“Reason As Memetic Immune Disorder”

“Reason As Memetic Immune Disorder” September 20, 2009

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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