An Interview with Diego Fontanive on Memetics, Critical Thinking, and Religion

Diego, in a recent talk of yours, for the European Skeptic podcast, you mentioned that “We all are affected by memes”, when referring to Richard Dawkin’s definition of ‘memes’ as “pieces of cultural information that pass from generation to generation without being critically assessed or evaluated”. How, then, can the skeptic be skeptical about their own skepticism?

In a recent interview I’ve done with Dr. Susan Blackmore (which will be released soon) we have been debating about the relevance of the study of memetics in education, particularly regarding high school, university students and teachers. I’m currently developing experimental educational programs in this regard. One of the EOF Project’s goals is to introduce ‘metamemetic thinking skills’. These qualities in thinking can really work like cognitive ‘antiviruses’ against what Richard Dawkins called ‘viruses in the mind’, also known as memes.

Despite these affirmations and proposals may sound like somehow eccentric, we really believe that such approaches are instead essential and crucial to cultivate a more refined education and to actually ‘educate’ memes. By ‘education of memes’ we refer to the cultivation of the criticalness that is required to distinguish the valid memes we adopt from the conditioning memes that come from fallacious mindsets, beliefs, ideologies, epistemic acceptances, common sense, broken logic, dogmas and processes of indoctrination. We believe (as we already experimented among the candidates we worked with and we are working with in EOF Project) that the integration of memetics and metamemetics in critical thinking can actually boost the development of proper multi-logical thinking skills merely because the learning and understanding of memetics/ metamemetics is more fast to the applied rather than the learning of critical thinking’s methodologies . We have to keep in mind that critical thinking is in itself an unnatural way of thinking (not intended in a negative way of course but as rational acknowledgement since we are fallible by our own very nature).

I can say we were not born religious but also that we were not born skeptical. Actually, we were born to be more prone to be gullible rather than skeptical, unfortunately or fortunately; it depends on the circumstances. So, we cannot possibly be infallible, we cannot be 100% logical thinkers. That will be delusional. Not even Spock in Star Trek is a 100% logical thinker. Actually, Spock commits a lot of fallacies which is why the character is so fascinating.

What I’ll propose is that when we find that we are too easy with our epistemic acceptances, like when we say “that’s me”, “that’s the way I am”, “that’s what I want”; these kinds of very epistemic acceptances which so easily come to the mouth. I think we should keep in mind a very important question. What I mean by “I just want to be me?”, what do I mean by “me’? “This is myself”, I say, but what do I mean by “self”? This is what Susan Blackmore would call it: the selfplex.

If I really raise this kind of question and I really stay with the equation properly, carefully, and with attention and with some support and external communication and debate, I will come to realize that the self, my self, is actually a construct of things that’s mainly been introduced by things which I have been taught, told, or what I accepted, what I discharged, what I assimilated, influences, conditioning; my self is not really mine. The idea to have one self, our own self, is delusional, we don’t possess ourselves. It’s a construct of things and memes and influences that were there throughout the process of growing up. If I was born in India, even if I was an atheist, this would be conditioned by some Indian cultural background. If I was born in London the case would be pretty much the same, not to mention, of course, the language differences.

These all are addressed by antimemes. The problem, cognitively speaking, is that we are too fast; usually there is not much process of proper reasoning between the formation of full processes and the process of coming to believe in those ideas. Again, we hear stuff like “go with the flow”. Usually what I say is “Wait, what do you mean by that?”

Then, back to religion again: I had a conversation with a Muslim recently and we were talking about morality. I asked “What do you mean by morality? Do you think it’s moral to believe in a book which preaches that a misbeliever should be killed?”

At the Congress in Poland there was a Vatican priest among the speakers who tried to combine critical thinking and Christianity. So, at some point I asked him a question because he was also talking about morality. I asked him “How can you possibly believe that morality, as you define it, can come from a book which is completely immoral? Because, in the Bible, we have a crazy sadist God, full of logical fallacies, and horrible views.” The priest’s answer was “I don’t know.” Which means that “I know but I don’t want to answer.”

This gets me to the next question: of course we value critical thinking and we think that the correct way of thinking is critical thinking. But some people do not even value critical thinking, like this priest or a vast majority of religious people. They don’t value rational thought in the first place, they don’t want to think critically. They feel fine with the set of beliefs they have, with the faith they have. How are we going to convince those people that critical thinking is worth having? How are we going to convince them that a person who just has faith and beliefs is simply not doing the right thing by not putting basis on critical thinking and focusing themselves on emotions and feelings?

Appealing to emotions is obviously easier than self-analysis and general analysis of things. But I think that with this question we go back to the matter of fear. Because most people do not want to question their beliefs. Of course they want to question their beliefs but only through the range and the parameters they like, which is futile, obviously. I think if we go to the root of this, it’s really a matter of fear. There is a fear of seeing the dismantling of the belief. Because it is incredibly traumatic, especially when a person is being ingrained in a certain ideology for a very long time, cognitively speaking, to challenge it and to come across the fear about the possibility to see that falling into pieces, gradually or in a quite short-time. I think it’s a matter of fear.

My approach is to make people analyse, not exactly the critical way to approach their raw beliefs, but the matter of fear. People should try to comprehend what is valid in that fear, what is invalid, what are the premises of that fear. Many people believe that without their beliefs they are just lost. They are going to be nothing. It’s not just about a matter of losing friends or family members or having opposition. They are afraid to be empty, to be nothing. What I do is reason with people about that specific fear very deeply and piece-by-piece. That fear implies many things: the concept of relationships, the concept of love, identity, self-esteem, the relationship with memory. It is very hard and in many cases people choose to stay with their beliefs. According to my experience, in time it actually works. It’s very hard and painful to those people, also factually they come to lose some friends or have some issues but they really reach a point where they liberate themselves from that fear. That’s why we call it End Of Fear project.

One of the central aspects of religions is that they value faith over critical thinking, and belief over rationality. What do you think needs to be done in order to make critical thinking and rationalism something that all people should aspire having?

I think the logical structures of faiths and religions, including their inherent scriptures and dogmas, must be carefully studied instead of non-critically believed. I think that an unbiased and accurate study of religious books, for instance, can really make the faith believers more prone to recognise the logical fallacies, the contradictions and the amorality present in such texts. However, again: the understanding of memes can greatly contribute to help people (at least those who are willing to question and debate) to switch from passive believing to more proper reasoning. I think that we cannot possibly make people think critically without making them passionate about critical thinking and the benefits it can provide. That’s a key factor in critical thinking because so often people find it just as a boring, unnecessary and unwanted academic methodology. So, what can provide seeds for the onset of this passion for critical thinking? The understanding of how memes work can provide that.

I was recently discussing with Jessica Schab, co-Founder of EOF Project, about how she managed to leave her faith (New Age) in the group when she was very well inside the group and very well respected in the group. She had a community to rely on, and belonged to this group. I’m thinking that it’s very difficult for someone to abandon all sorts of beliefs, including superstitious beliefs and conspiracy theories beliefs and leave their group.

I think the group is very important ant predominant component in a belief because a belief cannot possibly survive without replication, without support, without a form of proselytism, and without a process of spreading and being sacked epistemically into a certain group. So, in order to have a belief system there must be a group. I can believe in all sorts of absurdities; I can believe that bananas have healing powers, but if I am alone and am the only person who believes this, my belief will be rationalized out at some point and come to an end, or I will meet someone that will make me reason more properly and then the belief will disappear. This is the reason why I work with memes.

The understanding of memetics is very important because to really understand the belief we must understand the concept of replication. Without replication, a belief cannot survive and that’s why the group is so important; it gives a sense of cohesion, it gives a sense of family; it gives a sense of support and it delivers a sense of reality. This is the reason it’s so hard to question the belief and to abandon the belief because when we abandon the belief then most probably we are also going to abandon the group, or a memeplex, probably where we grew up or where we lived for many years.

It is also a matter of self-esteem. If we compare a belief to a virus, and it’s like Richard Dawkins would say “It is a virus in the mind”, we can really see that when a person is willing to challenge a belief, the belief fights back because the person is automatically questioning their personal self-esteem. The main concern is that by abandoning the belief, the person will also damage their own self-esteem. But in other cases it’s not even quite like that. Many ex-Muslims say that when they were in the religion, they simply had no idea that there were alternative ways of thinking. So, it really depends on the circumstances, but mainly it’s about a group and about a sense of identity and self-esteem. What I also saw with our work and EOF project, is that many people when they abandon a belief, they are prone to adapt another belief.

Hence, I am very careful with the work I’m doing and very careful to highlight this process when I see that because often I can see that people adopt new terminologies; they call themselves skeptics, atheists, but on the personal level they do not really apply critical thinking skills and this is the main topic of my lecture at European Skeptic Congress, I was talking about how skepticism can actually be a meme. People who are involved in a skeptic group sometimes are there just because they need to belong to a group that is somehow compatible with their framework of thinking, but then they are not skeptical about their own emotions, they have irrational emotions, they have unquestioned personal beliefs. So I think we need to be very careful when we think that we are very skeptical thinkers. Naturally, we are not wired to be skeptical and critical thinking is an unnatural way of thinking. I’m not saying that it is a negative one. On the contrary, it’s a very positive one but not natural.

For this reason, we have to say, unfortunately, also according to important studies, that critical thinking doesn’t quite work. Probably because it’s too much like a methodology (which is good) but in real life there is very little application which is why I’m developing some programs for high schools and university students and teachers to base on the combination of memetics (metamemetics, what I call) and critical thinking. I do believe that the understanding of memes is a better way to stimulate critical thinking skills and to develop them. It’s easier than critical thinking because it requires less methodologies.

It’s indeed true that we are not wired to critically think. Would you say, as you support that critical thinking would not be useful in our everyday lives, that sometimes it’s better to use heuristics or rely on our instincts rather than critical thinking?

Well, it depends. Because of natural selection we are wired to be potentially gullible or to believe in things that do not exist. When we were cavemen, it was actually helpful somehow. For example, when people were living without power, without electricity, without proper shelter, and when there was full moon there was enough light to see a field but it was not enough to see what was in the field. So people started using their imagination; they saw some shapes moving, some shadows, and when we were primitive that was a good way to keep the decoding of possible danger active in our brain. And that was the aim: to survive and replicate our species. But now that we are no longer cavemen it is problematic to rely on our instinct because we can’t know when our instinct is just an instinct and not an interpretation (what we call intuition).

In New Age, they say “follow your intuition”. This is very wrong because in most cases that’s not intuition but mainly an interpretation of how our intuition works, which is based on memes. So, if I was born in Afghanistan my so-called intuition would be highly conditioned by Islamic memes and beliefs. If I was born in North Carolina that would probably be an intuition about Jesus. Critical thinking is actually very productive but the problem is that it’s one thing to learn critical thinking and it’s another thing understating and applying it in real life, especially nowadays when we are dealing with an overload of info we have to process every day. I don’t think there is even time to apply the methodology, in most cases. So that‘s somehow problematic.

“The Flat Earth movement is a beautiful example of how confirmation bias works.”

Now, back to conspiracy theories: probably the reason behind people coming to believe crazy conspiracy theories like that “the Earth is flat”, is because they are very confused with the way they approach and assimilate information because it’s really too overwhelming. So, they rather prefer to believe something without even bothering themselves to find the negatives about it. We don’t need NASA to prove that the Earth is not flat; there are thousands of subscribers to the flat earth theory; they can fundraise, buy a water balloon with a camera and when the balloon reaches 100 000 feet it’s enough to take a picture of the Earth’s curve. But, they don’t even want to hear about that.

It seems that these sayings present themselves as arguments which are not falsifiable. They cannot be proven right or wrong. There are no grounds on which one can prove these false because, on the first place, there are no grounds on which they can be falsified and there is no ground to even make a debate with a person on these issues.

Of course. This is also my approach when I come to debate the existence of God, for example. My approach is quite strict. I don’t even want to talk about that because I simply don’t see the point. I mean, if there is a God, and we have plenty of evidence that God does not care about us at all, then ‘why bother?’ We cannot prove the existence or non-existence of God, just like we cannot prove or disprove the existence of Mickey Mouse. I don’t see the point of wasting our time and psychological energy with those kinds of debates. I think we have better things to do, we have other problems to solve and I don’t think that’s a good way to approach it. I think it’s a waste of time. My personal position for that debate is that that debate is not useful. We have better things to do. We have problems that we need to solve. I think it’s better to debate why people have the beliefs they have instead of spending our time debating on whether God is true or not. I don’t quite care about that.

Famous author Susan Blackmore, whose ideas where influential in the development of memetics.

So, you’re saying that if we focus on critical thinking skills, then people will think rationally and logically. If we do this right they will figure out themselves if God exists or not so probably that’s what we should focus on. Because, in many ways, debate on religion and God’s existence creates division between people and polarizes them. Also, would you say that atheism has become a dogma on its battle against religion?

I think that atheism is definitely a good position but as it goes for skepticism, like I said earlier, atheism can also be a meme. I personally came across a lot of atheists who are actually religious thinkers. Also with our project, we approach the concept of religious thinking in a different way. I don’t have to believe in a deity in order to be a religious thinker. To be a religious thinker I have to follow something without critical analysis of what I’m following. Following Justin Bieber is a form of religious thinking because it is turning a human being into some sort of god, not a mystical god, of course, but if the person reasoned a little more, they would just like the music and style of the singer but they would realise that there is no reason to worship them. Nationalism is a form of religious thinking, as well. Worshiping certain lifestyles, selfies, duck lips, even the iPhone can be a form of religious thinking in terms of memetic thinking.

So, I think we shouldn’t limit religion to talking about supernatural beings or paranormal stuff. I think religious thinking is everywhere including among atheists. There are many atheists who claim to be atheists but then they worship someone or something or they are nationalists or even racist. There are many strange things I’m not really comfortable with when I hear about stuff like Secular Buddhism. I don’t really know what that even means. I mean, you are secular, but why develop it like that? If we look at the meme of spirituality we can beautifully understand how memetic evolution works.

Therefore, we went from a mystic spirituality belief to organized religions spirituality beliefs to up to a hippie spirituality or New Age spirituality. Now we have prominent speakers of reason, like Sam Harris, who are beautiful speakers, but who are trying to secularize spirituality. Now, we have secularized spirituality and we are going towards technological spirituality as a meme. People are already trying to program robots to be preachers or pastors so we can see how the meme of spirituality fights back historically trying to survive and replicate itself just like a virus does infecting even very intelligent minds like Sam Harris, which is fascinating.

My approach to spirituality is “Why call it spirituality in the first place?” I participated at a skeptic meeting one year ago and one of the organizers was a neurologist and at a certain point this person claimed that spiritual experiences do exist. So, I asked him to deliver an example. He said “When you are in nature or at a beautiful place where you feel really peaceful, that’s a spiritual experience.” No, that’s not a spiritual experience; that’s a highly emotional experience. I don’t see why we don’t call such experiences with a more reasonable definition like “I’m having very pleasant emotions.” Why call it spiritual? Probably because it appears to us as such; it gives us a sense of mysticism. Poetically that’s fine, it’s just language. But the problem is that when we give authority to memes which have invalid premises behind then, in time they are going to spread and proselytise people, and wherever there is proselytism there is indoctrination.

There is a big problem with the meme of freedom of religion. Many think it’s a good thing but I think that it’s actually a bad thing. Because most people fail to comprehend that freedom of religion implies freedom of indoctrination, because without indoctrination there would not be religion. I’m not suggesting that we should make freedom of religion illegal. I think that everyone should be able to believe whatever they want but I don’t think people should be indoctrinated and I think that the questioning of beliefs should be a priority in education. Also, I believe we should always be prepared to be offended.

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