I just returned from this workshop and, as usual, the most interesting stuff happens in between talks and over pints of beer in the evening. One of the interesting discussions happened over 2 non-consecutive evenings. It started with a question from one of the other attendees about whether or not I’d heard of memetics. I had, mainly due to a cultural evolution working group I participated in when I was still at the SFI. But I took the opportunity to whip my whipping boy, again, and suggested that memetics is a metaphor and, depending on where you land regarding the ubiquity of metaphor, any study of memetics should loudly exclaim its assumptions up front. This exploded into a 3-way argument about the grounding of thought. I took the position that all thoughts are inextricably grounded in physiology, whereas the other 2 took (variations of) the position that ideas are somewhat independent of the physiological structures that implement them. We all agree that until/unless we can find the maps between the physiology and the ideas, it’s still useful to study the transmission of ideas as if it were independent, much like studying chemistry without having to always refer back to physics.
In any case, that discussion [d]evolved into a discussion about determinism and free will. I am forced to claim that ideas are epiphenomenal, or at least, limited to constraining their generators. I.e. thoughts are an effect, not a cause. My competitors in the discussion insisted that ideas can cause behaviors. Of course, I brought up the evidence that we make decisions before we’re conscious of those decisions. I also brought up the challenge that they bear the burden to distinguish emotion from thought and instinct from reason (or involuntary reflexes from idea-caused behaviors).
All of this is expected during a conference on agent-based modeling (ABM), of course. But I suppose it left me pre-adapted to these articles:
and a reconsideration of my own log entry: Atheism and the Meaning of Life.
Determinism and Free Will in ABM
ABM has a very sloppy history. The phrase is used to describe lots of different types of models, most of which have no clear concept of an agent. To my mind, most models described as ABMs are simply discrete time models, which have been in common use for a very long time. I typically define an agent as an encapsulated object that has control over its own agenda. This means that, by definition, it cannot be purely reactive to its context. It must embody some type of “free will”, some unpredictability or other idiosyncratic attributes. These models typically require the installation of a pseudo-random number generator (pRNG) inside the agent. Without that, the object becomes a slave to whatever other processes call its methods or change its state. (Another way might be to embed some actual parallelism inside the agent, allowing its behavior to be a function of some other stochastic process.)
But embedding a pRNG inside the agent does not magically imply that the symbols or sub-symbols used by the agent are independent of its context. The underlying grammar, the space of potential states of the agent is defined by its interface with the outside world. Only its selection of points in its state space is free. Everything else is bound.
This formalizes the argument against memes evolving independently from the underlying machinery in which they’re implemented.
Progressivism in Evolution
In the 2nd installment of the argument, a 4th player made the comment that he simply did not want to think that all his thoughts and feelings were purely and directly derived from his (cumulative) context. He claimed that the other position, where ideas can be causative … inspiring even, was more appealing, more beautiful. I didn’t give him the chance, but I suspected he would go on to cite something like what Einstein said about the beautiful theory being more likely true. (Of course, Einstein wasn’t a biologist, which has a different concept of beauty … namely those that have excruciatingly exquisite messiness.) But the inevitable idea that there is no obvious purpose to a purely determined life. If ideas are epiphenomenal, then why do we do what we do? Why are we as we are? Is there purpose … intention to any act?
In response, I invoked the idea that I learned (or badly inferred, to help him with plausible deniability) from this friend of mine that evolution is (fundamentally) a way for mechanisms to progressively grow more and more complex … to steadily harness order from an ever more disordering universe. At which point my beauty-invoking discussant brightened a bit. He made the comment that viewing evolution this way, combined with the context-driven deterministic epiphenomenality of ideas leads to a kind of social cohesion that is sometimes lacking in, at least, economic thought. We are all part of the same machine, pursuing a common dream.
The Supernatural as Artificial Social Cohesive
This finally leads me back to my own log entry on a local group meeting where a bunch of local atheists seem to continue to avoid trying to find any true biological explanation of religious belief or faith in the supernatural. A point I raised at that humanist meeting was in response to a comment that churches tend to have a physical location, which provides some of the glue that holds the congregation together. It’s a rallying point, something very concrete around which the group can cohere. The same function is served by concepts of God, faith, and good behavior, even if those concepts are demonstrably false. What my beauty-seeking discussant above was looking for was some concept/idea around which we could all cohere, much like 2 competing Christian denominations might disagree about, say, drinking alcohol or whatnot, they can still cohere around their idealism, Christ. The common dream of biological species banding together to harvest the increasingly rarified order in a heat death universe might provide that for some who find determinism a bit depressing otherwise.
Intuition and Emotion vs. Symbolic Thought and Language
And finally, the article by the neoreactionary invokes that group of humanist/atheists for me because I’m consistently disagreeing with them in a deeply urgic way. This usually manifests in the distinction I make between agnostic (without knowledge) versus atheist (without gods). But with the launch description of The Future Primaeval, and their break with the LessWrong crowd and subsequent break with MoreRight, I recognized that my discomfort with atheism is very similar to my discomfort with the hyper-rationalists (like the LessWrong crowd).
One of my defenses of theism lies in the very tiny window kept open by universal consciousness and the anthropic universe. I just cannot bring myself to plug that hole, to be hyper-crisp and rely on the Law of Noncontradiction. Hence my fascination with second-order and paraconsistent logic. And it should be relatively obvious how this relates to the somewhat artificial distinction between emotion vs. thought, instinct vs. reason. And this is why A Short Argument for Traditions makes some intuitive sense to me. Being part of this large, overwhelmingly deterministic, order-grasping, machine, implies to some extent that some traditions are best followed until better alternatives present themselves.
Where does this leave us regarding the ontological status of thoughts/ideas/memes? Oh who knows. I’m probably still jet-lagged.