This Street Prophets Coffee Hour is brought to you by Charles Darwin. Today’s article, on Meaning Systems, is part 9 of 15 in a series about figuring out just what is going on in American politics. It will be about how we got to where we are now. And hopefully present a story of where we should be going. Along the way we will take a look at Russia, the U.S. 2016 Presidential election, Memes and Fiction, Network Propaganda, soft warfare, and cyberwarfare.
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In today’s article we will be digging a bit deeper into the approach or methodology that I’m using in this series to better understand the political situation America is currently facing. The tools we will be using are found in Sean Carroll’s Poetic Naturalism and Charles Darwin’s Evolutionary Theory. I only briefly mention Poetic Naturalism at this point to firmly embed our discussion in Empirical Research and the Scientific Method.
Poetic Naturalism is an extension of Naturalism that believes that natural laws and forces operate in the world. And that supernatural or spiritual interpretations are not productive or valid approaches to understanding or explaining how the world works.
On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection
It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms.
The laws Darwin mentions above are the very laws found to be useful and predictive by taking a naturalistic view of the world. I will take a closer look at Carroll’s version of naturalism later towards the end of the series. But, for just consider his three points quoted below.
In writing this series my research led me to work of David Sloan Wilson and his application of Darwin’s theory to Cultural Evolution. It is through studying his work that I finally came to terms with why so many Americans could vote for Trump when to my perspective Trump is a
purveyor of lies and disinformation.
The key idea as it applies to politics is the concept of meaning systems. Wilson’s meaning systems are the glue that holds together groups of humans and can be used to understand why religions persist even though based on the supernatural
belief systems that are false from the naturalistic view point.
Jump the fold and today I’m sharing some of the wisdom and writings of David Sloan Wilson. I will be drawing from one of his book’s, Evolution for Everyone and the video presented below. If I’m successful in my presentation below I hope to give the reader a new way of looking at the Trump voters and the Religious Right.
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I confess I’m attracted to the world view of Poetic Naturalism that Sean Carroll presents in his book, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. Below are three points that Carroll makes in describing his approach to naturalism. Keep this in mind while we are discussing today’s topic of meaning systems.
- There are many ways of talking about the world.
- All good ways of talking must be consistent with one another and with the world.
- Our purposes in the moment determine the best way of talking.
In the video below Wilson describes a binary approach to world views. To introduce these two views he presents a parable crafted by John Haught, a Roman Catholic Theologian, called The Parable of the Ant and the Goldfish.
The Ants obtain their worldview by crawling around the outside of the goldfish bowl looking in on the goldfish. The ants would be our reality based community as described in part one of this series. While the goldfish are immersed in water and never able to step outside their liquid environment and look objectively or naturalistically at their existence. The goldfish are the Trump supporters and Religious cult members.
I think it is very important to take a moment and ponder the experience of the goldfish as told below by Haught in his parable.
The feeling of being grasped by or carried away by what they have taken to be another dimension of reality, other than the profane, other than the mundane, other than the proximate environment that they live i, there’s an ultimate environment that’s infinite in its scope, that’s inexhaustible in its mysteriousness. They’ve made reference to this dimension primarily through symbolic expression.
Experiences such as these gave people a kind of transparency, a sense of how the divine would influence their lives . . . I should add that religion is usually done in community with others . . . Above all. I want to emphasize a sense that there is another dimension that is not empirically available but yet is to the religious person even more real than what is empirically available.
In Wilson’s books and videos he carefully, using empirical testing and logic, builds the case that all the ideas and tools of biological evolution can be applied to cultural evolution. Placing emphases on studying action as the empirical measure we should use to study world views or religion.
Wilson in his video makes the case that humans can create meaning systems that motivate actions that improve fitness. And thus are transmitted through culture to the next generation. Cultural evolution doesn't care about the truth of falsity of these meaning systems. Cultural evolution is only concerned with fitness and propagating the cultural ideas or memes.
Another key takeaway from Wilson’s video is his approach to interacting with goldfish that we call Trump supporters or Religious cult members. Wilson anchors this approach by describing how Darwin did it. Darwin’s scientific contemporaries that were into classifying and cataloging nature were all highly religious but as Wilson explains they were very good observers and recorders of nature. The key to communication was a mutual respect and focus on actions not ideology.
I have been an ant for as long as I remember. But, I have always held a fascination with goldfish behavior. As such, instinctively, I took a more observational view of cult behavior. I did not approach Republicans or Religious cult members with it in mind to use logic to challenge or change them. What I did was listen to their stories and ask them questions about how their beliefs cause them to act. In just about every encounter I can remember I added to the conversation some small parable, anecdote, or observation that for them was a new story. And most importantly something that was supportive or uplifting.
Wilson also talks about the hundreds conversations with goldfish he had to gather data to test his theories about cultural propagation of memes. (In part 8 of this series we discussed memes.) Wilson explains that when we are no longer preoccupied with issues of truth and falsity of ideas and only view goldfish ideas through the evolutionary lens of action or behavior we can sustain communication with goldfish.
Lastly another key idea is the depth, complexity, and resilience of the goldfish worldview. The very idea that we can defeat it with a simple discussion or augment about truth is doomed to failure. The only sound approach is to compete with the goldfish’s stories with new stories that hopeful will find life in the goldfish bowl.
Wilson’s work on cultural evolution is substantial and in future Street Prophets Coffee Hours I will be presenting some of Wilson’s current work applying his cultural evolution insights to community building.