Thursday, 11 January 2018

Original sin

Today I have spent some time trying to understand the doctrine of original sin. Not because of a resurgence of interest in the memetics of Christianity, but because of an observation in an article titled: "The Theology of Global Warming" linking fossil fuel consumption with original sin. The author wrote:

It was Michael Crichton who pointed out in his Commonwealth Club lecture some years ago that environmentalism had become the religion of Western elites. Indeed it has. Most notably, the burning of fossil fuels (a concomitant of economic growth and rising living standards) is the secular counterpart of man's Original Sin. If only we would repent and sin no more, mankind's actions could end the threat of further global warming.
Readers may or may not be aware that I am not a fan of global warming hysteria. Long ago I identified global warming prevention as a bad cause. It has occurred to me that I may be able to contribute a little via positive destruction. So, I occasionally do things like celebrate the "The Catastrophic AGW Memeplex" page.

The whole business of global warming as a religion of secular western elites with fossil fuels playing the role of original sin and conservation and green energy being the path to salvation seems to me to have some truth to it. Both Christianity and global warming are like apocalyptic cults. Their members are out to save the world. There's even a secular version of hell: Venusian runaway global warming reputedly awaits if we do nothing.

I have some basic understanding of how causes use superstimuli (like hell and global apocalypse) to motivate people and morally-charged sentiments (like original sin) to attract their attention. It is fairly clear that both Christianity and global warming are pyramid schemes of virtue (and virtue signalling), where converting unbelievers is one of the main ways to advance up the pyramid. But how exactly does original sin work? and what can we learn about the global warming movement from understanding it?

One thing which is obvious is that putting a moral spin on the issue gives it salience. If you learn you can save a few bucks by shopping around the corner, you might tell some freinds, but if you learn you have been doing something morally wrong your whole life without even realizing it, then that's a message worth sharing more widely.

Another thing that is worth noting is that the whole scheme works even without any factual truth being involved. Christianity is proof of the concept that the whole "original sin" scam works without reference to truth, reality or facts being involved.

Original sin is generally accompanied by docrines of "redemption" or "salvation". Rarely do you hear that you were born a sinner - and there's nothing you can do about it. Sin is the hook, salvation is the bait. The path to salvation usually involves spreading the word to others - as memetics would suggest is favored by selection.

Deep general theories that explain many phenomena are worth looking into. I am intrigued by these parallels between Christianity and the global warming movement and expect that more can be learned by looking into them. Aside from original sin, there are other parallels with apocalyptic cults in general, including the modern variants that involve "existential risks" and an apocalypse involving intelligent machines.

Understanding the details of exactly how these types of social movement work is a massive challenge. This is just the sort of application which we need a mature version of cultural evolution to help us understand. It is worth digging in a bit, I think. Otherwise we will continue to see massive resource allocation failures arising out of memeplexes that exploit bugs in human psychology.


  1. Have been on travel for a while so didn't have time to make a comment here. Thanks for the call-out to CAGW Memeplex :)

    There are countless references to the CAGW phenomenon as a religion now, some even from within the climate consensus itself. This common observation at surface level is due to the fact that religion and CAGW are both just instances of strong cultures, which emerge on the back of successful and tightly co-evolved meme sets that form the primary cultural narrative. In this context a meme like 'humans are unnatural' within such a set, can be interpreted as original sin in a religious context, a catastrophic carbon footprint in a climate change context, malthusian memes in a social philosophy context, and various other interpretations.

    Understanding how these cultures work is indeed a challenge, and one that is helped by looking at social psychology as well as 'top down' theories like cultural evolution or within that, memetics. One can get a long way with 'mind blind' theories, but in the end culture has evolved hand in hand with the brain, and hence how our minds are sensitized to cultural memes is important too. So for instance where uncertainty is high and also perceived social impact is high, emotion will trump veracity in the retransmission of information, i.e. emotive memes win. The more emotive the better; yet combinations of memes evoking different emotions simultaneouly seem to work the best, with hope and fear being a very common combination. Hence concepts evoking the prospect of apocalypse and salvation at the same time, which both climate change and christianity do, are very successful. It's also worth noting that a culture will operate in such a way as to maximize the continued perception of high social impact, and discourage efforts to reduce uncertainties by hiding behind a false and policed certainty (the cultural consensus). Behaviors like policing and demonization of opposition are related to in-group / out-group identity, and are part of the 'job' of culture.

    As you note, all core cultural narratives contain no factual truth. This is a necessity of their 'job' above, which is to have everyone in the group singing from the same hymn-sheet, not to make any statement about what is or isn't evidentially true in the world. Cultural consensuses are 'group deceptions', which does not mean those that they deceive are ill or deluded or such, we are all decieved by some culture or other, and have evolved for this to be so. This consensus agreement is what has given culture a selective advantage across our evolutionary history, as it provides underwriting of in-group altruism, a coalition against individual dominance, and better competition from other sizeable groups. The problem in more recent history is that the mechanics via which cultures work have become highly entangled with the enterprise of science in various ways, hence dragging what in theory should be evidential positions (including "we don't know yet") into the center of cultural conflicts.

    There is much detail of my explorations regarding all this at the site "Climate Etc" run by prof Judith Curry. Just type 'Andy West' into the search box and a whole list of my guest posts there will turn up. Note that I have avoided the terminology of memes in various posts; I am already working within an area that is highly controversial and to layer another one on top just gets too difficult. However a couple of posts very specifically employ meme models and terminology, and indeed pulled some rejection of same (see comments) even from folks who view CAGW as a religion. [you can see at my site too, but absent comments there]. In any case I view memetics as the best model for understanding such phenomena, but it's also true that the general principles of cultural evolution, which don't invoke the same controversy (even though overlapping principles!) suffices.

  2. So I have a question for you. I've seen here and elsewhere vast amounts of work in trying to understand memetics generically. And yet almost nothing, outside of trivial examples like internet memes or baseball caps or whatever, in understanding the social phenomena that dominate both past and present (e.g. all the religions and many strong secular cultures too), which are fundamentally based upon the success of co-evolved memes. So do you know of such work? It seems to me as a comparison as though folks would be putting in endless hours to understand the *generic* ways in which viruses and bacteria might work, yet ignoring the actualities of smallpox and measles and typhoid and aids and flu and all the other big hitters, not to mention most of the little hitters too. (I don't mean by this that memes are all like diseases, more like symbionts in many cases, it's a metaphorical comparison). Part of why I'm interested is that I'm trending to the opinion that the *same basic emotive portals* into our minds are being attacked in each case by the various different cultures. Hence the observation above that the 'humans are unnatural' meme appears in various subtlely different guises. So do other memes, and indeed much of the memetic wreckage of a declining or collapsed or never-quite-made-it culture, will often form the basis of a newer culture, yet with slightly morphed variants. This could be similar to how biological diseases track the same entry portals as the latter slowly evolve protections. I'll follow up with a email regarding a list of common interlinked memes as they appear with CAGW / environmental culture.