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INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
is a tenured Professor of Philosophy at Mt. San Antonio College, where she has been teaching since 1991. She received her Ph.D. and M.A. in Religious Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Dr. Diem earned her B.A. in Psychology from the University of California, San Diego, where she conducted original research in neuroscience on visual perception on behalf of V.S. Ramachandran, the world famous neurologist and cognitive scientist. Professor Diem has published several scholarly books and articles, including The Gnostic Mystery
and When Gods Decay
. She is married to Dr. David Lane, with whom she has two children, Shaun-Michael and Kelly-Joseph. Republished with permission. See also her Darwins DNA: A Brief Introduction to Evolutionary Philosophy
, published on Integral World.
BLACKMORE, AND WILBER
Excerpted from the
interactive textbook, MEMES
CHAPTER 3: MEMES - CULTS
Blackmore's theory, borrowed from Richard Dawkins who first articulated it in his book The Selfish Gene, posits a radical view of human culture. Ideas are living us, not vice versa.
Susan Blackmore's memetic theory of cultural evolution is a simple one on the surface. Essentially, it goes like this: just as genes survive by differentially replicating themselves in a sea of competition (with the "stronger"best adaptedones surviving by being able to co-opt the environment and pass on able bodied replications), so too with human ideas. Ideas, or memes, survive by making copies of themselves in "host" environments (usually human brains). The problem is that there are fewer hosts than ideas. Indeed, there are innumerable ideas but limited hosts. Hence, the competition of the fittest. In this context where ideas cannot survive unless they find a host environment, we know there will be winners and losers.
Winner ideas are not necessarily the "best" or the "truest" thoughts, but rather those that can survive and make replicated copies of themselves (which, in turn, generate more duplications).
Not everything, such as perceptual experience or classical and operant conditioned responses, is a meme but only those ideas that can be passed on by imitation. Besides concepts, examples include clothing fashions and catchy phrases. For instance, when I was a kid a common saying was "go for it," sometimes abbreviated G.F.I. Why this phrase was so popular isfairly easy to explain by memetics: children tend to imitate behavior in order to better fit in with their social group. Using phrases such as "go for it", "that's cool," "right on," etc., are verbal ways of expressing consolidation with one's peers. The verbal meme I take responsibility for, at least in my family and among my friends was the phrase "nectar." The nectar surf, the nectar meal, the nectar house, the nectar guy. My sister and best friend starting saying it as much I used to. While I have outgrown it by now new meme phrases have crept in to take its place. I think I will spare you these. Fashions offer an interesting example of memes. We see Fall fashions in Nordstrom's magazine and we tend to imitate them. One year it is long skirts and the next short. As a child, I wore flaring bell bottoms ("Dittos" were the cool thing); then as a teenager following the latest trend I wore skin tight pants (sometimes having to use pliers to get the zipper up); and now I think the flare is in again (or am I a year behind?). Trendy ideas change and behavior follows suit. Among surfers, I remember when short board surfing was the big rush, but today long board surfing has regained popularity.
Blackmore on Memes as Imitation
“When you imitate someone else, something is passed on. This "something" can then be passed on again, and again, and so take on a life of its own. We might call this thing an idea, an instruction, a behavior, a piece of information...but if we are going to study it we shall need to give it a name. Fortunately, there is a name. It is a "meme."
Since memes require imitations, they must be passed on (or replicated) to survive. To be sure, there may be many things that we might imitate in isolation, but in order for a meme to be successful it must be able to be imitated and distributed among a larger group of people. In a way, memes are akin to contagious viruses waiting to infect unsuspecting hosts. Have you ever noticed how you cannot stop your mind from thinking about certain thoughts? We are forever bombarded with words, thoughts, ideas, and phrases, even if we wish not to dwell on them. Successful memes must be self-replicating; they seem to shout, as Blackmore points out, "Copy me!"
“If a meme can get itself successfully copied it will. One way to do so is to command the resources of someone's brain and make them keep on rehearsing it, so giving the meme a competitive edge over memes that so not get rehearsed. Memes like this are not only more likely to be remembered but also to be 'on your mind' when you next speak to someone else. If we take stories as an example, a story that has great emotion- al impact, or for any other reason has the effect that you just cannot stop thinking about it, will go round and round in your head. This will consolidate the memory for that story and will also mean that, since you are thinking about it a lot, you are more likely to pass it on to someone else, who may be similarly affected.”
Blackmore's theory, borrowed from Richard Dawkins who first articulated it in his book The Selfish Gene, posits a radical view of human culture. Ideas are living us, not vice versa. Indeed, the very "I", the heart of consciousness, the personality, is itself the result of memetic warfare. Whoever we are is the outcome of which memes successfully reproduced. We are not a single entity, but rather a memeplex (a network of connected, and sometimes disconnected, idea units). Thus, the concept of a self vanishes, rather we are walking "meme machines," the title of Blackmore's latest book.
Memetic theory implies that there are certain rules that we should be able to discover which govern idea replication. The most obvious and simple one is that a "popular" meme will not consistently be in radical opposition to the reproduction of genes (although it is important to note that certain popular memes, like the phrase "legitimate," are of neutral genetic value). For example, the idea of celibacy may be a helpful one for certain individuals but by its' very intent cannot (unless systematically violated) be a popular one amongst the majority of humans. Why it cannot is perhaps too apparent to spell out. If celibacy were strictly adopted by a large segment of the population, it would mean the very extinction of those people and the very death of the idea of "celibacy." If everyone practices celibacy, there will eventually not only be no people, but no ideas pertaining to sexual abstention. The logic at first seems so simple as to be ridiculous, but on closer inspection it is an extremely powerful tool in order to understand what underlying rules shape memetic evolution.
Quite clearly, ideas that tap into the emotions have a better chance of spreading, even if they are totally bogus. Take chain letters as illustrative case in point. What makes chain letters "move"? Or, more accurately, what prompts us to pass on a letter to another person, even when we know that its contents may be erroneous? A number of factors, but two are primary: desire and fear (or, as Freud would have it, Eros and Thanatos). Desire is in the form of "hey, if you send this letter along you will receive lots of money in the mail." Fear is in the form of "hey, if you don't send this letter along you will get in a car accident." In both cases, the chain letter (the "memeplex") is appealing to innate human needs and fears. By playing off those, the letter raises the probability of its survival, even though its contents, like we said, may be com- pletely fraudulent. Hence, a chain letter is an information virus of sorts, attempting at each turn to infect its host by penetrating its most vulnerable ports of entry. Certain- ly, there could other types of chain letters that don't at all appeal to our baser instincts. But the real question is whether or not they would successfully replicate. For instance, I can imagine a chain letter that says, "please pass me along because I ask you to." This form of a memeplex is perhaps more honest than its cousin ("pass me along or I will kill you"), but I don't think it has the same advantages and will most likely be circulated amongst a limited number. Overall, all of this suggests that content is secondary to transmission. How a message is spread is more important that what the message says.
Another major factor contributing to the success of a meme is its simplicity. The more complicated the meme the less popular it probably will be. We need look no further than to advertising to see the truth of this statement. Popular ads and commercials are usually ones with cute, catchy slogans and not long, drawn out ones. Keep the ideas very simple and you may have a winner. Remember the "Da Da Da" commercial. That meme song was with me for days. As all avid television watchers know, some commercials are more popular than others which is another way of saying some messages get passed along better than others. Simple (and catchy) messages definitely have a better survival rate.
Blackmore on Meme Advertising
“Memes are replicators and if they can get themselves copied they will. The imitating machinery of the brain is an excellent environment for copying tunes. So if a tune is memorable enough to get lodged in your brain and then passed on again then it willand if it is really memorable, or singable, or playable, it will get into a lot of brains. If it turns out to be just what some TV producer needs to start her latest soap opera then it will get into even more brains, and every time you start humming it here is a chance that someone will hear you and you will set them off. Meanwhile plenty of other tunes are never heard again. The consequence of all of this is that the successful ones increase in the meme pool at the expense of others. We all get infected with them...”
If we apply the deconstructive theories of Nietzsche with the memetic theories of Blackmore we may begin to understand how new religions arise and what accounts for their survival and success. The transmission of an idea depends on the availability of subject hosts, and thus cultural breakdown or traditional breakdown will be open season for the emergence of new memetic/religious replacement. We can see this in the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and in the cultural changes in the United States in the 1960s. Nietzsche's idea of cultural disintegration in light of God's death (God here stands for any ultimate value within in any given culture) points to the need for the general masses to look to new gods, new icons, new ideas, and new religions to fulfill the void, unless of course they turn directly to nihilism, a position that Nietzsche felt was ultimately untenable. What God's death portends is really the death of any universally applicable value that the majority of participants believe in. Such a state can either lead to utter anarchy and chaos or it can lead to the selection of new gods and new icons. In the case of religion it often leads to competition of new and varied religions. Here is where Blackmore's memetic theory comes into play since it helps explain both how and why some religions become more popular than others. Competition among new religions indicates that there will be ones that are more successful than others and so we should also be able to make some scientific predictions about which ones will prosper utilizing memetic theory. Memetic factors determining popularity appear to revolve around three fundamental principles: 1) value-related incentives; 2) memetic simplicity; and 3) memetic distribution. Specifically, we have found out that more successful religions tend to have ideas which incite both desire and fear (usually couched in ultimate terms like heaven and hell); simplified core messages which can be transmitted to large audiences without complexity and attendant difficulties; and messages that encourages the membership to spread the teachings.
Thus, we can easily see that the popularity of a religion has absolutely nothing to do with its truth-value or its aesthetic strengths. Rather, the popularity of a religion is due to how well its ideas can propagate amongst human hosts. Some ideas, even though true, just don't replicate well and will, due to that deficiency, die out. There- fore, the real reason some religions garner millions of followers while others die out is due to factors that having nothing to do with God or truth. In a Darwinian fashion, therefore, the survival of the fittest doesn't translate as "biggest" or "strongest" or "most honest" or "truest." It translates as this: whatever ideas can survive a given
environment and successfully make copies that, in turn, can do the same will win out. Those ideas that cannot pass this test (and keep in mind that this test says nothing about truth) will by the very nature of the game fail and die out. So like genes, memes are "selfish" in the sense of looking out for their own reproductive survival. Religions, new or old, are the direct result of this memetic competition. Some religions are better suited to propagate through large populations than others, even though these religions themselves may have nothing to do with higher or eternal truths (though, undoubtedly, they may use the disguise of such claims to pass itself through the culture).
Blackmore on the "Truth Trickery"
“The truth trickery is liberally used. In many religions, God and Truth are virtually synonymous. Rejecting the faith means turning away from Truth; converting others means giving them the gift of the true faith. This may seem odd when so many religious claims are clearly false, but there are many reasons why it works. For example, people who have a profound experience in a religious context are inclined to take on the memes of that religion; people who like and admire someone may believe their truth claims without question...”
If this is the case (and Blackmore's theory is indeed persuasive), it suggests that religions are more akin to chain letters than we might at first suspect. The core features a religion must have in order to achieve successful memetic duplication or adherence is almost the same as those that allow chain letters to survive: desire and fear. In religion, however, desire can be dressed up in some fancy garb like "heaven," "nirvana," "sach khand," "happy hunting grounds." The reason astrology has survived for countless centuries has nothing to do with its truth value (very low, if any), but with its ability to give meaning and hope to individuals who are in need of finding some point or purpose to their day to day lives. Fear, likewise, can take on a much more scary face like, "hell," damnation," "wheel of samsara," "hades," and so on. Couple desire and fear with a meme that says it is your duty to "spread" the message vigorously and you have a potential "winning" religion. In this spiritual lottery, one that is governed by how many tickets can get circulated, popular religions must appeal to fundamental human needs in order to succeed. But, more important- ly, those appeals don't have to be necessarily true, provided that they "appear" viable. And, given the plasticity of the human imagination, almost anything can "appear" viable, even if it is the opposite. But the key point in all of this is propagation and successful duplication.
Blackmore of Fear and Desire in Religion
“The Catholic God is watching at all times and will punish people who disobey His commandments with most terrible punishmentsburning forever in hell, for example. These threats cannot easily be tested because God and hell are invisible, and the fear is inculcated from early childhood...Having raised the fear, Catholicism reduces it again. If you turn to Christ you will be forgiven...God's love is always available but at a price, and that price is often overlooked completely because it is paid so willingly. It is the price of investing massive amounts of time, energy and money in your religionin other words working for the memes...”
This same analysis applies for new religions. New memes that dovetail with basic human needs/desires and fears (value-related incentives) will be more successful than those that do not. The New Age Movement is a classic example of a new religious movement that cultivates these human emotions. The New Age to come is described in paradise terms (eros, pleasure, desire), but those who do not jump on the bandwagon preparing for its entrance will not witness it, suffering instead a tragic end (thanatos, death, fear). The tactic of inciting fear is what I call an "immune meme," or "idea quarantine," or "meme inoculation." Religious ideas that draw upon fear, such as the Devil will get you or in some eastern traditions Kal will get you, safeguard the con- version to their own family oriented memes. By utilizing a pre-existing counter programming, the virus, as it were, will not let you out of its grip.
Blackmore on Religious Memes
“No one designed these great faiths with all their clever tricks. Rather, they evolved gradually by memetic selection. But now days people deliberately use memetic tricks to spread religions and make money. Their techniques of memetic engineering are derived from long experience and research, and are similar to those used in propaganda and marketing; with radio, television and the Internet, their memes can spread far further and faster than ever before. Billy Graham's style of teleevangelism is a good example. He starts out by evoking fear, reminding people of all the terrible things happening in the world and their own impotence and mortality. He presents science as having no answers ands as a cause of the world's ills, and then persuades people to surrender to the all-powerful God who is their only hope of salvation. The experience of surrender raises powerful emotions and people turn to God in huge numbers.”
As with all successful memes, religious ideas must be relatively simple to be easily spread. Certain religions will never be very popular because they either tend to be too complicated to transmit (without losing the very complexity they wish to retain) or because they generate safeguards against duplication. Judaism has been around much longer than either Christianity or Islam, but it remains a relatively small world religion, with numbers ranging from 14 to 20 million (depending upon your census). Why so small, especially when its core text (the Torah) has millions of copies in circulation? A number of possible answers present themselves, but clearly the intricate laws governing Jewish behavior (including circumcision) is one of them. But even more important than that, was we shall see when discussing memetic distribution, is the general resistance of Jews to "preach" their religion to others. Compare a Jewish rabbi for instance with a Mormon missionary. How many times has someone of the Jewish faith knocked on your door inviting you to the local temple? But how many times has a Mormon, or for that matter a Jehovah Witness, made personal inquiries of you and your faith?
While Blackmore's theory suggests that a popular religion must be relatively simple at its core (at least in the sense of being accepted or rejected by potential recruits), this doesn't mean that the most popular religions in the world are the stupidest. Her point, rather, is that the essential core doctrine must be simplified to a degree that its essence can be transmitted with the least difficulty. (The downside, of course, to an extremely simple memeplex is that its very easiness may not ensure long term commitments. The more complicated a conversion procedurethe more time and effort it takesthe more likely the neophyte will stay within the group and display adherence. Some religions have small followings but quite devoted members.) Thus, even though Catholicism may have a fairly complex theology (one need only think of Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica), its essential message necessary for conversion must be kept at a bare minimum. The Apostle's Creed offers a simple memeplex. Otherwise, with too complex theology potential recruits would be warded off. Now on some level this has already happened, since Catholicism is a much more complicated memeplex than fundamentalist Biblical Christianity. (Remember that many Catholics today are not converts but recipients of a birth heritage.) To formally convert to Catholicism you need a priest sanctified by the Church to perform Baptism. Later one must receive the various sacraments. However, in some streamlined fundamentalist Christian sects the process of conversion is extraordinarily simple, usually codified in a phrase such as, "I accept Jesus Christ as my Personal Lord and Savior and that he died for my sins and resurrected on the 3rd day.... etc, etc." Say the statement sincerely and repent for one's sins and you are "born again" in the Christian community. You also receive the grace of Jesus and eternal life. Very simple compared with Catholicism and perhaps the reason why conservative Christianity is on the rise. In Islam there is a similar scenario. One needs only to declare the Islamic creed ("There is one God and Muhammad is His Prophet") with deep sincerity and conversion has transpired. This helps explain why Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, expected to significantly surpass Catholicism. Besides promoting simple religious memes (creeds) for conversion, both Christianity and Islam have classic Eros and Thanatos components (eternal heaven and eternal hell); each en- courage conversions (passively and, at times, forcibly); and each stress increasing family size (this ranges from Christianity's prohibitions against artificial birth control to Islam's allowance of four wives to males if they can support each of them).
Blackmore on the Success of Religion Memeplexes
“When we look at religions from a meme's eye view we can understand why they have been so successful. These religious memes did not set out with the intention to succeed. They were just behaviors, ideas and stories that were copied from one person to another in the long history of human attempts to understand the world. They were successful because they happened to come together into mutually supportive gangs that included all the right tricks to keep them safely stored in millions of brains, books, and buildings, and repeatedly passed on to more. They evoked strong emotions and strange experiences. They provided myths to answer real questions and the myths were protected by untestibility, threats and promises. They created and then reduced fear to create compliance, and they used the beauty, truth, and altruism tricks to help their spread. That is why they are still with us, and why millions of people's behavior is routinely controlled by ideas that are either false or completely untestable.”
The third most popular world religion, Hinduism, differs greatly from both Christianity and Islam and has several factors that would appear to contravene memetic theory. First, Hinduism is not a simple memeplex in terms of practice or theology. However, it overcomes that by allowing almost all expressions of religion to be honored. In this way, Hinduism's strength is its acceptance of innumerable gods, gurus, and paths. Thus, Hinduism uses complexity to arrive at a very simple meme: God can be approached by almost any means, provided the devotee is sincere. The number and names of gods will be lost in the translation (and one should not suspect that Hindus will know them all), but not the essential message: God is One, but the paths are Many. By allowing variance as part of their religious landscape, Hinduism minimizes conflict, contradiction, and differences under the rubric that God can manifest in any form he or she desires. Hinduism grows not by its opposition, but by its amazing tolerance.
The world's religions that have not garnered large followings are usually due to several factors, not the least are intrinsic pressures within the group that don't allow for either easier conversions or simplified memetic understandings. This ranges from Judaism's complex dietary laws to orthodox Sikh's Khalsa restrictions to Jainist's extremist moral positions. Each of these religions, though relatively successful, will most likely never emerge as large world religions unless they modify their core qualifications.
As for new religions, we can predict that those with simpler ideas, easy to remember, will take hold faster and easier than complicated ones, since meme infection more readily occurs if the potential convert is explained the group's ideas in a clear and compacted way. With this in mind, several new religions utilize catchy phrases, publicly chant mantras or sing religious songs to help this infection along. (While religions do not tend to think of themselves as commercials, in a real memetic sense that is exactly what they are.) And when speaking of simplicity, of course, the name of the guru/teacher should also be simple, for it is very hard remembering a name that goes on for fifteen sentences.
Moreover, memetic distribution is essential for a meme's popularity. That is, a religion must be willing to spread its message, to transmit its core ideas. Religions are somewhat unique here: while all memes naturally have a tendency to copy, in the case of religion, especially new ones, it usually overtly encourages (by reward or spiritual bonus points) its transmission via conversion/missionary work. It reminds me of how Amway works: go to public settings to entice new recruits to sell the products and the more disciples you pull in the more you will profit. Most new religions (and many more established religions as well) promote this activity to some degree (although certainly some much more than others). An extreme case of a new religion most of us have probably witnessed doing this are the Hare Krishnas who flood airports and busy cities passing out literature. In Laguna Beach, my hometown, they fill the streets on weekends, usually Sundays, spreading their message of Krishna. Going door to door is a method some new religions have utilized as well, though it is a much slower means to spread the meme than is available. A more powerful way to reach a larger audience is through mass media outlets. New religions advertise now on the radio, on the television and, with an even greater result due to a worldwide audience, on the internet. Utilizing as many languages as possible here, especially in the literature, certainly contributes to greater memetic distribution.
Along this line, it is also important to mention the promotion of religious memes into new cultural environments. To the degree that a religion can introduce novel memes into a culture it is more likely to be successful, provided that such memeplexes fulfill an already pre-existing need in the society (tapping into the market) or, more interestingly, "create" or "invent" such a desire among the population. A classic example of this would be the meditation group started by Ching Hai, a Taiwanese woman who was a one-time follower of Thakar Singh. Although shabd yoga thought had become popular in India and in many Western nations (primarily due to books and world tours made by the respective gurus and the increasing desire for Eastern thoughtdue to travel openings and improved worldwide communications), it had relatively few successes in China. Why? The answer is amazingly simple. There are practically no Radhasoami or shabd yoga texts in Chinese or Taiwanese. Thus, the very idea of the meditation practice was unheard of amongst a huge population. Enter Ching Hai who not only speaks Taiwanese but widely publishes her work on shabd yoga in Chinese. The result is not surprising: thousands of Chinese speaking people are attracted to her as their guru.
Furthermore, worth noting are those new religions that piggyback on the already existing memeplexes in order to infect their host more easily. For instance, many Eastern religions in America, being new to this culture, make parallels to Christianity and even incorporate its theology into the meme of the new religion. While novel is sometimes exciting, too foreign can be a turn off. Hence, bring in some familiarity into the equation, that is dovetail with pre-existing memeplexes, and the probability is greater success. Self Realization Fellowship, started by a Hindu yogi named Yogananda in the 1920s, serves as a prime example as it display pictures of Jesus in the religious centers. No doubt many adherents are won over to its somewhat eclectic and ecumenical message.
Blackmore on the Truth and Falsity of Religion
“I do not mean to imply, from all that I have said, that there are no true ideas anywhere in religion. The memetic mechanisms I have described would allow religions to flourish that were based on complete falsehoods and nothing else, but there may be true ideas embedded in them as well. Just as some alternative therapies thrive by including a few treatments that work, so religions may include valid insights as well as misleading myths.”
In the concluding section, Ken Wilber's analysis of religion explains how both cultural disintegration and memetic competition are structurally related to the evolution of human consciousness. Hence, genes, memes and culture are in a constant interplay and each of them cannot be understood in totality via isolation.
CHAPTER 4: APPRAISAL
Blackmore's memetic theory is indeed very powerful to understand human culture, especially new religions. However, its analysis is strictly horizontal.
Blackmore's memetic theory is indeed very powerful to understand human culture, especially new religions. However, its analysis is strictly horizontal, failing to take into consideration the progressive stages of human thought. Yes, memes explain how ideas infiltrate our minds and our society, but what is needed is an explanation of how certain memes resonate with particular environments, that is, particular stages of evolutionary thought, better than others. Instead of placing all religious memes into the same linear category, a more helpful method would be to differentiate the various types of memes as they correspond to different psycho-social-emotional levels of humans.
Some religious memeplexes are clearly different, not just in content but in type. Certainly, most of us recognize the difference between a meditating Zen master and a Jim Jones' type leader. Thus, being able to adjudicate which stage a new religion fits offers a more accurate assessment of what they are all about.
Ken Wilber's work on the spectrum of consciousness adds this necessary ingredient. He argues that just as there has been an evolution to the human body over millions of years, including the brain, so too has human consciousness evolved. This evolution of human consciousness can also be viewed as the evolution of human ideas, which are intimately dependent upon the particular structure of psycho-social awareness that is in evidence. The world does not so much change as does our memetic interaction with it. Hence, memes are structurally aligned to a particular pathway of growth and Wilber suggests that paying attention to a structure of consciousness (via Piaget's stages of psychogenetic growth) will help us to better understand why certain memes are found appealing at different times and for different peoples.
A classic example of how memes relate to stages of consciousness would be buying Christmas presents for one's family. The gifts are, invariably, age dependent. A four years old child's awareness of the world and wants/needs are dramatically different than a teenager's. The same with buying books for students in grammar school, high school and college. Each book or present contains ideas, but each are suited to the particular age of the recipient. To neglect the hierarchy of consciousness is to neglect the very instrumental guideline to memetic reproduction. Therefore, Wilber suggests that only certain memes can be replicated due to the stage of consciousness that is presently engaged. Memes about sexual reproduction, for instance, will be much more popular with those who have undergone puberty than those who have not. The reason why is not due simply to memetic mimicry, but also because of hormones. One, then, cannot divorce genetics (and the growth of human consciousness) from memetics. They go hand in hand in some ways, only to depart significantly at other turns. Wilber's hierarchy of consciousness helps us to "ladder" memes according to human growth cycles (both individually and socially). Consequently, not only will we be better able to predict why certain ideas get passed along a culture, we will be better suited to understand why some ideas never take hold among certain nations or tribes.
The main stages of human consciousness that Wilber delineates are: pre-rational (typhonic, magic, mythic), rational, and transrational. With each stage corresponding memes would find their home. Memes which promote group thinking, a magical world view, blind acceptance, non-scientific approaches to the world and, correlated to that, a lack of critical thought fit in the first category; memes which allow for individuality, skepticism, a scientific world view, and perspectivism (being able to step into another's shoes, or meme, as it were) fit in the second level; and memes that incorporate the former but add also an even broader worldview, one that may coordinate and integrate different perspectives and may draw upon mysticism, are placed in the final category. Unfortunately, because prerational memes and transrational ones are both nonrational, sometimes the distinctions between them become blurred. In this case, transrational groups are wrongly categorized as "infantile," and magical/mythic ones as transcendent.
Wilber on the Pre-Trans Fallacy
“The essence of the pre/trans fallacy is itself simple: since both prerational states and transrational states are, in their own ways, nonrational, they appear similar or even identical to the untutored eye. And once pre and trans are confused, then one of two fallacies occurs:...all higher and transrational stages are reduced to lower and prerational states. Genuine mystical or contemplative experiences, for example, are seen as a regression or throwback to infantile states of narcissism, oceanic adualism, indissociation, and even primitive aut- ism...One the other hand, if one is sympathetic with higher or mystical states, but one still confuses pre and trans, then one will elevate all prerational states to some sort of transrational glory (the infantile primary narcissism, for example, is seen as an unconscious slumbering in the mystico unio)...”
Wilber further contends that these stages of human evolution are witnessed not only ontogenetically but also phylogenetically. In other words, there is a parallel between an individual's evolution (from preoperational, to operational, to formal operational) and the evolution of human cultures. We can, in a way, witness the classic evolutionary stages of thought that have taken millions of years to go through in one individual's life (assuming this individual reaches the formal operational level and, perhaps, beyond). The transrational stage of human consciousness, claims Wilber, is only tapped by a few and so still a rarity at this time.
Wilber on the Transrational Experience
“But what could an actual "transpersonal" experience really mean? It's is not nearly as mysterious as it sounds...The observer in you, the Witness in you, transcends the isolated person in you and opens instead from within or from behind, as Emerson saidonto a vast expanse of awareness no longer obsessed with the individual body-mind, no longer respecter or abuser of persons, no longer fascinated by the passing joys and set-apart sorrows of the lonely self, but standing in silence as an opening or clearing through which light shines...”
What does all of this say in regard to evaluating religion? Quite simply, it suggests that certain religious memes may appeal to certain brain states. Pre-rational groups, such as of tribal origin, would identify with particular memes and not others. God, or the gods, most likely would not be described abstractly but very concretely, perhaps in anthropomorphic terms. Magical thought would also be a significant element here. The way children (yet to develop their operational or formal-operational cognitive skills) see God and the world serves as an example of this state of consciousness. Similarly, religious memes which allow for a cause and effect view of the world, which involve a more abstract view of the Divine, and which promote scientific thinking would find their place in the minds of those at the rational level. And, continuing this line of argument, transrational memes would appeal to those who have mastered the former level and can now open their minds to an even deeper understanding of reality, whatever that be. Wilber argues that at this stage one can witness the interconnectedness of the world and of ideas, one can see the "larger" scheme of things, and if one has not yet attained Maslow's self-actualized state of consciousness one can envision and work towards it.
Wilber is not only saying that religious memes match our brain states but also that our religious ideas evolve as our brain states evolve. It makes sense, then, that at five I believed in Santa Claus but at ten I no longer did. At twelve I believe in Adam and Eve and creationism but at eighteen I was an evolutionist (ironically my Catholic religion at the time also supported evolution, yet I was unaware of it until much later). At twenty I believed in an anthropomorphic God which transformed into a non-theistic version by twenty-five. And so on. Particular memes resonated with the particular brain state I was in. And the same is true, contends Wilber, for human cultures.
Now there is a big caveat here: it may sound like Wilber is "judging" religions. When he says a specific religion fits more in the prerational category is he not criticizing it? Certainly, there may be a problem here if his objective was to purport ontological truth, but Wilber is not. Rather, his aim is to recognize psychological patterns of human thought following the lead of Piaget, who argued that our concepts of God evolve with our cognitive states. One at the operational level will see God very differently that one at the former-operational level. Is one stage "better" than the other? Well, perhaps it is best to say that each stage serves as a foundation for the next and so plays an invaluable role in our cognitive development. We should not sneer at the prerational level since it is necessary to lead us to the rational level; likewise we should not ridicule the rational stage, since it is the transitional bridge to the transrational. The transrational level, in Wilber's mind, is the direction we all seem to be eventually heading toward. Some individuals and religious groups, serving as exemplary models, may have already accessed it. This stage may be a higher level of cognitive development but the adjective "better" is really not necessary.
Overall, we can see that religious memes come in different types and correspond with different stages of consciousness. Recognizing the interplay between memetics and genetics certainly helps scholars to better understand how to adjudicate new religions and may in the long run help us to predict which new religions, now in the competitive spiritual marketplace, will survive in the future. As expected, transrational memes springing up in a tribal culture may not replicate well, and mythic memes in a strongly scientific community may die out. Thus, matching the meme to the proper psycho-social-emotional stage of the potential buyers will help to ensure its survival and possible success.