Monday, August 10, 2015

Does Science Need a Meme?

In this blog, we have been blithely assuming that on some planets where intelligent life occurs, and a civilization gets started, and passes the Baconian transition, that asymptotic technology will be reached. In other words, once the momentum builds up to do science, accelerating bit by bit after the Baconian transition is passed, that it keeps science going until the final resting place is reached, and omniscience, as properly defined, is reached. Would this happen?

In another post, roadblocks to asymptotic technology were discussed. In that post, a number of ways that an alien civilization could reach a peak of technology and then gradually decline. Staying at exactly the same level for centuries would be difficult to manage, so the choices are to continue on to the termination, or to peak and then decline. Two reasons, or categories of reasons, were found to possibly cause an advanced alien civilization to fail. One was the loss of talented people able to continue the progress of science and the other was the failure of the society as a whole, a loss of productivity, so that resources could not be diverted or directed to science as they were being consumed elsewhere. Some scenarios for each of these two situations were noted, one being idiocracy, or a general downgrading of intelligence for some reason. This would produce the first result. Running into scarcity, or some external difficulty¸ might cause the second. Other causes can be found.

This post is not about these paths to peak and decline, but about one that might be almost called voluntary. The word voluntary is sort of a contradiction of cause and effect. Alien citizens might volunteer to abandon science and technology, but there are reasons for it. The word is used here in the sense that there is nothing external that causes it, it is wholly psychological, or better, part of the social beliefs of the alien civilization.

Why does science continue to amass new and improved theories and evidence to support them? There are many preconditions, but one is that people decide to become scientists. We have already discussed the case of idiocracy, where the number of talented people diminishes and soon there are none to spare for the furtherance of science. What we are discussing here is, amidst a plethora of intelligent people, too few sign up to do science and the momentum diminishes and dies out, once a critical mass necessary to maintain the culture of science is passed. In the days of Galileo, one person could do science, but as science itself becomes robust and complex, some percentage of society has to enroll in it. Why might an alien society find itself with too few citizens who make the choice to become scientists, or, if the alien civilization is at a stage in its history where an individual’s choices are determined by other than themselves, how could an alien society not allocate sufficient of its capable citizens to science? It does not matter if the civilization is structured so that citizens have two or three career choices during their lifetimes, or even many, or just one, or perhaps none. The point is that either the individual citizens do not do it ever, or they are never asked or directed to do so. Why would the civilization do this, or fail to promote such decisions?

Societies make decisions based on their beliefs, or things derived from their beliefs. So the question is, why might an alien civilization change its view of science from something worth doing to something not worth doing? The belief system they have might be referred to as a set of memes, which are beliefs that are at the fundamental level, and are propagated by teaching them to young members of the civilization in such a way that they become the unquestioned, at least by most, bases upon which the civilization makes its way forward to the future.

Other posts have talked about possible memes in connection with traveling to the stars, and a spectrum of them was described. However, if the society develops an anti-science meme considerably before it gets to asymptotic technology, it will never reach it. What could cause a society which had done science to turn against it? Something happened. This was what was discussed in an earlier post as the minefields which might lay along the way to asymptotic technology. There, some scenarios where science became available to ordinary citizens and provided them with disruptive power that poisoned the society’s beliefs against science. This might change the meme, but most likely, it would be a temporary effect, lasting some years, like a century. The memory of such events would diminish, while the advantages of scientific advancement would be continually evident.

Under these circumstances, the alien civilization would reach a temporary peak, suffer a decline, and then continue to climb past the temporary peak until it reached the termination phase. There is a more subtle change that can happen in a category four civilization.

These categories referred to the desires of the alien civilization to exploit star traveling. But category four is an extrapolation of the higher categories of memes. Category four characterizes a civilization that does not have any desire to travel to the stars, for the simple reason that they do not feel they are worth preserving or propagating. If a civilization becomes category four around the time it reaches asymptotic technology, it will not build starships and will not travel anywhere beyond their own solar system. But if they become the pre-star-travel equivalent of category four, they may well develop the meme that science is not for them to have. This means that they lose faith in themselves before losing faith in technology itself, and therefore do not seek to continue ascending the technology mountain.

What could cause an entire civilization to share such a belief? Memes in a society must start somewhere, as the first intelligent animals on the planet did not have them. They develop and then propagate laterally across society. In a pre-advanced technology society, with good communications but far from star travel capability, a conceptual meme might propagate from only a few individuals, if they were sufficiently influential or possessed power over the communication channels. But even the most influential individual must find fertile ground for the concept to spread.

If there is something that an alien civilization often runs in to, a circumstance where such loss of societal self-confidence can spread and take over the civilization, it would certainly explain why there are no aliens traveling to visit us, or otherwise giving off detectable signals. This is more subtle than some other Great Filters, which might be as simple as not having any land surface for land organisms to migrate onto.

Having a meme that is fundamentally opposed to progress might be achieved, over the long term, only as part of a package of memes which are self-consistent. The package would have to undermine the value of what the alien civilization has achieved prior to the meme being established, and perhaps by setting up a value system that was opposed to the benefits of technology. The value system would have to regard something else as of high value, and perhaps that would be primitivism, or naturism, or something connected with an earlier phase of society, a golden age, which their civilization departed from and which they should attempt to return to. The meme would possibly find receptive alien citizen minds during a time when some developmental problems were damaging the civilization, and the citizens were seeking to have some distraction from the current, and perhaps not visibly temporary, losses they were suffering.

There is a slight variation on this route by which an early-stage alien civilization might come to such a state, if it were still in the social arrangements before unification. If control of the society were in the hands of a subset of citizens, and the subset came to view an earlier, more primitive state, or perhaps the current state, as superior to anything that might they might experience in the future if technology continued to progress, then they could take steps to prevent it from doing so. Exactly how would depend on the details of how the society functioned, but the basic idea is that if control of the society leads to a hierarchical structure, then it might be easier to achieve the negative self-confidence meme that would stop technological progress.

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