Friday, November 29, 2013

Memes, Tradition, and Building a Culture According to Richard Dawkins

These days, the internet is filled with memes. Everywhere we look online, we find some sort of viral picture of an ugly cat or a celebrity’s face that someone has written a new caption for or put their own spin on. Memes are everywhere in our online experience, and to be honest, they can be hilarious. However lighthearted it may be, this internet phenomenon illustrates a deeper dynamic that is always at play between an individual and culture. Though most of the time it is implicit and goes unnoticed, our individual creativity (or our ability to put a new spin on an internet meme) depends on our imitation of the culture we are already immersed in—without the “memes” that are embedded deep within our culture and language, we would not have any materials with which to create new ideas. Every innovation puts a new spin on an old meme.

In broad strokes, a meme is a self-replicating idea that propagates itself by means of individuals who take it up through imitation and transmit it to others who do the same. The term “meme” comes from the evolutionary biology of Richard Dawkins’ early work The Selfish Gene, in which he derives the term from the Greek root denoting imitation and uses it to describe a non-biological mode of evolution. In doing so, Dawkins shows a surprising resistance to thinking of human behaviour as simply the flow of genes and biological drives. He claims that though genes are an excellent example of self-replicating units (replicators), and much of human and animal behaviour can be described in terms of how genes compete for survival, there is no reason to think that genes as such have a monopoly on replicator status. “I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet,” Dawkins suggests. “It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind. The new soup is the soup of human culture” (192).

Significantly, Dawkins makes the strong (but, as he notes, speculative) claim that once memes enter into an evolutionary process through human culture, human behaviour no longer answers directly to biological evolution. In fact, the flow of memes in culture may have a noticeable effect on the flow of genes in a population. To illustrate this, Dawkins describes religious celibacy as a meme that affects what genes enter into the gene pool. In this case, the meme, not the gene, is the primary determiner of natural selection.

With an evolutionary theory of memes, Dawkins puts forward a hypothesis describing culture formation, in which a wide variety of ideas (memes) compete for the attention of the individuals who propagate them. This explains how traditions, culture, and perhaps even language come about. For Dawkins, a persistent institution or tradition such as a church consists of a nexus of memes that reinforce one another: “Perhaps we could regard an organized church, with its architecture, rituals, laws, music, art, and written tradition, as a co-adapted stable set of mutually-assisting memes” (197). So a cultural institution, a way of life, or a set of practices gets set up, in this account, as a self-reinforcing meme-complex. In this way, such a position makes it easy to tell a story of how culture came to be the way it is, without reducing it to competition between genes.

Despite Dawkins’ latent hostility toward religious institutions (evident in the fact that almost all of his examples of memes border on a critique of the legitimacy of truth claims of religious people), his speculative theory of memes represents an important insight that is (surprisingly) resonant with aspects of the work of Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, and is important for thinking about ethical responsibility and culture.

In a somewhat militant and over-zealous tone, Dawkins ends his discussion of memes with what I find to be a key insight that deserves unpacking (and maybe a bit of rhetorical defusing):
“We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination…We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators” (The Selfish Gene, 201).
What Dawkins is getting at here is not all that different from Heidegger’s discussion of our thrownness into being with others and our inescapable cultural heritage. In an odd way, Heidegger makes precisely the same case in Being and Time as Dawkins does in the quote above. Heidegger explains,
“The resoluteness in which Dasein comes back to itself discloses the actual factical possibilities of authentic existing in terms of the heritage which that resoluteness takes over as thrown. Resolute coming back to thrownness involves handing oneself over to traditional possibilities, although not necessarily as traditional ones” (Being and Time, 365).
For Heidegger, “thrownness” means that we (Dasein) are already placed in a world even before we stop to think about the fact that we are a self at all. We’re fundamentally constituted by the world and by the rhythms of regular life that we see around us every day (which Heidegger calls “the they”). So in the spirit of Heidegger and in terms of Dawkins’ memes, we might say that our social lives are built out of the meme pool of our culture. Our individuality and self-expression is only possible by means of the meme materials available through everyday life in our culture.

One of Heidegger’s main concerns in Being and Time is that, though we are thoroughly constituted by our cultural heritage to the extent that we can only understand ourselves in its terms, we are not fully determined by it. When we revisit our thrownness into our culture and tradition in a “resolute” way, we hold ourselves distinct from it while being dependent on it for being an individual in the first place. In this way, we are able to hold ourselves at a critical distance from it, which gives us the ability to approach it with creativity rather than simply continuing on in its predetermined trajectory. When a person comes to grasp his or her individuality and takes responsibility for it apart from the pressures of “the they,” Heidegger says that this person has entered into authenticity.

To unpack the ethical implications of authenticity, Hannah Arendt, a philosopher, social critic, and contemporary of Heidegger, offers a perspective that allows us to consider the relevance of both Heidegger’s and Dawkins’ sense that we are not slaves to genes and memes. Arendt considers it imperative that, after the devastation of World War II, we come to grips with the fact that we are not fully determined by our culture, that we are paving our own path rather than one set out for us from which we cannot deviate. “[E]ach new generation,” says Arendt, “indeed every human being as he inserts himself between infinite past and an infinite future, must discover and ploddingly pave it anew.” (Between Past and Future, 13).

It seems to me that Arendt would echo Richard Dawkins idea, and perhaps even his passion, that we not consider ourselves dominated by the genes and the memes that constitute us. We have the freedom and the responsibility to build our own future because we are not predetermined by the workings of our bodies or our society. Though we owe our existence to genes and memes, the fact that we are not slaves to either of them means that we share in an ethical responsibility for shaping the future together.

Matthew E. Johnson is a junior member at the Institute for Christian Studies, focusing his philosophical studies on hermeneutics, aesthetics, and discourse.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

What Buddhist Meditation Taught Me About Sin

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by Joseph Kirby

When we get excited, our hearts beat faster. When we get embarrassed, blood rushes to our face. When we see something beautiful, we sometimes feel goose-bumps wash over our skin or a tingling sensation courses up and down our spine. We talk about feeling butterflies in our stomach when we feel nervous or in love. In fact, every one of our emotions – referred to with words like “anger,” “fear,” “joy,” “hatred,” “lust” – is also a nexus of physiological sensations on or within the body. Put in terms of an obvious etymology, “feelings” are feelings. It is, of course, very difficult to feel what strong emotions “feel” like while caught up in them. Try it – next time you are overwhelmed by anger, try to feel what that anger “is” in terms of the sensations careening up and down your torso, hammering in your skull. If you can manage it at all, you will likely discover something unsurprising: the sensation of being angry is extremely unpleasant. This is why, when we feel it, we try to get rid of it as fast as possible – which often means doing something unpleasant to whoever or whatever our anger is directed against. In this context, Buddhist meditation offers a technique for training your mind to do the opposite, a practice of sitting quietly and observing whatever sensations arise and pass away on the physical structure of your own body, without reacting. It is an attempt to follow the maxim “know thyself!”, but instead of working through the medium of language and discourse (as we do in philosophy), we work through the medium of sensation.

The aim of the technique can be described in biblical terms: “A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot” (Proverbs 14:30). Consider Werner Herzog’s documentary on the death penalty, Into the Abyss. Near the end of the film, we are introduced to Fred Allen, former captain of the Death House in a prison in Hunstville, Texas. His job was to make as comfortable as possible the last day in the life of a condemned inmate. After spending eight or ten hours with the inmate, giving them their last meal, accommodating their last requests, his job was to strap the inmate down to the gurney where lethal injection would be administered. After performing these duties on over 120 men, Captain Allen was called upon to oversee the death of a woman, Karla Faye, the first woman to be executed in Texas in over 130 years. About an hour before her death, Karla smiled up at Captain Allen and thanked him for everything he had done. These words affected him deeply. That evening, his whole body began to shake uncontrollably, and sweat, and he was wracked by pain. A few days later, he found himself visualizing one by one all the other inmates whose deaths he had taken part in – he called the Death House chaplain over to his house and told him he was finished, he could not do it anymore.

“A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot.” Captain Allen had felt bad about helping kill those 120 men, but he had repressed these feelings in order to carry out his job. These repressed feelings, however, had not simply vanished into nothingness – they remained, as a pain within his body that his conscious mind had trained itself to ignore. When he was finally brought to acknowledge this pain, it came out all at once, in the form of bodily pain, shaking, sweating, hallucinations. In theological language, we might say that hell is not some metaphysical afterlife to which some vengeful sky-god condemns those who breach his arbitrary commands; hell is the pain in our own body that we have trained ourselves not to feel. Meditation, in this context, would be purgatory, the concerted attempt to consciously suffer what our unconscious mind is already suffering. Socrates puts it well in the Gorgias: for those who have become habituated to lives of injustice, “their benefit comes to them, both here and in Hades, by way of pain and suffering, for there is no other way to get rid of injustice” (525b). The ontology of Dante’s Inferno is also apt: Hell is the revelation of what you have already become, stripped of all illusion, but also lacking all hope for change.

Perhaps this description of meditation as purgatory seems counter-intuitive. Go to YouTube and search for “meditation”: the videos will depict butterflies, gentle streams, tranquil forests, waves lapping gently on a smooth beach. Blaise Pascal provides a much better description of what meditation is like when you first undertake it: “all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber” (Pensées 139); why? because when they do, there arises “from the depth of [their] heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair” (Pensées 131). Most of us understand what he is talking about: cabin fever, unaccountable depression, the sense of meaninglessness that assails us when we pause too long from our otherwise incessant business. But like all emotions, these feelings of “weariness, gloom, sadness, etc.” are also sensations on the physical structure of the body, and the meditator, temporarily withdrawing from the “external” world, is able to get rid of the illusion that some external entity is to blame for them. What occurs at this point is something similar to the transition Heidegger recommends as the path towards authenticity, from fear of this-or-that object to ontological dread, rootless anxiety, the realization of groundless freedom. Unlike Heidegger, however, the meditator experiences this process in the mode of hope, knowing through experience that this dread is the result of passion beginning to ooze to the surface from the bones. In short, beneath the pain lies the forest of the YouTube videos, a metaphoric attempt to depict the nature of the reality that is calling from beneath, a reality that “gives life to the flesh”: the infinite compassionate love that grounds reality. This can be said more precisely: the sensation of ontological dread is exactly the same as the sensation of what one might call “ontological love” – with the only difference being that in the former, the feeling is refused, while in the latter it is allowed to flow freely.

If it seemed odd to speak of meditation as purgatory, perhaps it seems even odder to speak of meditation leading towards ontological love – given that the kind of meditation I’ve been talking about is Buddhist in provenance and we all know that Buddhism speaks of “emptiness” and “nothingness,” not “love” or “God.” But consider S. N. Goenka’s reflections on Jesus, which he speaks on the seventh day of his ten day retreat:
Is there any doubt that he was son of the God? He was son of the God. After all, what is God? Truth is God. Love is God. Compassion is God. Purity is God. And here is a product of truth, of love, of compassion, of goodwill, of purity. He is a product of that – he is son of God. Those qualities are important, and if we try to develop those very qualities in us, then yes – we are good devotees of Jesus Christ. Otherwise no, it becomes a blind faith, blind devotion, does not work, does not work.
I have found Tillich’s distinction between ontological faith and moral faith to be useful in describing the difference between Buddhist meditation and (Protestant) Christianity: “In the experience of the holy, the ontological and moral element are essentially united, while in the life of faith they diverge and are driven to conflicts and mutual destruction” (Dynamics of Faith). The faith that a meditator develops is without question ontological, seeking to reunite experientially with the ground of Being. According to Tillich, Protestant Christianity is primarily a moral faith, oriented toward fixing the brokenness of the world. These two kinds of faith tend towards mutual conflict and misunderstanding, but it is only through dialogue that both advance towards what is holy: moral faith corrects the complacence to which followers of ontology can succumb; ontological faith corrects the guilt and pride to which practitioners of moral faith can be prone. Could these two modes of faith, two modes of practice, not be likened to two legs, walking forward only when they work together, step by step by step?

Joseph Kirby is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Christian Studies, focusing on the philosophy of religion, politics, and ecology.

First photo by Dedda71 via Wikimedia Commons. Second photo public domain.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Perspectives from a Park Bench: A Guest Post by Angie Hocking

by Angie Hocking

Recently, a prominent theological college at the University of Toronto unveiled a powerful work of art that got some attention, both on a local as well as national level. The piece is called ‘Homeless Jesus’. It is a life-sized bronze statue that portrays a figure lying huddled under a blanket on a park bench. The artist only identifies the figure as Jesus at his feet, which bear the marks of the crucifixion. The statue is very moving, and is a sobering, beautiful reminder to passersby of how Jesus would likely be living if he were with us today in our city.

With the image on my mind one morning, I went looking for Greg, a friend of mine and a participant in our drop-in meal program. Greg is incredibly bright; an intellectual through and through. He visits University of Toronto lectures on a semi-regular basis, and knows more about theology than just about anyone. 

Also, Greg has experienced his own story of homelessness. Greg was on the streets for many years (though thankfully, he’s currently off the street), and has experienced first hand addiction treatment programs and supportive housing facilities. 

I found Greg in his favourite seat. ‘Greg, good morning! I was wondering what your thoughts are on this new art installation at the U of T. What do you think? Powerful, isn’t it?’

Generally, a conversation starter such as this one would solicit a well formulated, thoughtful response from Greg. He is a socially-conscious theologian and art lover. He was even recently at the lecture that unveiled the statue. I expected to hear a few minutes of insight into the piece’s creation or some gleaning of the lecture discussions. I settled in with him near his seat, and prepared myself for a thoughtful and insightful reply.

After taking a decisive pause, Greg spoke. ‘It takes up a perfectly good bench, if you ask me.’

Not one to make flippant remarks or dismiss important works of art, I processed his response. The point Greg was making was that it’s not a matter of ‘either/or’; the art is significant and sends an important message to its viewers. But Greg reveals to us that a regular bench should be seen as just as powerful and beautiful as this moving piece of art, for it too calls for celebration. A bench in itself could be, to some, one of their only places for healing, rejuvenation, and rest. When it may feel like the world is pushing away, the bench welcomes all. While the sculpture calls us to hospitality, the bench actively offers it.

When I first moved to Toronto, I started a job working at a homeless youth centre. A few of us were invited to be ‘homeless for a weekend’, an experience that was offered by the organization to new staff who wished to participate. For me, the most powerful revelation during the experience was learned at about 6 am one morning, alone, after a night of walking. I had slept a total of about one hour on damp grass. My stomach was full but uneasy… all I had eaten were the free end-of-day doughnuts that a Coffee Time clerk had offered my co-worker and me with a look of pity at 3am. I remember being so tired and sore, but also very tense and alert at the same time. I looked across the street and spotted the back of an empty park bench. It was a beacon of light to me; like a luscious water hole in the middle of a barren desert. Sweet, wonderful bench, you are a gift from God! I thought. The only thing I could think of was getting to it and resting my weary bones. But when I reached it, I realized something about the bench that quickly deflated the little hope I had left of getting sleep. And then, I went a little crazy.

‘NOOOOOO!!!!’ I had lost myself in the moment, and literally screamed so the few people in the park could hear me quite clearly. I fell to my knees in defeat.

The park bench had ARM RESTS. But not just on the ends, there were two, evenly spaced, right in the middle. At any other moment in my life, I would have thought this was just a lovely little bench with character, featuring additional convenient arm rests for multiple people to sit and enjoy. But in that moment, I had a dark realization that these arm rests were placed strategically, likely for the sole purpose of preventing the homeless from laying down comfortably on them. Sounds paranoid? Defeatist? Delusional? I would argue that it was actually a moment of obscene clarity. 

And in that moment, I hated the world. I hated the city for ordering these benches, to ensure they were comfortable but not too comfortable for the wrong people. I even hated the manufacturer that created them. The bench was sending me a message loud and clear: I was not welcomed here. The bench had won, and left me hopeless and discouraged, with nothing else to do than to continue on my tired way. 

Luckily, my hatred towards this bench and everyone involved in its creation slowly died after I got some sleep. And now, I see park benches to act as my own personal covenant. For Noah, it was a rainbow. For me, God promises with the sign of a park bench that I am being loyal to my calling when I pursue working towards justice and demonstrating love to my neighbour--especially to the poor--in my midst.

Yes, all that from a park bench!

I believe we are all born with our own gifts, our own areas of interest and expertise, and our own unique personalities. We are not all called to do the same thing with our lives, in fact, that would be quite boring! I believe we are called to bring light into the worlds we find ourselves in. One example that comes to mind is of an introverted biology student that volunteered with us several years ago. After getting to know some people outside of his own circle within our space, he learned that many people in this city are not getting access to enough healthy food. And at school, he was realizing that many students were not using their entire meal plans they purchased, and letting them go to waste. Putting two and two together, he organized a group that now organizes sending thousands of bagged lunches to local drop-in programs, all sourced from students donating the extra money they had on their meal cards. About 200 students participate in bagging the lunches each year, and hundreds of students donate to the program on a monthly basis. Our program is still receiving the fruits of his labour from many years ago. All from an undergraduate biology student, who allowed himself to see through different lenses within his everyday world.

We must be careful to not let ourselves get so deep into our own worlds, responsibilities, and roles that we miss the point entirely. If our words and our actions don’t ultimately meet with humanity, they are useless. But when they collide, when we have the poorest in mind in our work, in our infrastructures, in our words and in our studies, we are moving towards hope and participating in justice.

Perhaps our first step to connecting with the poor amongst us is simply to pray for eyes that see things differently. Sometimes all it takes to create life-giving change starts with allowing seemingly simple realizations to stir within us deeply. We will begin to notice things beyond ourselves, and to allow ourselves to feel a little uncomfortable. Who knows, something as simple as a park bench might awaken in us nothing less than the Holy Spirit. 

Angie Hocking is the Outreach Coordinator of the Drop-In Meal Program at Church of the Redeemer in downtown Toronto, which focuses on creating space for healthy community within the homeless and marginalized local population. If you live in the area and are looking for a way to connect with a drop-in community, or simply want to experience making some new friends outside of your everyday sphere, please get in touch with Angie at There is room for all at our table!

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Rhetoric, The Other, and Boycotting Ender’s Game

“For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination... is not the cause of truth, but its condition...”
— C. S. Lewis, Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare

by Stefan Knibbe

[Warning! There will be spoilers!]

It seems that the recent film Ender’s Game (featuring such big names as Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley) has become the target of a boycott (Skip Ender's Game). The reason is that the author of the novel (Orson Scott Card) on which the film is based has been an outspoken opponent of gay marriage.

Both his views and the boycott are, in my opinion, unfortunate, as they distract from the work itself which does not come anywhere near the topics of gay marriage or heteronormativity (Ender's Game has no romantic elements and features a mostly pre-pubescent cast). Even though I do not share Card's views, I am, in general, uncomfortable with the idea of reducing the worthiness of artistic works to the particular views of their creator/creators, especially if the piece does not seem to be propagating those views. With Card in particular, I am convinced he is a master of literary rhetoric, and has used his talent to say some powerful things about otherness and our ability as people to overcome seemingly insurmountable differences, even if we think he does not live up to those ideals in his personal life.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Economic Justice and... family reunions?

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What is economics? For some, it’s the theoretical monster in the closet--that unknown and unknowable thing lurking in the shadows, waiting to jump out and grab us with its apparently incomprehensible mess of numbers, trade relationships, and impersonal structures. But economics does not have to be seen like this. If we look at its etymology, we see that it is rooted in the idea of the household (Greek oikos). Economics is meant to describe the study of how we should best manage our resources, share our labour, shape our relations, and care for the land we live from. At its best, and normatively speaking, economics should be about how together we can best order our work and our lives to ensure the continued flourishing of creation.

This way of looking at economics is different to what one might run across while reading the Wall Street Journal, or having conversations on Bay street in downtown Toronto (though I’m sure there are people on those streets who do have those concerns); yet it is not a new understanding, and that explains the increased interest in questions of economic justice for those working for justice today. If economic considerations are some of the most influential shapers of our current world, then it stands to reason that if we are looking for ways to address injustices in that world, we have to look at least in part at our economic structures.

That is why the ICS’s Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics is partnering with King’s University College in Edmonton to hold a conference on economic justice. Entitled Are We There Yet? Economic Justice and the Common Good, the conference will take place May 12-13, 2014, and we hope it will afford participants the chance to comprehensively explore many complex and interrelated questions of economic justice. Because this is an area that touches us all, best if we all tackle it together!

A link to the conference’s call for participation and website can be found here. We encourage you all to read the Call and think about submitting a proposal! But we don’t have to wait until Spring in order to start the conversation right here on this blog. In particular, dear reader, we would like you to answer two questions. The first has to do with the conference’s (somewhat ironic) title: “Are we there yet?” Meant to conjure up images of kids in the backseat on family trips asking impatiently how much longer this is going to take, our title tries to imply at the same time that even though the trip is long and we’re not there yet, we’re in this together, and the journey is worth the work of getting there. Economic justice is a journey, a process, and its one we have to take as a human (and indeed creaturely) family. What does this title make you think of?

Which leads to the second set of questions. The image of kids asking are we there yet conjures up more images of things like family reunions, and that gets at the subtitle of the conference: economic justice and the common good. Most of us have, at one point or another in our life, been at “that” family reunion--the one where you may really love some of the people there, but some of the rest of them either drive you crazy, or represent real problems that can’t just be explained away or ethically ignored. You are still part of that family, but how can you interact with each other well when there are members that get under your skin like nothing else, and when, perhaps, you suspect that there are serious problems--abuse, or alcoholism, or unacknowledged and untreated health issues that people don’t want to face? There’s a desire, from at least some members, to pull together as a family, but how does one do so in a way that is just and supports those who need it? How do you work together to shape good living and relating that is common to all?

The family that constitutes humanity and creation stands in just such a position, I would say. Within the family that makes up our world, while there are good relations and people working together as healthy parts of the ecological web, there is also abuse both of an individual and a structural sort. The global ‘household’ is not “run” in such a way that allows for the flourishing of all that comprises creation. We engage in ecological practices that damage creation (including ourselves). We continue patterns of behaviour or trade that we now know are exploitative. We are sometimes complacent, thinking that our systems and our theories are too set in stone, too big to change (or to fail) and so we don’t push ourselves to think and act creatively to address the problems we know are there. They have become so much a part of our economic “landscape” that we are nearly blind to them. We need to develop economic theories and practices that encourage an acknowledgement of our responsibility to work in ways that allow for whole-world flourishing, and we hope that this conference is one way of coming together do just that. It is our hope too that you will join in our discussions as we pursue this goal!
Allyson Carr is the Associate Director of the Centre for Philosophy Religion and Social Ethics at the Institute for Christian Studies.