Friday, February 29, 2008

In Awe of the Obvious

I asked this question on David Sloan Wilson's Huff Post blog yesterday and he hasn't answered. I didn't think it was particularly dumb, but perhaps to him it seemed just dumb enough: 

"Two small quibbles, perhaps: First, I note that you make mention of memes here as if there really were such things, when other prominent scientists (Steven Rose for one) appear to regard that concept as fanciful and more importantly, essentially untestable. Your hypotheses won't necessarily suffer, regardless, but I'd like to know or at least understand if and why you find it tenable. And I've heard Dennett speak of them with a certain reverence which is almost embarrassing.
Second, I've learned much from your other writings, but I've not seen (or have missed) any discussion of the possibility that religion differs from other social and mythological constructs because we, and life forms before us, have evolved calculating mechanisms, that, in predicting future events from an understanding of their causes, have a built in premise that every cause in nature is purposeful - every act had some form of intent behind it. In fact, I doubt that organisms would have survived and evolved without at least that initial assumption enabling quick decisions be made where immediacy is crucial.
It's not that I believe this assumption is correct (I don't) but there are more reasons to believe organisms would have had more advantage sticking to the use of that premise than have had reason to find it a disadvantage.And if you're involved with a super-organism that has found ways to turn that assumption to advantage by tapping into such an unlimited source of power, and the laws and strictures that would seem to accompany it, you have a huge competitive advantage over almost all who rely more on themselves for such powers. Does this make any sense to you as something worthy of further consideration in this particular project?"

Maybe the awkwardly put 'memes' reference put him off? Or perhaps it was too much to propose that groups could tap into a power that existed mostly in their imagination. Maybe mass delusion and self-delusion have no lasting effects. They may last a longer time than we have to wait, but that's perhaps an academic question - and I'm not a recognized academic.

I did add this later today in any case:
"I do feel that I have leave to make a last comment about something that every one should know from Biology 101: Virtually all life forms capable of replication have some sort of calculating mechanism to make at least rudimentary predictions, and virtually all of these are seeking answers based on some form of "what and why" questions, even if not yet some form of when and where, and later who and how. And it's the nature of all questions to have some sort of premise that enables the what and why to exist. And that existence doesn't need to have depended on an understanding of the concept or the nature of any part of this process. Questions looking for a reason in this mechanical sense are at the same time looking for what we would call a purpose. In other words the organism doesn't look for a reason separate from a purpose. Signals that would point to one or the other are virtually the same at that stage. So to argue that calculating mechanisms DON'T have premises of one sort or another built in, if only to allow them to work at all, is just plain silly. And to hold that in any case one of the first premises needed for the operation to begin was not involved with purpose, or used purpose in a selective way to begin with, is even more silly."
I knocked that off rather quickly, but I stand by the sentiments expressed. I suppose I could have added that in a fight or flight response, potential prey may need to assess from at least previous experience why an animal may be sitting up in the next tree. Or the fly to assess the purpose of an upraised swatter. One can't calculate "why" anything without a mechanical version of that concept somewhere in the working parts.
If an organism "wants" a chance to survive, it has to get a certain percentage of its decisions and predictions right. But It hasn't a chance in hell if it can never ask the right questions.
3-1: In response to another post related to apes versus humans, I added the following:
"What makes you so certain that apes (and other sentient beings) don't have some instinctive need to behave in accordance with some apparent encouragement from nature for correct behavior, and discouragement for crossing boundaries that other apes seem to feel should not be crossed. How do you know the one ape is not right about what his fellow apes feel and not capable of having some glimmer of why that could be?

That doesn't mean there is (or is not) such a natural force - only that all life may be predisposed to feel there is. None of you seem to have given that possibility any serious consideration - you may say otherwise but all I've seen is baseless speculation in that regard - with the apes left out except to discuss an innate moral sense seen only as evidence that ours as well does NOT come from the gods.But any suggestions as to why we and the apes may have this strong sense that it does are just dismissed as biologically baseless superstition. Superstition it surely is - biologically baseless it is surely not.

You may think you have some advantage over other atheists and agnostics in your factual understanding of religious belief. You may in fact be seriously wrong where they are merely ignorant. 

And in case you're assuming I think moral sensibilities come from some force in nature, I don't. What they come from in virtually all species, consciously or not, is from a fear that there is such a force to contend with. 
Simplistic? Sure. Obvious? Apparently not. Underly complicated? By the standards of academia, yes."

Long ago when I heard the call of wild wolves, I wondered about who or what they might think they were calling to - and why.
I lived with Indians at the time who told me they were calling to the moon. There's little doubt now that they were.

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