Postscript on Subkernels

[Continuing from here.]

The guiding principle of “memetics” was, originally, to find a conceptual tool that sane, rational people (people like Richard Dawkins!) could use to help enlighten superstitious yokels who were still clinging to religion. The idea was that if someone suffers from a delusion, part of the delusion is that they aren’t suffering from a delusion, so telling them that they are deluded (equivalently: wrong, mistaken, in error, inaccurate, irrational, dumb) isn’t going to work. A delusion typically extends to all the mean things you can accuse the delusion of being.

But if, instead, you could very, very carefully describe the idea of a mind-virus to the yokels, and show them how a mind-virus would infect its host and how contagious it might be and how remorselessly it parasitizes human beings to ensure its own continued replication, this might get in under their defenses. You see, the mind-virus can’t actually tell the host it’s a mind-virus (that’s the sort of thing it has to do to protect itself!), so when the mind-virus says “Don’t believe anything bad they say about me!”, this about me cannot, perforce, extend to mind-viruses, since the host does not realize the mind-virus is a mind-virus.

So the host cheerfully learns about mind-viruses… their key similarities to protein-viruses, how they work, their distinguishing characteristics… and then out of nowhere one day he’s mentally reviewing his system of beliefs (or something) and AAAAGH IT’S A MIND-VIRUS, where the heck did that come from? Or that is what Dawkins is hoping form: having familiarized himself with the concept of a mind-virus, Dawkins’ target is finally able to recognize his parasite for what it is, and start to struggle against it.

Curtain falls. Applause.

So memetics was originally intended largely as an attack on religion which would circumvent the adaptations the faithful have built up to attacks that are framed as attacks on religion. (Calling the mind-virus a “meme” is another layer of clever misdirection, shepherding the target towards his ultimate deconversion.) But we must pause for a moment and ask: cui bono? Dawkins et al. imagined they would be attacking religion on behalf of whom?

Or: on behalf of what?

Well, not on behalf of anything. For an enlightened, secular liberal like Dawkins, a caring man who believes in progress, autonomy, and rationality, freeing people from religion — curing them, really! — is simply a matter of principle. For anyone who respects the inherent value of liberty, autonomy, and enlightenment, attacking religion is a sort of absolute duty.

This is a roundabout way for Dawkins to say: “I am being forced to attack your principles on behalf of my principles.”

So long story short: Dawkins principles force him to attack Christ. Contemplating the nastiness of Christianity (at the behest of his principles) and searching for more damaging tactics to use against it (under pressure from his principles), Dawkins hits on the brilliant idea: These yokels are practically diseased… Christianity is like a virus, they just can’t see it yet because they’re so deluded an obsessed… if I explain to them the idea of a mind-virus, at the end they’ll have to recognize it for what it is… and they won’t know it’s an attack on Christianity because they won’t realize it is a mind-virus until it’s already too late!

Forcing this sort of crisis of recognition on an opponent is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Socrates was a master, but Horace [lat] wasn’t so bad either. The tactic is especially satisfying if, at the moment just before recognition dawns, one’s opponent is still smug, still lacking any self-awareness, and if his face contorts directly from contempt to dismay as he realizes that he is the intended target.

The one problem with this kind of approach is that, until one party cracks, both are confident and unsuspecting. One of them is over-confident. Could be me, could be you. Who knows? The risk you take when you fool around with logic is that one of these days you’ll back yourself into a corner and force yourself to learn something.

The ultimate problem for Dawkins’ witches’ brew of bolshy principles is that they too constitute a mind-virus. They too persuade the host not to reject them or think ill of them. And they too withhold from their host their viral nature, and so they cannot prevent him learning dangerous things about the nature of mind-viruses.

I have the vague impression that the reason “memetics” lost its conceptual punch in the public sphere was that it was originally trendy when people perceived it as potentially anti-Christian but when the atheists realized with shock that atheism, too, is a meme, they decided to stuff memetics deep in their sock drawer and forget about it. Maybe I’m wrong about that. Either way, Dawkins at one point intended “memes” as a stalking-horse for “religions”, and in the end memetic analysis turned out to be a much more powerful weapon for Christians to deploy against secular liberals than vice-versa.

This is a long and highly-schematized version of a subkernel running amok. The secular-liberal kernel does not instruct its hosts to devote time to mastering and sharing a body of knowledge which portrays the secular-liberal kernel as fundamentally similar to that icky, contemptible Christian kernel it has been trying to stamp out. It does not instruct its hosts to study the unattractive ways in which it perpetuates itself, defends itself, and protects itself; in particular it does not direct their attention to how they, the hosts, fare over the course of all this self-promotion. All the secular-liberal kernel does is say (a) I’m not a mind-virus, and (b) Go attack that yucky icky low-status mind-virus over there. That is enough to inadvertently direct the host to receive, relay, and even research facts about mind-viruses that ultimately weaken the secular-liberal kernel, or even move the host onto the path to deconverting.

My point isn’t about secular liberalism or atheists, or even about the tactical value of memetic doctrine. It’s much simpler than that: if something as stupid as a glitch which arises from meme-induced self-deception can inadvertently, against all of the goals which the kernel (and more importantly, its selfish component memes) directs the host to pursue, set the host on the path to rejecting the infection, then there are undoubtedly many paths leading to a substantial modification of some parts of the kernel which promote the goals which the kernel presents to its host as important.

This is why its worth thinking about the endgame. The socio-political outcome matrix for restoration has many sub-sections. It’s unrealistic (stupidly unrealistic) to think that everyone can win on every question. On any given question, some people will readily compromise to advance a general victory for the Right, and others would rather defect to the Left and suffer slow suicide under progressive toleration than see their pet issue go down.

Strategically, those people are boring. They are held constant, so to speak. The question is, what will everyone else do? These are the people who might under some circumstances be willing to give in on that issue (or at least, are willing to accept an outcome with some discrete chance that they will will lose), but under other circumstances would shirk or defect just in order to get their way on that one issue. These are the people who can be brought around to accept the inevitable necessity of conformity with grace, in advance, rather than only belatedly, when coordination and cooperation no longer make the difference between restoration and Cthulhu.

(Oh, and in general don’t pay any attention to whether people say that a certain issue is negotiable or non-negotiable. (A) They’re lying, (B) half the time they’re telling lies they’d be ashamed of if they spent two minutes thinking about how many people similar to themselves reconcile themselves to far worse setbacks, and (C) it’s fine that they’re lying because presenting yourself as an unstable, flighty partner is just a standard opening bid in any sort of collective action problem. — The question of how to get people to want to present themselves as stable and reliable is an interesting one with important connections back to the subkernel issue.)

Miscellaneous —

(a) I probably won’t remember to keep checking the SM comment thread all week, but if you comment here or e-mail me I’ll almost certainly respond.

(b) Comments were good. Most of them wanted to move away from the theoretical frame of the article towards particular cases (like “I’m a Zoroastrian, this doesn’t apply to me because of XYZ facts about Zoroastrianism”). In many ways it’s a different conversation, but it’s good to know a lot of people are looking for an interdenominational cage-fight… y’all want red meat!

(c) Hadley quite rightly replaced my original bland title with one that got to the heart of why you should care about kernels and subkernels: Rules for a State Religion. But having gotten all of the people intrigued by “state religion!” into the room, the full scope of the argument may have been ellided. Hmm – or maybe not. I’m really judging this based on the commenters’ reactions, but you commenters are a tiny fraction of the total readers; and it makes sense that only people incensed by the hot-button issue (state religion) would comment. Either way, post-restoration religious uniformity is the paradigmatic case for the development of subkernel(a, b) but is still only one application among dozens; and if you think there is something defective or fallacious about the general argument it’s probably not a defect that the details of your religious confession could clear up, because those can’t possibly invalidate the logical form of an argument which applies equally to convergence in beliefs in various domains.

2 thoughts on “Postscript on Subkernels

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