Discussion #8 – Memes, Psychology and Religion – Are we better than we used to be?

This week we welcome John Hanly, our latest guest on the audio blog who has a special personal connection to The Gentlemen Scientists – he is Brian’s father! John has had a long, varied and fascinating career as a Catholic priest in training, a psychologist, businessman and consultant and writer – a true polymath. Tonight he joins us and applies his formidable intellect to questions of memetics, psychology, religion and ethics.

Like many of us, John has a keen and active interest in both science and religion. As the new century brings exciting cross-collaborative developments (such the scientific study of meditation), these also bring new opportunities for us to reconcile what has previously seemed incompatible. The Gentlemen Scientists believe that rambling conversations such as this week’s discussion are more and more the need of the hour.

Along the way we discuss why childhood traumas can so deeply affect adult life, how cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) works, issues of determinism and free will; Dawkin’s definition of the “meme”, the mechanisms of “cultural transmission” and why memetics hasn’t contributed serious results to science; how Buddhist adepts modify their brains to achieve detachment, social learning theory and speculations on why advertising works.

Lord_of_the_FliesImage courtesy catholicvote.org

And we are not afraid of asking the big questions – we finish up by considering the idea of “moral progress” – are we morally and ethically better off as a human society than we used to be – or are we, as in The Lord of the Flies, just savages in slacks?


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1John Conway’s Game of Life is the most famous example of a class of mathematical model systems called cellular automata. It exhibits highly complex and unpredictable emergent behaviours from a set of trivially simple rules.

2This page on Encyclopedia Britannica has a good summary of epigenetics, the modification of gene expression by environment. Epigenetic effects have become better understood in recent years and have modified our views on the mechanisms that drive genetic inheritance.

3The amygdala is an ancient structure within the limbic system which integrates sensory and visceral inputs in time.

4Research with Buddhist monks was done at the University Wiscosin-Madison and reported in the book ‘Happiness’ by Matthieu Ricard. A related talk can be found on TED Talks.

5Explanation of Jung’s theory of archetypes.

6Anti-drink-driving campaigns in Australia run bt the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) have been enormously succesful over the last two decades, significantly reducing Australia’s road toll.

7Donald Rumsfeld’s famous remarks about “unknown unknowns” – although this has long been a subject of ridicule, his argument is excellent and correct.

8“The Surprising Decline of Violence” – Steven Pinker

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