To escape counterapologetics, we can step back and view ourselves from the evolutionary perspective. One of our evolved traits is to assume free will, to see ourselves as unconstrained agents. But either natural selection or memetic selection shape all of our traits. While we think we're where the action is, we are not what counts going forward. Gene and meme ratios in their respective populations, that's the real action. We're like chess pieces, pushed and pulled by nonsentient "players." Each generation, some genes are winners and others losers. On time scales orders of magnitude faster, some memes are winners and others losers. We chess pieces come and go, having served "our purpose" for the players.


While it's easy to see opponents as memebots, the greater challenge is to accept the extent to which our entire frame of reference is distorted by inherted traits and memetic blinders.


How is this helpful? If we accept, not only intellectually but internalize, what science tells us about human traits, we would approach the theism dialogue differently. Paul MacLean showed that we decide what's real and true not with the neocortex but the limbic system. [The Triune Brain in Evolution, 578] This is how our brains evolved. We know many of the tricks incorporated into  religious memeplexes, that exploit such genetic weaknesses. We need an entirely new approach to "dialogue" that incorporates all of this knowledge. But so far the information has frightened us (nonverbal limbic system response) and we turn our attention away, and go back to useless reasoning with the infected.

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If I understand your point, I agree with it wholeheartedly.  Accepting that we are corks floating in a stream of time, buffeted by the waves you describe, can be quite liberating.  It leads to acceptance of the way our past has played out, which allows us to focus our attention on the present, free of regret and free of fear.


More important, as you pointed out, is the realization that the religious are also at the mercy of these influences and that to be effective we need to flow with them rather than try to fight them. 


I wouldn't give up entirely on reason, however.  Reason is something that almost everyone values in some fashion.  The trick is to package one's reasoned arguments in such a way that they can be heard because they become linked with the theists' dominant influences.

Steve, yes and no to "corks floating in a stream of time." Bravo for seeing that we and the religious are both at the mercy of these influences.


I see free will at two levels. First, our thoughts and behaviors are not programmed like a computer program, not precisely determined.


I see the human mind arising at a fractal edge where natural selection and memetic selection compete for control of the human host. Each person's life is a unique experience of that fractal edge where natural selection and memetic selection intersect. For us, genes and memes are competing strange attractors. Like the inherent unpredictability of the complex pendulum path, human thought is unpredictable. Interaction effects yield extreme sensitivity to initial conditions, so an individual's thought can get the upper hand over gene and meme reproductive success. This sets the stage for emergence, including creativity and self-awareness. Our abilities to plan, and do science and memetics, are emergent properties. Of course, natural and memetic selection aren't really simple attractors. The mind/behavior trajectory of a human host orbits between the genetic realm and memosphere, dimensions populated with competing gene and meme fitness landscapes.


Second, the scientific method gives a new degree of freedom. We have yet to integrate our bits of science based self-knowledge into a coherent picture, like coordinating data from a telescope array into one image. I believe that when we put all of the pieces together, memetics and all of the change blindness, overactive agent detector, crowd poisoning, memory limitations, how we respond to danger, our weakness for stories, etc. and embrace that full vision, we'll have a new beginning. We'll stop being corks on a river. By facing how we actually function, we'll have a the foundation for a new kind of "reason." We can reinvent reason without "invisible" limbic system clay feet. We now use memes to examine memes, to free ourselves of their programming. We can use reason to examine how reason has worked, and not worked for us. Fearless examination of our limbic system functioning can free us, and give us a new level control of our selves.


Ruth, I am far from convinced by your argument for “free will”. I will say that this is one of the better attempts I have heard so far, and since I and the two other moderators of this group have spent many a discussion on this topic, this is no small compliment. But let me show you why I think yours fails. If there is indeterminacy at the “fractal edge” between genes and experience, then this is no more than randomness and does not constitute any new type of power of which we may find ourselves in command. We have no mechanisms for lassoing randomness and turning it into some new form of determiner. Indeterminacy/randomness does not give rise to any new form of freedom, it only leads to unpredictablity which, as I see it, only makes it that much harder for us to achieve any higher level of command over ourselves or our environment.


Further, creativity and awareness, as well as the ability to plan, are qualities which other animals also possess, albeit to smaller degrees. While "emergence" is an interesting twist to your argument, none of these previous qualities constitute anything like “free will”, and to claim that “free will” is just an emergent property just like these is to invoke a kind of magical explanation. We can easily account for self-awareness, creativity, and the ability to plan from a purely evolutionary perspective. Nowhere in that perspective does a property which is not bound by the laws of physics or grounded in the operations of lower levels of the brain’s systems find support. And what you say is correct, the scientific method gives us only greater degrees of power, it does not give us some new type of which we are in sole possession. While it is nice to imagine that we may find some “new beginning” which may arise from some much greater integration or coordination of human potentialities, it is as yet nothing but speculation.

Wanderer, thanks for the feedback. Let me begin by addressing (loose paraphrase) nowhere in the evolutionary perspective does a property which is not bound by the laws of physics find support. Paul MacLean explained that we do not decide what's true or real with our cerebral cortex, but our limbic system. This means that, in order to "get" the physics involved in extreme sensitivity to initial conditions you must have concrete experience, not just words. I recommend starting with this complex pendulum demonstration. I found it helpful to build a model and play with it. Hold the object whose path is inherently unpredictable. In this case, the indeterminacy is random. In the most interesting situations, it's not. Not all recursive processes multiply indeterminacy of initial position. Extreme sensitivity is more directed when it's a result of a more complex recursive operation. Here again it helps to "get" the physics at a gut level. For those not into math. Carl Sagan's example of cutting a pie, from the Cosmos series, is a nice example. In that case the power of recursion is manifest as a repeated action crosses scale. A recursive process can magnify an initial effect exponentially. The extreme sensitivity arising from competition for control by genes and memes makes more even complex recursive algorithms possible.


The scientific process is such a recursive process. We replace "wild" meme selection by making our shared perception a criterion. By requiring direct experience of our environment, keeping genetic drives and outside memetic influences at bay, we crafted a process that folds back to our experience rather than to either improved gene or meme reproductive ratios. It may not seem much, until it's repeated over and over, on the previous results of the process. This is a new degree of freedom.


The "new beginning" which I only partly understand myself, arises not from integration of human potentialities but from changing the frame of reference in how we define ourselves. It's based on the idea that defining a problem is the first step in solving it. We haven't defined the problem yet from a perspective, from a scale, that permits solution. Before the Enlightenment, and many places yet today, a human being was not an independent entity but a part of a family. Family was the functional unit. Solutions to problems that required independent persons were unimaginable. We can define ourselves in relation to gene and meme selection in a new way. Recently I saw a program about perception and magic, explaining some of why we can't visually track the slight of hand magicians use. When we coherently organize all such insights into how we perceive, remember, and respond to danger, connecting it to natural selection and memetic selection, we will begin to understand the problem we face. Only then will we be ready for a new paradigm of ourselves that can "patch" for these weaknesses. Yes, of course it's still speculation. My sense of what's possible is at least in part nonverbal, rooted in an incohate "ah-hah" in my limbic system. By tossing the ideas around, with all of you, I hope to clarify it and test its worth.



What reason is there to believe that a recursive process which does not lead to unpredictability can somehow lead to the emergent property of “free will”? I'm afraid I do not see any connection between recursive processes and the strong emergence which you seem to be advocating. We have evolved to learn from our experiences. All this means is that we can use our experiences to provide us with further motivations which are then incorporated into our existing set of motivations. This is not something new. Meme selection need not be "wild", as you suggest it is. So when you say that the "complex recursive algorithms" can in any way help us to "replace 'wild' meme selection" or keep genetic or "memetic influences at bay", and that this is somehow a new process which "folds back to our experience", or that it can even help provide us with a new perspective and new “frame of reference in how we define ourselves”, I say that you are grasping at straws.


Further, you seem to have your sights set on a vision for the future of humanity that transcends genes and memes entirely. What problem do you see us facing? What “new way” of defining ourselves do you envision? What weaknesses are you getting at that this “new paradigm” addresses? I ask this because it seems unlikely that you can be referring simply to mundane problems of power and practicality. I.e. we would be trying to make ourselves stronger and more long-lived, with greater access to resources and more control over our environments regardless. So this means that it is far more likely that you are suggesting some new moral framework, some new philosophical paradigm which attempts to reinvent human nature by transcending it. But this is a very curious proposition indeed. Transcend human nature how, and towards what new ends? The problem I see here for this whole “free will” enterprise is that people always long to be free of their limitations, but the more we are free the more chains we find are binding us. So I am deeply curious as to what you can mean by this redefinition of “ourselves in relation to gene and meme selection”.

Wanderer, Let me try a different metaphor. Imagine an individual's path, the series of choices he makes over time, as a point moving between two strange attractors. Like gravity wells they pull his behavior, influence his choices, toward themselves. A recursive process is like a whirlpool of turbulence which creates its own gravity well like attraction, in competition with the larger attractors.


While every nonlinear self-embedded process is unique, there are common features which complexity science studies. You seem to visualize free will as a thing or a force, where I see it as a nuance of interacting processes.


As a self-embedded process, scientific inquiry diverts our attention/memory/behavior from direct influences of genetic and memetic selection. Doing science over and over creates a niche within the memosphere with more or less independent meme reproduction ratios. This competes with the dominant replicator influences. In a sense it multiplies the unpredictability of one's path the way adding a moon complicates the possible paths for a space ship rising from a planet. As the number of self-embedded processes at work increase, the number of moons increase, the possible paths the escaping ship might take using a modest amount of thrust increases.


Memetics is a new self-embedded process on the scene, along with the scientific method in other fields. Can you not envision greater freedom of movement such options open?


What I've been suggesting as the new way of defining ourselves is akin to seeing the ship's location on a screen which maps the strength and location of all these gravity wells, instead of just peering out of a port on the gene side or the meme side. Increased free will won't come from a bigger ship's engine, a "new power", so much as it will come from visualizing in a quantitative organized way the seemingly invisible "forces" that natural and memetic selection have had on us all along.

My responses keep getting altered with each new revision because of all the information which you are bringing to bear, Ruth. However, the main thrust of my objection is still that free will does not exist and cannot. You ask me if I can "envision greater freedom" from the powers science and memetics have afforded us. My response is, sure, but greater freedom is of degrees. What you are arguing with free will is some new type of freedom. Science, memetics, and we can even throw reason itself into the mix, are not some magic force, capable of creating some still-more powerful force within ourselves. They are no different in type from any other memes we may have happened upon during the course of our species' existence. Taken to some far-off extreme, they may enable the future of humanity to be as unrecognizable to us as we would be to our caveman ancestors. But I utterly reject that anything like a "free" will can be inferred from any of your arguments.


I think that you have this idea that reason may imbue us with free will. If only we can overcome the limitations/imperfections of the limbic system and the reptilian brain, so your argument goes, we will therefore be freer to use reason. This does not introduce free will, even if it is true. All it does is shift the weight of our motivation from being caused by a “mix” of regular, virgin and extra-virgin olive oil to a purer extra-virgin mix. Were we to be governed by reason to even a much greater extent than we may seem to be today, this would only mean that we had grown more powerful and had more of a mastery over ourselves and the environment then we presently have. It’s a matter of degree, not type. I think this is really what you are getting hung up on, because you seem to think that certain types of rational capabilities, e.g. the scientific method and memetics, are of some brand new type of reason, rather than being perhaps just an exponentially more effective means of reasoning than we previously had. And I’m not even buying all of the rest of your arguments, but 1. You make some terrific points which are very worthy of discussion in and of themselves, and 2. Even if I did buy nearly all or even all of your other arguments, I think it is still entirely possible to reject your conclusion that free will is an emergent property of a recursive mental process between genetics and memetics, or between reason and desire, or between any possible combinations of competing forces within the human brain. That’s all for now. I may come back to some of your other (often fascinating) points if time permits.

Wanderer, You said, "... you seem to have your sights set on a vision for the future of humanity that transcends genes and memes entirely."


Since we exist as gene and meme hosts,  there is no such thing as transcending them entirely.


It's not that our responses to our environment wouldn't be guided by genetic and memetic algorithms but that we would have more input into those algorithms. Memeplexes, such as the idea that sexual intercourse between consenting adults is a sin, can lead us to question genetic drives. Immediately, we can use science and memetics to question genetically and memetically derived algorithms which motivate us and color our world views.


But we'll also have to incorporate "our" long term planning into the two selection processes which mold us. We'll have to set global parameters for human reproduction by collective-and-associated-individual decisions. There are moral implications, and it's the sort of tangent which deserves a separate topic.


We also have to ask ourselves collectively, "What kind of memeplexes (mental tools) should we use?" Just how dangerous is it to depend upon tools that control you such as religion, to perform social functions? This is the debate which we need to open with believers. Corporations are another tool that controls you. Richard Brodie calls megacorporations power memeplexes. Is it possible to craft guidelines to distinguish the functionality-dysfunctionality borders for memeplexes? These are not simple black or white issues, they're tangled and sensitive.


You asked, " What problem do you see us facing?" Climate destabilization is my driving concern, but it's a symptom of a deeper problem. My concern is that we escape this local optimum created by gene/meme feedback, our current civilization, to find a sustainable global optimum. Particularly, I see the climate crisis which threatens our species as an inevitable outcome of gene/meme control.

Hi Ruth,

This is really fascinating stuff for me to hear about and I’m very keen to hear more about it and in some way set up some positive feedback loops that cause me engage with this topic longer so that I can gain more understanding.

Can you recommend any books on the topic?

Alice : )

I've wanted to toss these ideas around for a long time, and felt intellectually isolated. My ideas connect too many disciplines for most audiences. For example, when I address those interested in sustainability, they know and care nothing about memetics. George Marshall does discuss how some of our genetic traits impact climate change denial.


Free will clearly is just a misunderstanding of the experience of choice being ‘free’ in some way – and not realising that the feeling of choice is a fully caused experience that fully suits our ability to do what we please – because that’s how it’s evolved – in a fully caused and determined way. We are fully caused causers of our future determined path.

I can’t see us evolving out of the causal web…

I think emotions do affect all our thinking – and I also think it useful to think about different parts of the brain and body that are effected by hormone releases. I would suggest (I don’t know) that perhaps all cells in our body might be susceptible to hormone releases – depending on distribution – through the blood system or otherwise.

If I'm understanding your meaning, you refer to our evolved need to feel as if we're in control of our choices in order to act. And I take you to say that that need has been determined by a fully mechanistic process.


I feel much less certain that the universe works in a clockwork like fashion, where each outcome could have been predicted from past conditions. First, we're dealing with a complex system and the history of events matters. While convergent evolution suggests that similar features or functions evolve, there are plenty of cases where evolution took divergent directions for similar ecosystems. Compare the diversity of Africa's Serengeti with South America's Cerrado, both grasslands. Termites and ants gained the upper hand in the Cerrado by surviving repeated glaciation, and never lost control. There are no herds of grazing mammals, just giant ant eaters who can only feed at a given termite mound a few minutes before being driven away. The point is that an early disturbance can permanently alter the trajectory of evolution.


The second reason I consider determinism obsolete is that it ignores nonlinear processes. I refer you to Ilya Prigogine's The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos, and the New Laws of Nature. Determinism assumes equilibrium conditions, and much of our world is far from equilibrium, where extreme sensitivity to initial conditions can allow variations as small as quantum fluctuations to have macroscopic effects.




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