Change

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Changing a person.
Helping a person change.

There’s a difference between those two; an important distinction. The former is having an idea for how someone should be and convincing them to change. The later is supporting their own decision to change. Both can result in positive outcomes. One requires a degree of egoism in your own ideas and a pressure on a friend/lover that can easily turn toxic. Changing a person is claiming to know who they should be better than they themselves know. You cannot know this; you cannot exert your will upon them without disregarding their own will.

The strongest bond you can form, the ultimate goal of love, requires total acceptance of another person. When you do this, you can’t try to change them, for that would be denying a part of them.. Even if it’s a minute part, some flaw you think is unimportant, it’s one brick in the castle. Every brick has it’s place.

Blind acceptance is equally negative in the long term. Loving them in this one moment, loving just exactly who they are now, it will fail. Stagnancy is no way to live a life, it must be fluid and growing. Growth requires change. So you must accept who they are in totality and then support their initiatives to change. Foster their goals and help them to become the person they wish to be.

Not the one you think they should be.

Understanding Fanatics

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It’s challenging to understand why someone would kill for an idea. Well if you already agree with them then I guess it’s not, but as an outsider it seems absurd. Even devoutly religious people, ones who aren’t fanatics, will have trouble understanding that kind of blind faith (not to mention arrogance in their own beliefs). How does one get to the point where you wish to murder someone because they disagree with an idea?

I’ve found it helps to view these extreme ideologies from a memetic point of view. If you don’t have any idea what memetics is, read this primer now.

So either you skipped that cause you know what it is or you just read it (And FYI, I’m not talking about memes in the common internet vernacular).

Learning to be an adult is basically learning a set of memes. I’d lump them into a series of memeplexes: social behaviours, worldview, personal life management, etc. World view includes religions and philosophies of the world. This is a truly fundamental memeplex; it’s akin to our basic operating system. It’s the first idea that all else follows from, so it’s usually immutable; once set in childhood it’s unlikely to change. This is not an absolute rule, it can be changed, but it doesn’t happen often and it isn’t done lightly. Some people may feel that they waffle on this frequently but I’d argue that it’s superficial changes not foundational. Without doing rigorous introspection you may not even be aware of what your core memeplex is. When you do change it, it’s an earth shattering event. If you have changed, there’s a tendency to shift back to your original belief later in life. This happens when you have children, you unintentionally imitate your own parents, who are likely to be the source of your memeplex. All of this is to say that it’s the most important meme.

From the view of a meme, this worldview is a fiercely competitive battle ground. Many other ideas can come and go in a person, this one is the surest bet to last. This competition inevitably led to an arms race between rival memeplexes. You can see this historically in the violent religious wars that have happened for centuries. It’s nothing unique about religions, they’re simply the apex predators in this environment.

Religion is one of the few meme’s that have regularly trumped genetics. Nationalism is another. These are so fundamental to a person’s identity that their mind can’t conceive of being without them. It can, and has, caused incredibly damaging behavior; people die for these beliefs. This is how memetics supersedes genetics. The less violent option is when a religion preaches abstinence, it still trumps genetics so the effect is similar. Few memeplexes have survived having that as the fundamental idea though, it’s just too hard to pass on. The more common tactic is to have carriers who continue the larger pool of humans, with a select number who are fully hijacked by the meme. These are the fanatics. In this light, religion can seem kinda like a virus.

This isn’t a condemnation, I’m not preaching atheism. From a memetic point of view, all human ideas are equal. It’d be like trying to make moral judgments on lions and zebras. It’s just not applicable. All philosophies of the world follow memetic evolution regardless of how nice they appear.

None of this will actually help anyone prevent fanatics from doing damage or from spreading. It’s a useful way to see them, to mentally cope with how fucked up things can get. I’m not angry at viruses, they’re just a fact of life. Like religion. That’s not going to stop me from trying to prevent the spread of viruses that cause suffering and death. As with religion.

And I say this as a religious person myself, so take from that what you will.

Primer on Memetics

The term was coined in The Selfish Gene and only discussed during the chapter on universal Darwinism. The concept was to make a comparison between human mimicry and cellular evolution. Both have a replicating piece of information that changes over time and competes for finite resources. In memetics, the finite resource is the human mind, the replicator is a gesture, mannerism, saying, etc.

Memetics is very new so it’s still in a state of flux. Different researches differ in how they define it and how broad it should be. At its most limited, using the original argument above, it must be devoid of usefulness to a human. Ideas related to survival aren’t memetic. The best example to explain this is language; the form of a language is memetic, the content is not.

The opposite end of the spectrum is a definition of memetics that includes all ideas. In effect it’s any part of the human brain’s software which isn’t hard wired. All things taught to new humans are memetic then. I like this definition but I can also see the critiques of it. It’s already a soft science that’s very hard to study. It may be better called a philosophy of culture than a science. It’s still in it’s infancy so I won’t rule one as more or less valid than the other. There will be legitimate and important scientific conclusions from it’s continued study.

I will tend to use the latter definition because I find it most useful for what I’m interested in studying, that being culture and humanity.

Lastly, a memeplex is a term I use when discussing more complex things. Memes themselves are individual ideas, kernels of culture if you will. A memeplex is a collection of those taken as a single entity. Think of a biological ecosystem but for memes.

Copies

This is another post coming from Hofstadter’s philosophy of consciousness, so read that first if you haven’t already (here). The thing about philosophy is that it’s just navel gazing unless the conclusions are used for real decision making.

The important part of consciousness for this discussion is that it’s simple software. It’s that pattern of thoughts, memories, and other supporting data, all contained in your wet meat brain. There’s two very important results from this; one is positive, the other existentially terrifying.

What is unique about You isn’t a physical thing, it’s a pattern of information. Information can be copied without affecting the original. The best illustration of this was from “The Mind Eye” where the authors explained the ramification of a Star Trek style teleporter. A body is copied, sent as data, and replicated on another planet, all done effectively instantaneously. As long as the old version is disintegrated we have no issue saying the new one teleported. If you ask them, that’s exactly what they think happened, they remember being in the machine on planet A, then a moment later they’re on planet B. But nothing required the destruction of the original version. If the original is alive, they would say the machine doesn’t work, they just stood on planet A and nothing happened. It’s clear that the person in the machine never leaves it, there’s simply a copy created on planet B, a copy which no one can prove isn’t the original. Accept that the original is still around and absolutely disagrees with them having gone to planet B. There’s much more nuance to this hypothetical technology, some comical issues, some terrible, but that’s for other authors. The salient point is that it’s entirely feasible for this technology to exist and that therefore we can’t ignore its effect on our philosophy of the mind. It’s well within the normal bounds we set for discussion of speculative technology.

So where does this leave our beliefs on self & consciousness? We can’t tell the difference between copies and we can’t perceive the deletion or creation of our minds. We are software, a particular instance of the class we call ‘human’. Aside from calling into question the very notion of an individual self, there’s other ramifications. You’ll never achieve immortality by “uploading” your consciousness. You’d still die; sure, a copy of you would be immortal, but you escaped nothing. The Gardner will collect. Hook your brain up to a computer and try to transfer your ‘self’ through the cables. It won’t work because there isn’t anything to transfer. You don’t really exist, at least not in the way we think of existing.

We’re like a Buddhist Mandala, a pattern of beauty that exists briefly before returning to mere sand. The monks keep the pattern alive in their minds; approximating it, changing it, and creating it anew. This is the positive flip side to this existential crisis inducing idea. The fact that these copies exist in a real sense breaks down the barriers between us.

The evolutionary origin of Hofstadter’s consciousness is that we attempted to simulate our human friends in our own minds. This was to understand them better, like how we understand the world through visualizing. It’s clearly important for a social clan based species to understand each other, so we got good at it. So good that when we simulated ourselves, we succeeded. We copied our own brain with itself. A strange loop. In effect, we imaged our consciousness into existence.

To a lesser degree this same thing happens inside your brain with the people around you. When you simulate speaking to them in your internal monologue, you’re creating rough copies of them. The better you know them the more accurate the copies become. When you really love someone you have an amazing understanding of how they act and react to things. That copy of them in your head is very accurate; it’s very real. They’re like a lesser AI, something well beyond our current technology. A being of intelligence but unable to create truly unique ideas (that wouldn’t be more sensibly attributed to their host brain, ie. you).

So in a sense, you’re never alone. This isn’t a trick of linguistics, these copies are real beings. They will never be as dynamic as the real people, they will never be conscious within your head; there is only room for one strange loop. But they’re real and they’re there

Take great comfort in the fact that you’ll always have these shards of people within you. Whether they left to go somewhere else or have ceased to be alive, the world cannot take them. No one can fully die so long as they are remembered.

Understanding and Forgiveness

There’s a part in Enders Game where he’s explaining how he is able to win every one of his fights. He says that he understands his opponents, not in the shallow way we normally understand people. No, he see’s them as they see themselves, in the deep down to the core way; in the kind of way that makes you love them. This is elaborated much better in the sequel, Speaker for the Dead, when he is tasked with doing a sort of eulogy for a man who wasn’t very kind. He doesn’t ignore the bad parts of the man’s life, as we are so often prone to do when someone dies. Instead, Ender tackles the core of why this man was the way he was. The things that drove him, the flaws that he was making up for, etc. It works; it’s touching and yet still honest to the life lived.

I’m not a fan of Orson Scott Card, he sounds like a real dick as a person, outside of his writings. His crappy opinions on anyone who isn’t straight and christian only occasionally bled through into the Ender series, so I still really like it. The theme of unlimited compassion that Ender represents is a very great message. That idea, that if you really fully understand someone you can’t help but love them, I think that’s very true. (As with all things there are exceptions though; exceptionally evil people to be exact) I’ve met many people who do bad things to others. Most of the time I either don’t get to learn more about them or I choose not to because I just don’t care to. On the occasions where I have gotten to see a deeper level of them, I’ve seen what Ender was talking about. We’re all very vulnerable deep down, it’s what drives our more passionate actions. In some it will drive them to make the world better, others seek to make it as bad as they feel. Childhood has profound effects on our adult lives and this is a time when you have no control over your life.

This never excuses immoral behaviour. Full stop, no excuse. What the perspective can give you is compassion for a bad person, which is not equivalent to forgiveness. We should have compassion for all people.

In a weirdly circular fashion this idea has impacted my view of love. Reaching this level of understanding of someone else, getting down into the core of why they do what they do, that’s how I define love. That isn’t the extent of what I think of love is, I’d say it has more of a gradient. There’s multiple depths to love. Day to day when I refer to love, I mean that understanding plus a deep trust that we will look out for each other. This one is closer to what is commonly used when discussing platonic love I think. And a third type of love, when you want to bond with another person, sacrificing some of your individuality. Marriage is the societal norm of this, but it by no means has to be sexual or between only two people. It’s intense and difficult and rare.