Thinking About How We Think: Metamemetic Learning and the End of Fear
What is metamemetic learning, and could reforming the way we think combat extremism, political polarization, and irrational fears?
By Sarah Mills
It isn’t an insult to say that we, as humans, and irrespective of our innate intelligence or predilection for learning, are not inclined towards objectivity. We acquire information that shapes our behavior in a variety of ways, including operant and classical conditioning and observational learning. Our beliefs are molded by cultural values, a consequence of environmental factors, but also volatile and arbitrary in so far as they are subject to laws other than logic. Our firmest convictions are passed on through storytelling and reinforced through punishment and reward systems. Author Jag Bhalla writes, “Every culture bathes [its] children in stories to explain how the world works and to engage and educate their emotions,” transmitting social norms in the process. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt states, ‘The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor,” which is fine, if storytelling is a vehicle for logic. But this is, sadly, not always the case, as evidenced by the willingness of so many to die and kill for myths.
The above does not, of course, preclude the expression of doubt with regards to what we are taught to believe is true by authority figures, including parents, priests, and politicians. Sometimes, self-evident facts make us uncomfortable with the seeds of suspicion. It’s called cognitive dissonance. And sometimes they make just uncomfortable enough to stray. It is thus that, in a thought, one of the most important–and dangerous–rebellions is born: Freethinking.
Why does any of this matter, though? Quite simply, the key to addressing one of the root causes of anything from the prevalence of fake news and the polarization of politics to the violent fanaticism of religious fundamentalism, could very well lie in thinking about how we think.
I had the pleasure of exploring epistemic acceptances with Diego Fontanive, writer, teacher, public speaker and founder of the End of Fear project. His work focuses on systems and ways of thinking that impair our ability to think critically and result in much of the suffering we see at the hands of ideologies. He explained the significance behind the project’s name:
“When I conceptualized this project, I wanted to investigate what could be done in order to emancipate ourselves from private and collective fallacious beliefs, which are responsible for so many unnecessary fears and deep-rooted inner conflicts. A project on inquiry into these fears could greatly help personal and social progress by cultivating accuracy of thought and high-order thinking skills, instead of unquestioning adherence to broken belief frameworks.”
“A project on inquiry into…fears could greatly help personal and social progress by cultivating accuracy of thought and high-order thinking skills, instead of unquestioning adherence to broken belief frameworks”
“Metamemetic” combines two root words: meta, which refers to the self-referential aspect of this sort of thinking; and meme, a contagious idea within a culture that is transmitted from one person to another through a variety of cultural products, including writing, rituals, and symbols. The field of memetics aims to study how memes can spread or self-replicate and respond to selective pressures.
Indeed, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who coined the term “meme,” referred to religious behaviors as memetic viruses or “viruses of the mind”– also the title of one of his essays. Metamemetic thinking, thus, is active awareness of the memes that influence us.
I asked Diego why he supposed Dawkins had since distanced himself from the field of study. Was it pseudo-science, as some had claimed?
“I prefer to consider it as an explanatory framework of analysis– and I believe it’s a very good one,” Diego explained. “Dawkins distanced himself from memetics because many had muddied the waters in the last decades after his book The Selfish Gene came out and since the advent of the Internet. Dawkins was concerned about the pseudo-scientific interpretations of memetics, especially with regards to unrestrained comparisons of memes to genes, which led to a variety of misconceptions. The understanding of memes has to do with the concept of replication, not with the understanding of genetics.”
Susan Blackmore, a proponent of memetics, also underscored the importance of differentiating between memes and genes: “If we try to draw strict analogies between genes and memes, we will be led astray.”
“Metacognitive analysis,” Diego went on to explain, “is the study of the way we use our cognition. For example, when we see non-existing patterns, like faces on Mars, known as ‘pareidolia,’ we often form fallacious ideas about what we see based on optical illusions and personal ideas. Such ideas can spread memetically and go viral on the web.
What is important to highlight is that the process of thinking about our own thinking is a futile inquiry if it is performed with the same framework of analysis, or cognitive filter, that created our structure of thinking. This would only open the door to confirmation bias. As Einstein said, ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.’
Metamemetic thinking, therefore, refers to the extent to which we are capable of detecting the replication of unsound or fallacious memes in our own minds as it occurs. Freedom of religion, for example, is something that is commonly recognized as a positive value. What if we decoded it, though, or applied onto it extended meaning? Wouldn’t it also inevitably involve the freedom to indoctrinate– a very negative, counterproductive, and even potentially dangerous concept?”
The impression was similar to a sort of exercise in philosophy, which has also been known to posit similar methods to deconstruct our thought processes: How do we know what is true or objective? How can we trust ourselves? Are our thoughts our own? Is morality intuitive?
“How do we know what is true or objective? How can we trust ourselves? Are our thoughts our own? Is morality intuitive?”
There is a scientific consensus that altruism and cooperation, for example, are evolutionarily advantageous in many species. Might we have derived a large part of our morality from biology?
“Morality does have biological roots,” explained Diego, “but it is mainly a cognitive construct ingrained in our psychology. For some followers of Islam, for instance, what is written in the Quran is absolute morality. Thus, the victimless crime of apostasy is totally immoral.
Intuition is a highly biased, perceptual sensation mixed with acritically-formed thought processes that are heavily influenced by memes, blind spots, cultural imprinting, and even cognitive dissonance. I would never suggest to simply ‘follow one’s intuition.’ ”
How might we, then, determine what is ethical that doesn’t already involve referring to cultural frameworks already in place?
Well, for a start, we might dismantle those frameworks. If we are to think about how we think, it would follow that our minds should be free to think in the first place.
The ethics of indoctrination
So what of that framework par excellence that purports to supply everything from the answers to life’s mysteries to the laws that ought to govern our daily existence, all while rejecting (denouncing!) any similar iterative framework as falsehood?
Reinterpreting the noble value of freedom of religion inevitably brings us to ponder the ethics of a parent transferring his or her beliefs onto a child. Could it be similarly unethical to tell parents what they should or should not teach their children?
“It is actually dutiful to warn parents against indoctrinating their children,” said Diego. “Parents must understand that by indoctrinating their children, they are depriving them of the fruits of active curiosity and freethinking, all while exposing them to a future contaminated by irrational fears, illogical enemies, entirely avoidable conflicts, and repressive illusions.”
“Parents must understand that by indoctrinating their children, they are depriving them of the fruits of active curiosity and freethinking, all while exposing them to a future contaminated by irrational fears, illogical enemies, entirely avoidable conflicts, and repressive illusions”
Awareness, or the “progressive implementation of better thinking skills operated on a multi-level basis” according to Diego, was imperative. Might it be ethical, then, to actively discourage people from pursuing religion?
“I would say yes. To join something that is based on no evidence and, therefore, a mere illusory memetic belief is to promote a hindrance against psycho-cognitive and social progress, which can only lead, as we have seen, to irrational divisions and conflicts, and injustices and discriminations.
Was there a way to reconcile freedom of religion with freedom from religion?
“Every human has the right to believe in whatever he or she chooses and we have the right to question, criticize, and challenge such beliefs. But the creation of proselytes, the indoctrination of children, and the limitations on questioning and scientific approaches perpetrated in the name of beliefs are definitely deleterious practices that are in stark opposition to human rights.
The matter of ethics here also involves the freedom of speech. Should we limit the freedom of speech of those who preach irrational ideologies? I would say no. Should we allow the latter to limit the freedom of speech of dissenters? Again, no. This goes back to the matter of education and metaeducation, because if people were educated properly and critically, they would not come to believe in whatever unsound contents some preachers propose.”
The consequences of dogmatic thinking, neither exclusive to organized religion nor the domain of any specific community, are pervasive. Dogmatic ‘thinking’ is a mindless process in the purest sense and might thus be better classified as an emotional reaction. It is the absence of thinking, whereby opinions become indisputable facts and where absolutism and intolerance reign, often fuelled by hostility and defined in opposition to something else. It is the type of reaction that will always refute or endorse based on principle and precedent, not evidence.
It is precisely the intensity of the accompanying emotional reaction to contradictory information that leads us to fully assimilate certain beliefs and defend them as though they were ours–intrinsic, universal truths–when they are simply products of our culture.
“It is precisely the intensity of the accompanying emotional reaction to contradictory information that leads us to fully assimilate certain beliefs and defend them as though they were ours–intrinsic, universal truths–when they are simply products of our culture”
Evidence, sadly and all too often, will not change the mind of a Flat-Earther. And while we may laugh at this relatively benign (“relatively” being the key word here) form of conspiratorial nonsense, believed as it is by an insignificant portion of the population, we cannot similarly ignore dogmatic thinking at its worst. Political, religious, and ethnic supremacism kill. In theocratic countries, the victimless crimes of same-sex relations, apostasy, and blasphemy are punishable by death.
But we need look no further than the United States to see that the developed world is not spared the consequences of a dogmatic mind-set. Viral fake news stories that conveniently align with our political views stoke outrage and exploit divisions where they do not outright manufacture them. Science denial leads to environmental degradation, health problems, and the miseducation of younger generations. Religions cause rifts in families when members decide to leave.
Is it at all possible to completely eradicate what seems to be a fundamental part of human behaviour?
“We are prone to religious thinking,” explained Diego. “Any time we worship something, whether ideologically or sentimentally, this is a form of religious thinking. Waiting and even camping for days in order to buy the new iPhone, for example, or worshipping a celebrity, even if this has nothing to do with deities or politics, is still a form of religious thinking, cognitively speaking. There are biological roots in our genes for these behaviors.
A good starting point of analysis would be to highlight how yes, we are wired to be fallacious, but this does not necessarily mean that we are also wired to create dogmas. In order to create a dogma, certain intellectual processes are required, so it is not really a matter of mere instincts. There is a time and space between the embryonic idealization of the dogmatic thought and the actual finalization of it in the form of a psycho-social construct.
“We are wired to be fallacious, but this does not necessarily mean that we are also wired to create dogmas”
What is important is to cultivate the proper logical skills so as to monitor what happens in that time and space, between the formulation of a thought and its consolidation in the form of dogma. In this way, we can hopefully prevent the dogma from becoming a memetic infection. But I don’t think anybody can really say whether a total eradication of dogmatic thinking is possible.”
In theory, it is easy to pinpoint the problems and suggest broad countermotions. But what might be done on the ground?
Any initiative to combat fallacious thinking would have to target the root of that thinking, implement concrete measures to counter it, and offer valid alternatives. Introducing metamemetic thinking in the field of education would allow for a systematic dissemination of information that could help students assess the quality and accuracy of beliefs. Could something like this one day be implemented in public schools?
“Introducing metamemetic thinking in the field of education would allow for a systematic dissemination of information that could help students assess the quality and accuracy of beliefs”
“The EOF project, thus far,” replied Diego, “offers a course with certification hosted by the Cambridge E-learning Institute, but the aim is definitely to introduce programs into the broader education system. This would include public lectures and articles for conferences on the humanities, secularism, social science, personal development, and theory of the mind, as well as programs for high schools and universities.
The implementation of the project in education is currently one of our top priorities. For now, these programs target private institutions and EOF is currently searching for organizations that are willing to cooperate in this regard, so as to evaluate the efficiency of the program and generate decent data collection.
Deep metacognition involves the critical observation of one’s own cognition–the psychological approaches to processing information, emotions, gullibility, identitarian values, and memories, thereby allowing for a decoding of eventual biases, unhealthy conditioning, and logical fallacies. All this, however, can be quite hard when performed by an adult mind, considering that we haven’t received an education pivoted on such valuable psycho-cognitive instruments. It is thus essential that we develop a proper data collection to test the veracity, validity, and reproducibility of the approach. We need to see monitorable improvement of students’ thinking skills regarding self-analysis, decision making processes, detection of biases, and sound scepticism.”
Were current education programs deficient with regard to critical thinking skills?
“Traditional education is not qualitative in terms of critical thinking skills. It is mainly assimilative of data. While some students are able to achieve considerably high scholastic results, this does not necessarily mean that they have also developed high order thinking skills which are necessary to critically understand what has been assimilated and to go through their personal lives without becoming easily tethered to fallacious beliefs, biased life-trends, logical fallacies and ideological or faith-based mindsets.
What is the true function of an educator? Making the students learn, repeat and perform the replication of the learned material in order to pass the assessments? We can easily discharge this by calling it flawed education because it’s not only aimed at making the students fit into a certain social structure but it also functions as a meme does, or a memetic pattern does: it mainly concerns itself with the repetition and replication of contents and the status quo of certain learning modalities, with eventual variations perhaps in the evolution of its contents, but it usually possesses very scarce analysis and criticalness regarding what’s learned. Perhaps traditional education produces efficient workers, but does it also produce efficient minds?
“Perhaps traditional education produces efficient workers, but does it also produce efficient minds?”
Incorporating metamemetic principles in education would have far-reaching benefits to society as a whole–we would see a rise in secularism, a decrease in divisions and conflicts caused by beliefs and ideologies, and a reduction of discrimination, iniquities, memetic addictions, superstitious anti-scientific thinking, and general non-clinical mental disorders.”
It is an ambitious endeavour, but one for which a gullible and rash world is overdue. Might future generations see faith schools that teach students the Earth is six thousand years old as unfathomable a curricular option as alchemy?