I realized from Don's comments on yesterday's post that I gave a mistaken impression. That post was intended to be about politics, not my personal quest for meaning in life. (I am not quite so narcissistic as to think that that is worth blogging about.) I was just couching it in first-person terms to be illustrative. The point I was trying to make was that rationality is in some sense self-undermining. It leads you inexorably to the conclusion that our fundamental nature as humans is a substrate for competing replicators (and even that is just an approximation to the underlying metaphysical truth). This is not a statement about purpose, it's a statement about objective reality, or at least some reasonably accurate approximation of it. And the point I was trying to make was simply that some people can't handle the truth and so they turn to God. I hope I don't have to describe how this has political ramifications.
There is an additional aspect of the underlying objective truth that I hinted at yesterday: "It is not possible to rule out the possibility that there are other replicators resident in ourselves whose nature is not quite so apparent." This alludes to what I dubbed (to my everlasting regret) the "great conspiracy" (a name which turns out, incidentally, to be already taken), the possibility that there are "mega-memes" or "meme-complexes" that are coherent replicating wholes that are distributed across multiple brains. This could account for the fact that, for example, no one seems to be in charge of the protests in Tunisia and Egypt. One might be tempted to argue that this is not evidence for a "mega-meme" but merely the large-scale replication of an ordinary meme of the sort that lives in one brain at a time. The problem with this theory is that it is not readily apparent what that meme might be. The obvious candidate, the freedom-and-democracy meme, is also obviously wrong. When (no longer "if") Hosni Mubarak falls the most likely replacement is the Muslim Brotherhood, and the most likely result of that is Sharia law. Egypt is not trading repression for freedom, it is trading secular repression for religious repression [UPDATE: it seems I may be wrong about this -- see the comments] despite the fact that not a single individual involved in the protests would be willing to concede that.
You can see the same disconnect between individual rhetoric and underlying collective reality in American politics as well. Republicans talk about being fiscally responsible and getting government out of people's lives while at the same time running up record deficits, and going to some rather extraordinary lengths to invade people's privacy when it comes to things like drugs, abortion, and "national security." Democrats talk about ending Republican abuses but then continue nearly every one of those abusive policies. No one on either side of the ideological divide seems to notice the gaping disconnect between rhetoric and reality.
There are at least three plausible explanations of all this. One is that the vast majority of people are simply too stupid to notice that what they are being told is not what is actually going on. The main problem with this theory is that there are an awful lot of apparently smart people falling for a wide variety of flim-flam, both political and not. Say what you will about Karl Rove, he is not stupid.
The second possibility is that there is an actual conspiracy, a shadowy cabal of powerful individuals who are consciously and deliberately manipulating the world's politics for their own benefit. The problem with that theory is: who are these people? I don't see any plausible candidates for the role of puppet master, particularly in the middle east. In the U.S. I can see an argument to be made that there is a sociopolitical elite that essentially cultivates the general population like a herd of domestic animals to provide them with whatever their avarice desires, but who is pulling the strings in Cairo and Tunisia? The elephant in the living room of the traditional conspiracy theorists is Islam: who benefits from its rise? In the case of Christianity you can always point to the Church, but Islam has no Church, no cache of wealth, no central locus of power. If Islam is a conspiracy, who is conspiring, and to what end? (Yes, I suppose one could point to the House of Saud, but surely the Saudis have nothing to gain by fomenting discontent in Egypt, so say nothing of Yemen.)
The third, and to my mind most plausible, explanation of all this is that individual humans are not in fact the principal actors on the world stage. The political and macroeconomic forces at play in the modern world do not seem to be working for the benefit of the vast majority of individual humans in the world, but they are clearly benefiting, in Darwinian terms, certain meme complexes, with Islam being the poster child, and various forms of corporatism and nationalism running close behind.
It may be that in the deep dark recesses of the world's mosques and membership clubs and private jets is a small collection of imams, politicians and corporate leaders who are living deliriously happy lives at the expense of the rest of us. But I really doubt it. I really believe that very nearly every individual human struggles to figure out their role in the scheme of things, and what we see is the predictable, understandable, and cosmically (or maybe that should be comically?) tragic result.