”.)

But actually, and coming to martial arts in this, the truth can often be safely hidden in plain view. Most of us will never find it or believe it. Note I include myself in “us”. As human beings, we actually love complexity and tradition and can’t accept simple truth any more than we can understand complex mind bending theories. For now, I set aside the fact that some will always use complexity and tradition to exploit us by hiding reality from us, it’s quite enough to deal with self-deception at the moment.

When a new student sits on the side of the mats watching an instructor demonstrate aikido (for the sake of argument) they are looking at two human beings with flawed models of reality attempting to do their best to demonstrate an underlying reality. No matter how hard they try, or what they know, it will not be perfect. They fight the interpretation of what the other is, what they are doing, what they themselves are and what they are doing. In his recently published memoirs Alan Ruddock discusses how the mental aspects of this for each of us are shown by analogy in the old Chinese book Journey to the West introduced to many of us by the Monkey TV series.

Add to this mix that the student, actually whether they are a beginner or not, views the whole proceedings through their own flawed model and perception. What they see is rarely (possibly never) what is exactly happening. Watching a particular “throw” the student can see a start with two people standing, and a finish with one lying on the ground. The arms are used to cause the throw to “happen” and so a very simple model is that the person still standing at the end essentially struck the other person to force them on the ground. I’ve watched this very process happen in a room filled with beginning students, who after witnessing a fluid gentle throw that brought no harm to the “victim”, proceed to stand with their equally inexperienced partner and more or less try to knock them onto the ground in a very crude approximation of the throw they watched.

So it is for beginners, but actually with experience it’s just the depth of the misconceptions that alters. For instance, person “Anne” throws person “Barry” while person “Clare” watches. Suppose to simplify things that Anne does a perfect (if such a thing exists) aikido throw on Barry who is gripping both of Anne’s wrists with his hands. She moves in complete harmony with Barry so well that Barry cannot resist and is thrown perfectly. As Anne moves – Barry, who is gripping her moves too – and his body position relative to hers changes, this in turn changes his grip and as a consequence he rotates Anne’s arms. Anne neither opposes nor amplifies this, she merely continues to move where she can till Barry loses his balance and falls.

But Clare, watching from the sidelines, knows it cannot be that simple. Anne must know a special trick or two. She has so much to watch. So much information to assimilate into her model: how Anne’s face moves, her arms, her legs. After all, Anne is “doing the throw” to Barry, so Anne must be doing the special things. She sees that Anne’s arms rotate as she performs the throw. She cannot possibly perceive that actually it is Barry that is doing this, and even if she could, even if her highly sophisticated mind could believe it, is is likely that the primitive model most of us have will prevent her from being able to accept it.

And so Clare learns to perform this throw by moving her arms. It’s a flawed model, but actually it may not be too far from the truth, so mainly it works. The times it doesn’t, well these are just aberrations that can be put down to other factors (just as Kuhn has observed in science). The longer Clare trains this way, the more deeply ingrained this flawed model becomes. She starts to tack on little adjustments that help correct for the times it diverges from reality. She learns a host of tricks to deal with times that this causes the “throw” to begin to fail, so she can “make it work”.

Perhaps one day Clare starts to teach others. She teaches them honestly, sincerely, as best as she can, but from a seriously flawed model. The model propagates to many other people. It’s an interesting example that memetics doesn’t guarantee that “good” memes or models of the world survive and prosper. The correct model Anne tried to demonstrate is astonishingly simple, much simpler than the one Clare has assimilated. But now, the intellectual investment Clare has made makes it unlikely that she will ever really see the true model. Worse yet, the model she has learned has crept into her every body movement. Even if she could somehow intellectually grasp the correct model, she must fight every “lower” part of her body to effect it.

Perhaps there can be seen here the parallels between these threads. That models spread rather like religions whatever their nature is. Loyalty to a personality or a concept can be laudable, but it can prevent people from questioning things for themselves, preferring to attach themselves to the models espoused by others. But however much we may respect another human being and attach value to their beliefs, I believe it’s our responsibility to ourselves, and to them, to remember that they are fundamentally like us, imperfect, doing the best they can. If they falsely believe something however sincerely and we come to believe it too out of loyalty, we only increase their attachment to their incorrect model, and the chance they will never move from it.

So again, even leaving aside the malevolent attempts by some people to deliberately deceive ourselves (and a yet deeper discussion would examine our beliefs about such motivations as we are predisposed to see malevolence where there is none), our very nature is our greatest enemy. We resist perceiving reality as it really is, we each have rival models of reality which leads us to clash with each other when we “cannot see things from each other’s point of view”. We literally cannot. We naturally embellish models to make them more complex than they need to be, we enjoy it. We struggle to believe things could be simple. We often conflate the ideas of “simple” and “easy”. Simple things can be hard to do.

All we can do is make a massive effort to see things as they are, as individuals, or as as close as we can. In the Japanese martial arts, we would say that we should strive for shoshin, “beginner’s mind”. We need to constantly challenge our assumptions about the world and other people. In many senses it’s a very Buddhist philosophy. It’s arguable whether it is always an act of kindness to help others refine their models. It may be, in extreme cases, an act of violence to attempt to wrest someone from a model they are so deeply attached to. And yet some of those models can themselves be damaging to the individuals that hold them and those around them. Few would argue that attempting to refine the model of a man who despises and may injure people of a given race because of his deeply but incorrectly held views would be a bad thing. But incorrect can be a hard thing to judge. None of us is perfect, none of us perceives reality as it is. Is it right for an atheist who is absolutely convinced of the absence of a God to try and disturb the world model of a terminally ill believer who derives much happiness from their model, whether it is correct or not?