Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The hardest part of getting what you want... part 2

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.


Danston said...

I wanted to comment about your take on Egypt. I just read this article http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2011/02/14/110214taco_talk_remnick and it made a case for the Muslim Brotherhood not being repressive in the ninth paragraph. There are a lot of other opinions there to disagree with as well. It's certainly something I'd like to believe, but I have very little information aside from that so I'm not sure one way or another at this point.

(Also humorous that that article "was" published in the future, February 14th. 2011)

Thanks for the post, it continues to be interesting and clarifying.

Ron said...

From Wikipedia:

"The Brotherhood's stated goal is to instill the Qur'an and Sunnah as the "sole reference point for ... ordering the life of the Muslim family, individual, community ... and state"

That doesn't sound promising to me.

Danston said...

When you trace the source that quote has a different meaning in context. (http://www.ikhwanweb.com/article.php?id=813&ref=search.php)

"The two basic sources of Islam are the Glorious Qur'an and the Sunnah which is both a theoretical explanation and a practical application of the Glorious Qur'an.

"These two sources have become the sole reference point for everything relating to the ordering of the life of the Muslim family, individual, and community as well as the Muslim State all economic, social, political, cultural, educational, and also legislative and Judiciary activities."

I take away from this that the quoted lines are describing what is, not what will be. And what it describes is not forcing everyone in a country to adhere to Sharia law, but that Muslims refer to the Qur'an to guide their decisions.

That same source states this as a belief of the Muslim Brotherhood as well:

"The texts of the Qur'an and Sunnah order Muslims that there should be no compulsion in religion and that the non-Muslims with revealed books preceding Islam (particularly Jews and Christians) and who live as citizens in the Muslim State should enjoy safety and security. These texts ensure for non-Muslims the freedom of belief and the freedom of opinion. They reject that those people be forced to deal according to the rulings of the Islamic Shari`ah."

It continues on this way. I haven't read it all, but they just don't sound that bad to me. They're advocating a government based on religion, but they don't seem to be advocating one based on repression.

Ron said...

OK, it does appear that I could be wrong about the MB. We'll find out soon enough. In the meantime, I've posted an update.

Michael Vassar said...

I basically agree about meme complexes, but I don't think that this is how things have always been.

For a couple centuries, groups of humans seem to me to have effectively conspired to bring about their human goals, but between the first world war and the 1970s they basically fell from their place of influence. I'm trying to build another such confederation and wrest control over humanity's destiny back from what Hegel called the Zeitgeist.

Wish me luck.