Sunday, April 22, 2007

Mind full of Viruses

"Viruses of the Mind" (1991) is a controversial essay by Richard Dawkins using memetics and analogies with biological and computer viruses, and with disease and epidemiology, to analyse the propagation of ideas and behaviours. Its particular focus is on religous beliefs and activities. The essay is included in the books Dennett and His Critics: Demystifying Mind (ISBN 0-631-19678-1) and A Devil's Chaplain. In this essay, Dawkins coined the term faith-sufferer.

The second episode of Dawkins' two-part television programme The Root of All Evil? explored similar ideas and took a similar name, "The Virus of Faith".


Dawkins defines the "symptoms" of being infected by the "virus of religion", providing examples for most of them, and tries to define a connection between the elements of religion and its survival value (invoking Zahavi's handicap principle of sexual selection , applied to believers of a religion). Dawkins also describes religious beliefs as "mind-parasites", and as "gangs [which] will come to constitute a package, which may be sufficiently stable to deserve a collective name such as Roman Catholicism ... or ... component parts to a single virus".

Dawkins argues that religious belief in the "faith-sufferer" typically shows the following elements:

  • It is impelled by some deep, inner conviction that something is true, or right, or virtuous: a conviction that doesn't seem to owe anything to evidence or reason, but which, nevertheless, the believer feels as totally compelling and convincing.
  • The believer typically makes a positive virtue of faith's being strong and unshakable, in spite of not being based upon evidence.
  • There is a conviction that "mystery," per se, is a good thing; the belief that it is not a virtue to solve mysteries but to enjoy them and revel in their insolubility.
  • There may be intolerant behaviour towards perceived rival faiths, in extreme cases even killing opponents or advocating their deaths. Believers may be similarly violent in disposition towards apostrates or heretics (even when "heretics" espouse only a very slightly different version of the faith, as with the proliferation of Christian sects).
  • The particular convictions that the believer holds, while having nothing to do with evidence, are likely to resemble those of the believer's parents.
  • If the believer is one of the rare exceptions who follows a different religion from his parents, the explanation may be cultural transmission from a charismatic individual.
  • The internal sensations of the patient may be startlingly reminiscent of those more ordinarily associated with sexual love.

Dawkins stresses his claim that religious beliefs do not spread as a result of evidence in their support, but typically by cultural transmission, whether from parents or from charismatic individuals. He refers to this as involving "epidemiology, not evidence." He distinguishes this from the spread of scientific ideas, which, he suggests, is constrained by the requirement to conform with certain virtues of standard methodology: "testability, evidential support, precision, quantifiability, consistency, intersubjectivity, repeatability, universality, progressiveness, independence of cultural milieu, and so on." He adds, "Faith spreads despite a total lack of every single one of these virtues."


The idea that "God" and "Faith" are viruses of the mind has provoked some hostile criticism, including John Bowker's 1992-3 Gresham College lectures, in which he suggests that Dawkins' "account of religious motivation ... is ... far removed from evidence and data" and that, even if the God-meme approach were valid, "it does not give rise to one set of consequences ... Out of the many behaviours it produces, why are we required to isolate only those that might be regarded as diseased?"

Alister McGrath has also commented critically on Dawkins' analysis, suggesting that "memes have no place in serious scientific reflection", that there is strong evidence that such ideas are not spread by random processes, but by deliberate intentional actions that "evolution" of ideas is more Lamarckian than Darwinian, and that there is no evidence (and certainly none in the essay) that epidemiological models usefully explain the spread of religious ideas. McGrath also cites a metareview of 100 studies and argues that "If religion is reported as having a positive effect on human well-being by 79% of recent studies in the field, how can it conceivably be regarded as analagous to a virus?"

Christianity is a meme--a mind virus that lives in the minds of people and is spread through proselytization and other means.

In this essay, which helped establish the field of memetics, Dawkins attempts to answer a question that obviously bugs him: why do people persist in believing silly religious myths?

A beautiful child close to me, six and the apple of her father’s eye, believes that Thomas the Tank Engine really exists. She believes in Father Christmas, and when she grows up her ambition is to be a tooth fairy. She and her school-friends believe the solemn word of respected adults that tooth fairies and Father Christmas really exist. This little girl is of an age to believe whatever you tell her. If you tell her about witches changing princes into frogs she will believe you. If you tell her that bad children roast forever in hell she will have nightmares. I have just discovered that without her father’s consent this sweet, trusting, gullible six-year-old is being sent, for weekly instruction, to a Roman Catholic nun. What chance has she?

And then you have Richard Brodie, he did a similar book with yust the same adress:
Virus of the Mind by Brodie is the first popular book on the market exclusively about memetics, the study of infectious ideas. I've been looking forward to it since I first heard rumours of its existence in alt.memetics almost a year ago.

I have to confess that at first I was disappointed with the presentation style of the book. It seems to be aimed at an audience with a high-school reading level, with key points highlighted in boxes and illustrated with cartoons featuring Eggbert, on oval happy face with spiky hair. Later I came to the conclusion that Brodie is probably capable of a more sophisticated writing style, but consciously chose to give it wider appeal in a deliberate act of memetic engineering.

In fact Brodie takes many opportunities to apply the techniques he discusses which serves not only to lend weight to the theories, but should also theoretically increase books sales. :) For example, he named the book Virus of the Mind rather than, say, Introduction to Memetics because it will catch more people's attention due to their association memes.

It is difficult to discuss memetics in depth without veering off into deep philosophy. Everything that exists, everything with a name, everything we know corresponds to a meme including memes themselves. What is truth? What are we? What should we do? The new science of the meme sheds light on all these questions and Brodie doesn't shy away from tackling these issues head on, but always remaining practical and open-minded.

The book covers a great deal in its 230 pages. Starting with general definitions, it goes on to describe how memes are like biological and computer viruses and how they evolve in their respective mediums. One chapter introduces evolutionary psychology (the subject of Robert Wright's excellent The Moral Animal), and how the ancient memes of "sex" and "danger" are still very much shaping our culture today. Another chapter covers how we get programmed (infected by new memes), and how these techniques are used by governments, corporations, cults and religions. (I paid special attention to the chapter on how to start a cult :)

It was refreshing to see how charitable Brodie is towards religion, even after describing in detail how it is really a cultural power virus, evolving to take advantage of the natural "push-button" memes of its adherents including "security", "sex", "belonging" and "crisis" through memes like "tradition", "heresy", "evangilism" and "repetition". He concludes that despite all that religions are still very useful because they give purpose to otherwise meaningless lives.

I suspect even someone already well-read in the area of memetics will find new insights in Virus of the Mind. Brodie is obviously a bright guy who has thought a lot about how to teach people about memes in order to create a future by design. Virus of the Mind should be on the reading list of everyone interested in the future evolution of ideas.

You’ve heard of ordinary viruses – those microscopic entities that get inside your body and replicate themselves. They war against your natural resistances and make you feel rotten. And through your coughs and sneezes they jump onto other people and make them feel rotten too. Well, did you know that there are other kinds of tiny ‘organism’ called viruses of the mind?

What is a mind virus and are they a danger to us? A mind virus is a tiny ‘seed’ of information that somehow lodges itself within our minds. It is a ‘seed’, which, in given individuals, falls on ‘fertile ground’, germinates and then takes on a life of its own. It is as if this ‘germinated seed’ or ‘fascinating idea’ had an unconscious ‘intent’ and that blind urge is to replicate itself. For example, you hear a joke and, before you know it, you find yourself with an almost irresistible urge to spread it around. You hear a catchy tune sung by a show-off and before long you have joined the ranks of punters who have bought the recording. In this way jokes and tunes spread themselves around the world. Recently, in my neck of the woods, children have been infected with the Pokemon mind virus. In no time at all children up and down the country have been gripped by a fanatical urge to purchase and save the ‘pocket monster’ cards. It has been a retailer’s dream. I noticed another mind virus when it hopped over the pond from America to England. This revealed itself when I saw large numbers of young people wearing the same baggy ‘street cred.’ type clothes with baseball caps worn with the peak at the back. They had all been infected with a mind virus. Probably the most impressive mind virus of recent times has been the 'Harry Potter' phenomenon. In a short space of time this spellbinding idea has spread to susceptible little minds all over the world, making the author, J.K. Rowling and her publishers, squillions of pounds.

When you find masses of people thinking, saying or doing some particular thing, you can be sure that a mind virus is at work. This happens when people fall under the spell of an ‘….ism’. I’m thinking of socialism, conservatism, communism, monetarism, fanaticism, fundamentalism, Christianity..ism, etc. Mind viruses fill you with proselytizing zeal. You become possessed with a great desire to spread them far and wide and some mistakenly attribute this feeling to God.

Some mind viruses appear fairly benign. But what do you do when the idea becomes widely accepted amongst ordinary people that it is quite acceptable to create, on a weekly basis, piles of non-biodegradable waste, which has to be tipped into a big hole in the ground? What are you to conclude when masses of people think it perfectly reasonable live in a world of plastic, neon, concrete, steel, brick and asphalt. Now these are a couple of dangerous mind viruses. We must remember that mind viruses, like our genes, do not spread because they are any good, but rather because they are good replicators.

Now consider your treasured identity - that strange complex of imperfect knowledge, fears, ambitions and masquerades, your public and private ‘faces’, which you call your ego. It could be nothing but a nest of mind viruses that combine to cloud the mirror of your awareness, to eventually sap your energy and to reduce your creative intent to that of folly. If you doubt this, just try to stop thinking for a few minutes and discover how difficult this is. You will find that you do not have thoughts at all, but that thoughts have you – in their grip! The inescapable conclusion is that a human being, with his or her genes and mind viruses, is simply a host to the successful replicators. Is this not what we are? And, in our ignorance of this one fact, have we not just given in to the urge to run amok on this wonderful self-organizing planet?

You see, for each of us there is no inner Self - at least not in our everyday space/time existence. At any given moment, our sense of identity is an illusion. We cannot know who we are for sure, so it is pointless trying to 'find ourselves'. This is because beneath the mind viruses, which furnish us with an imperfect knowledge of the world and of ourselves, there is only the ever-changing mystery of pure awareness and intent. The latter are magical emergent qualities that, in the course of a life, get paralyzed or channeled into one-sidedness by mind viruses.

The great mystics think that it is not practical for us to go on educating ourselves, adding yet more ‘bricks to the wall’ of our ordinary knowledge, the better to solve our problems. They know that this only fortifies the mind viruses and these in turn, generate solutions that, in the long run, become new problems. In his or her blindness, the average person calls the spectacle of solutions becoming new problems 'the march of civilization' or simply 'progress'. But real seers spot the joke and call it what it truly is - an ongoing madness whereby ideal conditions are maintained for the replication of genes and mind viruses. Open your eyes and check these things out in your own life and the world around.

Would it not be better to adopt methods to unlearn what we know in order to loosen the grip of our mind viruses and to reinstate our original purified awareness and intent? Instead of reacting to problematical circumstances and coming up with solutions that become new problems, we might then be better placed to create the world of our choice. We cannot do without knowledge of some sort, but that which we need is uncommon. It isn’t solely logical or deterministic understanding or yet another mind virus. Rather it has to incorporate a description of reality that engenders faith in a Strategy For Getting Nice Surprises.

1 comment:

ZZTech said...

I thought that Brodie's Virus of the Mind was rather good. (Reviewed here).