Richard Dawkins re-interprets memes and offers a creative tautology

July 23, 2013

by John Keane

Just for hits

Rickard Dawkins continues his Odyssey in search of scientific truth against the forces of superstition. In the sponsored advertising video Just for Hits he raises interesting questions about the logic behind his reasoning

What lies at the core of this eight minute glossy video? Its title hints at it. At one level it is Just for Hits. That which is designed is designed for a purpose, he declares. If designs are fit for purpose, they survive and spread. He has already borrowed the metaphor of a virus. Concepts intended to spread are fit for purpose if they spread.

I rather like to concept of a meme spreading through imitation. It offers a description (but not necessarily an explanation) of the processes of cultural replication. I am the sort of person who likes to examine possible mechanisms in search of explanations. The principle behind a design, if you like.

The Darwinian principle of natural selection

The Darwinian principle of natural selection is a very satisfactory one which fits observations and permits predictive trials. I prefer it to other wide-range explanations, as does Professor Dawkins. The mechanism is elegantly captured in the notion of blind variation and selective choice.

‘As if’

At very least, I believe that blind variation and selective choice ‘works’ in the natural world. It offers what most scientists would consider a robust basis of an explanatory theory. Its scientific respectability can be examined in various ways. One way is to assess its success as if it describes what results in the variety of the world, the survival of genetic material or natural selection. It works as if the world operated according to its beautifully elegant principles.

The whiff of tautology

I am not the first to be troubled by a whiff of tautology in the way it is applied to explain just about observable aspect of biology (including leadership).

Many years ago, before I heard of Richard Dawkins, I asked a distinguished Professor of Cell Biology whether a gene was a material entity or a metaphor. He told me that was a good question, which I came to suspect was polite way of saying he would have trouble providing an answer.

For the hits

The whiff of tautology is stronger in the concept of a meme. The closest I get to understanding the memetic replicator is that humans have a deeply embedded inclination to imitate. Well, yes. So viral messages ‘go viral’ because they have something which triggers the imitative response.

Creativity

Dawkins suggests that creativity may be part of the story. He reinvents (or knowingly imitates) a mechanism for creativity examined by scholars such as Dean Simonton . Pithily, it is a version of the natural selection mechanism of blind variation and selective choice.

The ghost in the machine

Arthur Koestler was another deep thinker on the act of creation. He offered the metaphor of the brain as a machine, with creativity as the ghost in the machine. This recognizes the mysterious nature of the creative principle. Professor Hawkins has written about his own sense of awe at the evolutionary principle. Koestler would probably agree, although perhaps favouring the aha moment of creative discovery. [Another of Koestler’s classic books was called The Sleep Walkers which examines the way progress is ‘stumbled upon’.]

Acknowledgement

To Guardian journalist Andrew Brown who drew my attention to the tautology in his comment piece about Richard Dawkins’ ‘meaningless meme’.

[Dr John Keane writes on matters relating to leadership and the history of science. He teaches and researches at The University of Urmston.]


Dawkins re-interprets memes and offers a creative tautology

June 25, 2013

Reviewed by John Keane

Rickard Dawkins continues his Odyssey in search of scientific truth against the forces of superstition. In the sponsored advertising video Just for Hits he raises interesting questions about the logic behind his reasoning and the hint of tautology in that logic

What lies at the core of this eight-minute glossy video? Its title hints at it. At one level it is Just for Hits. That which is designed is designed for a purpose, he declares. If designs are fit for purpose they survive and spread.

He has already borrowed the metaphor of a virus. Concepts intended to spread are fit for purpose if they spread. I rather like to concept of a meme spreading through imitation. It offers a description (but not necessarily an explanation) of the processes of cultural replication. I am the sort of person who likes to examine possible mechanisms in search of explanations. The principle behind a design, if you like.

The Darwinian principle of natural selection

The Darwinian principle of natural selection is a very satisfactory one which fits observations and permits predictive trials. I prefer it to other wide-range explanations, as does Professor Dawkins. The mechanism is elegantly captured in the notion of blind variation and selective choice.

‘As if’

At very least, I believe that the concept captured as blind variation and selective choice ‘works’ in the natural world. It offers what most scientists would consider a robust basis of an explanatory theory. Its scientific respectability can be examined in various ways. One way is to assess its success as if it describes what results in the variety of the world, the survival of genetic material or natural selection. It works as if the world operated according to its beautifully elegant principles.

The whiff of tautology

I am not the first to be troubled by a whiff of tautology in the concept of natural selection. I struggle with the argument that ‘success’ in evolutionary terms arises because the successful are more equipped to succeed.
Many years ago, before I had heard of Richard Dawkins, I asked a distinguished Professor of Cell Biology whether a gene was a material entity or a metaphor. He told me that was a good question, which I came to suspect was polite way of saying he would have trouble providing an answer.

For the hits

The whiff of tautology is stronger in the concept of a meme. The closest I get to the memetic replicator is that humans have a deeply-embedded inclination to imitate. Well, yes. So viral messages ‘go viral’ because they have something which triggers the imitative response. Their purpose is to exist.

Creativity

Dawkins suggests that creativity may be part of the story. He reinvents (or knowingly imitates) a mechanism for creativity examined by scholars such as Dean Simonton. Pithily, it is a version of the natural selection mechanism of blind variation and selective choice.

The ghost in the machine

Arthur Koestler was another deep thinker about the act of creation. He offered the wonderful metaphor of the brain as a machine, with creativity as the ghost in the machine. This recognizes the mysterious nature of the creative principle. Professor Hawkins has written about his own sense of awe at the evolutionary principle. Koestler would probably agree, although perhaps favouring the aha moment of creative discovery. Another of his books was called The Sleep Walkers which examines the way progress is ‘stumbled upon’

Acknowledgement

To Andrew Brown who drew my attention to the tautology in his comment piece about Richard Dawkins’ meaningless meme.


Ann Widdecombe’s ‘Are you having a laugh?’

March 28, 2013

Ann WiddecombeTV Review: BBC1 Wednesday March 27 2013

Last night I watched a rather sad late-night programme fronted by Ann Widdecombe. Her focus was the hurt caused to Christians by assorted humorous treatments of religious themes. The humorists she interviewed argued they were mocking not Christianity but attitudes of Christians

Background

Ann Widdecombe has celebrity status in the UK, for her uncompromising views on matters political, social, and religious. Following a career in politics she moved into the world of media and journalism. Her visibility is enhanced in a culture which delights in unself-conscious eccentricity. Her views are mostly of a socially conservative kind which she is prepared to back up by taking a moral position, at one stage refusing higher office during her time as a junior Government minister which would have required her to work against her beliefs.

A regiment of mockers

In the programme ‘Are you having a laugh: Humour and Christianity’ She offered an unshakable position, setting out to confirm it under the guise of rational discourse. Anger at the mockery naturally led her to name, shame, and confront a regiment of mockers ranging from the Monty Python team, Ricky Gervase, stand-up comedians as a tribe, and a few producers of other assorted media programmes.

Feel my pain

Her pain, induced by what she sees as the mocking of her beliefs, seemed genuine enough for some of her interviewees to show empathy, not a quality particularly manifest by the interviewer. I found my own sympathy diminishing she moved from the [in]famous crucifixion scene ending of the Life of Brian film to other less cogent examples of blasphemy through mockery.

Dangerous Territory

There was one point made about fundamentalist evangelical Christians in America, which fitted in with the general narrative, and yet was different. For once, Widdecombe’s views were not expressed with clarity. She seemed to be sensing dangerous territory to be skirted. Or maybe she felt that however egregious were the actions of these leaders, the basic point did not really fit into the theme of blasphemous mockery.

The arrogance of the mockers

The examples seemed to be located along a wide spectrum of any mock scale. Collectively they capture the libertarian component in British culture rather well. The perpetrators, one confessed to the confronting Widdecombe, are often prone to arrogance and a belief in the superiority of their views. Ms W, who presents herself as rather similar to another Conservative, Margaret Thatcher, in her grasp of irony, found only pleasure in the repentance of the wrong-doer.

So long as it doesn’t offend…

I detected an inauthentic note in her conclusion that ‘we’, (presumably Christians), should be more robust about such humour,’as long as it doesn’t mock ‘our’ beliefs.’ Quite so.

It was then I turned

I watched the programme feeling that I really should go to bed, or turn over to anything else that might provide me with less disappointing viewing. Eventually, I turned to my trusty non-religious tablet, and began writing…


Holy Smoke: The symbolic nature of voting processes

March 17, 2013

Pope FrancisThe election of Pope Francis illustrates the symbolic nature of the voting process deployed by the Catholic Church in the selection and election of its spiritual leader. But how different is it to the practices of decision making found in many other Organizations?

In a papal election the symbolism is evident. The conclave of Cardinals assembles in Rome from around the world and its members are prepared for their elective duties. Through dress, location and traditional rituals they are reminded of their sacred duties. The process combines periods of prayer, periods of intense discussion cut off from the ears and eyes of the world. The votes are recorded anonymously, each Cardinal adding a single name to a simple voting slip. these are scrutinized to assess if the required majority has been reached. In either case the slips are ritually burned to provide one of the most famous of signs, the smoke emerging over the Sistine chapel, black for an inconclusive result, white for the awaited news that a new Pope has been elected. [Incidentally, the chemicals now used to achieve the dark and white plumes are pretty noxious…]

Unique and Universal

The ceremony is unique. Yet I suggest it has near-universal aspects which can be noticed in leaders appointments elsewhere. This week, for example, election results were announced in The Falkland Islands and in China.

More symbolism in voting

In each case there was a heavily symbolic component. The Falklands have remained disputed territory between Britain and Argentina which the ‘Thatcher war’ did little to resolve. In the Falklands referendum-type vote, , 98.8% voted to remain British. Three votes were cast against. In China, the electorate voting for President Xi returned an almost identical 98.86%. I will spare you lengthy political analysis. There was one point I found interesting made my commentators in each. On the Falklands, a spokesperson said the result was good because a 100% vote might have seemed suspicious. A Chinese blogger said it was Xi himself for reasons of modesty returned the one vote against, not wanting it be seen as voting for himself.

My unreasonable view of voting

Like many citizens around the world, I value the symbolism of participating in voting. But part of me carries a suspicion that many ballots are more about symbolic process through which a contested election appears to be ‘the will of the people’. Too often, the voting conceals the power behind the ballot box, for example in the choice of candidates or voting procedures. This applies to decisions of corporate boards as much as to those made in the election of a parliamentary representative or a President.


The public use of reason: a reflection on Kant’s essay “What is enlightenment?”

February 17, 2013

Immanuel KantTudor Rickards

In 1794, the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant [pictured] entered into public debate about the nature of state control and individual freedoms. His ideas are important today for an understanding the deepest dilemmas of leadership in public life

Two hundred years later, the issues raised by Kant remain with us. We are familiar with the dilemmas of unthinking acceptance of authority. Debates rage over individual rights of women to aspire to religious roles, gay couples to marry with the approval of the state or religious leaders, and the rights to free speech.

The nature of individual freedom

Kant was writing within a public debate over the nature of freedom. The ‘German enlightenment’ had defined enlightenment as the emergence of a society through reason from a condition of self-inflicted intellectual immaturity. He used a German term which has been translated as ‘nonage’ or a pre-adult condition. [These days we might consider immaturity or adolescence as related terms.]

He argued that in an Age of Enlightenment, there a possibility for human progress from nonage through the application of reason. Kant was no utopian believer in the emancipation of the human race from its largely unreasoning condition. He drew attention to several difficulties. Specifically he examines the roles of ‘Guardians’ who have a designated public role in which they sustain the institutions of state, including the established social order, [the monarch, or tyrant] the military, and the government officials.

Public roles and public duty

Kant illustrates how such public roles come with public duties: A military officer obeys orders, a cleric accepts doctrine, a tax collector has no right to challenge the principles behind the demand to the citizens to pay taxes. The public official thus has restrictions imposed on the application of reason to challenge publicly the offices of state. However, he sees how without reason and challenge, the institutions will ossify. He argues for the right of such individuals in public office to exercise reason privately to explore how the systems may adjust to changes over time.

Kant concludes that the state is advised to permit the exercise of private freedom to test and challenge the institutions and their functioning. An enlightened ruler permits freedom of articulating religious, as well as artistic ideas, as falling into the processes for sustaining the viability of the State.

The limits of revolution

The age of enlightenment gave intellectual impetus to radical and revolutionary disruptions of the old order [the ancient regime in France; the British rule in America]. However, Kant notes that any revolution will not sweep away restrictions to personal freedom, although they may replace a more repressive regime with one more prepared to grants to individuals to think what they like, as a Fundamental human right. He points out that such freedoms have mostly been feared by unenlightened rulers who have not seen that repressing such freedoms will eventually be counter-productive.

Meanwhile, today…

I find the ideas expressed by Kant more than relevant as I listen to the contemporary discussions raging over individual freedoms, the appointment of women priests and bishops, and the legitimacy of marriage granted by religious and political institutions.


Virgin Mary crisps withdrawn by Pret A Manger

February 3, 2013

Virgin Mary CrispsThe Pret A Manger food chain has withdrawn its line of Virgin Mary crisps from sale, following protests from Catholic leaders

The crisps were tomato flavor, and the name indicates a relationship to the Bloody Mary cocktail, a potent and popular concoction of vodka, tomato sauce, Tabasco sauce and assorted and idiosyncratic ingredients introduced by innovative cocktail makers.  Among enthusiasts for the drink was one Ernest Hemingway.

Bloody Mary

While Bloody Mary has always struck me as a term with potentially inflammatory connotations for Christians, it seems to have mostly avoided demonology.  The deepest objections come from those who rail across the demon drink in all its manifestations.

The Cult of Mary

The labeling of Virgin Mary crisps, however, triggers off far more powerful reactions. The Catholic Church has elevated Mary, Mother of Christ, to what has been described as cult status.

A gift to the poor

Unsurprising that Catholic leaders protested vehemently over the crisps, and Pret backed down after a broadside from the Protect the Pope website.  The offensive crisps were withdrawn and donated to the poor.  I have heard no objections to this further symbolic gesture.

Brainstorms

The brouhaha reminded me of the outrage during the Pope’s visit to England in 2010 over the leaking of weird ideas to jazz up the visit. The bizarre outpourings of a brainstorming hit the headlines briefly. Another downer for practitioners of creativity-spurring techniques, I thought at the time.

Halal contamination

This week also saw the story of Halal meat contaminated with traces of Pork, offensive to the dietary observations of Muslim and Jewish religious practices. 

Religions sustain their beliefs through symbols.  A perceived attack on the symbols is a perceived attack which goes to the core of the religious beliefs.

On giving offence

I had no intention writing this blogpost to offend the sensibilities of subscribers to Leaders We Deserve. The image above was taken from Catholic Answers Forum. The story seems to me to have considerable interest to leaders and leadership students.


“Going Clear”.  Why you can’t buy this book about Scientology in the UK

January 23, 2013

Ron HubbardGoing Clear is the title of a recently published book on Scientology, written by the distinguished journalist Lawrence Wright.  You can buy it in bookshops around the world, except in the UK

Why isn’t the book on sale in the UK? The publishers appear to have decided against facing an anticipated lengthy legal battle with the forces of Scientology. 

I tried unsuccessfully to obtain a copy in the days after its publication date during a visit to the US. I was unsuccessful, but did find a brilliant review by Michael Kinsley of The New Republic, which appeared in this Sunday’s New York Times [Jan 20 2013]

The book, according to Kinsley, attempts to be a balanced account of Scientology and yet which succeeds in making a powerful indictment of the movement’s methods of control which are considered by Kinsley similar to those found in totalitarian regimes. He describes Wright as accumulating convincing evidence of

“something close to prison camps where dissenters, would-be defectors and power-struggle rivals were incarcerated in deplorable conditions for years…a shadow totalitarian empire …financed by huge contributions from …[celebrity backers].”

Conspiracy theories

This is the stuff of conspiracy theory. Granted I am working at second remove from Wright’s book, but it is not difficult to see how a publisher might get worried that skilled lawyers on behalf of scientology could make a lot of trouble in the courts.

Beyond rationality

The conceptions of Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard [image above] have been widely considered as beyond rational belief. That is the argument levelled at all religions by rationalists. I leave it others to examine the theology that between life on earth, death and an afterlife, is a period during which our spirits are transported to Venus to have their memories erased. This follows from Hubbard’s notion that life on earth originated with visits from Thetans from the planet Venus.

The charismatic leader

Accounts of charismatic leaders such as Ron Hubbard often describe how their unshakeable beliefs are instilled in their followers.   Mr Hubbard’s influence has extended long after his death [in 1986]. Current believers such as Tom Cruise contribute considerable sums of money to financing the scientology movement.

The dark side of leadership

Increasingly, the dark side of charismatic leadership is being recognised by researchers. L Ron Hubbard may be added to the group of charismatics deserving further attention in this respect.

Beyond Wikipedia

The book may add more authenticated research to the account on the life of Hubbard to be found in Wikipedia, which is particularly critical and lengthy. However, a feature of a belief system is its capacity to deny the validity of attempts which threaten its core.  It will take more than another book to budge the thinking of those committed to the beliefs of Scientology.


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