Thursday, October 30, 2014
Gravity, The Occult and Original Sin
"'Gravity', interpreted as an innate attraction between every pair of particles of matter, was an occult quality in the same sense as the scholastics' 'tendency to fall' had been." (from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,Thomas S. Kuhn).
Before Newton, an Aristotelian explanation persisted that stones fell to earth because it was their "nature driving them towards the center of the universe". With the discoveries and new perceptions which preceded Newton, Aristotle's explanation began to seem like a hollow word play, devoid of actual explanation and so Newton coined a new concept without the concrete evidence to substantiate it, try as he might. Newton's Principia was adopted by some, but the theory of copuscularism was still widely accepted.
Try as they might, investigators could not uncover a mechanical explanation of gravity. So they were faced with the same challenge: Newton's "gravity" did not provide any further explanation for a falling rock than Aristotle's "nature" and they could demonstrate no proof of it. Cautious scientific minds remained skeptical about "gravity". However, they soon found they could not practice science without the Principia nor could they reconcile the Principia with corpuscular standards and so the theory of gravity gained ground. It was a slight change in language which allowed scientists to think outside of the outdated, previous paradigm.
Meme theory is playing a slightly different tune but with a familiar chorus. The concept of "meme" was coined by an evolutionary biologist (Dawkins) who cautiously subscribes (as any scientist thoroughly inculcated by "normal science" should) to the existing paradigm of mental health. Why shouldn't he? These ideas were formulated and tested using scientific methods. It would be hubris for him, an evolutionary biologist, to go ransacking and questioning the presumable foundations of another scientific discipline.
Dawkins takes the conservative route. He looks at the existing framework of mental health, what he knows of human history and biology and he sees otherwise decent, healthy people behaving in arrogant, hateful and destructive ways. He perceives this behavior is due to the beliefs they hold and their unwillingness to question them. He theorizes there is a percentage of people who just aren't quite right in the head who have traditionally played the role of shaman and priest, leading the rest of humanity astray. He places memes in the service of the existing mental health framework, when memetics should be rewriting the mental health paradigm.
Without the framework of the new memetic paradigm we attribute odd and undesirable behaviors to a flaw in an individual's neurobiology. Memetics offers a second, primary cause: contagious ideas.
Dawkins inherited a very traditional meme. In accepting the mainstream psychological paradigm (build from the de-mythologizing of a Western religious paradigm of human nature), Dawkins mirrors the beliefs of those who adamantly disagree with him.
"Mental illness" is a re-working of "original sin", just as "gravity" was originally a reworking of "nature".
"You have the wrong ideas. Here are the right ideas, accept them from my authority. Repent. Seek help. Acknowledge your failings and you can be treated, though never fully cured. " Only without the resurrection of the dead, life everlasting and a hope of social justice, it's a rather bitter pill to swallow. Believers don't see the hope of Science and Reason when they hear Dawkins speak: they hear something too familiar, too stripped bare to be comfortable with.
The current mental health paradigm is not an elite conspiracy. It's not an evil scheme to make psychologists and drug companies rich. It's a naturally evolved outcome from the application of science to the individual mind in the petri dish of Western Civilization. It's unpleasant but we can work through it. We are in the crisis stage of an obsolete paradigm.
The current Mental Health paradigm preserves the traditional explanation of human nature because there was (until now) no alternative to replace it with. Normal Science doesn't throw paradigms out, it tries desperately to make them work until they shatter under pressure.
It's time to embrace human nature in all that fascinates and troubles us; it's time to move forward. 'Meme' allows us to investigate cultural bits of the human experience and distinguish them from the human actors. We stop talking about who coined and invented what idea (and what their mother must have done to cause it) and instead consider the movement and mutation of the ideas themselves.
So as long as we don't have a means of measuring and testing memes, they remain "philosophical". "Meme" is just a new word for "thought", "idea" or "word". But without using the term "meme" we get caught in the current paradigm. "Meme" is a thought tool on the cusp of becoming a theory. And like every adolescent, it's development will be an awkward and fascinating journey.