Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Unmistakable Stench

I was watching a discussion on PBS of the religious interpretation of 9/11. How did your view of God change after the event? was one question the various speakers addressed. Another was about the "face of evil", challenging the speakers to express their reaction in terms of this unseeable force that seems to love suffering. This was where I had to stop watching. It’s not that it disgusts or frightens me, though it does. It’s just that I feel its existence so thoroughly that I cannot tolerate the viewpoints of the rationalists. I am a thoroughgoing rationalist myself, or try to be, so such obtuseness in my fellows embarrassed me. This painful internal conflict drove me to respond, and a flash of inspiration gave me the words, I think, to explain to them how to sense what I’m sensing. …

Memes, ancient creatures that they are, come in strains with intensively selected, highly structured characteristics. Some important attributes are 1) fecundity, 2) cost/gain patterns, 3) intensification trends. The first is capacity for replication, ease or likelihood of being copied. The second represents what a meme does for you, your family, society and third parties. The third attribute refers to the field preparation induced by an established meme. What other memes does it make room for?

Evil, easily recognized by most people whose IQs have not exceeded the maximum for usefulness, is a meme series that leads to an intensifying series or cascade of domino-memes where successive generations increase the ratio of damage done to out-group vs. in-group parties. Can you parse what I’m saying here? Any fool knows that choices lead to other choices, and some choices lead to progressively more damaging results. Any fool knows that bad company rubs off, as do bad thoughts.

Think about the Plague. The symptoms are predictable, distinctive and progressive. There are somewhat different results depending on the individual. There are different outcomes depending on the medical support system, but it is still an evil thing. We know that Science can unravel its mysteries, help control its propagation, but Science cannot change the emotional reaction we have when we hear the word nor change its very nature.

Evil can be seen as a destructive meme-contagion. It’s not as easy to discover the progression of symptoms. It’s not as predictable or as visible, but it is, nevertheless discoverable, identifiable, subject to analysis, and ultimately seeable.

Maybe some folks are just born evil -- we’ve heard people say that. I would suggest that such hosts are merely more susceptible, that perhaps an unfortunate early exposure combined with a peculiar pattern of neurotransmitters led them into a negative cascade, culminating with an implacable and destructive attitude. Or maybe the absence of eumemes leads to the same result.

Whatever. I’m not taking credit for any particular sensitivity to this affliction, but some of us can recognize it for what it is. Some of us can also detect many cases with our olifactory system, as Hamlet implied of Denmark.

9/12/2006 12:25 AM

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At Tuesday, September 12, 2006 9:59:00 AM, Blogger Steve said...

Very good JJ. Very interesting.

Have you read Howard Bloom's The Lucifer Principle (google)?

Talk about memes.

I shied away from this book for quite a while, repelled by the word "Lucifer". I want nothing to do with any of that. I don't like movies like The Omen or The Exorcist. There IS evil in the world.

But I kept seeing references to the book here and there, and finally decided to read it based on Leon Uris' endorsement.

What a book. Not perfect, but I think it pulls together a great model to explain what we see going on in the world today.


A friend once told me of having encountered evil. He saw it oozing from the pores of some Latin American oligarch who, among many other sins, provided sleeping space for his field laborers in the form of a tin roof mounted on stakes literally about three feet over bare ground while he drove around in a big Mercedes advocating illiteracy on the basis that if you educate them you have to pay them more.

My friend said this guy gave him physical chills.


Memetics has interested me for a long time, but I struggled over whether the whole thing is fallacious reifying after a scientist once dismissed something I wrote on the basis of some presumed fallacy of reification. I'm glad he dismissed my thought because, since then, I've tried to explore the nature of reifying and whether it is necessarily fallacious. I've concluded that reifying is NOT necessarily fallacious, and that memes are real even if without material substance.


I'm not sure I'd go along with the plague analogy, if I understood you correctly. Plague isn't evil, it just plague. Guns aren't evil, they're just guns. I think I misinterpreted you?

At what point do you think it's moral to kill people in the sense that it's moral to kill the rats and fleas that spread plague? Is it moral to even consider that question? So far, I think it's moral to think about it, and that, at some point it might become moral to do it, and that some memeplexes today do advocate doing so. I always stand for correction.


I didn't see the show you referred to because I didn't watch much "news" yesterday at all, essentially because I agree with this guy. (I'm reading that blog regularly now, though I'm still trying to figure out what I think of it.)

At Tuesday, September 12, 2006 11:47:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Thanks, Steve. I have not read the book. I'm a slow reader and pretty selective. But the name does put me off. I didn't see Omen, but I did see The Exorcist. It was really a great movie, but I wish I hadn't seen it. The mental residue is just too nasty.

If you believe in memes as they are advertised by the popular memesters, then you believe they resemble Life in its important characteristics. These creatures have an effect on us. We are designed for symbiosis with them, but a bad strain can be harmful, and carriers of the bad strain can be viewed as dangerous.

The modern strategy to handling dangerous memes is to encourage robust cultures of the greatest variety of memes, including the trouble-makers, confident that exposure of the people to these cultures will improve our immune systems and that the strongest memes will also turn out to be the best. It is a brave experiment, opposed vigorously by victims of restrictive memeplexes.

The analogy of memes to viruses is correct, in my opinion. We call some evil people "sick", suggesting that we recognize the correspondence. Bad memes equal disease. I can empathize with your friend, but don't have the same degree of synaesthesia. I will tell you this. I have felt that same sick feeling, recognizing that I am in the presence of someone for whom there are no civilized boundaries. They don't always realize how they give themselves away. If you ever get this feeling, do not ignore it, or try to convince yourself you are being rude or unfair.

Being accused of reification is not necessarily an insult. Memetic analysis is indeed reification, or conversion to "thing" identity, of something that previously occupied the aether, such stuff that distinguishes the mind from the brain, the hardware from the software, in order to talk about it. We do it so that we can simulate the activity of memes, at least verbally. These thought experiments are valid so long as they help us understand and even predict what will occur.

We know that an idea or a phrase can occupy the mental processing of an individual, even though we also know that there really is nothing but chemistry and electrical flow. Before Sims became popular, the idea that human activity could be an informational construct in reality was repugnant to the average person. Now we all know that personality can be programmed and intent can be measured as well as recognized.

If someone tells you that treating memes as real items is reifying a mental process, you can respond by saying that the very words, "idea" and "mental process" are reifications as well, just a little more vague.

So what does it mean to say that, "Charlie gave me an idea." Memologists (at least myself) would say that it differs little from saying, "Charlie gave me the clap." Meme denialists would say that there is a little editor inside our brains who wrote the thought on a piece of brain paper, evaluated it, modified it and stored it into a little idea file. Very sanitary, that. Others might say that these things are mysterious, just what they are and no more, and cannot be modeled or measured or put in a jar. Yet these same people might make fun of someone who believes that Mind persists after death.

At Wednesday, September 13, 2006 12:05:00 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

A friend of mine once opened the trunk of his car and pulled out a weapon to show me. It was an automatic weapon, slick and businesslike, and probably very expensive. I knew he was rich, but I didn't know where his money came from and I wasn't going to ask. The boyish enthusiasm he displayed in showing it to me made me comfortable with the person, but not with the gun.

I was raised around guns as a normal part of life, but this was a little different. Maybe it's just the mental association we have, connecting certain weapons with certain people, bad people, that makes such things worrisome. I know that many people overreact to guns in general, but I was glad when he finally put it away.

Do I think that guns can hold evil in some paranormal way? I do not. But the part of my brain that recognizes evil does. Who am I to say it is wrong. Certainly the probability of violence increases in its presence.

Is the Plague evil? No more that someone who runs his adversaries through a wood-chipper, but no less. The person may be a little more complex, a little more ingenious. A pit viper can detect infrared radiation. An evil person can detect your every weakness. Sometimes you feel they can read your thoughts.

At Thursday, September 14, 2006 10:03:00 AM, Blogger Steve said...

I don't think of myself as "believing in" memes as much as thinking the concept is useful in terms of understanding the world.

It seems pretty clear to me that the modern experimental strategy you describe is likely to have an end analogous to that of the experiment we're running on the climate (and the rest of Gaia if I can reify again). To have a different outcome will require something more decisive than allowing an experiment to run its course. It will require something radical. It would probably be evil, though.

The way I see it, a mind may produce memes that continue after the person's death, part of that person's legacy, but that person's death is final. I believe in a "soul" because I can esperience mine, but it's a property emergent from the brain or mind. When the brain is gone so is the mind and soul. Something like that.

Comparing the evil of plague with that of Uday and his wood chipper tells me you might like The Lucifer Principle. You can sample a few pages at Amazon if you like.


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