Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Heroic Memes?

I would say that, if pressed, most people would admit to having a few heroes. Some of those heroes are fictional, some of them are (mostly) factual.

A lot of people idolize Gandhi, for example. Others prefer Captain Kirk. My personal real-world heroes are all scientists or mathematicians, most notably Einstein and Feynman, not necessarily in that order. Oh, and Mr. T. Who is making a comeback!

The funny thing is, no matter who you choose, 99% of the other people in the world, once it is explained who your heroes are, will agree that they are worth respecting. Even if your heroes are bizarre antiheroes. Even if you idolize Coyote or the Marquis de Sade, once you explain why, people will nod and say, "you've got a point. That's worth respecting."

That got me thinking: what is the fundamental thing about these people?

After a bit of thought, it was head-slappingly obvious. In its purest form, you aren't idolizing the person, you're idolizing the idea(l)s that person represents. If you idolize Gandhi, you're probably idolizing the idea of passive resistance, or of standing up to superior forces without stooping to war or murder. If you idealize Captain Kirk, you're probably idolizing the idea of exploration and comraderie.

Other ideas get tied up in these because the hero is who he is. Often, these other ideas are closely related. Gandhi's soft-spoken dialogues, his humble clothes - these are descendents of his cohesive passive resistance. (An interesting subject all on its own, actually... many hypotheses of memetics can be derived from Gandhi.) Kirk's legendary "green-skinned bims" and indomitable willpower also descended from his ideals.

Others become so inextricably linked that you associate them with each other, even when there is little evidence they are connected. Einstein and Feynman's good humors are examples: we no longer think that a scientist has to be dour and somber. Why we thought that in the first place was another set of concepts which were linked without actually being causal.

But all heroes have something in common. A self-propagating meta-meme.

Each hero urges you to "think like I do". Once you start to, those heroes become even more applicable to you. But more than that, their way of thinking offers an advantage (psychological, social, or mathematical) over the "normal" ways of thinking. (This is a balance thing: if everyone was like Feynman, then being a somber scientist would be noteworthy and effective.)

The key isn't that you follow in their footsteps. They key is that they followed in their footsteps. Every hero, fictional or real, is largely the embodiment of an idealized philosophy, tinted with their personal nature. They are professional Gandhis, Feynmans, and Kirks. And the more people appreciate their Gandhism, Feynmanness, and Kirkishness, the more Gandhic, Feynmannish, and Kirky they become.

It's a perpetuating memetic loop. A black hole of heroism!

But, by its very nature, it can't last. Once the person dies, once the stories stop being made anew, they stop exerting their influence. Some quirk of memetics makes it all but impossible for someone emulating their hero to be heroic in the same way. They still benefit from their hero-induced philosophy, but they are not a black hole. They cannot "replace" Gandhi, or Mr. T. (Fortunately, since he's not dead, Mr. T won't need replacing in the near future.)

This might be psychological, or it might be lynchpin-related, but this isn't the place to discuss that.

Also, the stories about those heroes generally grow less and less relevant as culture moves on. That's why it would be bizarre to idolize Coyote. Culturally, he's not in-synch. The number of people idolizing Einstein grows fewer each year, and the number of people idolizing Newton is nearly zero. They don't mesh as well with culture as they did during their life, because they aren't alive to adapt themselves to modern culture.

But the underlying approach they had. Is that an approach which is only valid in their culture? Or is the underlying premise valid in every culture, a kind of basic law of "useful philosophy"? If the latter, these laws could be identified and listed. If the former, you would need to design a method of determining what kinds of approaches would be most likely to be highly successful in a given culture.

A heady task... and a really awesome idea for a science-fiction story.

Anyhow, these self-perpetuating "black holes" of heroism are an interesting topic to study. Who are your heroes? Do you think they had a "black hole" around them, a gravity field which made them ever more them as time passed?


Patrick Dugan said...

One of my personal heroes is Kurt Godel, the interesting thing about his memetics is that he is largely famous for his incompleteness theorem, which, when extrapolated outside the confines of formal mathematical systems, becomes a sort of meta-meta-meme involving phenomena which transcend their system of origin. In this sense, the Godel meme lives forever, as cultural adaptations and paradigmn shifts are symptomatic of the very idea which made Godel famous.

Craig Perko said...

So do you idealize Godel or his theorum? Do you try to "act like Godel"?

Patrick Dugan said...

Actually yes, I've developed hypochondria in order to be more like Kurt.