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Monday, October 4, 2010

Richard Dawkins on Viruses of the Mind

I recently came across this article by Richard Dawkins in which he compares faith to a computer virus. I think he makes some interesting points.

Like computer viruses, successful mind viruses will tend to be hard for their victims to detect. If you are the victim of one, the chances are that you won't know it, and may even vigorously deny it. Accepting that a virus might be difficult to detect in your own mind, what tell-tale signs might you look out for? I shall answer by imaging how a medical textbook might describe the typical symptoms of a sufferer (arbitrarily assumed to be male).

1. The patient typically finds himself impelled by some deep, inner conviction that something is true, or right, or virtuous: a conviction that doesn't seem to owe anything to evidence or reason, but which, nevertheless, he feels as totally compelling and convincing. We doctors refer to such a belief as "faith."

2. Patients typically make a positive virtue of faith's being strong and unshakable, in spite of not being based upon evidence. Indeed, they may feel that the less evidence there is, the more virtuous the belief.

3. A related symptom, which a faith-sufferer may also present, is the conviction that ``mystery,'' per se, is a good thing. It is not a virtue to solve mysteries. Rather we should enjoy them, even revel in their insolubility.

4. The sufferer may find himself behaving intolerantly towards vectors of rival faiths, in extreme cases even killing them or advocating their deaths. He may be similarly violent in his disposition towards apostates (people who once held the faith but have renounced it); or towards heretics (people who espouse a different --- often, perhaps significantly, only very slightly different --- version of the faith). He may also feel hostile towards other modes of thought that are potentially inimical to his faith, such as the method of scientific reason which may function rather like a piece of anti-viral software.

5. The patient may notice that the particular convictions that he holds, while having nothing to do with evidence, do seem to owe a great deal to epidemiology. Why, he may wonder, do I hold this set of convictions rather than that set? Is it because I surveyed all the world's faiths and chose the one whose claims seemed most convincing? Almost certainly not. If you have a faith, it is statistically overwhelmingly likely that it is the same faith as your parents and grandparents had.

6. If the patient is one of the rare exceptions who follows a different religion from his parents, the explanation may still be epidemiological. To be sure, it is possible that he dispassionately surveyed the world's faiths and chose the most convincing one. But it is statistically more probable that he has been exposed to a particularly potent infective agent --- a John Wesley, a Jim Jones or a St. Paul. Here we are talking about horizontal transmission, as in measles. Before, the epidemiology was that of vertical transmission, as in Huntington's Chorea.
--Richard Dawkins, "Viruses of the Mind," in Dennett and His Critics: Demystifying Mind, ed. Bo Dahlbom (1993), 13-27.


  1. Maybe #2 makes us feel wiser and more positive than other people. Like if you just know that a criminal is gonna turn out well at some point, or your child is gonna suddenly become a huge success after not showing any signs of that.

    You can then say, "Yep. I knew they'd make it. I believed in them when no one else did." And the other people have to say, "Wow. I'm really surprised. They sure didn't show any signs of this surprising outcome."

    #3-People do like mysteries. It makes life interesting. I've heard lots of Christians talk about the excitement of wondering what God's gonna do next in their lives, etc. That was a positive mystery for them.

    Whereas I would be analyzing things, and they didn't make sense. It would annoy me when people spoke of God opening doors, shutting windows, God's will for my life, and all those other phrases. So much of it seemed so ridiculous and discounted the obvious practical factors or personal characteristics that affect things.

    They saw excitement. I saw confusion and nonsense.

    I think having faith is kind of a way to romanticize life.

  2. The above comment from Samuel D is actually from Lynn. Too many people on this computer!

  3. "Surveyed the world's faiths and chose the most convincing one. But it is statistically more probable that he has been exposed to a particularly potent infective agent --- a John Wesley, a Jim Jones or a St. Paul."

    I wonder if I got bit by the most potent one then.