Monday, November 28, 2005

An Expensive Symbiote

In the previous article, I referred to gods as a kind of "parasitic intelligence" that borrows the hardware of the human brain to "run" on, as well as the human body, to make their desires manifest in the world.

A good case could be made that "gods" are symbiotes rather than parasites, even if they do come at a high price. Gods have motivated humans to do a great deal of good in the world, from founding charitable institutions and hospitals to creating magnificent art, architecture, and music. The various "holy wars" and persecutions, from the genocides of the Hebrew Bible to the present War on Terror are the price we've had to pay.

Did the Gods Create Man?

In an article, "Minds, Memes, and Selves," Susan Blackmore presents an intriguing hypothesis that the brain "co-evolved" with memes, with the memes having a major role in making our brains into radiaclly oversized (compared to those of other mammals) idea-processing organs:

"Why are our brains so big? Yes, I know this is an old chestnut, and there are lots and lots of good answers to the question. But are they good enough? Let us not forget how mysterious this issue really is. Brains are notoriously expensive both to build and to run. They take up about 2% of the body's weight but use about 20% of its energy. Our brains are three times the size of the brains of apes of equivalent body size. Compared to other mammals our encephalisation quotient is even higher, up to about [brsize]25. On many measures of brain capacity humans stand out alone. Brains are also dangerous organs to give birth to. The fact that such intelligence has arisen in an animal that stands upright may or may not be a coincidence but it certainly adds to the problem. Our pelvises are not ideally suited for giving birth to huge brains---yet we do it. Why?

The mystery was deepened for me by thinking about the size of the biological advantage required for survival. I was fascinated to read about a study addressing the question of the fate of the Neanderthals. Zubrow used computer simulations to determine the effect of a slight competitive edge and concluded that a 2% advantage could eliminate a competing population in less than a [comp]millennium. If we only need such a tiny advantage why do we have such a large one?

...

I am going to propose an alternative based on memetic advantage.

Imagine early hominids who, for good biological reasons, gained the ability to imitate each other and to develop simple language. Once this step occurred memes could begin to spread. And also---once this step occurred the genes would no longer be able to stop the spread! Presumably the earliest memes would be useful ones, such as ways of making pots or knives, ways of catching or dismembering prey, and names for people, events and tools. Let us assume that some people would have slightly larger brains and that larger brains are better copiers. As more and more people began to pick up these early memes, the environment would change so that it became more and more necessary to have the skills in order to survive. So these slightly larger brained people would have an advantage. That, I propose, is how we got our big brains.
The process is related to the Baldwin Effect. I like to use Dennett's 'Tower of Generate and Test' again here.

On the ground floor are the Darwinian creatures. As these develop they change the environment in which they live, creating new selection pressures that lead to new design improvements. One result is larger brains capable of learning and the arrival of Skinnerian creatures. These again change their own environment, giving an advantage to the quicker learners. One aspect of quicker learning is internalisation---thinking before you act. So Popperian creatures are born and again change their environment so that better thinkers are at an advantage. Finally the ability to copy actions appears, giving rise to the Gregorian creatures and the birth of the new replicators---the memes. Creatures of this kind again change their environment so that those most able to adopt the memes are at an advantage.

Although the process is similar to all the previous ones, this last step is a big one. Note, most importantly, that it depends not on learning nor on cleverness per se but on the ability to imitate. A second replicator has now appeared that spreads at a fantastic rate and changes the environment as it goes.

An early hominid who was incapable of mastering any of the new techniques of tool making, speaking or hunting would be at some disadvantage, and the importance of this disadvantage would increase as the memes spread. In a population with few available memes, brain size would not be very important, in a population with lots of memes it would. It seems to me that this fundamental change in selection pressures, spreading at the rate of meme propagation, provides for the first time a plausible reason why our brains are totally out of line with all other brains on the planet. They have been meme-driven. One replicator has forced the moves of another."


Though she does not mention religion specifically as an important "brain-building" meme, it has historically been a major bond holding a community together and distinguishing it from neighboring communities. It motivates members of a community to take care of each other, and stand together against other communities. Such behaviors offer significant advantages for a group's survival.

If gods were a significant factor in the evolution of the human brain, we would expect that the brain would have co-evolved specialized abilities to experience and interact with them. That the brain is "wired for god" is the theory proposed by Andrew Newberg, M.D., Eugene D'Aquili, M.D., and Vince Rause, authors of Why God Won't Go Away. In a review written for Psychology Today, Michael Shermer describes the authors' core discovery:

"The most dramatic finding in the book, primarily (and admirably) written by journalist Vince Rause, concerns a portion of the brain the authors call the orientation association area (OAA). The OAA, say Newberg and D'Aquili, is largely responsible for helping us distinguish between ourselves and other things. People with damage to this part of the brain have problems navigating their way around a room: They actually cannot discriminate between their bodies and the furniture. The researchers discovered that during meditation and prayer, at the moment when the monks were at one with the universe and the nuns felt the presence of a universal spirit, there was reduced activity in the OAA. Like patients with damage to this brain area, their selves became indistinguishable from their nonselves. From these findings the authors conclude 'that spiritual experience, at its very root, is intimately interwoven with human biology. That biology, in some way, compels the spiritual urge.'"

Apocalypse Now--or Never

If our brains and our gods co-evolved, then there is one overriding fact about our predominant world religions that must be given urgent consideration: the gods worshipped by the vast majority of humankind evolved in an era where swords and catapults were the most formidable weapons available. In such an era, war provided great benefits for the victors: slaves, wealth, additional territory and livestock, and a fresh supply of new worshippers for the victors' gods.[*]
In our time, nuclear weapons have made war between major powers far too dangerous to contemplate waging. The greatest threat from nuclear proliferation is that the weapons could fall into the hands of "true believers" (such as the clerics ruling Iran, or a terrorist group) all too willing to use them, confident of the blissful afterlife they will recieve should they be destroyed in retaliation. As technology advances, genetic engineering and nanotechnology could be used to create world-wrecking weapons even more dangerous than nukes, especially since they would not require hard-to-get materials like enriched uranium. DNA is everywhere.

Furthermore, we now live in a world where it is virtually impossible to avoid contact with rival religious and secular belief systems. An ancient Hebrew or medieval Catholic could easily live their entire life without ever encountering someone who believed differently from themselves. Nowdays, an endless fountain of information about thousands of religions is just a google away. Widespread travel and mobility insures that most people in the developed world will get to live and work in close contact with people of different faiths from their own, or none.

War is no longer advantageous, even for the "victors" or their gods. The survival and flourishing of life on Earth depends on both our brains and our gods adapting to present realities. It's time for there to be no such thing as believers in foxholes, either.


*Ancient Pagan gods placed a lower priority on conversion of foreigners than the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). A victor's gods would absorb or merge with the panetheon of the defeated, either through marriage of a victor's god to a conquered goddess, or equating the gods of both, according to their mythic correspondences (the defeated culture's sun god is the same as the victor's sun god, etc.). The insistence of the Abrahamic deities that they are "the One True God" rules out any such accommodation.

7 Comments:

Blogger David Spoey said...

Is War Doomed?
It seems a dreadful misuse of our global intelligence...

Even ultimately irrational and unprovable claims such as religious beliefs and ghosts and Santa Claus have real power in this strange realm we inhabit, where the irrationality of a thing does not immediately deny its existence.

I appreciate this article's conveyance of the steplike procession of evolution. Good things are done little by little, over and over, like DNA replication. There is no question, myself raised conservative Catholic, that religion is a gateway delusional type of tradition, which actually is healthy for the people who practice it, as it fulfills the biologically created spiritual urge of homo sapiens- to eliminate the divisions in the world through your ego's eyes and return to the Creative Source. Keep up the good work- memes are a powerful factor no doubt.

12:18 PM  
Anonymous Martin Ciupa said...

The memetic argument in this context continues to be an interesting one, though it can give insights in other ways to that mentioned in your original piece ( I have commented on this in other strings in your blog)…

For sure it appears that many spiritual practices require us to quiet or focus the mind or engage the body in some kind of repetitive, often aerobic ritual, so that an experience of connection, transcendence, holiness, or enlightenment becomes available to us. And the recent discovery of neurological phenomena, associated with the OAA is intriguing in this respect.
Why would evolution favor the development of such a faculty? The authors of the reference you cite “Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief” by Andrew Newberg, Eugene D'Aquili, return to the dawn of man and social interaction of clans and tribes to discuss this. Such groups might build myths as a source of identity and social cohesion. Their emerging religion would serve to strengthen the bonds between individuals and to encourage more peaceful and productive interaction in the community at large. Stronger social groups would mean better lives for members they argue, which might ultimately result in higher rates of survival as well. Religion may thus confer survival benefits upon its practitioners. After countless generations, it makes evolutionary sense that our desire for spiritual experience, or belief in God, or our longing to be among others in religious communities seeking answers to life's ultimate questions, has become genetically “hardwired” in the human brain, or through the software mechanism of memetics, coded there and passed on to future generations.
I think this argument is worthy. But it does not necessarily argue conclusively the case that this perceived human “need for God”, is entirely biologically manifested, it is as easy to argue the case that God created our universe, including our biology to point humans in that direction, for his good purpose. In this respect Memetics like Genetics can be seen as a part of God’s creation, which in a Panentheistic tradition is also part of God’s immanent providence, whilst God still retains his transcendence as an external creator God.
You follow on to a Pantheistic (I need to watch the spelling!) argument though, that is biased and flawed (IMO) in its criticism of Abrahamic traditions. You say …“Ancient Pagan gods placed a lower priority on conversion of foreigners than the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). A victor's gods would absorb or merge with the pantheon of the defeated, either through marriage of a victor's god to a conquered goddess, or equating the gods of both, according to their mythic correspondences (the defeated culture's sun god is the same as the victor's sun god, etc.). The insistence of the Abrahamic deities that they are "the One True God" rules out any such accommodation.”
It seems to me that the history of many “Pagan” traditions have exhibited their share of coercion also, e.g., the pantheistic traditions of the Roman empire, where for a subject not to accept the “state religion” rendered them an “Atheist” and on occasion subject to torture and execution. The pantheistic traditions of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia and others is replete with similar examples – it simply seems to be the case where exclusivist religious positions are made, particularly when they are invested in a position of state power, that they support the regrettable human tendency for individual power seeking and domination. In other words religious coercion is found in many traditions, and I think it is dangerous therefore for you to seek to rate Pagan pantheism on a higher moral platform than say Abrahamic traditions from such an argument alone.

Having opened up the Pandora’s box of moral judgment of traditions I would also offer my personal view that a benefit you claim for Pantheism, in that it is pluralistic of other worldviews, leads to a potential problem in that it lacks a foundation of a moral centre, an objective standard, external to the subjective Universe we live in. This risks the liberal and uncritical inclusion of many deities into the “pantheon” that are to our post modern understanding morally challenged, e.g., deities that support explicit human degradation, e.g., human sacrifice, temple prostitution, etc. Panentheism provides a transcending reality of an acceptable moral standard (it is not relative), whilst acknowledging the immanence of God in the Universe.

The Post Modern Christian tradition is inclusive, and rooted on the tradition of being composed of many mansions in their “Fathers house”. It emphasizes a moral God of Mercy, Love, Compassion, as well as Truth and Justice, as its standard. It tests in adherents to love their enemies, and not to coerce their neighbors in their religiosity. They attract people to their faith by example and not by the point of the sword. They believe, that their “One True God” sends his providence on all people whatever their beliefs and loves them equally.

Personally I find more meaning and truth in this formulation, though I appreciate others have differing worldviews.

2:57 AM  
Blogger P.T. Galt said...

Martin wrote:

"You say …“Ancient Pagan gods placed a lower priority on conversion of foreigners than the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). A victor's gods would absorb or merge with the pantheon of the defeated, either through marriage of a victor's god to a conquered goddess, or equating the gods of both, according to their mythic correspondences (the defeated culture's sun god is the same as the victor's sun god, etc.). The insistence of the Abrahamic deities that they are "the One True God" rules out any such accommodation.”

It seems to me that the history of many “Pagan” traditions have exhibited their share of coercion also, e.g., the pantheistic traditions of the Roman empire, where for a subject not to accept the “state religion” rendered them an “Atheist” and on occasion subject to torture and execution. The pantheistic traditions of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia and others is replete with similar examples..."

Note that I said Pagan gods (e.g. Zeus, Amun-Ra) placed a lower priority on conversion of foreigners--lower than the Abrahamic God, not that they were in any sense Perfectly Tolerant (tm) or Utopian.

Take the Roman Empire. A vicious, savage, tyrannical society by modern (or post-modern) standards. Yet, until they took up arms in open revolt, the Jews were permitted to operate their Temple and conduct their rites of animal sacrifice, etc. virtually unhindered by Rome. The Second Temple itself was built by the Roman client monarchy, the Herodian dynasty, using taxes collected under the Roman system.

In short, not only did the Romans tolerate the religion of Judaism, they helped fund its operation. What the Romans did not tolerate was the attempt to restore an independent Jewish state.

Likewise, the Romans left other religions, such as the worship of Isis and Horus, Mithraism, etc. alone, most of the time.

Christian rulers of Rome and Medieval Europe routinely and systematically persecuted Pagan religions and "heretical" sects of Christianity (e.g. Arianism, Gnosticism). They followed in the footsteps of Jewish rulers who committed genocide to exterminate any religion but their own within the territory they controlled (see the entire Biblical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles). Islamic rulers did (and do) the same.

That monotheistic religions go to far greater lengths to persecute alternative beliefs (including "heresies" or rival sects of their own religion) than most polytheistic cultures seems pretty obvious from the historical record. The solar monotheism of Pharaoh Akhenaton was comparably harsh toward the worship of the other Egyptian deities, strongly implying IMO that persecution of other religions is inherent to exclusivist monotheism.

Your "inclusive" monotheism (if I understand your viewpoint correctly) accepts that other spiritual traditions are legitimate if pursued in 'good faith,' i.e. "good, but perhaps not as good as Christianity." This idea, if it became dominant within Christianity would be a Good Thing, IMO. If only it were to be accompanied by a post-modern Judaism and Islam, perhaps peace in the Middle East could be possible...

2:36 AM  
Blogger P.T. Galt said...

Martin wrote:

"I would also offer my personal view that a benefit you claim for Pantheism, in that it is pluralistic of other worldviews, leads to a potential problem in that it lacks a foundation of a moral centre, an objective standard, external to the subjective Universe we live in."

Every society on Earth holds to the same basic moral code: Don't steal from, kill, rape, or otherwise violate the persons of "Us" (with certain prescribed exceptions). The individual should help "Us"--by giving to the poor, joining in the common defense, etc. We are entitled to do anything we want to the "Other."

This "moral code" can be seen to lesser degree in other social animals.

Enlightenment and moral progress happen as we expand our definition of "Us" to include those who were formerly "Other" (blacks, women, Jews, people who believe differently than "Us," etc.) and reduce the number of "exceptions" to the minimum necessary to protect rights and maintain a peaceful society (e.g. retaliation of some sort against criminals).

Martin wrote:

"This risks the liberal and uncritical inclusion of many deities into the “pantheon” that are to our post modern understanding morally challenged, e.g., deities that support explicit human degradation, e.g., human sacrifice, temple prostitution, etc."

Are you serious? If I can demonstrate to you that the Biblical God is as "morally challenged" as any Pagan deity you care to name, would you abandon belief in him?

I estimate a high probability that you would "interpret" your way around the many, many examples of the Biblical god's immorality. In that case, the Pagans (of whatever tradition) could use the same method to sanitize Zeus, Odin, Ishtar, Kali, etc.

2:52 AM  
Anonymous martin ciupa said...

Sorry to be argumentative, but your responses are potentially either misunderstandings or in error…

Point - Roman persecution of early Christians is part of generally accepted historical record, their main “state provocation” was not to assent to the state worldview when challenged to do so. Furthermore the persecution of the Jews by Roman, Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian/etc., is also well documented. When Religion (Pagan, Abrahamic or otherwise becomes part of the “real politic” of the state, there is a regrettable tendency to coercion).

We should simply condemn what causes these atrocities (exclusivism, fundamentalism, religious intolerance, secular adoption of religious means for its irreligious ends, etc.) and not attempt to say who did worse to who. It becomes a partial argument and leads nowhere.

I heartily agree (no brainer) with you though on your comment …. “Your "inclusive" monotheism (if I understand your viewpoint correctly) accepts that other spiritual traditions are legitimate if pursued in 'good faith,' i.e. "good, but perhaps not as good as Christianity." This idea, if it became dominant within Christianity would be a Good Thing, IMO. If only it were to be accompanied by a post-modern Judaism and Islam, perhaps peace in the Middle East could be possible...” I would add that we simply need learn to live with respect, tolerance and love of our neighbors. It should be mutual. But when it is not, someone needs to make the first step. It’s hard to risk looking “weak” when oppressed by the “strength” of the other side. You really need to be strong to do that. The tragic thing about Abrahamic traditions is that in the heart of each faith is a common root, that can be used to make respect and tolerance a reality. Inter faith dialog is a real priority for our world.

You go on in your response to talk about the “Other”. For sure we can apply the Golden Rule easily when our neighbor is our brother. But the whole point of the Christian parable of the Good Samaritan is that the neighbor is the “Other” that we need to respect, heal and love. There can be no distinction of the “Other”.

You also make a classical point about the Morality of the Biblical God, that is thrown up a lot, saying … “Are you serious? If I can demonstrate to you that the Biblical God is as "morally challenged" as any Pagan deity you care to name, would you abandon belief in him? … I estimate a high probability that you would "interpret" your way around the many, many examples of the Biblical god's immorality. In that case, the Pagans (of whatever tradition) could use the same method to sanitize Zeus, Odin, Ishtar, Kali, etc.”

As a Christian I will say that the person of Jesus Christ came to fulfill the Revelation of God, that started its evolution from the time of Abraham. Through this process man learned the nature of Gods relationship with Man, it was a rocky journey, perhaps made harder by poor decisions of mankind along the way. But notwithstanding that through this process we arrive NOW at a post modern understanding of a God of Love, Mercy, Compassion, that is True and Just.

The pantheon of pagan “gods” you mention are not so morally equipped IMO. I would observe them as human “mythos”, that nevertheless in some respect contain some truths that are more fully described in the Mythos that became Logos – i.e., Christianity is to some extent prefigured in earlier traditions (just my personal viewpoint).

We need to steer our lives by looking forward equipped with what we have learned to the point of the present (post modern) and not from where we where in the past. It is time that we put away the toys, foolishness and passions of our childhood and be the adults we where destined to become.

Memetics is an interesting mechanism describing a way religous traditions perpetuate and evolve. Through the inter faith dialog I mention (that is going on right now - though it gets lots of knocks) we may be facilitating a major "renewal".

11:32 PM  
Anonymous Martin Ciupa said...

Oh by the way Inclusivist Christian positions are maintained by many main stream denominations, e.g., Roman Catholicism recognizes the "truth" of other traditions and indeed a degree of salvation is offered to all those who love God and do good, specifically acknowledgeing in post 2nd vatican council documents other Christian denominations, Judaism and Islam.

The Second Vatican Council's Declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions states, in part,: "The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and teachings, which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men"

Take a look for more info at...

http://www.interfaithdialog.org/

11:56 PM  
Anonymous Martin Ciupa said...

Following from what I said above I wished to add comments made by Pope Benedict XVI in his book “Truth and Tolerance”, they provide the basis for much of what I have been trying to convey to you in your blog, across many strings/dialogs now …

“…This desire for rationality which still pushes reason to go beyond itself in a way it would rather avoid, is part of the essence of Christianity. We could also say that the Christian faith, which grew from the faith of Abraham, insists relentlessly on the questions of truth and, thus, on what in all circumstances concerns all men and unites them all. For we all have to be pilgrims of truth.”

I hope my contributions to your blog help in the cause of getting at this elusive truth, that Scientism alone finds itself stymied, and left in an existential belief that there is in actuality no meaning, no truth. I also hope that these insights help you to be more tolerant and at peace with people of good faith.

Personally I believe we can build a formulation that integrates the best of the modes of reasoning, that I call elsewhere in your blog, “Logos” with “Mythos”. By doing so we can have meaning in our lives. I invite you keep this in mind as you continue your “pilgrims” journey.

9:49 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home