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The way of thinking I came up with at the end of Antiviral Memes—that there is a selection mechanism for thoughts, and that viral memes exploit it—seems important enough to me to merit its own essay. Too bad I'm not going to write one! If I did, I know I'd file it under The Mind, but I don't know what I'd say, except that the actual selection mechanism has something to do with association and distraction. What I'm going to do here, instead, is continue my train of thought involving Eurisko.

I already wrote at length about Eurisko, in the essay Eurisko, but for present purposes I'd like to summarize. Eurisko is an artificial intelligence program developed by Douglas Lenat around 1980. It reasoned using heuristic rules and was quite successful within certain suitable domains, but was limited by its lack of common sense. The heuristic rules were represented in such a way that plausible new rules could be generated by (rule-based) mutation.

In Antiviral Memes, I mentioned a problem involving heuristic rules that did nothing but promote themselves. Here's the original text, from The Nature of Heuristics.

For instance, one newly synthesized heuristic kept rising in Worth, and finally I looked at it. It was doing no real work at all, but just before the credit/blame assignment phase, it quickly cycled through all the new concepts, and when it found one with high Worth it put its own name down as one of the creditors. Nothing is ‘wrong’ with that policy, except that in the long run it fails to lead to better results.

I said, before, that the troublesome rule was viral, but that's not exactly right. Eurisko didn't communicate with any others of its kind, since there weren't any, so the rule can't exactly be said to have propagated. On the other hand, the rule did guarantee its own continued existence within Eurisko, propagating itself over time rather than space, if you like (cf. Miscellaneous Zelazny). In any case, the rule seems viral to me, and I will continue to think of it as such.

Not only that, the rule was newly synthesized, or, as I like to say, spontaneously generated. Now, I've talked, here and there (e.g., Association and No Speed Limits), about memes being spontaneously generated, but I've never really explained what I meant, so here's an attempt at a definition.

Produced by the action of a mind on other memes, especially when the other memes are commonplace.

The idea that the Earth is flat, for example, is easy to generate spontaneously, since it's a simple generalization of the visible fact that the Earth is pretty flat locally.

By the way, I chose the phrase “action of a mind” over “thought processes” in order to avoid suggesting that the process is always a conscious one. If anything, I'd say it's more likely to be unconscious. Even the word “mind” is not ideal, since it suggests that the mind should be a human one. I would have said “meme-processing system” instead, but that was a bit too circular for my taste.

So, what do we have? Eurisko spontaneously generated a new concept, a viral meme that succeeded by claiming responsibility for all concepts of high worth, i.e., all good concepts. Hmm … a meme that claims to be responsible for everything good … an entity responsible for everything that is good … remind you of anything? I think Eurisko discovered religion!

The analogy is better than you might think, as long as you remember that we're talking about claiming responsibility for good ideas—ideas that have intrinsic value, like taking a day off every now and then, or not eating foods that are likely to make you sick—rather than good things that exist in the world. That would be a later refinement, I guess.

So, I think what we have here is an example of something I noted in Religion.

Weak forms arise spontaneously …


  See Also

  Convergent Evolution

@ October (2001)