Tuesday, November 8, 2011

On humility

In spite of our need to remain humbled by our limitations as finite cognitive processes, it is perfectly permissible for us to think that we have better ideas than other people. After all, if we're not all that confident in our present assessments of the environment, then we shouldn't be presenting said assessments to the public. It is not okay for everyone to "have an opinion" on every conceivable topic. For example, because of my ignorance regarding the reliability of one spaceship over another for the purpose of getting to Mars, I keep my mouth shut on the matter; to do otherwise is to promote information pollution (side note: this is why the idea of a representative democratic republic is a poor one).

Conversely, if someone is confident in his assessments of the environment -- due, in part, to peer review and repetition -- then we should not scorn him for this, or reference his alleged "superiority complex." Of course, we should not take him -- or his independent peers -- at his word, but dismissing someone merely because he thinks that his ideas appear to be more rational than yours is a fallacy. "What, do you think you're better than me because you believe this stuff?" is not a valid argument in any scenario, and least valid where the purveyor of the assessments has no vested interest in proving his superiority.

I will say that suffering contains value instead of that it's my personal opinion that suffering contains value not because I know for a fact that suffering contains value, but because prefacing every single statement with "Gee, I guess this is kind of possibly right, but it's just my opinion, so feel free to think whatever you want and not listen to me!" would be tremendously impractical and counterproductive. Basically, the impractical part lies in the politically correct tedium of it all, while the counterproductive part lies in the ensuing "You can think whatever you want" clause, with the latter promoting the meme that all ideas are equal.

No two ideas are equal where their qualities or quantities differ in any way whatsoever, and the only apparent reason for why anyone thinks otherwise is because they associate ideas with personal identity and individuality. If no one defined themselves by their ideals or ascribed any emotional significance to the fact that they held those ideals personally, then no one would cast random accusations of superiority complexes whenever someone else felt confident in an idea; in essence, no one would ever feel threatened by new information or in any way consider it a weapon to be wielded in some struggle for social dominance. It's like gift-giving: If everyone were to give gifts out of kindness instead of to display their philanthropy to a social circle, then no one would raise an eyebrow or accuse any gift-giver of ego-boosting.

There is a clear difference between knowing that you're right and seeing the data as pointing in your direction more than in the other directions. Decision-making is a matter of both quality and quantity, and most of the time, the involved quantities cannot be represented by a binary quandary. If my idea is a 7 and yours is a 6, who's to say that there isn't an 8 out there somewhere, awaiting discovery? Even if I'm less wrong than someone else, that doesn't mean that I'm right. Approximation is all that we can do with science -- for now.


  1. a meme supposedly replicates from mind to mind in ways analogous to how genes replicate from body to body. There is little theoretical analysis or experimental study of memes, though this isn't surprising because there is no consensual – or even coherent – notion of what a meme is or could be. Candidate memes include a word, sentence, belief, thought, melody, scientific theory, equation, philosophical puzzle, fashion, religious ritual, political ideology, agricultural practice, dance, poem, and recipe for a meal; or a set of instructions for origami, table manners, court etiquette, a car, building, computers, or cellphones.

    For genes, there is an operational definition: DNA-encoded units of information that dependably survive reproductive division, that is, meiosis (although crossover can occur anywhere along a strand of DNA, whether at the divisions of functionally defined genes or within them). In genetic propagation, information is transmitted with an extremely high degree of fidelity. In cultural propagation, imitation is the exception, not the rule; the typical pattern is of recurrent, guided transformation. Modular and innate mental structures (like those responsible for folkphysics, folkbiology and folkpsychology) thus play a central role in stabilizing and directing the transmission of beliefs toward points of convergence, or cultural attractors.

    Minds structure certain communicable aspects of the ideas produced, and these communicable aspects generally trigger or elicit ideas in other minds through inference (to relatively rich structures generated from often low-fidelity input) and not by high-fidelity replication or imitation. For example, if a mother shows a child an abstract cartoon drawing of an animal that the child has never seen or heard of, and says to her child the equivalent of "this platypus swims" in whatever human language, then any child whose linguistic faculty has matured enough to understand complete sentences, anywhere in the world, will almost immediately infer that mom is talking about: (a) something that belongs to the ontological category animal (because the lexical item "swims," or its equivalent in another language, is cognitively processed under +animate, which is implicitly represented in every human's semantic system), (b) this animal belongs to one and only one folk species (because an innately-determined and universal assumption of folkbiology is that animals divide into mutually exclusive folk species), and (c) the animal is probably aquatic (because part of the ordinary meaning of "swims" is moves through water).

  2. Inference in the communication of many religious beliefs, however, is cognitively designed never to come to closure, but to remain open-textured. For example, in a set of classroom experiments, we asked students to write down the meanings of three of the Ten Commandments: (1) Thou Shall Not Bow Down Before False Idols; (2) Remember the Sabbath; (3) Honor They Father and Thy Mother. Despite the students' own expectations of consensus, interpretations of the commandments showed wide ranges of variation, with little evidence of consensus.

    In a serial attempt at replication a student in a closed room was given one of the Ten Commandments to paraphrase; afterwards the student would call in another student from the hallway and repeat the paraphrase; then the second student would paraphrase the paraphrase and call in a third student; and so on through. After 10 iterations the whole set of ten paraphrases was presented to another group of students who were asked to choose one phrase from a new list of phrases (including the original Ten Commandments) that "best describe the whole set of phrases before you." Only "Thou shalt not kill" was reliably preferred as a descriptor of the set representing the chain of paraphrases initiated by a Commandment. (By contrast, control phrases such as "two plus two equals four" or "the grass is green" did replicate).

    A follow-up study explored whether members of the same church have some normative notion of the Ten Commandments, that is, some minimal stability of content that could serve for memetic selection. Twenty-three members of a Bible class at a local Pentecostal Church, including the church pastor, were asked to define the three Commandments above, as well as "Thou shalt not kill," "The Golden Rule," "Lamb of God," and "Why did Jesus die?" Only the first two produced anything close to consensus. In prior questioning all subjects agreed that the meanings of the Ten Commandments were fixed and had not changed substantially since Biblical times (so much for intuition).

    In another project, students compared interpretations of ideological and religious sayings (e.g., "Let a thousand flowers bloom," "To everything there is a season") among 26 control subjects and 32 autistic subjects from Michigan. Autistics were significantly more likely to closely paraphrase and repeat content from the original statement (e.g., "Don't cut flowers before they bloom"). Controls were more likely to infer a wider range of cultural meanings with little replicated content (e.g., "Go with the flow," "Everyone should have equal opportunity") – a finding consistent with previous results from East Asians (who were familiar with "Let a thousand flowers bloom" as Mao's credo). Only the autistic subjects, who lack inferential capacity normally associated with aspects of folkpsychology came close to being "meme machines." They may be excellent replicators of literal meaning, but they are poor transmitters of cultural meaning.

  3. With some exceptions, ideas do not reproduce or replicate in minds in the same way that genes replicate in DNA. They do not generally spread from mind to mind by imitation. It is biologically prepared, culturally enhanced, richly structured minds that generate and transform recurrent convergent ideas from often fragmentary and highly variable input. Core religious ideas serve as conceptual signposts that help to socially coordinate other beliefs and behaviors in given contexts. Although they have no more fixed or stable propositional content than do poetic metaphors, they are not processed figuratively in the sense of an optional and endless search for meaning. Rather they are thought to be right, whatever they may mean, and to require those who share such beliefs to commune and converge on an appropriate interpretation for the context at hand. To claim that one knows what Judaism or Christianity is truly about because one has read the Bible, or that what Islam is about because one has read the Qur'an and Hadith, is to believe that there is an essence to religion and religious beliefs. But science (and the history of exegesis) demonstrates that this claim is false.

  4. Wow, that was the best spam I've ever read. Some of it was superfluous academic study, but I'll not delete it. You're a cool bot, Scott.