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Daniel Dennett - Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
Posted: 07 March 2006 04:26 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I haven’t read his book (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon), though it’ll certainly be on my list sooner or later. I did enjoy his discussion on Point of Inquiry, but had a few questions. Maybe some others here have read the book or have something to say on these topics.

(1) It sounds to me like a lot of his explanation for the persistence of religion and certain religious views depends on the idea of "memes", which are basically linguistic items that are supposed (by Dawkins?) to evolve with something like Darwinian mechanisms. But as I understand it the whole idea of memes is something of a controversy ... Is it really "evolution" at all? Or just regular old "competition of ideas"? Do we gain anything by discussing ideas as "evolving" in the Darwinian sense? Or is it sort of poetic vacuity?

I mean, certainly we can agree that notions such as "faith" (that make wavering believers feel guilty) are powerful motivators to continued allegiance to a religion. But is this really "Darwinian" in any important sense? Is Dennett really providing us an importantly "biological" or "scientific" explanation here, or is he just explaining the persistence of faith-based religions on what amount to good-old historical grounds?

(2) To me it appears religion makes use of [i:5a0e2aee58]truly[/i:5a0e2aee58] biological notions of in-groups and out-groups. I say these are truly biological because they are shared by non-human animals: wolves and primates, to take two examples, have very definite mechanisms of determining who is in the in and out groups. The two are treated very differently.

Religion, it appears to me, is a mechanism that makes very crucial use of these biological mechanisms. Many of the earlier religions even link membership to certain genealogies or physical parts of the world which are "their" territory.

And all religions have different rites, rituals or dietary habits. It appears to me that these markers are what help members of each religion to enforce the ideas of group identity and difference: to be in our in-group you have to do these (otherwise totally irrational) rituals, avoid these sorts of foods, etc. The rituals almost [i:5a0e2aee58]have[/i:5a0e2aee58] to be irrational, so they set you apart. If it were a rational ritual (like drinking liquid with food, for instance) it wouldn’t be the sort of thing that pointed you out as different enough to belong to an in-group.

I guess I am concerned about the appearance of Dennett’s overuse of memes because, first, they are very controversial as scientifically valuable entities, and second, they are (as linguistically based) precisely not the sorts of things we share with other animals, and hence are difficult to prove have any importantly biological base. I expect that Dennett and others will say that memes aren’t biological in the strict sense, but that their competition mimics evolution in important and interesting ways. I’m concerned, however, that memes are really only "evolving" in the most broadly metaphorical sense ...

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Posted: 07 March 2006 04:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Daniel Dennett - Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

I haven’t read his book (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon), though it’ll certainly be on my list sooner or later. I did enjoy his discussion on Point of Inquiry, but had a few questions. Maybe some others here have read the book or have something to say on these topics.

(1) It sounds to me like a lot of his explanation for the persistence of religion and certain religious views depends on the idea of “memes”, which are basically linguistic items that are supposed (by Dawkins?) to evolve with something like Darwinian mechanisms. But as I understand it the whole idea of memes is something of a controversy ... Is it really “evolution” at all? Or just regular old “competition of ideas”? Do we gain anything by discussing ideas as “evolving” in the Darwinian sense? Or is it sort of poetic vacuity?

I mean, certainly we can agree that notions such as “faith” (that make wavering believers feel guilty) are powerful motivators to continued allegiance to a religion. But is this really “Darwinian” in any important sense? Is Dennett really providing us an importantly “biological” or “scientific” explanation here, or is he just explaining the persistence of faith-based religions on what amount to good-old historical grounds?

(2) To me it appears religion makes use of truly biological notions of in-groups and out-groups. I say these are truly biological because they are shared by non-human animals: wolves and primates, to take two examples, have very definite mechanisms of determining who is in the in and out groups. The two are treated very differently.

Religion, it appears to me, is a mechanism that makes very crucial use of these biological mechanisms. Many of the earlier religions even link membership to certain genealogies or physical parts of the world which are “their” territory.

And all religions have different rites, rituals or dietary habits. It appears to me that these markers are what help members of each religion to enforce the ideas of group identity and difference: to be in our in-group you have to do these (otherwise totally irrational) rituals, avoid these sorts of foods, etc. The rituals almost have to be irrational, so they set you apart. If it were a rational ritual (like drinking liquid with food, for instance) it wouldn’t be the sort of thing that pointed you out as different enough to belong to an in-group.

I guess I am concerned about the appearance of Dennett’s overuse of memes because, first, they are very controversial as scientifically valuable entities, and second, they are (as linguistically based) precisely not the sorts of things we share with other animals, and hence are difficult to prove have any importantly biological base. I expect that Dennett and others will say that memes aren’t biological in the strict sense, but that their competition mimics evolution in important and interesting ways. I’m concerned, however, that memes are really only “evolving” in the most broadly metaphorical sense ...

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Posted: 07 March 2006 12:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Fun to listen

Daniel Dennett is pleasant to listen to—but I also thought the feature stories are important; Ben Radford’s story about the mythology of women’s dissatisfaction with their appearance is startling. Every time I think about it, I’m struck with how counterintuitive it seems to be. I must really have internalized the programmed perception that all women, myself included, need to change ourselves to be acceptable, that it’s normal to have doubt about my appearance or brainpower or whatever. I’m ok, I’m ok, I’m ok. Thanks Ben Radford.  :D

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Posted: 07 March 2006 10:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Dennett

I agree with dougsmith that it seems Dennett is employing the meme concept.  I think the reason why memes are still just something of a neat idea rather than some more solidly established scientific fact is so far no one’s figured out a way to turn them into one.  I mean applying the principles of evolution and natural selection to ideas spread from person to person is kind of neat, but where do you go from there?  You can write books, I guess.

Anyway, the suggestion that religions might sort of exist purely for their own ends was a new one on me even though it probably shouldn’t have been.  It gives an interesting perspective on religion in general.  It’s almost impossible for me to imagine a world of humans, but with no religions, but Imagine was a cool song, so I think it’s worth a try.

Still, the biggest stubling block surely must be trying to come up with a necessary and sufficient definition of religion.  There are certain things that are definitely religions because they’ve been organized and codified as such.  But then there are also all these folk traditions Dennett mentioned.  But aren’t new versions of this springing up all the time?  Aren’t new superstitions being invented all the time?  Whatever basic principle it was that originally gave us religion in the first place is probably still with us, so I think religions, in some form or another, will probably also be with us for a very long time to come.

(Apologies for any lack of coherence in post.  Tired. smile )

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Posted: 08 March 2006 01:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Re: Dennett

Hi Elizabeth,

Agree with you about Radford’s piece. It was definitely thought-provoking. I’d really like to know more about these polls he mentions. I’m assuming they were well designed. But if so, it’s nice to have a small bit of good news for once ...

[quote author=“PragmaticallyWyrd”]Anyway, the suggestion that religions might sort of exist purely for their own ends was a new one on me even though it probably shouldn’t have been.  It gives an interesting perspective on religion in general.  It’s almost impossible for me to imagine a world of humans, but with no religions, but Imagine was a cool song, so I think it’s worth a try.

Yes, this is where I sort of part company with Dennett’s investigative technique. He wants to think of religions as separate entities that evolve by themselves, with “their own ends”. But that is clearly metaphorical talk, and just muddies the thinking.

I don’t think we’ll ever get to a world without religions. My guess is that there are strong biological bases to these sorts of irrational beliefs, based on a raft of cognitive illusions, magical and superstitious thinking, and allegiances to kin-group and in-group I mentioned above. If these have deep roots in biology, they are unlikely ever to be overcome by more than a very small percentage of the population. Unfortunately!

:(

[quote author=“PragmaticallyWyrd”]Still, the biggest stubling block surely must be trying to come up with a necessary and sufficient definition of religion.  There are certain things that are definitely religions because they’ve been organized and codified as such.  But then there are also all these folk traditions Dennett mentioned.

Ooof! If you want a necessary and sufficient definition of any conventional or folk concept ... you’ll wait a long time! These are universally fuzzy and vague concepts. Dennett quite rightly mentioned how, in the end, the discussion came down to an issue of law, since something called a “religion” can’t be taxed. I have no idea how “religion” is defined by the law.

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Posted: 20 March 2006 06:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I found Dennett’s interview annoying. I am bothered by discussions where concepts are given their own mystical existence seemingly outside of the minds and documents that hold them.

To assume some kind of application of darwin to a religion as an entity and then to map observations to some kind of darwinian process seems absurd, unless you are discussing the organization of the religion or the hierarchy of the religion developing rules to promote the religion. Yet, I don’t remember him mentioning the role of the hierarchy or the clergy. And if we do discuss the hierarchy, then what is so special about a religious organization that he writes a book about them without including other organizations such as businesses and boy scouts that would presumably deal with the same forces?

Most of all, do darwinian remain profound when we apply them beyond biology, such as to organizations, or do they become an empty metaphor?

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Posted: 20 March 2006 11:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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[quote author=“dmoreau”]I found Dennett’s interview annoying. I am bothered by discussions where concepts are given their own mystical existence seemingly outside of the minds and documents that hold them.

To assume some kind of application of darwin to a religion as an entity and then to map observations to some kind of darwinian process seems absurd, unless you are discussing the organization of the religion or the hierarchy of the religion developing rules to promote the religion. Yet, I don’t remember him mentioning the role of the hierarchy or the clergy. And if we do discuss the hierarchy, then what is so special about a religious organization that he writes a book about them without including other organizations such as businesses and boy scouts that would presumably deal with the same forces?

Most of all, do darwinian remain profound when we apply them beyond biology, such as to organizations, or do they become an empty metaphor?

I think what Dennet’s really getting at here is the notion of a meme:
[quote author=”  ”]
The term “meme” (IPA: [miːm]), refers to any unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea or concept, which one mind transmits (verbally or by repeated action) to another mind. Examples might include thoughts, ideas, theories, practices, habits, songs, dances and moods in addition to concepts such as race.

. . .

The term was coined by Richard Dawkins, and first came into popular use with the publication of his book The Selfish Gene in 1976. Dawkins based the word on a shortening of the Greek “mimeme” (something imitated), making it sound similar to “gene”. The concept received relatively little attention until the late 1980s when several academics took it up, most prominently American philosopher Daniel Dennett who promoted the idea firstly in his book on the philosophy of mind, Consciousness Explained (1991), and then in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995). Dawkins used the term to refer to any cultural entity, for example a song, an idea or a religion which an observer might consider a replicator. He hypothesised that people could view many cultural entities as replicators, generally replicating through exposure to humans, which have evolved as efficient (though not perfect) copiers of information and behaviour. Memes do not always get copied perfectly, and might indeed become refined, combined or otherwise modified with other ideas, resulting in new memes. These memes may themselves prove more (or less) efficient replicators than their predecessors, thus providing a framework for a theory of cultural evolution, analogous to the theory of biological evolution based on genes.

Considerable controversy surrounds the term “meme” and its associated discipline, memetics. In part this arises because a number of possible (though not mutually exclusive) interpretations of the nature of the concept have arisen:

  1. The least controversial claim suggests that memes provide a useful philosophical perspective with which to examine cultural evolution. Proponents of this view argue that considering cultural developments from a meme’s eye view—as if memes act to maximise their own replication and survival—can lead to useful insights and yield valuable predictions into how culture develops over time. Dawkins himself seems to have favoured this approach.

  2. Other theorists have focused on the need to provide an empirical grounding for memetics in order for it to class as a real and useful scientific discipline. Given the nebulous (and in many cases subjective) nature of many memes, providing such an empirical grounding has to date proved challenging.

  3. A third approach, exemplified by Dennett and by Susan Blackmore in her book The Meme Machine (1999), seeks to place memes at the centre of a radical and counter-intuitive naturalistic theory of mind and of personal identity.

The general concept of memes is a really neat idea, as per point #1.  But they’ll probably remain only marginally scientific unless or until point #2 can be addressed.

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Posted: 04 April 2006 07:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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[quote author=“dmoreau”]I found Dennett’s interview annoying. I am bothered by discussions where concepts are given their own mystical existence seemingly outside of the minds and documents that hold them.

To assume some kind of application of darwin to a religion as an entity and then to map observations to some kind of darwinian process seems absurd, unless you are discussing the organization of the religion or the hierarchy of the religion developing rules to promote the religion. Yet, I don’t remember him mentioning the role of the hierarchy or the clergy. And if we do discuss the hierarchy, then what is so special about a religious organization that he writes a book about them without including other organizations such as businesses and boy scouts that would presumably deal with the same forces?

Most of all, do darwinian remain profound when we apply them beyond biology, such as to organizations, or do they become an empty metaphor?

I don’t think it’s any particular religion that needs explaining from a biological point of view. Rather it’s the persistence of religions in general. Or at least that’s how I’d approach the problem.

It may be that there is no biological basis to religion at all ... that it is all culture and history, and that it is the sort of thing that humans can pretty much cast off at will, like yesterday’s fashions.

But I tend to doubt that. My feeling is that religious belief taps into some deeply biological drives and desires. Personally I don’t find much use in talk of “memes” ... I don’t think they really advance the discussion in an interesting way. But I would talk more about our biologically-attuned desire to associate with “kin-groups” and “in-groups” as versus “out-groups”, and our desire to see the world in this way. Two of the strongest things determining culture and national identity are language and religion. Language has already been thoroughly discussed from its biological roots by the brilliant Steven Pinker ... and to my mind it’s no coincidence that we can distinguish very slight differences in accent and regularly use them to position someone’s birthplace or place of residence. I think religion is another model we use to distinguish oneself (as to place or affiliation) and to provide group cohesion.

But this is only the roughest sort of start ...

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Posted: 04 April 2006 04:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I don’t think “religion” is just one thing.  Note the dictionary definitions:

[quote author=”  ”]
  1.  a. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.
  1.  b. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.
  2. The life or condition of a person in a religious order.
  3. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.
  4. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.

Only 1a explicity mentions a god-thingie and #4 need not involve any supernatural elements at all.  A person could even be said to be religiously skeptical of all religions.  When I was growing up, I sometimes referred to myself as “devoutly non-Christian”, savoring the irony all the while.

So before we even get serious in an analysis of religion and its origins, we have to first decide on exactly what we’re going to be analyzing.  But this is where it begins to get messy.  Because we see that any explanation that’s grounded soley in peoples’ persistence in believing in the supernatural fails to consider that there may be persons who count themselves members of a particular organized religion that actually don’t believe in the supernatural.

When you want to analyze religion, what will you be analyzing?  Peoples’ belief in the supernatural?  Peoples’ need to find meaning and purpose?  Peoples’ tendancy to anthropomorphize the world around them?  The tendancy to see patterns where there are none?  The need to belong to a group and separate others from that group?  All of the above, or something else alltogether?

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Posted: 04 April 2006 08:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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The dictionary definitions of religion

[quote author=“PragmaticallyWyrd”]I don’t think “religion” is just one thing.  Note the dictionary definitions

[quote author=”http//dictionary.reference.com/search?q=religion”]
  1.  a. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.
  1.  b. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.
  2. The life or condition of a person in a religious order.
  3. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.
  4. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.

“Only 1a explicity mentions a god-thingie and #4 need not involve analysis of religion and its origins, we have to first decide on exactly what we’re going to be analyzing.  But this is where it begins to get messy.  Because we see that any explanation that’s grounded soley in peoples’ persistence in believing in the supernatural fails to consider that there may be persons who count themselves members of a particular organized religion that actually don’t believe in the supernatural.”

PragmaticallyWyrd,
The word “religion” can mean many different things. It can mean a community of people who worship the same God and most people define it that way. I think the important thing to remember is that there are the “God religions” and “No-God religions”. The “No-God religions” don’t require members to believe in a God or gods and the “God religions” do.
Bob

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Posted: 05 April 2006 01:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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[quote author=“PragmaticallyWyrd”]I don’t think “religion” is just one thing.  Note the dictionary definitions:

[quote author=”  ”]
  1.  a. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.
  1.  b. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.
  2. The life or condition of a person in a religious order.
  3. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.
  4. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.

Only 1a explicity mentions a god-thingie and #4 need not involve any supernatural elements at all.  A person could even be said to be religiously skeptical of all religions.  When I was growing up, I sometimes referred to myself as “devoutly non-Christian”, savoring the irony all the while.

So before we even get serious in an analysis of religion and its origins, we have to first decide on exactly what we’re going to be analyzing.

I generally take dictionary definitions with a huge grain of salt. This one is pretty silly. Bob’s right on the mark: there are religions (like many Buddhist sects, including Zen) that don’t have any place for “a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe”. So on its face this was written by someone who doesn’t know much about world religions. And clearly #4 is metaphorical.

So I’d ditch this definition as seriously inadequate.

That said, you are certainly right that we ought to spend some time figuring out what counts as “religion” before analyzing it. But as always, this is a very big task. What I was discussing (and I think Dennett as well) are the uncontroversial cases. If you like, we can just start with the legal US religions. I think that’s a good starting point for investigation.

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Posted: 05 April 2006 03:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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(P.S.  Ok, please read all the way through.  At the very end, I finally stop arguing and sort of agree. smile )

[quote author=“dougsmith”]
I generally take dictionary definitions with a huge grain of salt.

If you do not consider dictionaries to be authoritave as to the definitions and meanings of words, then I think you’re running pretty close to the No True Scotsman logical fallacy.  To put it another way, we have the handy quote
[quote author=“Humpty Dumpty”]
When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.

[quote author=“dougsmith”]
This one is pretty silly.

If what you mean is that you do not consider dictionary.com to be authoritative, then we can go with Merriam Websters instead.  It’s a bit more general, and a bit more circular.  This makes sense since, as far as I can tell, religion is such a fundamental aspect of all societies and cultures.
 
and also
 

I would love to see what the Oxford English Dictionary’s def’s for religion are, but they don’t seem to allow causal internet peoples access to their site.

[quote author=“dougsmith”]
Bob’s right on the mark: there are religions (like many Buddhist sects, including Zen) that don’t have any place for “a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe”. So on its face this was written by someone who doesn’t know much about world religions. And clearly #4 is metaphorical.

I’m not sure what you mean about def #4.  It seems obvious to me that a person could zealously pursue a secular cause (equal rights or abortion for example).  Of course, there again we hit a snag.  One person may perceive equal rights or abortion as a purely secular matter whilest another person might, by virtue of their religion, consider it to be a deeply religious one.

[quote author=“dougsmith”]
So I’d ditch this definition as seriously inadequate.

Perhaps.  But if the dictionary is not considered a valid source for definitions of words, then what is?  And how can we have any kind of substansive debate so long as we are unable to agree about what the subject of our debate actually is?

(If Socrates were alive today, and if he understood modern English, he and I would get along great. wink )

[quote author=“dougsmith”]
What I was discussing (and I think Dennett as well) are the uncontroversial cases. If you like, we can just start with the legal US religions. I think that’s a good starting point for investigation.

I agree that seems like safe ground.  I guess the only reason why I can’t help breaking it out into the broader, more uncertain version is that I see many, many suposedly non-religious persons engaging in exactly the same behaviors as those that are explicitly religious.  The only difference is the label that’s attached to it.

To me, the real problem is not the religions, nor even the various supernatural beliefs that often go with them.  Rather, the problem is whenever any one person or group of people gets it into their heads that they are right no matter what.  Now, the issue is that many religions play right into this notion—many are, in fact, based on that very principle of having a monopoly on the Truth.  And this problem is made worse when we give these religions legal status.  So if you were saying that, that’s a problem, then I agree with you on that.  smile

Let the people have their religions, just don’t help bolster the idea that their view of things is the One True Way.  ‘cause that way Badness lies.

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Posted: 05 April 2006 04:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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[quote author=“PragmaticallyWyrd”]If you do not consider dictionaries to be authoritave as to the definitions and meanings of words, then I think you’re running pretty close to the No True Scotsman logical fallacy.  To put it another way, we have the handy quote
[quote author=“Humpty Dumpty”]
When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.

Sure. I’m aware of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy ... it’s one we ran into sometimes in grad school. But whether what follows my skepticism is fallacious or not depends on the strength of my proposed definition. For example, if I define religion as “what I do when making dinner”, that would be a pretty silly thing, and fall afoul of this fallacy.

Dictionaries are fallible like any human construction. What I meant was that dictionaries are constructed by human usage, and they are only as good as the people who write them. In my experience many dictionary definition writers aren’t very well philosophically trained, and therefore tend not to think of all the counterexamples. In this case, I came up with a couple of counterexamples of things CLEARLY religions (Zen Buddhism, for example) that didn’t come under their definition of religion.


[quote author=“PragmaticallyWyrd”]I’m not sure what you mean about def #4.  It seems obvious to me that a person could zealously pursue a secular cause (equal rights or abortion for example).  Of course, there again we hit a snag.  One person may perceive equal rights or abortion as a purely secular matter whilest another person might, by virtue of their religion, consider it to be a deeply religious one.

Well, #4 says: “A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.”

This is the usage where we say “He pursued that cause RELIGIOUSLY.” But this is clearly a metaphorical use of the term. If I pursue my love of the Yankees with zeal and devotion, I am not literally engaging in a religious pursuit. That would be absurd.

But see below.
:wink:

[quote author=“PragmaticallyWyrd”] I guess the only reason why I can’t help breaking it out into the broader, more uncertain version is that I see many, many suposedly non-religious persons engaging in exactly the same behaviors as those that are explicitly religious.  The only difference is the label that’s attached to it.

To me, the real problem is not the religions, nor even the various supernatural beliefs that often go with them.  Rather, the problem is whenever any one person or group of people gets it into their heads that they are right no matter what.

You’re certainly right that many people engage in similar behaviors in non-religious contexts. Think again of sports, which is an excellent example of believing one is “right no matter what”. Or of nationalism. Or any one of a myriad of us-versus-them contexts we get ourselves into. Religion is just a particularly strong, long-lived form of this ... which I think feeds into the same biological bases as nationalism. Love of sports teams, of course, is famously “nationalistic” in the sense that teams are traditionally linked to hometown, or in the Olympics, home country.

[quote author=“PragmaticallyWyrd”] Now, the issue is that many religions play right into this notion—many are, in fact, based on that very principle of having a monopoly on the Truth.  And this problem is made worse when we give these religions legal status.  So if you were saying that, that’s a problem, then I agree with you on that.  smile

Well, I wasn’t particularly advocating for tax strategies (although I agree with where you’re going). Instead, I was trying to help along Dennett’s program of looking for biological bases of religious belief and behavior.

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Posted: 28 June 2006 06:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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I don’t remember who, maybe Dawkins, but someone said that there is inarguably a biological component to memes the way there likely is for all information stored in the brain.  Aquiring a new meme changes something in the brain, even if that something is a minute electrical pattern somewhere.

That’s not what I wanted to mention—I’m not knowledgeable in the subject.  But I wanted to disagree with the notion that meme transmission depends on human linguistics (unless you get into the meme of “meme”, which is a philosophical step I wouldn’t want to take.  :wink:  ) Behaviors like unwrapping candy have been transmitted successfully through populations of animals (I wish I could remember which, whether it’s monkeys or birds or what).  Does this count as something transmitted through “culture”?  Sure, why not?  Birds dropping clams on rocks also counts, and whalesong, which differs by group.

Debbie

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Posted: 07 July 2006 09:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Debgod wrote:

I don’t remember who, maybe Dawkins, but someone said that there is inarguably a biological component to memes the way there likely is for all information stored in the brain. Aquiring a new meme changes something in the brain, even if that something is a minute electrical pattern somewhere.

It was Robert Aunger in his book The Electric Meme.  He says that the mechanism is electric impulse within the synapses.

That’s not what I wanted to mention—I’m not knowledgeable in the subject. But I wanted to disagree with the notion that meme transmission depends on human linguistics (unless you get into the meme of “meme”, which is a philosophical step I wouldn’t want to take.  ) Behaviors like unwrapping candy have been transmitted successfully through populations of animals (I wish I could remember which, whether it’s monkeys or birds or what). Does this count as something transmitted through “culture”? Sure, why not? Birds dropping clams on rocks also counts, and whalesong, which differs by group.

That argument has been brought up before but it is very tenuous.  The seemingly “memetic” behaviors in non-human animals are at best rudimentary.  And while much of those behaviors are in actuality not memetic, there are some that could be considered as memes.  But even if this is true, what does it really say?  It doesn’t threaten the theory of memes.  It just demonstrates that only highly intelligent animals (birds, apes, dolphins, etc) can even come close to possessing a few primitive memetic behaviors.  But we should really only be concerned with human memes since the implications are so incredibly important.  And really, cultural evolution (memetic evolution) is non-existant in non-human animals.  So why even bother using memes to describe their behavior?

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Posted: 07 July 2006 09:32 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Hello Roger and welcome to the Forum!

Very interesting observations you make. But my concern with memes is what work they are really supposed to do. First, it is very hard to distinguish one thought from another. Second, it is very hard to distinguish when a thought has remained the same versus when it has changed to a different thought. (None of these are controversial when it comes to DNA, of course).

When we say “memes evolve” are we really saying anything different than “people change their minds”?

When we say “memes multiply” are we really saying anything different from “people adopt new ideas”?

If not, then I am concerned that the notion of memes is pretty vacuous. (To be fair, it’s not clear to me that Dawkins would entirely disagree, except perhaps in emphasis).

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