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I am having a brain fart. No, my brain is not malfunctioning, it is farting hot air and fecal (thecal?) matter on the page–er blog–whatever this thing is. I am writing to remind myself that it is infinitely better to write down a half-baked idea than it is to never bake it at all. I only have so many creative sparks I can produce in my lifetime, and I don’t want to let them go to waste. I have recently looked back at some pieces of writing I did in the past, and found that I deleted them. DON’T DO THAT, FUTURE SELF! All fully baked ideas come from half-baked ones, and all good writing comes from bad writing.

This is a half-baked post. Maybe it will turn into something fully-baked someday, but it probably won’t. Nonetheless, it is here as a reminder to my future self.

Inspired by Josiah’s posts about his character crushes, I will make a more metal version here and talk about my musician crushes. Music tends to have more lasting power for me than film. Hence I don’t have many persistent character crushes, but I do have a few musician crushes I have been unable to shake for years.

These ladies are just as talented and badass as they are gorgeous. In no particular order:

Laura Nichol

laura1 laura2

Laura Nichol is cute as a kitten and has the voice of a lion. For five years she screamed her lungs out in the band Light This City. Through her lyrics in this band she showed an active, diverse, and sometimes morbid imagination.

Laura had to learn to stand up for herself during her time in Light This City, due to a lot of unfortunate sexism she encountered in the metal community. Here is one song that shows it.

Laura makes music simply for the joy of doing so. She eventually tired of the metal scene she was in when it became too competitive and she didn’t feel free to pursue her passions. It was then that she co-founded the punk band Heartsounds, in which she sings and plays guitar. It was a risky move that was likely to be unpopular with old fans, but the results were fantastic.

“Heartsounds” may be a cheesy name, but it actually does describe the band well. They put their hearts out there with every song they play. I can relate to their music so well, as it impeccably conveys the plight of a young person trying to find their place in the world.

Here is one such song, the grand finale from their most recent album “Internal Eyes”.

Hopefully I’ll get the chance to see Laura play live, as she lives right across the bay.

Anna Murphy

 anna1 anna2

Anna Murphy plays the hurdy gurdy and sings in the folk metal band Eluveitie (pronounced el-vay-tee). Yes, you read that sentence right, the hurdy gurdy is an instrument, and folk metal is a thing. The band plays traditional Swiss folk instruments alongside typical metal ones. But don’t get too excited about the concept, because if that was all that made Eluveitie special, they would simply be a novelty band; and Eluveitie is so much more than just a novelty band. They are good at conveying all kinds of emotions through their music, especially one that is too often neglected in extreme metal: happiness.

Anna has proven to be a fast learner, as she started playing her instrument right around the time she joined the band. She even learned a dead language (Gaulish), just so she could sing it in a few songs.

Here is one such song in Gaulish:

Listening to her more recent work, it is easy to tell how much more powerful her voice has become. Here is a beautiful song about a young Celt feeling hopeless during an invasion by the Romans, and calling out to her goddess Epona for help.

In addition to Eluveitie, Anna has her own side project where she continues to develop her musical talents. Her style in this side project is a mix of pop, rock, and electronica; or as she calls it “eclectica”.

Hayley Williams

 hayley1 hayley2

Time to break the metal trend and talk about Hayley Williams of Paramore. In addition to an overpowering voice and poetic lyrics, Hayley has spunk of legendary proportions. She has the unique ability to let her sense of humor permeate everything she does, despite the fact that her music and lyrics are entirely serious. This is a quality I see in many great musicians (Rush and The Beatles also come to mind). I have a hard time appreciating musicians like weird Al whose work is blatantly humorous. The humor somehow seems to cheapen the listening experience for me, and make the music have no lasting power.  When their humor comes across in other ways, however, I feel more connected to the musician.

Here are some Paramore songs that have particular of resonance with me. They reflect my changing outlook in recent years. “Brick by Boring Brick” is about learning to be practical after living in one’s head for so long.

Similarly, “Careful” has the line “the truth never set me free, so I’ll do it myself” that gets repeated over and over. This line has always stuck with me (for an explanation, see my post “truth, reason, and emotion”). It is a bit ironic because Hayley is Christian, and the line is an altered bible quote.

I submitted the following as my final paper in a philosophy class. The official title was “On the Existence of Free Will”

There is, ostensibly, a great tension between our notion of free will and that of determinism. Determinism is the idea that every event is caused by some previous event. That previous event determined exactly what its effect would be with no wiggle room. Under determinism, the state of the universe in its entirety at this moment was the direct result of its state at a previous moment. Similarly, there is only one possible state the universe can assume at any given time in the future, which is determined by its state now. A universe governed by Newtonian mechanics is one example of a deterministic universe. One thought experiment which elucidates the implications of determinism is that of Laplace’s demon. Laplace’s demon is an extremely intelligent hypothetical agent who somehow comes to know the state of the universe in its entirety—down to every last particle. With its infinite computational power, the demon is able to predict with 100% accuracy the state of the universe at all future times (Dennett, 2003, p. 28). Under determinism, it seems, the future is fixed.

Our everyday notion of free will relies on multiple possibilities. Whenever I make a decision, I experience this decision as a state in which there are multiple genuine possibilities before me. I—as the free agent—select which of those possibilities becomes actual. For example, when I wake up in the morning I could have regular coffee, decaf, something else entirely, or nothing at all. Before I make my decision, all these seem like genuine possibilities. Once I make my decision and act on it, one of these possibilities becomes actual. I may experience regret about my decision. If I decide to drink decaffeinated coffee with my breakfast and later feel excessively drowsy, I may express regret at wasting my money on such an infernal beverage. It appears to me that I could have made a different decision—that there were several ways the state of affairs could have evolved and my choosing influenced that evolution.

How then are we to reconcile the two positions? Must we give up free will? The implications of this would be dire. We hold one another accountable for our actions based on the assumption that we all act as free agents. Our sense of justice is based on the idea that people should be held responsible for what they freely choose to do. If there is no free will, it would seem that people do what they do simply because there was some brute cause for their actions and our sense of justice is misguided.

Should we instead give up on determinism? Perhaps there are some things which are uncaused, and perhaps this gives room for free will? It is worth noting that our current understanding of physics is non-deterministic. Quantum mechanics, which describes the behavior of subatomic particles, states that these particles exhibit genuinely random behavior. There is nothing that causes an electron to be in one particular place rather than another, there are only probabilities associated with its location. Under quantum mechanics, there is genuine randomness in nature, and hence more than one possible future (Griffiths, 2005, pp. 2-5). This means that not even Laplace’s demon could predict the way a quantum mechanical system will evolve. Could this be the savior of free will? It would seem that the statement “when I make a decision, I could have chosen otherwise,” is true.

Alas, I fear this line of thinking leads us to absurdity. If I started running around screaming like a maniac, surely you would ask me why I did so. If further investigation revealed that there was no causal account, and my behavior was the result of a purely random event, no one would say that my action was free. To give another example, suppose my mother is cutting fruit in the kitchen. When I walk by, she turns around and stabs me in the neck, killing me. During the subsequent murder trial, conclusive evidence is found that her arm moved randomly, with no signal from her brain. Should the judge hold her accountable? I would say, “Absolutely not”. The event was entirely random, and was not under the control of my unsuspecting mother.

It would seem that both determinism and indeterminism do not allow for free will.  Indeterminism allows for multiple possible futures, but does not seem to agree with our intuitions about free will. This is because in the cases of both determinism and indeterminism, an agent’s actions are caused by something other than the agent itself. In the case of determinism, the agent’s actions are caused by the conditions before the agent’s birth. In the case of indeterminism, they are caused by these conditions plus an element of randomness. Free will would seem to require both that we could have done otherwise, and that we are the causes of our actions. Is such freedom possible?

Before I attempt to answer this question, I will describe the conceptual foundation which forms the basis for my answer. This is a kind of radical physicalism. Everything is physical. There are no souls, spirits, gods, or other immaterial beings. The entirety of existence could, in principle, be described by a sufficiently advanced science. Some will undoubtedly find this physicalism controversial. While this is a position I firmly hold, I will not argue for it here. Rather I will argue its implications in the debate on free will. My position on free will relies on the proposition that everything we know ultimately reduces to something physical. This includes consciousness, ideas, emotions, and desires.

It is worth spending some time clarifying what I mean by “reduces to something physical”. To do this, I will explain the concept of levels of abstraction as it pertains to my discipline, electrical engineering.

A computer is a marvel of modern engineering. But how was it designed? No engineer has ever designed a computer in its entirety from the ground up. That would be a fool’s errand. Such a contraption is vast and complex to the extent that no single person understands every aspect of how it works. First, an engineer specializing in physical electronics designs the transistors, diodes, and other devices that form the lowest level of abstraction. Another engineer uses these to create logic gates for use in computation and flip flops to be used for memory. Another engineer uses these as building blocks to design the building blocks the next engineer uses. A software engineer, working at the highest level, designs programs using abstract concepts which in no way resemble the physical constituents of the computer. As we ascend the levels, our ontology changes. Each successive level of abstraction is explainable in terms of the previous level. When a computer program, such as the word processor I am using right now, executes, the behavior of the computer could be described in terms of the trajectories of a vast number of electrons through silicon and metal at the lowest level. However, such a description would be extremely convoluted and would likely give no useable insight into how the program works. When a software engineer describes a program in software jargon, each term they use is ultimately reducible to some complex movement of electrons. Take note of what the word “reduce” means in this context. To say that software engineering reduces to physical electronics most emphatically does not mean that the software jargon is useless or invalid; far from it. It does mean, however, that physical electronics is most fundamental in describing how a computer works. Each level is a valid way of describing what a computer does. Each successive level makes approximations and simplifications which leave out some details of the previous level, but make the information more manageable for larger scale design. The boundaries between levels are arbitrary, so long as each is consistent with empirical data on what the system does.

I have used the engineering example to motivate the validity of the concept of levels of abstraction[1]. Within this field, this concept is not the least bit controversial. No one doubts it is true that a word processor creates text documents, even though their existence is reducible to other things, such as magnetic dipoles on a hard drive and pixels on a screen.

The same, I hold, is true of nature. All our descriptions of nature ultimately reduce to physics. Animal behavior is reducible to cellular biology. That is, everything an animal does can—in principle—be explained in terms of the interactions of its cells. Cellular biology is reducible to chemistry, and chemistry is reducible to physics. As we descend the levels of abstraction, we find a description of the constituents of the previous levels.

I am now in a position to make a claim about free will. Free will exists as a high level abstraction. It is an approximation which is applicable to our daily lives, but breaks down if we look more closely.

At a low level, my actions are caused by deterministic and probabilistic causes. These include such small details as temperature fluctuations in the room, random changes in the signal strength in my neurons, and pressure changes in my cerebrospinal fluid. Laplace’s demon could trace all the physical causes of a person’s actions down to the last molecule.

For the purposes of our daily lives, however, such a detailed model of human behavior would be utterly unworkable. It would be even more convoluted and cumbersome than describing a computer program via the movement of electrons. We must make a high level model of human behavior. In this high level model, we approximate the will as a single, indivisible entity. This approximation states the following:

1)      The will is efficacious—it causes things to happen

2)      Whenever the will causes something to happen, it could have caused otherwise

3)      An action is free when the will is a sufficiently significant cause of that action

According to 2), this model takes for granted that we could have done otherwise. When I make a decision I see multiple possibilities before me and cause one to become actual. If we take low level details into consideration, each of these possibilities is a mere epistemic possibility—a case where I do not have enough information to know which future will happen (for instance, about the details mentioned in the previous paragraph). At a high level, we leave these details out and approximate the epistemic possibilities as genuine possibilities about what could have happened. This is the sense in which we could have done otherwise.

According to 3), an action is free if it is a sufficiently significant cause of that action, but not necessarily the only cause. For example, when someone persuades me to do something, my action was caused by my will and by the other person’s argument. If, on the other hand, they coerce me to do something, my will was a negligible cause of my action so I should not be held morally responsible. I will leave the question of exactly how significant the will must be to judges and juries.

If free will as an approximation sounds unsatisfactory, it would pay to remember that many other things are high level approximations. These include: cats, airplanes, trees, computers, chairs, coffee shops, and just about anything we interact with on a daily basis.  Approximations are made even when we refer to a simple object such as a pencil. We model the pencil as an object with a definite boundary between itself and the air surrounding it. At a lower level, however, this is not so. If we look at the surface of the pencil at the microscopic level, we find there is no non-arbitrary way to draw an exact boundary between the atoms that compose the pencil and the atoms of the air. When we model the behavior of a cat, we make much more elaborate approximations. For instance, the idea that the cat desires tuna is a fairly simple idea. But the concept of a desire is an approximation of tremendously complicated brain states. Free will exists just as surely as people, cats, and pencils.

If the sort of freedom you crave is a fundamental and irreducible law of nature, you will be sorely disappointed. However, nature has provided us with a sort of free will sufficient for our purposes—namely planning and moral responsibility. Since moral responsibility is a concept that relies on the existence of people who are high level abstractions, it is a high level abstraction as well[2]. When we see that a person’s will caused something to happen, we can then assign the appropriate praise or blame. Likewise, when I am considering whether or not to follow my ambitions and put effort into achieving my life goals, it would make absolutely no sense for me to give up on the grounds that everything is determined (or random, as the case may be). To do so would be to think at the wrong level of abstraction.

You might say I am stubbornly trying to have my cake and eat it too. This may be true, but I insist I am doing so by refusing to lose the forest for the trees. The forest of free will is composed of the trees of physical causes. To say “there is no free will, only physical causes of one’s actions” is tantamount to saying “I can’t see the forest, there are all these trees in the way!” I will let the incompatabilists continue to lose sleep over this issue while I wake up feeling well rested, ready to freely choose what to have for breakfast (perhaps cake?).

Works Cited

Dennett, D. C. (2003). Freedom Evolves. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.

Griffiths, D. J. (2005). Introduction to Quantum Mechanics (Second ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

McLaughlin, B., & Bennett, K. (2011, November 2). Supervenience. Retrieved May 8, 2012, from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/supervenience/#4.3

 

 


[1] I will continue to use the term “level of abstraction” the way engineers and computer scientists use it. Some might find the word “abstraction” troublesome here. A philosopher might prefer “level of reality” or “level of supervenience” (i.e. the properties at a higher level globally supervene on the properties at a lower level (McLaughlin & Bennett, 2011)), it makes no difference for my argument.

[2] This is controversial, but I will not argue this further for the purposes of this paper. To do so would be to enter into the messy debate on the nature of morality.

 

As one progresses in their profession, they often have the tendency to exaggerate the importance of their work. Today, I will take part in this tradition with the following preposterously pompous plug for my profession, and hope that my acknowledgment thereof will protect me from blame.

I have said before that being an upper level electrical engineering student sometimes feels like going to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I think there are some rather striking parallels between wizard lore and what modern electrical engineers actually do. An engineering student spends many long hours learning highly abstract concepts written in esoteric looking symbols. When I look at my notes from my lectures, the equations look like ancient runes. I have spent many a long hour deciphering these symbols, thinking in arcane abstractions before finally achieving a result.

The knowledge gained from these studies is used to work with unseen forces which pervade the walls and the space around us. With these, engineers create light, heat, and sound, and bend them all to our whims. We are able to conjure fire, use light to produce motion, and routinely manipulate some of the smallest known constituents of matter.

Even some of the terminology mirrors that of wizard lore. “Perfect crystal”, “imaginary component”, and “infinite impedance” are all technical terms we use, yet they sound like something out of a fantasy novel (a challenge to my engineering friends: what are the best magic-sounding technical terms you can think of?).

The role we play in society is similar to that of a great wizard. The saying “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” has become a truism. I think our conception of magic is deeply confused. Magic is anything extraordinary that is unexplained and unexplainable. If there is a complete explanation of how something happens all the way down to forces acting upon particles, it is not magic. Technology is not magic because it can be completely explained in terms of physical phenomena. Yet, our fantasy conceptions of magic usually make it explainable enough to be controllable by a wizard. It acts with enough regularity and predictability that one can harness it to their whim. Therefore, there must be some sort of laws of magic which are a subset of laws of nature.

Thus I am going to call the distinction between magic and technology completely bogus, and I am going to introduce myself as a wizard from now on 🙂

Edit: the link to the TED talk that is supposed to be here broke. I don’t actually remember which TED talk it was, so I’m not going to fix it. The specific talk isn’t crucial to my point anyway.

This TED talk drives home an idea that has been brewing in my head.

There is a certain line of thinking which goes something like this:

“In the modern world, our environment is becoming increasingly artificial and soulless. Sure, technology might make our lives easier and more convenient, and give us more toys to play with, but we are losing touch with our humanity. People of the past were closer to nature. Today, we run around like a hamster on a wheel looking for that next promotion, car, big screen TV, etc. We are becoming vapid consumers who are deficient on real human contact as we spend more time online. In addition, genocides and wars are rampant on the global scale. We are destroying our environment and becoming more violent.”

I don’t buy it. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is absolutely valid and necessary to criticize aspects of modern life brought on by technology. There are challenges people of today face that people of the past didn’t. We certainly can become deficient on face-to-face human contact in our culture of texting and facebooking. It certainly can be easy at times to lose track of our priorities by trying to get the latest gadgets or career opportunities without thinking about what is important in life. And there is a very real risk of destroying ourselves via climate change or weapons of mass destruction.

But for the sweet love of Zeus and all that is holy, don’t trivialize our accomplishments. The fact of the matter is, technology has real power to improve our lives. I’m not talking about toys and luxuries here; I am talking about alleviation of human suffering. Our ability to feed and medicate ourselves and to meet our basic needs is unprecedented in the history of our species. Furthermore, the ease with which we meet said needs has tremendously reduced people’s tendency to resort to violence. In societies past, torture, killing and dismemberment were standard procedure in resolving disagreements and competing for resources. Even a cursory glance at history should be enough to demonstrate that we are more peaceful now than we have ever been. If you need more convincing, check out this other TED talk by Stephen Pinker.

Furthermore, technology has made it easier for people to understand one another. Communication technology has made it possible for people of any language, nationality, or creed to speak to one another. We are more connected today than ever before, and I believe this has led to real positive results. Today, racism is nearly universally seen as a problem, whereas in the past, it was taken for granted.

I am incredibly optimistic about the future. This is why I, as an engineer, will gladly take part in the creation of new technology. Many speak of the wonders of ages past, but I think the present is far more extraordinary than any previous time, by orders of magnitude even. It is time to exorcise our perpetual collective nostalgia and embrace the present.

I’d like to give a shout-out to a YouTube “vlogger” who goes by the moniker of Pyrrho314. You can check out his channel here:

http://www.youtube.com/user/pyrrho314?ob=0&feature=results_main

At times his videos can seem disjointed and nigh impenetrable to a newcomer. Nonetheless, He has been incredibly influential on my own philosophical thinking. Here is a great video series outlining some of the basics of his philosophy.

Today, while I was riding my bike, I stopped by my old high school. I was surprised by the amount of nostalgia this induced in me. I remembered what the world looked like through the eyes of a naive, starry-eyed teenager. The world seemed so vast and expansive. The possibilities seemed limitless.

Nostalgia is often described as the feeling that life used to be better at a previous time. I think this is sorely mistaken. As I reminisced on my old academic abode, I felt absolutely no desire to return to those days. I also remembered all the social blunders I used to make. I am quite pleased that, while I was able to remember both the good times and the bad, only the good times seemed to have an emotional effect on me. As I remembered the bad times, I thought about what I would do differently now. I am deeply thankful for this. It showed me that life does, in fact, get better. It is possible for life to get better while remembering and learning from the past.

What is it that makes life so much better for me now, anyway? For one thing, I know so much more about myself. I have a basic understanding of how my emotions work. I understand how I best interact with other people, what makes me happy and what doesn’t.

Furthermore, I have so much more freedom than I did in high school. I am the kind of person who longs for independence. I don’t like to have to follow other people’s rules on how to live. In the past I have usually retreated into my head when I didn’t feel like I had enough freedom in my real life. Times have changed, and what goes on in my head is beginning to converge with what happens in my real life.

It has been said that all art aspires to the condition of music. This certainly correlates well with my experience. Music is the art form that moves me most easily, and my appreciation of other art forms is often only possible by making mental analogies to music. Music has a unique ability to bring one into the present moment. It is not like a painting which is still there after you look at it. As soon as music is created, it is gone.

Enough with the artsy-fartsy analysis, let’s move on.

I recently discovered a punk band from San Francisco called Heartsounds. When I first heard them, I thought their mix of soft melodies and semi-melodic vocals with thrashy riffs and drums sounded awkward and forced. Since then, they have really grown on me. I am impressed by how well they live up their name. Every song conveys a particular emotion with striking clarity and brutal honesty. And I love how they have a song for every mood from hopelessness

to happiness.

In other news, I have ventured into dubstep, which seems to be all the rage these days. Here is one little gem I discovered.

It’s a little repetitive, but I love it. I’m not usually into rap, but the rap part in this song has some pretty amazing flow.

I once saw a video of Richard Dawkins in which he was discussing the line from A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “I’d rather be happy than right any day.” Dawkins, being the vehement atheist he is, said that this seems to be the mindset of many religious believers–rather than caring about whether or not their beliefs are correct, they simply care about whether or not their beliefs make them happy. Dawkins concluded that he would rather be right than happy.

Years ago, I might have agreed with him. I used to think truth and reason were to be valued above all else, even emotions. Now I see Dawkins’ conclusion as an extremely foolish one.

Here’s the thing, though. Reason is very often obscured by emotions. “Appeal to emotions” is a classic logical fallacy found everywhere, particularly in political debate. Thinking with emotions rather than reason often has disastrous results. It is also easy to come to conclusions that are very emotionally seductive, but very untrue. It has always been my philosophy that a difficult truth is always preferable to a comforting fiction.

Thus, I can see how Dawkins came to his conclusion that he would rather be right than happy. Nonetheless I still think it is foolish.

David Hume, a brilliant reasoner and one of my favorite philosophers, once said “Reason is, and ought only be, a slave to the passions.” This is a statement I strongly agree with, but we must be careful while parsing it. Reason is a tool, an extremely powerful tool. Thinking with emotions can greatly disable its proper use. But why use reason at all? Is there any argument based on logic alone that will compel us to work, study, or do anything else requiring the use of reason? The thing is, humans do everything for emotional reasons. Anything we do has the end goal of achieving some emotional state. Perhaps for ourselves, perhaps for others.

I still maintain that a difficult truth is always better than a comforting fiction, or rather, almost always. I seek truth for emotional reasons, and I believe that believing the truth is ultimately in everyone’s long term emotional interests. There have been times I have struggled with difficult questions in which the truth was hard to face. Once I got through the difficulty, however, I found it extremely rewarding to rid myself of an illusion.

However, If I only had 24 hours to live, I would be content believing all the comforting fictions in the world. If truly pressed to choose between being happy and being right, I would choose to be happy without a second’s thought.

This post is long overdue, as I would like to revise my previous post. It has been called to my attention that William Paley’s teleological argument, if revised to argue for a designer who is not necessarily infinitely intelligent, does not commit any formal fallacies, and is in fact a valid argument from analogy. It draws an analogy between complex objects designed by humans, and the complex universe. The question still remains: is this analogy strong enough to make the argument convincing? The fact is, arguments from analogy are made all the time, and taken seriously even in science. For example, rolling billiard balls apply forces to the sides of the container they are in. When scientists observe a gas applying force to the sides of its container, they hypothesize that the gas is composed of particles similar in some ways to billiard balls.

David Hume argues that the analogy between a watch and the universe is not particularly strong, and that the universe could just as easily be likened to a living organism—the origin of which is precisely the one of the issues in question.

While I see Hume’s point, I do, in fact, find Paley’s analogy compelling. There does seem to be a striking resemblance between human technology and the type of “design” found in nature.

Rather than saying that everything is designed by an intelligent agent, however, I would like to posit the idea that everything is evolved. To paraphrase Dan Dennett (did I mention I love Dan Dennett!?), the teleological argument made an excellent argument for the existence of God before Darwin came along. It always seemed as if simpler things were always made from bigger, more complex things. Then Darwin turned this reasoning on its head. He showed how simple things could create more wonderful things. This “strange inversion of reasoning” has been tremendously successful in describing the natural world. In recent years, some have posited the idea of “universal Darwinism” from which meme theory was born (did I mention I love meme theory!?). Universal Darwinism states that a population of anything will evolve if it possesses these three properties:

  1. Variation
  2. Differential fitness – some members of the population are more likely to “survive” than others
  3. Heritability – traits are passed on from one individual to another.

This is applied to human culture in meme theory. Units of cultural transmission possess these three properties. Units of cultural transmission—memes—include ideas, styles of clothing and architecture, mannerisms, and even habits of where to place one’s coffee mug. Anything that can be copied by another person counts as a meme. There is great variation in the memes out there, and they are passed on whenever one is copied. Some are better at being copied than others. Some ideas are copied more frequently than others because they are more true, or good, or beautiful. Still others are copied simply because they are memorable. Advertising jingles are passed from the radio or TV to a person’s brain, to their coworker’s brain when it is hummed or whistled.

I think the idea of universal Darwinism applies very nicely to human technology. In our folk psycology, we tend to think of design as a process in which a plan is completely laid out in someone’s brain, then executed. As an engineering student, I can safely say that this is very seldom the way it plays out. One of the buzz words in the engineering world today is “iterative design”. An idea is born, then it is tested. It might succeed, but often fails. Thus a new idea takes its place and is selected for or against by the testing process. In this process, the human brain acts more like a source of mutations than anything.

At first blush it seems that there is an important difference between this kind of evolution and biological evolution in that the mutations coming from an engineer’s brain are not random but carefully thought out. It is important to remember, however, that most of the ideas in an engineer’s brain are themselves memes which are the products of a long and arduous process of cultural evolution. I am not denying that there is a creative process here in which the engineer acts as a source of ideas. I am, however, trying to deflate this creative role, and point out how similar the engineering process is to biological evolution.

Folk art is often even more similar to biological evolution than engineering. Often, crafts are passed down through the generations, attempting to stay true to tradition. Sometimes a mutation occurs, which is selected for or against due to its beauty or functionality.

Thoughts?