Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Memetics and Cultural Evolution: The Roots of the Religion

What is Memetics?
The term "meme" coined and popularized by the biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, refers to a "unit of cultural information" (cognitive or behavioral pattern) which can propagate from one mind to another in a manner analogous to genes (i.e., the units of genetic information). Some contemporary examples of meme can be popular proverbs (“Hard work pays”), gossips, health consciousness (“wash hands before eating”), nursery rhymes (even epics and religious books), conspiracy theories, terms and phrases (“Whassup”) and a lot more.

Memeplexe or Meme-complex is a group of Memes; those are interdependent and survive as a ‘colony’ of memes – such as religion, culture or political doctrines.

Memetics, coined as a similar sounding word of Genetics, is an approach to evolutionary models of information transfer based on the concept of the meme. The popular Memetics hypotheses that memes do not replicate only, but refined, recombined or modified in new memes.

Propagation of Memes
The better a meme can be copied; more it will become common part of the culture. This depends on copying fidelity (accuracy of copy), fecundity (rate of copying) and longevity of the meme. The successful propagation of memes depends on various things – experience of the individual, speculation of the individual, social censorship, distinction of source of the meme. Two communities, those who mix rarely, can be thought of as memetically isolated communities, e.g. Americans and Arabs.

Children as the media of meme propagation
As per behavioral evolution, children who are more obedient to their parents get natural selective advantage over others. This unique nature of children enables human civilization to build upon past experiences. Children, who accept the words of adults as rule of thumb, as “Don’t go to cliff of the roof”, “Don’t swim into the deep water” or “Don’t go to the forest alone”, are more likely to survive and reproduce later. When grown up, they propagate their memes, accumulated in the childhood to the next generation, and may be in a modified format. The memes that are more appealing tends to propagate more accurately than the others.

Religion as a Memeplex
Religion and the existence of God as a set of memes have got the unique appeal to human civilization. It provides plausible answers to deep and troubling questions of the nature, suggests the ‘injustice’ will be rectified in the next and one will be placed in relatively good or bad places after death depending on the performance in this life. Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion (pg 199) has provided a list of religious memes those had high survival values in human civilization.

The reasons for the high survival of religious memes include social experience, speculations and distinct source. The religious people always express their experience as positive to add the survival value to the meme, e.g. faith is a virtue and prayer is the way to seek help from God. People speculate about mysteries of nature, miracles, life and death that ensure high survival for the religious explanations. Last but not the least, the revered and distinct source (religious leader/book) adds additional survival value to it. Presence of ‘exclusivist’ memes in the organized religion is striking. For example, punishment or ostracism for heretics, apostates and blasphemers are such ‘exclusivist’ memes. These memes protects the memeplex to get infected from 'outsider memes'. One of the distinct features of Indian culture is the lack of 'exclusivist' meme, that enables India to be built on top of a unique plural society.

A reflection on the above theories can provide you clues why religious sects exist. Sects came into being due to different variation of ‘interpretation’, resulted out of different memetic evolutionary path followed by different sects. Same way, the recombination of different memes resulted in same religion to be performed in different ways in different regions.

The Roots of Religion
As we know how religion and the features propagate, we can proceed how it came into being initially. The best explanation, although controversial, I have got is from Daniel Dennett, in his book The Intentional Stance. He classified the stance of human beings with respect to an object in three ways – physical stance, design stance and intentional stance. In a Physical stance, man tries to explain the object and its’ behavior in terms of natural laws. The second one is design stance, to predict the behavior of the object as it is designed to perform that, e.g., the bird flies by flapping the wings or an alarm clock is designed to ring at a particular time. This is in effect a shortcut over the earlier one and provides advantages if established upon experience. The last one is the intentional stance, that enables personification of the object and predict the behavior as per the intention of the object. The intentional stance, very frequently gave humans advantage over other animals e.g., to identify predators (like Tiger) and cattle (Dogs). The noticable point is that the abstraction of objects is increasing in each stance. The human civilization is basically a race from the third one to the first - initially they had to take the more abstract ones due to lack of knowledge to go to physical stance. Dennett argues that it is best to understand human beliefs and desires at the level of the intentional stance, without making any specific commitments to any deeper reality to the artifacts of each and every folk psychology. The gods and the God, along with the Angels and Daemons are nothing but these personifications of these objects - survived in human societies as memes.

The Future
The clash of reason and religion is basically the clash of memes. The memes of reason are supported by evidences, those a human being can directly experience. The memes of religion are appealing and has high propagation value. The battle is likely to continue in future.

A memetic view of religion is undoubtedly better than any view proposed by the popular religions as the ‘first cause’ or the beginning of themselves. The explanation gives us idea on how the simple ‘personification’ of unknown objects turned into what we see as organized religion, by means of propagation of memes. The hypothesis, may have a lot of technical drawbacks, but overall is very effective in this case.

A bibiliography on meme.
The multi-dimensional evolution.
Susan Blackmore and her "The Meme Machine".
The Selfish Meme - a concept.
Intentional Stance made easy.

Atheism, Evolution, Meme, Dawkins, Religion.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

The Richard Dawkins FAQ

Richard Dawkins, the author of NY Times bestseller The God Delusion, has been interviewed many a times recently. The questions asked were mainly related to his book, the views on atheism, morality and present world. He answered all the question in a flawless and confident way. Each and every answer of him speaks about his passion and eagerness to explain his stance on every point. It's an amazing experience to watch him speak. I have tried to pick up a few commonly asked questions and his answers on different topics.

Why are you against faith?

Because, I am a kind of person who cares about the Truth. The religion and any sort of dogma are the biggest obstacle against the Truth. Not only that, I am worried about the position religion enjoys in our society. You can attack other's political view, criticise a football coach but cannot attack one's religious faith. It's a kind of immunity from criticism that religion enjoys, despite being proven to be mostly illogical.

There are billions of people across the world following their faiths and living their life. How do you describe them?

Of course, there are billions of people living their religious life and most of them are harmless people. But, they are carrying a virus of faith with them, that they transmit from generations to another, and could create a 'epidemic' of faith any time. As I said, I am a kind of person who cares about the truth and also want to see people following the truth. The truth is not a revelation, but truth that has been established though evidences and repeated experiments.

Even there are scientists who are religious. How do you feel about them?

Yeah, unfortunately there are many good scientists who do this. Although, I do not clearly understand their position in life, it seems to me, either they act like religious people consciously for some other purpose or compartmentalize their views based on the context.

Religious people claim they derive their morality from religion. Where from an atheist derive his morality?

Religious people do not derive their morality from religion. I disagree (with the interviewer) on this point. Almost all of us do agree on moral grounds where religion had no effect. For example we all hate slavery, we want emancipation of women - they are all our moral grounds. These moral grounds started building only a few centuries ago and long after all major religions were established. We derive our morality from the environment we live in, Talk shows, Novels, Newspaper editorials and of course by the guidance of parents. Religion might only have a minor role to play in it. An atheist derives his morality from the same source as a religious people do.

But, all the religious books have given moral guidance to the people, like not killing the neighbors. Why do you think they are still bad?

The religious books do talk about not killing your neighbors, at the same time they talk about not showing skins of women or killing the infidels. The God of the Old Testament, as I described, is not at all a good 'person'. The God is certainly a lot better in New Testament. However, when you pick and choose the good verses out of a religious book, the parameters those you use, does not certainly come from the religion itself. For example, when you say New Testament is better, you are certainly not using Christianity as a judge. The parameters you use, are the effect of the morality that is already with you, assimilated from different sources in your life time.

In your book, you've said that God 'almost certainly' does not exist. Why are you leaving open the possibility?

Any scientific people will leave open that possibility, that they cannot disprove whatever unlikely the event might be. I would be the first person to acccept God once evidence comes in favour of it.

So you accept Science cannot disprove God. What is the problem if people follow religions till God is disproved?

Science cannot disprove God as well as they cannot disprove Apollo or Juju or Thor with his hammer or even a Flying Spaghetti Monster creating the universe. However, we do not believe them as they are unlikely to exist. We do neither believe in fairies of Hans Andersen although we cannot disprove them. To believe in an unlikely event or a deity only because we cannot disprove it, sounds foolish to me.

Why don't you thing that the Universe, huge, complex and mysterious, is not a creation of a Supreme Being, where we see all complex things are in fact created?

First of all if you assume that all complex things are created, then a God, capable of creating such a complex Universe, should also be a complex being and should also has a creator. On the other hand, if you follow the Darwinian Evolution path, you'd see how a complex organism can be built upon relatively simpler beings by the process of Natural Selection. And it is far more logical to believe that we and the Universe in general, started from a simpler start that a complex creator starting it up.

When you stand on the top of a mountain doesn't the vastness of the world strike you? Don't you feel charmed by the beauty of the nature, and the mysterious laws of the vast Universe?

Of course I do. And I have mentioned about it in the first chapter of my book as the spirituality followed by Einstein. He was so charmed about the mysteries of the world and it was such an exciting experience to explore it. It's a kind of spirituality that does not require God, a personal deity to explain the mysteries of Nature. It is quite different from a religion centered around a God who can read mind, keeps track of sins, judges people after death punishes the disbelievers and rules the Universe.

What is your opinion about Stalin and Hitler as Atheists?

I have said in my book that Hitler is not at all atheist, as he was religiously biased against Jewish people. Stalin was following communism dogmatically. I have already said that none of us, in effect derive our morality from religion. Stalin, in fact, used the dogmatic communism as his source of morality - if we call it morality at all. Being atheist does not ask you to become dogmatic or communist, but only ask you not to believe in God. A person working in a Mafia group can also be an atheist although it will be illogical to say that atheism pushed him to the Mafia group. There are other colleagues working with him who are religious.

Why do you link religion with 'Child-abuse'?

I link the marking of children as 'Jewish boy' or 'Muslim child' as a child abuse, since, in childhood they are yet to choose their religious views. Not only that, they are brought up in a way that he gets separated from other religious groups and views so that he follows the religious faith of his parents. Obstructing the view of children clearly comes under child abuse.

Your ambition is that people reading this book should abandon their faith. Isn't that?

There is no harm in aiming high and you can say that is my ambition. But, in practice, we want the people who follow the middle ground, who never have thought deeply on this topic, to think twice and consciously reject God. Also, I can see that in United States 10-15% people are Atheists, larger than any minority religious groups. However, they don't have any political power or a lobby compared to strong Jewish lobby. I want Atheists to come together and establish a God-neutral political view, a view of their own, for a better balanced world.


1) Interview with Jeremy Paxman on BBC.
2) Interview on CNN on Darwin Day.
3) TV Ontario interview (part 1, part 2 and part 3).
3) The Hour interview, (part 2).
4) The debate - part 1, part 2 and part 3.
4) RichardDawkins.net for more video/interview resources.

Atheism, Religion, Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Atheism in Ancient India

India is known for tolerance to difference in opinion and thoughts. There were multiple religions spawned off in India due to diversity among Indian people. Although, in modern days, most of the Indians remain religious and do believe in God, traces of Indian history shows the existence of Atheism in ancient Indian societies.

In Ancient Hinduism, there were a couple of schools who used to teach non-existence of God. The first one, Samkhya, used to believe in duality of existing things - as per the book, saamkhya kaarikaa. Prakriti (Nature) and Purusha (Consciousness) were thought to be the basic building blocks of everything. However, the school later incorporated Iswara as a third entity and became theist. The other Atheist school of thought was Mimamsha, which concentrated on Dharma rather than gods.

Other than Hinduism, most philosophies of Jainism and Budhhism denied involvement of God. Both of these religions did not deny the presence of God, but neither did they attribute any power of creation or judgement to God. The future of a living being was thought to be decided by the actions of the being - something that this more materialistic than the thoughts of core Hinduism. It suggests more of a 'way of life' than describing the 'way to satisfy god'. However, later most of the Buddhists started worshipping Buddha as god.

The other interesting school of thought that taught atheism in materialistic sense, was Carvaka (or Charvaka), named after the its founder saint. The key features of the Carvaka philosophy, as described in Sarvadarshansamgraha by Madhavacarya, were purely materialistic and thereby rejecting the afterlife. Interestingly, it points out that soul and intelligence are parts of our body, something that I was trying to argue in a previous writing. It looks at rituals being sources of living and not a way to get to the heaven. It contained the strongest atheistic viewpoint where it refuses to accept any 'creator' for natural things - and argues that any phenomenon can be produced by the inherent nature of things. Here goes a famous verse :
"Fire is hot, water cold,
refreshingly cool is the breeze of morning;
By whom came this variety?
They were born of their own nature."

The Carvaka philosophy was deeply down to earth - close to secular humanism. It questioned the caste system as a process imposed by Brahmins. It is amazing to observe how close they were to the modern view of humanity, when a verse reads :
If our offering sacrifices here gratify beings in heaven,
why not make food offerings down below
to gratify those standing on housetops?
While life remains, let a man live happily,
let him feed on butter though he runs in debt;
When once the body becomes ashes,
how can it ever return again?

Critics of the Carvaka school see this cleaving to only artha and kama, without regard of dharma (and ultimate moksha) as an extreme of self-centred hedonism. One can easily understand why modern day atheists are also classified as hedonists - the similar feelings were present in early India as well.

In medival ages, the presence of Atheism was missing - something that led to a stricter grip of caste-divided Hinduism. The lack of balancing force resulted in dogmatic religious beliefs, superstitions and the society headed towards darkness, till the modern day renaissance, with major influence of Vedanta philosophy.

Atheism, India, Carvaka, Humanism.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Pseudo-Science and the Religion

The changes in life that Science has brought about are really outstanding. If one considers how a similar human life used to be a century ago and compares it with that of today, one cannot deny the positive role of establishing truth by logical reasoning discarding the faith. At the same time, the rapid advancement of science has left millions with virtually no knowledge in science, where they tend to believe science as 'just another faith' and not based on pure reasoning. Moreover, common men, who even have some knowledge of science, don't always use their scientific acumen to reason everything around them. These gaps in popular understanding of science are hugely manipulated by neo-priests and 'religious' scientists.

The dangerous trend in these section of people spreads like a virus. A learned person, having a degree in science, is powered enough with scientific jargons to provide excuse for what actually is inspired by his faith. The 'excuse' used to 'justify' faith or a superstition, are all categorized as 'pseudo-science'. These 'excuses' spreads among the have-nots of science like virus. One of the classic examples could be what Sujai mentioned in his article on Vaastu. People follow Vaastu purely based on faith, having some excuses derived from scientific ground. And, as virus spreads, Vaastu is also becoming more and more popular.

What inspires pseudo-scientific excuses from the people who know science? It is simple - ego matters - it's another case of self-denial. They want to defend their faith and also their knowledge in science. It's really difficult to pursue a 'pure scientific life' in India, since most of the population is still deeply religious. At the same time, widespread effort of educationists has opened the window of scientific education in India. Hence, a generation is created who are taught science at school and faith at home. Unable to reconcile both, people fall victims to pseudo-science.

Let me take a few more examples. Among Indian Hindus, not having beef is based purely on faith, still pseudo-scientists come up with their version against eating beef - pointing to social value of cow or promoting violence against animals by cow-slaughter as excuses. However, none of them will take beef even in abroad, where cow doesn't have any social value. They'll even refuse if the meat of a cow that's not slaughtered but dead in an accident. Similar arguments are cited by the Vegetarian people as well. Muslims (Jews too), by their faith don't take pork, but often cites excuses that pig carries a lots of worms(tapeworm - Taenia solium). Even though it is scientifically proved that pork boiled above 100C for a minute (which is mostly done in all Indian preparations) is free from worms and parasites, it's hard to find any pseudo-scientist having boiled pork. To frustrate these pseudo-scientists, we can take a look at meat consumption statistics in USA. The major sources of meat are - beef, chicken and pork - confirming that these neither harm your economy, nor your health. Similar pseudo-science exists to defend the specific way of slaughter also.

To conclude, let me reaffirm that the purpose of my article is not to criticize faith, but to criticize the people who can't keep faith and science separate. A country, where 95% people are science-illiterate and superstitious, this practice can spread like virus and replace the original aim of science to educate people based on pure reason and logic. A war against the superstitions should include an agenda to fight against pseudo-science also. A better society is a society free of superstitions, let's uproot them before the grow more.

India Science Religion

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