Post No.: 0496
Successful cultural memes don’t so much survive because they help the individuals who believe in or copy them (although that’d obviously help their transmission) but survive because they benefit the particular meme itself. This is in line with the idea of ‘selfish genes’ when we’re talking about genetics instead of memetics – for cultural memes are supposed to be the analogue to biological genes, with their replicable units, transmission, mutations and evolution over time. (However, defining a ‘discrete memetic unit’ is much more nebulous than identifying DNA for genes, which is a problem if we compare memes too literally with genes and assume we fully understand culture and it’s just like we understand genetics. Critics therefore argue that memes are based on poor analogies with genes. But maybe they’re still useful as a metaphor even if not an analogy.)
So faiths or dogmas – whether religious, political or whatever – that say ‘this belief is true and don’t let any counterevidence or counterargument persuade you otherwise’ are memes that are more likely to be stable and prosthelytize-able than beliefs that say ‘listen to all sides and update your worldviews according to the evidence and arguments’ or ‘perhaps every side may have a point’. It’s analogously like there’s a bunch of dice, where some will ‘roll a 3 no matter what’ and the rest will ‘roll 1-6 depending on the roll’ – there’s going to probabilistically be more 3s than other numbers in that bunch.
This explains how dogmatic faiths, and stubbornness in general, are so popular and persistent in the world. It also demonstrates that just because a meme is popular, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s correct or good for us as individuals, never mind collectively. It’s ultimately about serving the survival and transmission of the meme itself – not that any individual meme has any sentient deliberate master plan, ambition or goal to do so (just like no individual gene has either). Overall in the context of religion, it shows us why evidence and reason faces a tough fight against faith – faiths are strong in terms of cultural selection.
In itself, something that’s popular doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not true or not healthy, but something that’s popular doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true or healthy either (e.g. false conspiracy theories and environmentally-damaging lifestyles can be incredibly popular). Sometimes it’s better for us to do what’s unpopular (e.g. like going to the shops when it’s less busy). Meow.
Faith is said to be blind. However, some people think that only formally religious people are blind, zealous, biased or fooled by dogmas – but almost all, if not all, of us are like that, except regarding other topics of belief (e.g. regarding our own morality and sense of fairness, political views, which national military is the best, etc.). It’s about taking sides more than caring about the truth. If we take a proper gander at propaganda – we’re usually blind to our own or own side’s propaganda, and may rationalise that if someone defects from one’s side to another then they defected due to listening to propaganda rather than to reason or evidence. So most people probably hold some kind of unshakeable faith, even if it’s not in a religious context.
Some argue that a belief in science is a faith itself. But if it is then it’s a faith that adapts and changes according to any shifts in the overall weight of evidence to support one theory over another. It’s a ‘faith’ where nothing is sacrosanct or unbreakable – there’s no bible or equivalent. Even how science is carried out is allowed to evolve (e.g. with new technologies to gather better observations, or updating ethical research standards).
Like, for instance, with political worldviews or when supporting a sports team (sports fans exhibit some features of religious-type beliefs and practices too e.g. superstitious routines), people can believe in religious or cult credences literally without even understanding what it exactly is that they believe in (e.g. believing that the Ten Commandments are the guide to morality yet not being able to name them all, believing there are too many immigrants without even knowing the immigration figures, or believing one’s team is the fairest despite not knowing the discipline statistics).
This criticism could however be squared at some who believe in science too (e.g. believing that nuclear power is risky without understanding how nuclear power stations work). Maybe this isn’t a criticism of the endeavour of science though but of some of those who claim to rely on it.
What’s happening is that we suffer from biases such as confirmation bias – the conclusions or beliefs come first, then arguments are brought in (in an attempt) to justify those conclusions or beliefs. This is instead of having the data/evidence and reasoning come first, then coming to a conclusion based on that data/evidence and reasoning.
Hence individual scientists or followers of science can be individually biased too (e.g. politically, financially, assuming their own hypotheses are correct, confirmation biases) but all of these ‘faiths’ – or hypotheses – are tested by a diverse community of scientists who welcome reasoned arguments and disagreements, and who pay ultimate attention to the empirical real-world data. Collectively, they overcome their individual biases and limitations – science isn’t just one ‘homogenous faith community’ that internally accepts each other’s words for it, hence all of these individual biases are challenged by others and should cancel out until the truest theories are left standing. This also means that scientific ‘faiths’ can evolve in order to head closer and closer to the real truth if we haven’t discovered it already, which in turn means that we can be more confident in what we believe. It’s a ‘faith’ that doesn’t rely on faith but on evidence and reasoning. Scientific theories aren’t memes that say ‘believe in me no matter what’ hence they must fight much harder to establish themselves as popular memes within a population compared to religious faiths.
Science as a field has been built upon many errors, but accepting then overcoming these errors have led us ever nearer towards the truths. Hypotheses need supporting data to make them theories but if the data points in another direction then one should ditch even one’s most cherished ideas or beliefs. The body of evidence is also always a work-in-progress i.e. forever provisional, because we need to account for the fact that we don’t know what we don’t know, no matter how much we think we currently know about anything (e.g. we’ve not observed every star in the universe there could ever be hence we might one day spot one that behaves in a way that tears up our current textbooks). Nonetheless, this ever-growing accumulation of evidence pushes us closer and closer towards the absolute truth, even though we’ll never know for absolute sure how much closer, or even if we’re already there regarding something that is predicted as a generalisation. (Read Post No.: 0490.)
And a reasonable person will always take the current best-supported theory, rather than think ‘well since the body of evidence might swing in the future for being forever provisional, I’ll faithfully hold onto my currently weakly-supported belief and hope that this body of accumulated evidence swings to my side one day’. Based on the currently known probabilities, it rationally won’t. So we must change our beliefs if the preponderance of evidence points in another direction, and only if/when the preponderance points in another direction.
Now just because we logically don’t know what’s still unknown (we don’t even know how much we don’t yet know) – it doesn’t therefore automatically mean that gods, ghosts, extrasensory perception, etc. must therefore exist. We don’t know for 100% certain that this universe isn’t inside the stomach of a humongous fluffy Babi Ngepet, or that in your next life you’ll not be a Cerberus with three butts instead of three heads guarding the gates of horn and ivory, or any other conjecture(!) In other words, if faith is all that’s required to make something true and if our beliefs aren’t anchored on positive evidence and falsifiability then any kind and any level of absurd conjecture imaginable can be proposed and believed in!
This isn’t right in law and isn’t right in life. Belief won’t itself make something true (except the fact you hold such a belief). Something feeling real isn’t enough to make something real (except the fact you feel those feelings). If faith, mere belief or intuition is all that’s required to make something true then it’s dangerous territory too (e.g. one has faith that one is born of superior genetic stock to the rest, or one has faith that you have the devil inside of you hence you must be burned and exorcised). People who believe in supernatural phenomena, astrology or the like can subconsciously judge and unjustly treat people whom they consider as ‘possessed’, ‘astrologically unlucky’ or the like. Even any positive discrimination based on such beliefs is unjust. And if you follow a formal religion – what makes you think your particular religion is the correct path and not some other religion? Logically, at least a lot of religious people are going to be wrong. Or if they’re all able to be correct then anyone can make anything up and truth will be rendered meaningless.
So it’s not that there’s an absolute zero chance that gods and heavens exist – that’s not how critical thinkers think i.e. we’re not zealous or dogmatic in our beliefs, including regarding denying things that are unfalsifiable. But if we’re reasonable then we can’t just go and believe in the things that are 0.01% certain over the things that are 99.99% certain based on the evidence we can find. If we did so, we could start to believe in all sorts of spurious or ludicrous made-up nonsense – particularly stuff that serves our own agendas (e.g. a group could start to believe that there are incorporeal slugs controlling the minds of cisgendered people – and it doesn’t matter about the lack of evidence for it(!))
‘Believe in something, become that something’-type advice usually sound empowering but can sound arrogant and detached from reality when more critical analysis is applied – as if thinking is enough to deserve or make something happen. Even though it might be an important step, belief is only at most the first step here.
It’s overall more just to trust in the scientific method. The onus isn’t on people to prove something is not true – the onus is on people to prove something is true. People can get tricked otherwise. Science as a field adjusts its conclusions based on the evidence – the reliance on evidence is why it’s not really like a faith. Faith can lead to some amazing things (by chance) but faith can also lead, and has led, to some highly baleful and deadly beliefs and outcomes.
There may be some counterarguments to applying science in such a cold manner; but whatever the truths, there’ll still be empirical reasons for them, even if they’re not always completely palatable or comforting. Perhaps some current scientific theories are wrong, but science will always be there to explain why and update (if we ask the right questions e.g. a psychological rather than a theological enquiry). And scientific theories will always be able to give stronger alternative explanations than faith-based or ‘romantic’ explanations – not that there isn’t a time or place for the latter. Imagination certainly has its uses for creativity. But if we seriously want to understand something properly, we must be dispassionate to untestable beliefs and seek testable explanations.
Meow. Like Furrywisepuppy, I don’t personally think science makes life any less magical or subjectively meaningful – science-guided philosophies are just as rich, if not richer, and they’re more real-world beneficial and less misguided because they’re based on evidence, not mere faith. Faith might still serve a well-being purrpose, but even if so – it’ll be the empirical evidence that’ll tell us if so!