“Reason As Memetic Immune Disorder”

Phil Goetz has one of the best blog posts I’ve ever read and it deserves to be read in its entirety. Here are the main points and a couple of key points of application to whet your appetite:

You may have noticed that people who convert to religion after the age of 20 or so are generally more zealous than people who grew up with the same religion.  People who grow up with a religion learn how to cope with its more inconvenient parts by partitioning them off, rationalizing them away, or forgetting about them.  Religious communities actually protect their members from religion in one sense – they develop an unspoken consensus on which parts of their religion members can legitimately ignore.  New converts sometimes try to actually do what their religion tells them to do.

I have a theory that “radical Islam” is not native Islam, but Westernized Islam.  Over half of 75 Muslim terrorists studied by Bergen & Pandey 2005 in the New York Times had gone to a Western college.  (Only 9% had attended madrassas.)  A very small percentage of all Muslims have received a Western college education.   When someone lives all their life in a Muslim country, they’re not likely to be hit with the urge to travel abroad and blow something up.  But when someone from an Islamic nation goes to Europe for college, and comes back with Enlightenment ideas about reason and seeking logical closure over beliefs, and applies them to the Koran, then you have troubles.  They have lost their cultural immunity.

Reason as immune suppression

The reason I bring this up is that intelligent people sometimes do things more stupid than stupid people are capable of.  There are a variety of reasons for this; but one has to do with the fact that all cultures have dangerous memes circulating in them, and cultural antibodies to those memes.  The trouble is that these antibodies are not logical.  On the contrary; these antibodies are often highly illogical.  They are the blind spots that let us live with a dangerous meme without being impelled to action by it.  The dangerous effects of these memes are most obvious with religion; but I think there is an element of this in many social norms.  We have a powerful cultural norm in America that says that all people are equal (whatever that means); originally, this powerful and ambiguous belief was counterbalanced by a set of blind spots so large that this belief did not even impel us to free slaves or let women or non-property-owners vote.  We have another cultural norm that says that hard work reliably and exclusively leads to success; and another set of blind spots that prevent this belief from turning us all into Objectivists.

(To paraphrase Steve Weinberg, “For a smart person to do something truly stupid, they need a theory.”  Actually, I could have quoted him directly – “stupid” is just a lighter shade of “evil”.  Communism and fascism both begin by exercising complete control over the memetic environment, in order to create a new man stripped of cultural immunity, who will do whatever they tell him to.)

This account does a marvelous job of explaining the cognitive dissonance expertly lampooned in this video:

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Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • 1minionsopinion

    A bible newly given to a people and told it’s the definitive word of god have no reason to not believe it. It’s not like the book comes with a disclaimer. And I presume different cultures are going to be able to better identify with some parts than than their European missionaries might. Or at least derive different meanings from them.

    I haven’t read “Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes” yet but isn’t that what Daniel Everett discovered in the 1970s when he was doing his mission work? There was an anecdote somewhere online about a story he’d been telling them from the bible and was shocked at their unexpected reaction to it. Totally un-Western, whatever it was. They totally missed the point of the story, as far he was concerned. But they weren’t wrong; they were only approaching it based on their own societal mores instead of the ones he grew up with. Shocking concept for anyone with an ethnocentric view of the world, probably.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Goetz’s article cites the case of missionaries’ experiences directly:

      I remember many times growing up when missionaries described the crazy things their new converts in remote areas did on reading the Bible for the first time – they refused to be taught by female missionaries; they insisted on following Old Testament commandments; they decided that everyone in the village had to confess all of their sins against everyone else in the village; they prayed to God and assumed He would do what they asked; they believed the Christian God would cure their diseases. We would always laugh a little at the naivete of these new converts; I could barely hear the tiny voice in my head saying but they’re just believing that the Bible means what it says…

      Thanks for the tip about Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle , it sounds like an excellent book. I’m impressed to see a blurb from Searle:

      Dan Everett has written an excellent book. First, it is a very powerful autobiographical account of his stay with the Pirahã in the jungles of the Amazon basin. Second, it is a brilliant piece of ethnographical description of life among the Pirahã. And third, and perhaps most important in the long run, his data and his conclusions about the language of the Pirahã run dead counter to the prevailing orthodoxy in linguistics. If he is right, he will permanently change our conception of human language.

      That’s not faint praise coming from a world class philosopher of language.


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