Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Religion & Confirmation Bias

Just trudged through a mammoth reading of stuff generally related to religion, and it's all really fascinating when you actually view it from an objective perspective, rather the "view from outside" - the impartial (and ruthless) observer.

Religion, at its core, is a set of memes (called memeplexes), basically ideas that float around your mind. Things would be fine if it weren't for the fact that memes are a bunch of inherently dominating entities, and are fiercely competitive for your "belief-space". In fact, they seem very much like little tribal lords, forging alliances among themselves if necessary, to assert themselves and ensure their stronghold in your belief space. Weaker memes are fiercely destroyed if they pose a sufficient challenge to the stronger ruling memeplex.

Memes, thus began to devise ways in which to maximize their chances of survival against possibly foreign threatening memes, similar to viruses that we see today. It seems fairly obvious that memes, like ideas, are reinforced by numbers or with consensus, just as people today tend to agree with the "mainstream", analogous to a mob mentality.

An example is participating in a cause, like global warming. Individually, and independently, it seems unlikely that the average human being would actually allow such an (un-glamorous?) issue to dominate his/her thought-process, but after sufficient propaganda, the meme turns dominant, reinforced by the consensus. A similar case for Apple. Seems like all that aggressive advertising can shut our your "sensible" meme.

So it seems natural that the success of memes lies in its ability to spread over groups, thus its survival lies in group survival, and thus becomes group theory. Memes common to the group ganged up together and formed a religion, thus defining the collective identity of the group. And thus individuals in the group, influenced by the meme, strive for group survival, and thus the memeplex. This can even happen at the expense of their own, as is the case of suicide bombers.

Memes change and adapt just as much the collective identity of the group can allow; the dominant memeplex (the identity) is not threatened. Meme theory seems to capitalize on our natural human tendency to be social animals which ensures our survival.

Thus, memes evolve, by natural selection; the strongest survives.

It's interesting to note this "evolution" of the world's religions. Hinduism, and other forms of paganism, were relatively innocuous in their meme constructs, probably because there wasn't the need to be hostile to other ideas, with the absence of competing memeplexes. This is probably the reason for the relative "tolerance" of these faiths that we see today, simply because there weren't any others to tolerate or resist at the time. Although, to be fair, this does not mean Hinduism or Buddhism is in itself, entirely saintly. It's just that there wasn't an inherent predisposition to violence, although that can change with dissonance (see below).

As religions evolved, so did the competition for the belief space. An example is the birth of the Abrahamic religions. The evolution of these religions has largely been one of
progressive clarity and rigorous formalization, struggling for stronghold against the memeplexes of the previous religion. The consequence of this clear definitions was violence, as the memeplexes struggled to establish their group status and viewed other memeplexes that did not conform to its exact definition as a threat.

And so memes work in our minds, implanting the seed of the collective identity we call religion, to propagate itself. Since strength of memes is in numbers of the group, proselytizing became an important part of religion, becoming progressively violent in its persuasion as it faced established meme resistance.

However, memes have a curious way of affecting our logical process, resulting in confirmation bias.

Subconsciously, the memes struggling for their survival, influence our ability to evaluate evidence. It makes us subconsciously reject counter-memes, and accept only those evidences that strengthen its position.

An example of this is the creation vs. evolution debate. The most amusing arguments against evolution are that "there is no proof" or "it is just a theory", both of which are erroneous claims anyway. What is amusing is the sudden unprecedented desire for stringent proof of a theory subject to (irrational) skepticism, against the dominant meme (creation in X days) which can obviously withstand none of these.

Confirmation bias is a result of cognitive dissonance, we are unable to see our lapses in logic. An example is an incident a while back, where a friend defended his position of women being "inferior" or "un-equal" to men (mentally), using some "scientific" study, ignoring the inconvenient fact that there would be millions of genuinely scientific studies proving otherwise.

Confirmation bias results in coming to a conclusion and then obtaining the supporting facts, while rejecting the ones that don't, or lapses in logic.

Cognitive dissonance can also be seen on the group level, among adherents of widely varying moral tendencies (within the scope of the religion). This results in aligning the religion and the moral outlook together, such that the religion (memeplex) is not threatened and thus is reinforced. This is facilitated as religions generally are very vague, thus enabling it to be convoluted to suit the varying moral tastes of its followers. An example is Muslims insisting and genuinely believing that Islam to be a Religion of Peace (TM) while their co-religionists are busy doing and believing exactly the opposite. Or Hinduism being tolerant while the various Dal/Sena activists are anything but.

It seems as though memes are perpetually in fear of losing their hegemony over the mind, which can be seen as the phenomenon of blasphemy. Blasphemy, by far, carried the greatest risk for a memeplex as there simply is no defense against logic. The meme-induced fear of doubt or logical analysis results in its most aggressive defense; the all too well known blasphemy punishment - death. Simply because there is no other way to handle the dissent or examination, and memes seem to like fear as their weapon of choice to embed themselves in the mind.

Thus, the question remains, what should be the dominant meme that you'd want to allow in your mind?
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights seems like a good start.


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