Monday, 8 July 2013

Meme Theory, the Metameme and Buddhism - threat or opportunity?

What's meme theory, and why does it matter for religions?
Meme theory describes how individual components of culture (memes) spread throughout society, changing and evolving as they do so.  Memes have been likened to viruses (both of the biological and computer variety), in that they can infect minds of their hosts and transform them into carriers for further spread of the virus.   Winston Churchill seems to be one of the first people to have understood this analogy, when he said that jihadism in a man is as dangerous as the rabies virus in a dog.

Never surrender to tyrannical memes.

Malignant Memeplexes
Memes can join together to form mutually re-inforcing associations called 'memeplexes'. Rationalists are fond of pointing to religions as typical of such meme associations   For example, the jihad meme: 'Kill people who do not believe in this memeplex' is associated with the heavenly brothel meme:  'Serve this religion and you will get 72 nymphomaniacs in the next life' and the hell-fire meme:  'Disbelievers will  burn in hell for all eternity'.   These are supported by the self-referential holy book meme 'This holy book is the literal word of God. We know it's the Word of God because it says so and the Word of God is the truth'.    

If you join these memes together with a few extra standard components such as  proselytism, blasphemy, antiscience, supremacism and tribalism, then you have a fully functional religion.

So, from the rationalist's point of view, all religions (unless they can prove themselves otherwise) are harmful mental parasites, whose only function is to infect as many people as possible, regardless of the chaos they cause in the process.   This amorality of memes explains why wars can be holy and persecutions can be sacred.  

Killing, lying and raping are all fine as long as they are done for the overriding objective of spreading the memeplex, and especially destroying competing memeplexes.

Worthless Mental Parasites


A devastating critique of religion?
The meme theory of religion is probably the most devastating critique of dogma-based religions yet devised,  Basically, it claims that ALL religions are worthless mental parasites, driven by a bogeyman's threats and fairytale promises. 

Unleash the Metameme!
Just as religions can spread from mind to mind, so can meme theory.

The Metameme arises when the concept of memes, especially the meme critique of religion,  itself becomes a meme, and spreads through a population, with potentially disastrous consequences for all irrational religious memeplexes that stand in its way.

With the advent of 'internet memes', this idea of memes, and the consequent idea of the metameme, are becoming well established with a wider public, not just the rationalist academics who promoted meme-theory in its early days. The expression 'going viral' has become part of everyday speech.

So any religion that can withstand the metameme, or even better use it to undermine rival memeplexes, will have a selective advantage over competing religions that are vulnerable to the mind-parasite critique, and so become targets for a mental parasite-cleanse.


Threat to Buddhism, or opportunity?
So where does Buddhism stand in relation to the meme theory of religion, and the memebusting potential of the metameme?  Can Buddhist philosophy withstand the metameme critique? Can Buddhism even co-opt the metameme?

Let's look more closely at the components of a parasitic memeplex (based on Citizen Warrior's classical analysis)

... 'If you were going to deliberately design a combination of memes with the purpose of making a memeplex that could eventually dominate the world — one that would eventually out-compete every other memeplex — you would be hard-pressed to do better than....'

(1)  A standardized version of the memeplex is written down and claimed to be the Word of God.  The truth of this claim is self-referential - if it's the Word of God then what it claims must be true.    Rational and logical analysis of this self-referential loop is strongly discouraged as 'blasphemy', often punishable by death.

(2) The memeplex contains instructions for its own spread, by any means possible, including actions normally regarded as criminal or immoral.

(3) The memeplex contains instructions for its own preservation in the face of change and modernity.

(4)  The memeplex attempts to alter its environment with the objective of  ensuring its own spread and defense against competing memeplexes. This includes a legal system with severe penalties for questioning the memeplex, discriminatory laws and taxes against carriers of competing false memeplexes, and sexual customs that encourage prolific breeding of the carriers of the one true memeplex.

(5)  The memeplex commands its host's primary allegiance. Hosts aren't allowed to cure themselves once infected. 'Apostates' who reject the memeplex must be killed. An apostate is a host which has cured itself of a meme-infection. This is especially dangerous to the memeplex because the apostate might pass on the method of cure or immunity to others. 

(6)  Promise heaven for belief. This may involve frustrating the host's normal sexual urges and  redirecting them into sexual fantasies of the hereafter. The only guaranteed way of getting to heaven and claiming his 72 virgins is by taking part in jihad.

(7)  The infected host (sometimes known as a 'memoid') is required to perform numerous meaningless robotic rituals consisting of repetitive obsessive compulsive behaviors, in order to reinforce the memeplex, and crowd competing memes out of the mind.

(8)  The memeplex threatens eternal punishment in hell for disbelief (but not for bad behavior)

(9)  The memeplex boosts the believers' egos by telling them they are 'chosen' or superior to believers in false memeplexes, who are despised and denigrated as 'kuffars', 'heathens' or 'infidels'

(10)  The memeplex disables the faculties of disbelief ('immune response') by claiming that faith is superior to reason.

Blasphemy Laws

So how do these ten commandments of meme-belief compare with Buddhism?

{1} Buddhist scriptures do not claim to be divinely inspired. They are the product of Buddha's explorations of the  nature of the human mind. They aren't a 'once only' revelation revealed to one person and no others. In contrast, they provide reproducible realizations to anyone who will follow the meditation methodology.

{2}  The first principle of Buddhism is to refrain from causing harm.  Buddhist teaching spreads by its own merit and doesn't need to use dirty tricks to make converts.

{3}  Buddhism is more a philosophy and methodology than a body of dogma, and since it accepts all things are impermanent, it is quite capable of adapting to modernity.

{4}  Buddhism does not attempt to impose its dogma on secular governments, discriminate against non-believers or encourage environmentally disastrous overpopulation.

{5}  Buddhism doesn't seek to kill former Buddhists who have converted to another religion.

{6}  Buddhism doesn't attempt to harness the Three Poisons to implant itself in the minds of its believers.

{7}  Buddhist meditational practices and associated rituals are intended to calm the mind and open it up to critical examination, rather than shut down rational thought.

{8}  Buddhists do not believe that all non-Buddhists are going to hell. Buddhism does NOT claim to be the one and only valid spiritual path (a teaching known as 'exclusivism' in other belief-systems). It is NOT based on claims of divine authority. Buddha never claimed to be divine or sent from God. His teachings are to be judged by their effectiveness in promoting peace and spiritual realisations, rather than unverifiable claims to their origin. There are no threats of hell or promises of heaven attached to being a Buddhist as opposed to being a non-Buddhist. The term 'Buddhist' is a mere label and has no inherent existence. The condition of future lives is determined by actions of body, speech and mind and not by religious affiliation. If our religion encourages universal compassion and  positive actions and states of mind then it is doing its job. If it causes hatred, fear, division and pride then it isn't working and maybe we should try something else. Buddhism does not make use of the psychological blackmail techniques which are characteristic of malignant memeplexes.

{9}  There is no supremacism in Buddhism. Just sticking the Buddhist label on yourself doesn't automatically make you superior to non-Buddhists. In fact, in most forms of Buddhism the belief that one is superior to others, for whatever reason, is seen as a dangerous delusion.

{10} Buddhism does not attempt to suppress reason by dogma. Unlike most other religions, Buddhism isn't so much about things to believe, as things to do. It is a technology of mind improvement. This is why Buddhists often refer to themselves as practitioners rather than believers. The Buddha told his students to trust their own experience of the effectiveness of the teachings, and not believe things just because he said so.

Parasites - you don't want them in your body, so why allow them into your mind?

The Kalama challenge
The Kalama people of India had many holy men trying to convert them by claiming their own memes were correct, and all other memes were false.

One day the Buddha turned up, and naturally the Kalamas asked him why they should believe his teachings rather than all the cult leaders, charlatans and false prophets of whom they had already grown weary.

The Buddha replied:

"It is natural that doubt should arise in your minds.

I tell you not to believe merely because it has been handed down by tradition, or because it had been said by some great personage in the past, or because it is commonly believed, or because others have told it to you, or even because I myself have said it.

But whatever you are asked to believe, ask yourself whether it is true in the light of your experience, whether it is in conformity with reason and good principles and whether it is conducive to the highest good and welfare of all beings, and only if it passes this test, should you accept it and act in accordance with it."

So the Buddha is making a statement which is found in no other religion. Unlike other religious leaders, he is not claiming a hotline to God, nor a personal, non-reproducible revelation which appears to him and no-one else.

He is saying:

-  Do not believe anything on the basis of religious authority, or 'holy' books, or family/tribal tradition, or even coercion and intimidation by the mob.


-  Test the methodology against your own experience. Does it do what it says on the box?

-  Is the philosophy rational? Or does it require you to believe six impossible things before breakfast?

-  Judge the tree by its fruits. Is it beneficial, or does it tell you to act against your conscience and 'The Golden Rule'.

But the Buddha was also implying something else, which he has perhaps left as a terma ( hidden teaching-challenge) for our own beleaguered civilisation, where scientific rationalism is fighting a rearguard action against the forces of religious fanaticism, irrationalism and barbarism.

Buddha is implying that it is possible to construct much (most? all?) of Buddhist doctrine by the application of reason and empiricism (experiment and experience) which are accessible to everyone, without the need for special revelation.

The empirical aspect consists of physical experiments which were impossible in Buddha's time, as well as introspective thought-experiments and meditational techniques which produce reproducible mental effects when employed by different people.

So that's the challenge. Given our modern understanding of physics, psychology, biology and information science, how much of the Dharma can we derive and reconstruct as a system without resorting to faith or authority - to quote Buddha "even because I myself have said it"?  

Can Buddhism work with the Metameme?
So we can see that the standard rationalist arguments against the parasitic memeplexes don't apply to Buddhism.  This means that Buddhists can be quite cool and laid back about the  metameme, and can even deploy it against aggressive memeplexes when they become a nuisance.

But can we go further than that? Can meme-theory be integrated into Buddhist practice and philosophy?   Memeticist and Zen practitioner Susan Blackmore has suggested that maybe Buddhist meditation techniques could be used to weed out malignant memes.                                      

Here are some excerpts from her article  Meditation as Meme Weeding 

"...American philosopher Daniel Dennett has described the process as the ‘evolutionary algorithm’ – a simple mindless process that once the requisites are in place must happen. If you have heredity, variation and selection then you must get evolution or “Design out of Chaos without the aid of Mind” . It’s as simple as that.

What Dawkins explained, in The Selfish Gene, was that this process is not confined to our most familiar replicator, the gene, but must apply to any information that is copied with variation and selection. All around us, he said, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup of culture, is another replicator. Ideas, habits, skills, stories, technologies, and artistic creations are all copied by a process that may loosely be called imitation. Copying is not perfect, so there is plenty of variation and recombination, and far more copies are made than can possibly survive. So we have a new replicator, a cultural replicator. Taking it from the Greek for ‘that which is imitated’ and abbreviating it to a word that would sound something like ‘gene’ Dawkins called them ‘memes’..."

"...There are many kinds of meme virus. A good example is an email virus. A typical one shouts “Warning, Warning, news just in from IBM (or Bill Gates or …) terrible virus, warn all your friends immediately that if they open a mail called “bla bla” their hard disk will be wiped clean”. This little collection of words can be called a memeplex – shortened from ‘co-adapted meme complex’; in other words, a group of memes that succeeds by hanging out together and getting passed on together. This little memeplex has a very simple structure. I call it C-TaP. It is basically a ‘copy me’ instruction backed up by Threats and Promises. In this case you are told to pass on the message. If you do you will help your friends (the altruism trick), if you don’t they will get their hard disk wiped (using fear to threaten). The memeplex also uses urgency, status (e.g. IBM), and exploits the fact that passing on an email message to lots of people is quick and easy. And so it is that this stupid little bit of text has been copied around and around the world, infecting millions of computers and still going strong after 5 or 6 years. If you doubt the power of memes to change the world then reflect on this silly little memeplex. It has frightened countless people and clogged up whole email systems. A few mindless words have had obvious and serious effects on the physical world. They have even found their way onto this page. This is the power of the memes. Buddhism is a meme.

I began deliberately with a very simple virus but there are far more powerful ones that use exactly the same structure. Dawkins calls them ‘viruses of the mind’; he means religions.

Dawkins used the example of Roman Catholicism; a collection of basic teachings that are passed on in church, by learning the catechism, and through prayer, singing hymns and saying grace. Beautiful cathedrals tempt worshippers inside and lift their hearts, making them want to spread the memes again. Beautiful music and songs carry the words of God and Jesus to more ears and minds. Good Catholics pass on all these ‘truths’ to their children and are encouraged to have lots of children who must, in turn, marry (or convert) a Catholic and bring up their children in the faith. The reward is everlasting life and the punishment – well it’s even worse than having your hard disk wiped..."

"...Being infected with a religion at an early age is no trivial matter. It shapes your mind, affects which memes you will subsequently accept or reject, and affects everyone you come into contact with. Very few people choose their religion, even though most think their religion is the best. Most are infected in childhood and never throw the infection off. We are seeing some of the consequences of these religious memes in the world situation we face today.

"...Our minds, at rest - alert and open - are like a beautifully weeded garden, bare brown earth where anything might grow. And just as the weed seeds are ready to jump into all that bare brown earth, so the memes are ready to jump into our open minds. If weed seeds find a space to grow, off they go, and soon all that open space is a mass of dandelions, speedwells and rosebay willow herb.

It is the same with thoughts. Think about what kinds of thoughts are the most troublesome. I don't believe many people are plagued in meditation by the sounds in the room, or by images of scenery once observed, or images of walking or jumping, or even flying. In other words, it is not our immediate perceptions, nor the things we have learned by ourselves that are troublesome; it is the ones we pick up from other people. It is all words and stories that cause the trouble; all memes.

"...Meditation is the hoe. Meditation is also, of course, a meme. You would never have invented the techniques of Ch’an meditation for yourself. They have been part-invented and part-selected over thousands of years, passing down from person to person in a long evolutionary path. But all of them have this in common - they are ways of defusing the power of other memes."

Read the full article here

Memetic Warfare
From   On Memetics                                         
"It is vital to the interests of the U.S. and its people that memetic theory is fully explored, if for no other reason than to develop defenses against foreign memetic attack. Memetic operations do not require a presence in the target country. For a fraction of the cost of deploying troops on the ground, the enemies of the U.S. could conduct devastating memetic based information warfare against America. It is time for the IC to turn this threat into an opportunity. Memetics after all is only a tool, and tools when properly employed can be used to build peace, hope, prosperity, and a better way of life."
Win the War of the Memes with the memebusting metameme!

''We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism - something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators."
- Richard Dawkins 'The Selfish Gene'

So, if you want to destroy repressive religions, and eradicate vicious terrorist cults, go viral with the metameme!

... and maybe this idea of spreading the metameme as a weapon against pathological memes is itself a meme, in fact a meme about the metameme, or in other words a meta-metameme...

Related posts

Were the London Beheaders and Boston Bombers mentally ill?


Liberation: jumping out of the loop, stepping out of the system and transcendence

Buddhism and Terrorism - Meditation on Memes

Defying the tyranny of the memes

Jihadist attacks on Buddhists


Anonymous said...

I like your blog. But you are much too uncharitable towards other religions than your own. This is unbecoming of a Buddhist, in my humble opinion, and it is highly hypocritical given the nature of Geshe Kelsang Gyatos books.

I started listing the superstitions and unfounded beliefs in some of them here, but quickly discovered that this comment would become much too long between the omniscient Buddhas, the wish fulfilling jewels, the billions of years in agony in hell for killing an insect without purifying the karma, the inerrant scriptures that despite what scholars say were actually written by the Buddha in his time (I guess all the anachronisms and the modern language was prophetic in nature) and not to mention the whole system of merit and the horrible penalties for daring to criticize an enlightened teacher such as your founder...

Were I to be as uncharitable towards Kadampa-Buddhism as you are towards other religions, I could easily interpret this clip as nearly perfectly portraying the local Kadampa-Center (except for the killing part):

seanrobsville said...

@ Anon

A Buddhist should show charity to all sentient beings. She does not need to show charity to ideologies, which are collections of mutually reinforcing memes, often dangerously delusional and frequently the cause of great suffering.

Just because an ideology calls itself a religion doesn't mean it should be treated as such.

It's been pointed out that if Hitler had been really smart, he would have marketed Nazism as a religion. He would then have been able to refute all criticism by smearing his opponents as bigots and Naziphobes.

When a totalitarian ideology becomes an existential threat, it may need to be resisted, even if it does label itself as a 'religion'.

Anonymous said...

I support this writer's views towards Abrahamic faiths. We need to destroy the delusion of "Political Correctness".
Indonesian priest, Fr Daniel Byantoro, has written the following applicable words:

For thousands of years my country (Indonesia) was a Hindu Buddhist kingdom. The last Hindu king was kind enough to give a tax exempt property for the first Muslim missionary to live and to preach his religion. Slowly the followers of the new religion were growing, and after they became so strong the kingdom was attacked, those who refused to become Muslims had to flee for their life to the neighboring island of Bali or to a high mountain of Tengger, where they have been able to keep their religion until now. Slowly from the Hindu Buddhist Kingdom, Indonesia became the largest Islamic country in the world. If there is any lesson to be learnt by Americans at all, the history of my country is worth pondering upon. We are not hate mongering, bigoted people; rather, we are freedom loving, democracy loving and human loving people. We just don’t want this freedom and democracy to be taken away from us by our ignorance and misguided ‘political correctness’, and the pretension of tolerance.

Anonymous said...

Most dangerous meme viruses are found in Hinduism which are the creation of its brahmin priests to subjugate women and non-brahmins.