Mind Viruses and Meme AIDS
A long time ago, on a Savanna far away, our species began a long journey towards enlightenment. Over millions of years language and neural biology had been evolving together, allowing us to hold onto increasingly complex ideas, until, one day — I like to imagine — the first philosopher woke and recognized that satiation of appetites no-longer filled the existential void. She needed more. In a flash of revelation, she understood that a good life is more than gluttony — perhaps it was this understanding that made her the first human.
Since then, individuals not utterly absorbed with survival, have sought to answer the same questions: what is a ‘Good Life’.
Societies to have excruciated over the question and a shared conception of this ill-defined term is at the heart of every cultural identity; intricately entwined with the doctrines of ethics and morality by which a people define themselves.
Not everybody agrees. Not everybody even considers the question. Many are happy to consume and party without self-reflection. And others, despite the little voice inside, whispering that ‘there is more’, ignore their good spirit’s coaching and capitulate to the flesh.
The Greek word for this ‘Good Life’ is Eudaimonia (eu: good, daimōn: spirit). It comes from the inner voice, the good spirit inside, but it is usually translated as ‘Human Flourishing’.
2400 years ago, Socrates chided the Greek elites in the city of Athens:
"…you are a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth or the best possible state of your soul?"
Most fundamental to this transition away from purely material concerns, was the acceptance that Eudaimonia is not Hedonism, and that achievement in the physical world — owning it, or controlling it — can only take one so far towards a Good-Life-High-Score. The real game is being played in the world of ideas and minds*.
This other world of ideas, shared in writing, oratory and the data spaces that connect us, is a terrain to be colonized. It is a substrate upon which entities, like molds growing in a petri-dish, can spread, fight and evolve; they compete for nutrients and our minds are the agar jelly.
Over tens of thousands of years, this place became populated with entities, transitioning in the process from a desert to a fecund ecosystem teeming with replicating, evolving memetic agents. The same evolutionary pressures that select phenotypic fitness in physical organisms, act upon the information structures — the bodies — of these memetic analogs who replicate on the substrate our human brains sustain.
Some of these memetic organisms are known to us as religions. They co-evolved with us, and because they depend on human minds and cultures for their habitat, they developed directives to help keep us, their hosts, alive:
disease prevention— wash your hands
ethical frameworks — an eye for an eye
control hierarchies — the Church
They also evolved payloads to help themselves in the struggle against their competition, namely the other religions looking to displace them from their terrain:
interference — jihad
exploitation — missionaries
reproduction — hi-fidelity copying **
These directives are usually enforced by hacking our instinctive primate social hierarchies with hyper-real narratives evolved to persuade human minds to develop para-social relationships with supernormal Alphas. Or more simply put, they use stories of omnipotent Gods to tell us what to do, threatening any transgression with horrific retribution to the soul, far exceeding anything a physical body could sustain.
Meme Immune Deficiency Syndrome
To generations of scientifically educated, post-enlightenment thinkers, these superstitious narratives sound childish and unsatisfactory. Science declared war on the religious mind viruses, pledging to eradicate them like smallpox. Despite some success curing our minds from the infection of religion, there has been very little effort put into finding anything better to put in its place. When we say good riddance to Gods, Devil’s, and Djinn, we not only throw the ethical baby out with the superstitious-bathwater, but, by disinfecting the spiritual surfaces in our minds, we leave a fertile, recently vacated home for any new memetic infections which might be floating through the æther…
A mind’s sterilized mental surfaces are an ideal culture medium and wild memeplexes will quickly show up and start multiplying. New ecological invaders, like as Jihadism or Transhumanism, being recent arrivals, did not co-evolve with us over tens of thousands of years. They are therefore not necessarily aligned with our survival***; but, at least they only see our brains as somewhere to live. A new — more significant, possibly existential — problem, is that our civilization is now capable of designing new viral memeplexes based on 21st Century neuroscience and psychology. We are only now starting to recognize the danger of these ‘persuasive technologies’ which wittingly exploit our mental bugs and cognitive blind spots to sell us products, services, and ideas. Their payloads benefit neither the infected humans nor the memeplexes themselves, the payload’s directives serve only the motives of the mind virus’ creator.
So, while we have partially excised organic religion from our heads, we have not back-filled the religion-sized hole it left in our psyche. While the hole was plugged, we were inoculated against the clouds of memetic viruses trying to take up residence in our minds.
Unfortunately, it is now, as we find large sections of our societies in this vulnerable, immunologically naive, state, that we have acquired the ability to create powerful synthetic mind viruses. We have allowed ourselves to become infected slaves of remote malevolent powers who carefully design weaponized memes to persuade us to act against our own interests. With ‘organic religions’ gone, we exist naked in a jungle of self-replicating ideas; many of them synthetic and adversarial, these ‘GM Religions’ are out to get us, and like the bubble-boy, we no longer have an immune system to fight them back.
What about ‘The Good Life’?
Synthetic memeplexes — advanced, bespoke, hyper-persuasive mind parasites —cost money and are built to achieve a purpose. While their designers have the whole repertoire of human drives, vices, virtues, appetites, empathies, phobias and urges to play with, in practice, to best achieve their goals, the easiest buttons to press are the basest and most animalistic; start with outrage, fear, loathing and gluttony.
As we become increasingly infested, the clamor of the mind parasites displaces our own defenseless aboriginal behaviors. Our ambitions topple out of the nest of our mind, displaced by cuckoo egg urges to shop, work, click and tweet.
Utterly co-opted by the basest drives, we are permitted only behaviors compliant with the goals of the virus masters who control the parasites filling our heads. We are cattle obsessed with sating our most easily monatized appetites…
…worst of all, they are not even our own base urges; which might at least be fun!
** Of the Ten Commandments, numbers 1–4 can be seen as error correction to ensure high fidelity transmission of the payload, described in commandments 5–10.
*** Virulent pathogens typically become less harmful as they evolve. Virility is deselected because infected hosts who live longer can usually spread an infection further.
More from Toby:
Intelligent, Hard SciFi, Biting & Subversive
Denial is high-tech adventure in a world of soulless algorithms, psychotic corporations, and floating ghettos. It is the first book in the Singularity’s Children series, an epic story arc which takes the reader from a post-internet, post-collapse world, into a post-human future.