Reason as memetic immune disorder

A prophet is with­out dishonor in his hometown

I’m read­ing the book “The Year of Liv­ing Bibli­cally,” by A.J. Acobs. He tried to fol­low all of the com­mand­ments in the Bible (Old and New Tes­ta­ments) for one year. He quickly found that

  • a lot of the rules in the Bible are im­pos­si­ble, ille­gal, or em­barass­ing to fol­low nowa­days; like wear­ing tas­sels, ty­ing your money to your­self, ston­ing adulter­ers, not eat­ing fruit from a tree less than 5 years old, and not touch­ing any­thing that a men­stru­at­ing woman has touched; and

  • this didn’t seem to bother more than a hand­ful of the one-third to one-half of Amer­i­cans who claim the Bible is the word of God.

You may have no­ticed that peo­ple who con­vert to re­li­gion af­ter the age of 20 or so are gen­er­ally more zeal­ous than peo­ple who grew up with the same re­li­gion. Peo­ple who grow up with a re­li­gion learn how to cope with its more in­con­ve­nient parts by par­ti­tion­ing them off, ra­tio­nal­iz­ing them away, or for­get­ting about them. Reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties ac­tu­ally pro­tect their mem­bers from re­li­gion in one sense—they de­velop an un­spo­ken con­sen­sus on which parts of their re­li­gion mem­bers can le­gi­t­i­mately ig­nore. New con­verts some­times try to ac­tu­ally do what their re­li­gion tells them to do.

I re­mem­ber many times grow­ing up when mis­sion­ar­ies de­scribed the crazy things their new con­verts in re­mote ar­eas did on read­ing the Bible for the first time—they re­fused to be taught by fe­male mis­sion­ar­ies; they in­sisted on fol­low­ing Old Tes­ta­ment com­mand­ments; they de­cided that ev­ery­one in the village had to con­fess all of their sins against ev­ery­one else in the village; they prayed to God and as­sumed He would do what they asked; they be­lieved the Chris­tian God would cure their dis­eases. We would always laugh a lit­tle at the naivete of these new con­verts; I could barely hear the tiny voice in my head say­ing but they’re just be­liev­ing that the Bible means what it says...

How do we ex­plain the blind­ness of peo­ple to a re­li­gion they grew up with?

Cul­tural immunity

Europe has lived with Chris­ti­an­ity for nearly 2000 years. Euro­pean cul­ture has co-evolved with Chris­ti­an­ity. Cul­turally, memet­i­cally, it’s de­vel­oped a tol­er­ance for Chris­ti­an­ity. Th­ese new Chris­tian con­verts, in Uganda, Pa­pua New Guinea, and other re­mote parts of the world, were be­ing ex­posed to Chris­tian memes for the first time, and had no im­mu­nity to them.

The his­tory of re­li­gions some­times re­sem­bles the his­tory of viruses. Ju­daism and Is­lam were both highly viru­lent when they first broke out, driv­ing the first gen­er­a­tions of their peo­ple to con­quer (Is­lam) or just slaugh­ter (Ju­daism) ev­ery­one around them for the sin of not be­ing them. They both grew more se­date over time. (Chris­ti­an­ity was paci­fist at the start, as it arose in a con­quered peo­ple. When the Ro­mans adopted it, it didn’t make them any more mil­i­taris­tic than they already were.)

The mechanism isn’t the same as for dis­eases, which can’t be too viru­lent or they kill their hosts. Reli­gions don’t gen­er­ally kill their hosts. I sus­pect that, over time, in­di­vi­d­ual se­lec­tion fa­vors those who are less zeal­ous. The point is that a cul­ture de­vel­ops an­ti­bod­ies for the par­tic­u­lar re­li­gions it co-ex­ists with—at­ti­tudes and prac­tices that make them less viru­lent.

I have a the­ory that “rad­i­cal Is­lam” is not na­tive Is­lam, but West­ern­ized Is­lam. Over half of 75 Mus­lim ter­ror­ists stud­ied by Ber­gen & Pandey 2005 in the New York Times had gone to a Western col­lege. (Only 9% had at­tended madras­sas.) A very small per­centage of all Mus­lims have re­ceived a Western col­lege ed­u­ca­tion. When some­one lives all their life in a Mus­lim coun­try, they’re not likely to be hit with the urge to travel abroad and blow some­thing up. But when some­one from an Is­lamic na­tion goes to Europe for col­lege, and comes back with En­light­en­ment ideas about rea­son and seek­ing log­i­cal clo­sure over be­liefs, and ap­plies them to the Ko­ran, then you have trou­bles. They have lost their cul­tural im­mu­nity.

I’m also re­minded of a talk I at­tended by one of the Dalai Lama’s as­sis­tants. This was not slick, West­ern­ized Bud­dhism; this was saf­fron-robed fresh-off-the-plane-from-Ti­bet Bud­dhism. He spoke about his be­liefs, and then took ques­tions. Peo­ple be­gan ask­ing him about some of the im­pli­ca­tions of his be­lief that life, love, feel­ings, and the uni­verse as a whole are in­her­ently bad and un­de­sir­able. He had great difficulty com­pre­hend­ing the ques­tions—not be­cause of his English, I think; but be­cause the no­tion of tak­ing a be­lief ex­pressed in one con­text, and ap­ply­ing it in an­other, seemed com­pletely new to him. To him, knowl­edge came in units; each unit of knowl­edge was a story with a con­clu­sion and a spe­cific ap­pli­ca­tion. (No won­der they think un­der­stand­ing Bud­dhism takes decades.) He seemed not to have the idea that these units could in­ter­act; that you could take an idea from one set­ting, and ex­plore its im­pli­ca­tions in com­pletely differ­ent set­tings. This may have been an ex­treme form of cul­tural im­mu­nity.

We think of Bud­dhism as a peace­ful, car­ing re­li­gion. A re­li­gion that teaches that striv­ing and sta­tus are use­less is prob­a­bly go­ing to be more peace­ful than one that teaches that the whole world must be brought un­der its do­minion; and re­li­gions that lack the power of the state (e.g., the early Chris­ti­ans) are usu­ally gen­tler than those with the power of life and death. But much of Bud­dhism’s kind pub­lic face may be due to cul­tural norms that pre­vent Bud­dhists from con­nect­ing all of their dots. To­day, we worry about Is­lamic ter­ror­ists. A hun­dred years from now, we’ll worry about Bud­dhist physi­cists.

Rea­son as im­mune suppression

The rea­son I bring this up is that in­tel­li­gent peo­ple some­times do things more stupid than stupid peo­ple are ca­pa­ble of. There are a va­ri­ety of rea­sons for this; but one has to do with the fact that all cul­tures have dan­ger­ous memes cir­cu­lat­ing in them, and cul­tural an­ti­bod­ies to those memes. The trou­ble is that these an­ti­bod­ies are not log­i­cal. On the con­trary; these an­ti­bod­ies are of­ten highly illog­i­cal. They are the blind spots that let us live with a dan­ger­ous meme with­out be­ing im­pel­led to ac­tion by it. The dan­ger­ous effects of these memes are most ob­vi­ous with re­li­gion; but I think there is an el­e­ment of this in many so­cial norms. We have a pow­er­ful cul­tural norm in Amer­ica that says that all peo­ple are equal (what­ever that means); origi­nally, this pow­er­ful and am­bigu­ous be­lief was coun­ter­bal­anced by a set of blind spots so large that this be­lief did not even im­pel us to free slaves or let women or non-prop­erty-own­ers vote. We have an­other cul­tural norm that says that hard work re­li­ably and ex­clu­sively leads to suc­cess; and an­other set of blind spots that pre­vent this be­lief from turn­ing us all into Ob­jec­tivists.

A lit­tle rea­son can be a dan­ger­ous thing. The land­scape of ra­tio­nal­ity is not smooth; there is no guaran­tee that re­mov­ing one false be­lief will im­prove your rea­son­ing in­stead of de­grad­ing it. Some­times, rea­son lets us see the dan­ger­ous as­pects of our memes, but not the blind spots that pro­tect us from them. Some­times, it lets us see the blind spots, but not the dan­ger­ous memes. Either of these ways, rea­son can lead an in­di­vi­d­ual to be un­bal­anced, no longer adapted to their memetic en­vi­ron­ment, and free to fol­low pre­vi­ously-dor­mant memes through to their log­i­cal con­clu­sions. (To para­phrase Steve Wein­berg, “For a smart per­son to do some­thing truly stupid, they need a the­ory.” Ac­tu­ally, I could have quoted him di­rectly—“stupid” is just a lighter shade of “evil”. Com­mu­nism and fas­cism both be­gin by ex­er­cis­ing com­plete con­trol over the memetic en­vi­ron­ment, in or­der to cre­ate a new man stripped of cul­tural im­mu­nity, who will do what­ever they tell him to.)

The vac­cines: Up­dat­ing and emotions

How can you tell when you have re­moved one set of blind spots from your rea­son­ing with­out re­mov­ing its coun­ter­bal­ances? One heuris­tic to counter this loss of im­mu­nity, is to be very care­ful when you find your­self de­vi­at­ing from ev­ery­one around you. I de­vi­ate from those around me all the time, so I ad­mit I haven’t found this heuris­tic to be very helpful.

Another heuris­tic is to listen to your feel­ings. If your con­clu­sions seem re­pul­sive to you, you may have stripped your­self of cog­ni­tive im­mu­nity to some­thing dan­ger­ous.