An Open Letter to an Associate # 2
The following letter (with a few minor differences) was sent to an interested party who is a highly active member of an online atheist community. He has shown interest in the things I say, and in this letter I summarize what I've been writing about in this blog.
What I speak and write about is a rational approach to matters traditionally tackled by religion. It is a “spiritual” quest minus the mystical mumbo-jumbo.
The big question goes something like this: Why are people so unhappy? This might be alternatively stated as: “How can we be happy?” but as I mentioned in my article Memetic Turning Points, there is a danger in stating things in seemingly positive terms, because it assumes we have the wisdom to know what's good for us. It's far better to sort out our cognitive distortions first.
Now the first and most obvious place to look is within the human brain, seeking out what is significant about us. It's not tool use, because animals can do that. It's not even abstract reasoning, because some animals can do that, too. If there was something about brains that I would peg as significant, it would be our facility with syntax and our highly sophisticated ability to process imagined realities. These may turn out to be related capabilities, as it is easier to imagine us evolving one special capability instead of two, but they really do look like two different abilities.
In any case, we might be mistaken to look into the brain. The actual problem, I suspect, is outside of us. No, it's not The Devil, but it's something like that. The memes which we take for granted set the context in which we live. And some of those memes are making us miserable and may even kill us.
Consider this: no animal has been observed getting depressed in the wild. But put them with humans and they can get downright neurotic. Now that might simply be because they don't belong with us (though domestication would seem to address this argument). Be that as it may, most non-human animals find it quite trying to live with human animals. And human animals definitely find it hard to live with human animals.
It is said that a frog will not jump out of a pot if you increase the temperature very slowly. Eventually it will die and be cooked. A similar mechanism might be occurring with humanity and its memes. These mental tools have evolved alongside us, and we are indeed “swimming” in them.
Memes could be said to create us just as surely as the genes in DNA create us, but there's a difference: once you're born the genes stop evolving. Memes continue to evolve (or be replaced) while we live. Indeed, our lives are dominated by memes battling for our minds. I hope I don't have to explain that point, but I can give two examples just to make it clear: religions and television commercials want you to do what they want you to do. And in so doing, they want you to not do what some other meme-bearers want you to do.
It's a war for our minds, and this war is not actually being directed by humans. No, we're not being dominated by space aliens or some human conspiracy. We are being twisted around by the tools of our own creation, some of which are thousands (maybe millions) of years old. That's plenty of time for those meme complexes to have evolved highly sophisticated strategies.
It's hard to be happy in the middle of any war. It also doesn't help when we are being recruited as weapons in that war. And if we say, “No way, I'm having no part in this rubbish!” we find that we're so deep into it we have no choice but to participate — unless, perhaps, we want to go live alone in the mountains in Montana. (Arguably, that's just a different kind of crazy, but it's hard to argue with the reasoning.)
It would be unreasonable to propose that we simply ditch all of the memes. Most of us would die in their complete absence because we've evolved with them. Besides, some of them (like how to make fire) are very useful. But it's tough to pick and choose while we're in the thrall of the conventional memes.
Our only choice, it seems, is to “master” the memes — get on top of them and stop identifying with them as being “us”. This, it seems to me, is what Zen masters have been trying (and mostly failing) to convey to us. I also believe that it was what Jesus was saying before his words got distorted by his followers. But I mention those related views only in passing; it's not an appeal to authority. The only valid authority here is you.
And by “you” I mean the authentic organism, not the meme-infested version that culture has persuaded us to believe in. Getting to that authentic organism is not easy. But it may be possible, at least partially for most of us, and fully for a few rare others.