This is point of inquiry for Friday, November 30th, 2007.
Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe key point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. Before we get to this week’s guest, Professor Keith Stann, of which of the University of Toronto, here’s a word from this week’s sponsor, Free Inquiry magazine.
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I’m pleased to have Dr. Keith Stanvac on point of inquiry. He holds the Canada Research Chair of Applied Cognitive Science at the Department of Human Development and replied Psychology at the University of Toronto. His research areas are the psychology of reasoning and the psychology of reading. His work in the field of reading was fundamental to the emergence of today’s scientific consensus about what reading is, how it works in our brains, and what it does for the mind. Recently, he was named one of the 25 most productive educational psychologists. His many books include How to Think Straight About Psychology, Who is Rational Studies and Individual Differences in Reasoning and the robot’s rebellion finding meaning in the age of Darwin, which he joins me on the show to talk about. Professor Keith Stanwick, welcome to Point of Inquiry.
Well, thank you, D.J. I’m happy to be on the show.
Professor, you’re a cognitive scientist, an expert in how people learn. You’re a developmental psychologist cited. I think the most cited developmental psychologist out there. But you’re not a biologist yet. You seem to be one of these thinkers who believes that Darwinism, that it explains just about everything. So to start off our discussion, tell me what you mean in this book. When you use the phrase universal Darwinism, Darwinism for you isn’t just this central organizing theory of modern biology, but it gets to the crux of these bigger kind of existential questions. Who we are as people, right?
Yes. Well, I’m not a biologist, but I was I am inspired by biological writings and the writings of the evolutionary psychologist in particular. But but most specifically, Richard Dawkins and of course, the famous book, The Selfish Gene, which indirectly gave my book its title, The Robot’s Rebellion, is referring to a famous passage in The Selfish Gene where Dawkins, after kind of playing out the astonishing and unnerving insights of universal Darwinism, the idea that we we serve as hosts for selfish replicators, i.e. genes that have no interest in in humans other than the role they play as a conduit for replication. After playing out all these insights, Dawkins has a famous passage towards the end of the book where he says, you know, we are we are built as machines for genes, but we have the power to turn against star creators. And he says we alone on Earth can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators. And this is a much quoted passage, but a passage that kind of serves as the inspiration for my book, because I started to wonder then if if we accept these these insights of universal Darwinism, what exactly is this kind of robot’s rebellion that Dawkins is talking about? And what exactly would it entail in terms of what we know about modern cognitive science and this whole story?
It sounds at first reading, you know, if someone’s not familiar with the argument, it sounds like science fiction that we’re really nothing more than these robotic coast of these little replicators, these little machines called genes. And when Dawkins argued this decades ago, it was really controversial. But now it’s pretty much consensus. You’re taking this idea and running with it.
Yes, I’m taking this consensus. The consensus of universal Darwinism in the genes I view of life. There are, of course, dozens of micro controversies in The View, but none of these controversies really have any implication for the macro. All issues that I’m dealing with, the issue of what would it entail for the vehicle, the host of the genes, to actually rebel against the programs that the genes themselves are carrying out.
And before we get to your call for rebellion, let’s talk about another thing where hosts of that you go into at some length in the book, you agree with Dawkins and Susan Blackmore and Daniel Dennett and others that were not just hosts to genes that uses to replicate, but we’re also hosts to meems these beliefs and ideas which are self replicating and spread from one person to another, one brain to another.
Yes, I do. We serve as hosts for two replicators, genes and means, and although they are very different. Again, there are macro level implication is just as astonishing and that that is that neither has an interest in humans other than the role that humans play as a conduit for replication.
Now, I do think that the rebellion plays out differently for genes and names. So my model is more of a two stage model. How first, should humans deal with the notion of being host for genes? That has one set of answers and then the kind of second level of being a conduit for means a unit of culture or an idea unit.
So everything in our lives is determined by these competing interests of of these three kinds of things. These two replicators, genes and Meems and then our interests, the hosts of these replicators, the human organism. So you say throughout most of history, the interests of the human being have been way down on the totem pole when compared to the interests of these genes.
And Meems, way down. It’s an amazing cultural feat and fact that only recently have we acquired the mechanisms to put the vehicle, i.e. humans first. Humans are the only animal whole to have come upon the insight that indeed they are conduits for replicators that don’t have the vehicles interest as number one. And it’s it’s simply astonishing. In fact, Dawkins in The Selfish Gene says I’m I’m still astonished by this insight as much as I know about biology and read about it, that really humans don’t come first. I mean, our whole way of thinking is the humans come first. Most people unschooled in biology and evolution have this view, even though and let’s forget for a second about creationists.
I’m talking now just about people who say on the surveys that, yes, they believe in evolution. But many of their beliefs about evolution are 180 degrees wrong. That is, they think, well, genes exist so that we can replicate ourselves, that it’s the survival of the fittest organism.
But no, we’re just the hosts for the survival of these genes.
Absolutely right. D.J., you know, the mind blowing thing that Dawkins book does for us is to show us that we have that 180 degrees wrong. We we exist so that the genes can replicate themselves.
Well, that sounds all pretty bleak. But the subtitle of your book is Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwinism. Well, I guess we’ll finish up on that. But before we get either to your rebellion or or how we get this meaning in this very bleak picture you just painted. I want you to elaborate on Meems a little bit more for me. Were all hosts for these ideas that are self replicators? They’re like genes are to biology. They are to culture. These contagious ideas, whether you’re talking about religious means that we get from our childhood or our culture, whatever it is, or even just a jingle that you hear on the radio, it’s a meme because it it’s like a virus of the mind. Tell me, is there evidence to support that there’s this cultural unit called a meme or is it is it just kind of a metaphor?
That’s right. Daniel Dennett has written extensively about means and and, you know, has a long list of the artifacts and ideas that are means. He coined the term mean plot to refer to a larger collection of micro ideas that that tend to replicate together. So so religions and large scale informational structures came to be called a mean Plax. And yes, I mean, there are some metaphoric aspects to the idea of the meme. And a lot of controversy surrounding it. What I’ve got in the book, though, is taken what I see to be the fundamental insight that’s triggered. By mimetic studies, as is sometimes called, or or the meme concept. And the fundamental insight, I think, sidesteps a lot of the more micro controversies and the fundamental insight that I see coming again from a psychologist’s perspective is that the main concept tells us that a belief may spread without necessarily being true or helping the human being who holds the belief in any way.
And that fundamental insight, I think, takes us a long way. For instance, it has a profound effect on on our reasoning about ideas, particularly about how psychologists reason about ideas and beliefs. You know that the tradition, both personality and social psychology, is to ask the question, you know, what is it about particular individuals that leads them to have certain beliefs? And so the causal model in psychology traditionally is one where the person determines what beliefs to have.
But the insight you’re getting from memetics is the name of the field is what is it about the ideas that cause people to have them as opposed to what is it about people that cause them to have those ideas?
Exactly right, T.J.. Again, and in kind of the same mind loving way as the gene does in Dawkins book, The Selfish Gene, the meme idea inverts our traditional way of looking at things exactly in the way that you mentioned. We now ask, what is it about certain means that leads them to collect many host for themselves, even Meems, like this set of beliefs a suicide bomber has, that’s obviously not advantageous to that organism.
But that idea, that meme is contagious. Nonetheless, a lot of people kind of catch that meme and go forth in suicide bomb.
Yes, exactly. And that’s, of course, a beautiful example of how the vehicle, the body, the human is is actually a throwaway to the meme itself. As long as the meme replicates, you know, serves as an example before the suicide bomber is destroyed, then that’s that meme has been successful.
You know that inside what I call the fundamental inside of memetics studies can can take us a long way.
I think whether or not Meems or a metaphore or literal or, you know, all those other controversies, critics of the field of memetics challenge memetics with, well, you sidestep all that and you say, look, there’s still this fundamental insight, whatever the evidence shows in these other arguments.
Yes. You had highlights the fact that we should look at beliefs and knowledge structures in terms of their function and focuses our attention on the fact that that function might not be helpful to the human being. Mm hmm. Now, I should say here as an aside, that I, you know, adopt a fairly ecumenical and, you know, neutral view of the mean in the sense that I I certainly acknowledge that most beliefs survive and spread because they are helpful to the people that store the beliefs. And I just say this because there are attempts to straw man the meme concept.
So if someone who uses the concepts, I want to clearly get on the table that I’m not saying that that, you know, every belief is just functional to the human being. I will acknowledge that the vast majority of beliefs and ideas probably spread because they are functional in some way. All I want to use the concept to do is to leave room for the idea of a dysfunctional belief that can spread despite its untoward effects on the vehicle.
I’d like to let our listeners know that you can purchase a copy of the robot’s rebellion finding meaning in the age of Darwin through our Web site. Point of inquiry, dot org. Keith, you say that throughout all of human history we’ve been robotic slaves to Meems or genes, but did it doesn’t need to be like that. And that’s where you call for rebellion against both of these things we’ve been host to. We can take charge of ourselves against them, since we’re the only curious on the planet who figured out that we have interests that are sometimes oftentimes completely different than the interests of both these genes. And Meems.
Yes, we can take steps. We are the only organisms that have had this insight. And a part of human cultural achievement is to find ways to highlight human goals as opposed to the goals of the sub personal replicators.
So let’s get into how we go about this. Elián against our genes and means the first step, you seem to suggest is just to admit to ourselves the real state of affairs based on the scientific worldview. A scientific view of the world. The star winning in account, Universal Darwinism, says that almost all of the fault psychology people believe things like that. There’s more to the universe than the material that God exists, that we have a soul, that there’s such a thing as the self that we have free will. All these like central core beliefs that everybody holds. Well, you say the first step in rebelling against the genes and the MEEMS is to admit to ourselves that all of these ideas are plumb wrong.
Yes. Is not to run away from the bleak implications of universal Darwinism. Of course, culturally, there is tremendous pressure and market for an escape hatch. Tell me it’s not true, but my strategy is exactly the opposite. To accept the implications. Even the bleaker ones. My analogy is in literature and film, if not history itself. The first step in slaves rebellion is is often consciousness raising. Slaves must come to a full realization of the brutal logic of their situation and understand the likely course that their lives will take if they don’t rebel. And so my analogy in the book is a similar step for humans and the robots. Rebellion is a reconceptualization of humanity based on a universal Darwinism. And then we’re in a better position to understand what we can do about it.
You call this reconceptualizing of our state accepting the in quotes, creepy facts about our place in the universe. I want to talk to you about just one of them left me puzzled. You say there is no self. There’s no I in the brain who’s aware of everything going on. There’s no little, you know, self inside my body that’s in charge. No in material mind. If that’s true, then who’s this robot that is the host to these genes? If I’m not the robot host of these genes and Meems, who is is it just my body of which my brain’s apart? Apart maybe the part that gives me the illusion of the self. Who’s the robot? If if there is no I.
Yeah, well, there is a metaphore there that I use a lot. And again, it’s one that people may have different reactions to. People are looking for a foundational concept that everything is built on this concept of self soul. An immaterial soul plays that role. Cognitive science shows us that many of those foundations don’t follow through scientifically in terms of, you know, what are humans interests. Well, a common question that’s asked, well, aren’t the interests of themselves going to be mean? And that’s true. Again, people are looking for some foundation that is outside the replicators themselves. Here’s a metaphor that I like to use. It’s it’s used in philosophy of science a lot. The philosopher Auto Naura employed the metaphor of a boat which has some rotten place. And of course, if you had to repair the plants, the best way to do it would be to bring the boat ashore, stand on firm ground and replace the plank.
But you’re saying there’s no firm ground, there’s no shame, there’s no firm ground and no art.
That’s the question. Then what if there is no firm ground? You couldn’t bring the boat ashore. And in philosophy of science, you approach that problem by saying, well, you know, the boat might still be able to be repaired. But at some risk, we could repair some of the planks at sea by standing on some planks and repairing others. And, you know, if we were lucky the project could work, we could maybe repair the boat without being on firm foundation at all. But there’s one thing we have to give up here, and that is such a project is not guaranteed because, of course, we might choose to stand on a rotten plank at the beginning and lose everything. So there’s two ways. There’s a glass half full and a half empty way to look at this metaphor. Most scientists who look at the tremendous success of science view the glass as half full. Well, look how far we’ve gotten because science works the same way. Of course, you know, we use certain tools to examine the world. But what if those tools are flawed? Well, we then have to use other tools to examine those tools. And, you know, in science, we’ve been going pretty far with the boat at sea without having any foundation. The argument that I’m making the robots rebellion is that we can do the same thing with our beliefs and desires as human beings, the ones that are. There that we think are good ones, we use to evaluate new ones and then we turn the evaluative mechanisms on themselves and we start to reply to repair the boat at sea.
Again, it’s a project always with some risk, and it’s never certain and it’s very tentative. And you suggests kind of bleak. It doesn’t seem like I could sink my teeth into the meaningful nature of this project. How can you suggest that getting rid of these myths, for instance, the self God freewill that you know, after that happens, we can stand up and say, aha, a meaningful life in a Darwinian universe.
We can say we have a meaningful life because we can lead an examined life. We can know that the desires we have were self chosen in a way that wouldn’t be true if we simply relied on our first order desires or goals.
Draw that distinction for me. You talk in the book about first order, rationality in second order, rationality.
Yes. I draw here on again a philosopher, Harry Frankfurter, who distinguishes first order versus second order desires. So an individual who he calls a 110 would be an individual who simply acted on their first order desires. OK. The addict who who just takes their substance and doesn’t reflect on their desire, doesn’t consider one way or another whether it’s a good thing to have the addiction. The desire just is and the person simply acts on it.
This is the unexamined life, the cow chewing its cud, the person who just goes through the motions of fulfilling his or her kind of biological drives and needs.
Exactly. And, you know, there may be another person who also is an addict whose whose surface behavior looks just the same. But the cognitive structure of this person is very different because they are an unwilling addict. That is, they they have come to some dance visa v their first order desires. They don’t want to be an addict. They prefer to take the substance, but they prefer to prefer not to. They have a second order, desire to use the Frankfurt’s terms. They they have the desire not to have the addiction. And in a sense, this makes them a different type of being. Mm hmm.
And as we start to climb the ladder of higher order of valuations, we get a more examined life. We have goals that we’ve developed reflectively. Now, again, there’s a noye ratha in logic here of rebuilding the boat at sea. There’s no one level of analysis that is going to be foundational. But again, I’ll quote another philosopher here, Robert Nosek, uses the term rational integration to talk about whether our first order desires are rationally integrated with our higher level desires. We prefer to do X, but do we prefer to prefer X? Mm hmm.
Do we. Do we have a level of integration there? And this becomes the definition for him of the examined life. And I would argue that we are approaching year. What meaning is in the Darwinian universe?
Things like deferring gratification or doing projects that don’t only fulfill your base desires. These kinds of effects of living and examine life. These are all second order drives desires. This is a second order rationality.
That’s a second order rationality. And note that we often take steps to make sure that our second order, our rationality is honored, that it is not subverted by first order tendencies. So when we’re dealing with problems of self-control, for example, one device that people use is, you know, precommitment.
Well, we clean out our refrigerators when we’re on a diet. We we we make a second order judgment that we’d prefer to prefer not to eat, knowing, of course, that if the fridge were full twelve hours from now, I might become a wanton and act on my first order design.
Okay. So the way to find meaning in this age of universal Darwinism, it’s to rationally examine our circumstances and see which course of action best serves our purposes rather than just serving the purposes of our genes or these Meems that we’ve caught from other people. But you say, look, there’s no solid grounds, there’s no obvious answer to what best serves our purposes. So even figuring that out is part.
This second order process, yes, figuring that out itself is part of the second order process, but in the early part of the book, I do want to get on on the table here because we’ve gone to the second order quite quickly. But my argument is that with respect to issues of genetic control, being rational itself is a type of robots rebellion. Because one of the great insights from Dawkins book is that genes are some personal optimizers. That is a natural selection optimizes at the level of the gene and not the level of human bodies. The fascinating cultural discoveries of rationality, of science, of logic, of decision theory are all about ways of optimizing at the level of the human being. So I would argue that simply being rational itself is stage one in the robot’s rebellion, because we can make sure that we’re not substituting the ancient goals of the replicators.
I say ancient goals because the replicators are frozen in the you know, the EPA, the the environment of evolutionary adaptations.
You mean the gene replicators? Not necessarily the mimetic replicate, right?
Yes. I’m talking here solely now about the gene replicators. That’s right. And and so natural selection is optimizing for a sub personal entity, number one. Number two, in an environment that’s nothing like the environment that we have now. And of course, in many domains, this doesn’t make a difference. Right? In millions of years ago, we developed face recognition detectors and they worked quite well in the EPA and they still work quite well. And they they help us be rational in the modern world. And and that’s all fine. There’s no big lesson to learn there. But the autonomous parts of our minds that are on a genetic short leash also are prime responses in a modern environment where we’re making a single case, one off decisions, how to invest for your retirement, how to how to choose a job. These are high level symbolic decisions that are not the type of recurred again and again back in the EPA. They’re not the type that are evolutionary machinery is optimized for. One trick that our machinery uses is, of course, is the substitute quick affective reactions in many situations. And again, maybe walking down a dark alley and stuff, these types of mechanisms can work quite well.
This is sometimes called in the literature affect substitution, but they don’t necessarily pay off anymore in many social settings or, you know, in the office. The fight or flight instinct doesn’t work as well as it did. Maybe on the Serengeti does not work there.
No. When you better be clearly calculating your office politics and not using simple affective substitution, when you’re talking with your bosses and colleagues, you better not be using affect substitution when you’re taking the box to allocate your four one K. These are quick and dirty mechanisms that again are very good mechanisms for certain non-recurring environments in modern societies, and they’re the cultural inventions of rationality come into play. And so I would argue the first stage of the robots rebellion, the one that deals most directly with the genes, is simply to be rational.
Make sure that the goals that you’re optimizing are personal goals and not the sub personal goals of the ancient replicators of the genes or not necessarily even the goals of the MEEMS.
You know, we our culture tells us, make a lot of money so you could buy the fast car or have the big house. But rationality comes to bear on that and you might set different goals that give your life more meaning.
Right. That’s why you need the second step. Because simple first order rationality is not enough. And now now we’re linking the discussion we had earlier. The simple first order rationality is not enough. OK, it’s fine. You may be optimizing at the level of yourself as a kahir, a human being, and not the sub personal level of the genes. However, if the goals you’re optimizing at the personal level are non reflectively acquired memetic goals, then they still might not be optimal for you as a person.
And so that’s why the second stage of of the second order, rational evaluation is necessary, because you’re you’re no better off being a slave to non reflectively acquired means as as you are being a slave to your genes. In the book I talk about some guidelines for mimetic evaluation and some of them are pretty straightforward. And obviously a person should avoid installing Meems or hosting means that are harmful to the vehicle personally. When you’re evaluating teams that are beliefs, it’s probably good to install beliefs that are true that his. Those that. The world, as it actually is regarding means that our desires. Again, no hard and fast rules, but there are some superordinate ones. For instance, regarding names that are desires, it is probably useful to install only names that do not preclude other mean plex is being installed in the future. Hmm. This leaves the Human Project with development, an open ended project. Why do we react against ideas such as people, young people joining calls that short circuit their educational progress or the cults that require severing ties with families and friends? Because we’re worried that such means will preclude other desires that they may hold in the future. Or why does early pregnancy not seem to be a good idea? Well, it precludes other goals that a person might hold in the future. So this is a very superordinate criteria. And then there’s a set of others that have been discussed in the memetic literature. You start to worry about parasitic means that aren’t serving the vehicle’s interests. Well, a good idea would be to avoid means that resist evaluation. Mm hmm.
You know, I have faith. Don’t question. These are these are means that on the face of it, you would want to be skeptical if you would.
On the surface, be skeptical. Why you don’t if a name is good for the vehicle. Why doesn’t it resist its own evaluation? I mean, so here’s a proposition. Blood circulates in the veins and arteries.
Now, that meme doesn’t need to disable attempts at its evaluation. Why? Well, because it lives and dies on its mapping to the empirical world. So there it is. But. But then why? You know, if I mean maps to the empirical world and therefore will be helpful for us, or if if a meme will help us achieve our other goals, then why is it so darn set on making it so that we can’t evaluate it?
Cancel. Yes. Deja That’s an incredibly important stance to take toward a evaluation.
You didn’t come on to only talk about memetics, but I just want to touch on one thing before we finish up. Can you conceive of some untrue Meems that are so advantageous you want them to be widely held? You know, the argument among some conservative circles, even atheistic conservative circles, say, look, the belief in God is overwhelmingly beneficial, even though we ourselves don’t believe in it. So we want to spread it. Your picture is kind of of a godless universe, a universe that doesn’t have a little homunculus inside of us. Even, you know, there’s no self, there’s no God, there’s no supernatural, there’s no immortal soul. All of these things that most people find a lot of suker in, there ain’t none of that. So can you conceive of any of these things working even if you yourself don’t believe in them?
I can’t conceive of any macro meme like that that I would. Why would Stal that is untrue. And here’s why. Use the term macro psychologists have studied situations at the micro level where that might be true, where it might be beneficial at the individual’s level or some tapley.
Exactly, D.J.. There’s been a lot of work on, again, cost benefit analysis of beliefs at a micro level. So you want to have a low criteria for, let’s say, sanctioning your spouse’s behavior. OK. So there are situations where you want to give an idea or a behavior or a goal, the benefit of the doubt. Why? Because it plays a role in your life that it helps your life for it to be true.
It’s better to believe the best about your spouse, even if it’s not true, just because sometimes it helps you fare better in that relationship.
Yes. Yes, exactly. OK, and and so and I would say, you know, it’s a it’s the it’s, of course, a continuum. You’re you’re you know, you’re putting a criteria in on a continuum and you’re moving that around. So that’s what I mean by the micro level identity at the level of your interaction with a particular individual in a particular situation. Now, you are a proposition to me. Was is there a macro proposition like that one where we would say, you know, we would lower the criterion across all individuals?
Now, I can’t see that from my view of of means in memetics, something something would have to show itself to be all just overwhelmingly beneficial before we would give it such a pass at the macro level. And I certainly don’t think. Religion has passed that test.
So we’re talking about finding meaning in the age of Darwin, read that as a godless age, an age of no superstition, an age much like it is put forth in Richard Dawkins God Delusion. But you’re not only arguing against in this book, you’re not only arguing against this folk psychology, these beliefs that most people have, but you’re offering an alternative to finish up. I to ask you, do you think that this proposal you have for finding meaning, can it really give religion or these other ways of looking at the world. A run for their money?
I think so, D.J. And you’re so right in your characterization. My book is largely not not a destructive project, although, as I say, a universal Darwinism tells us that there’s some cleaning out to do before we start building. But I think we can build a view of human beings in terms of rational self-evaluation. We are rational self evaluators by being rational, by being reflective about goals and beliefs, you acquire self-determination. That type of self-determination is very uplifting for people in general. But I think subcultures of individuals have found this an uplifting conception. Of course, there’s secular people with these types of materialist views that I know they seem to be optimistic about the world and about their lives. And I think it’s for exactly the reason I outline in the book. They have the view of themselves as rational self evaluators. And of course, there’s parts of the world that are much less religiously determined than the United States. And and so large swaths of the intelligentsia of European society is moving toward this view. So I I don’t see it as as an impossible future that we would have a view of of human beings, not unlike I portray in the robots rebellion a widespread view that most people would buy the arguments that you’re making that most people would find a meaningful life in this godless age of Darwin. Yes. That most people would find that view meaningful and uplifting. And again, for those that didn’t. The materialist view would certainly endorse a tolerance. Again, one of our great cultural contributions. So I see a rosy future in that respect.
Thank you very much for joining my end point of inquiry. Keith Stanage. Well, thank you for having me, D.J..
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