Saturday, May 20, 2006

Jesus and the Pareto Principle

If we accept the inevitability of Pareto-math in human societies, then the only question for a civilization is which arbitrary attributes should be rewarded in selecting the top twenty per cent. In Tibet, the top twenty percent were selected for their holiness and focus; among the Huns, they were chosen for their aggression and loyalty; in the Soviet Union, an odd combination of cynicism and gullibility; in recent times, an ability to avoid thinking about long-range consequences coupled with a certain type of emotional insensitivity. For those interested in social justice, it is chastening to realize that in each of these societies, eighty per cent of the resources were controlled by twenty per cent of the people, and pareto-distributions in "socialist" societies usually have greater inequalities of wealth than pareto-distributions in market-driven economies.

Societies change from within when the legitimational system promulgated by the ruling elites represents an unattainable ideal for those elites or when power becomes so completely centralized that eighty percent of the resources are controlled by less than ten percent of the people. In America, there are fundamental genetic differences in the ways in which hard-core Republicans and liberal Democrats process information, and, insofar as our political struggles are real, they can be seen as two different genetic subgroups trying to promote systems of legitimation that will give their specific subgroup greater control of resources. This is not to say that some people aren't fighting for a better world, and that all types of political activity are a waste of time, but it is an important warning not to take most politics too seriously.

Jesus short-circuited the Pareto-principle. By positing a direct relationship to God -- God is your father -- he offered a vision of society where one could bask in God's love and see control of resources or social status as unimportant goals. In Chimpanzee terms, Christianity allows gamma (or even omega*) members of society to create subgroups in which everyone is an alpha, without disrupting the economic system. In other words, Jesus was one of the pioneers of virtual reality -- he created a space where the economic limitations of class do not hamper the psychological experience of freedom.

But, even in imaginary kingdoms, the temptations of social status are too great, so Catholicism replicated the earthly hierarchy while Protestantism almost inevitably fragments into ever smaller subgroups, with each egalitarian community thinking itself the most special. The liberal denominations, primarily drawn from the top quintile, are disgusted by the fundamentalists, who steadfastly refuse to accept a cosmology with couples existential superiority with economic advantage. The beauty of combining religion with liberal democracy is that eighty percent of the people can enjoy the psychological benefits of believing they are in the top twenty percent. But if the snobbery implicit in the Pareto principle is an obstacle to spiritual growth, democratizing the experience of that snobbery runs against the deeper purpose of religion.

So maybe Francis was right and Luther was wrong: Centralized power puts toxins in a single place where they can easily be avoided, and allows people the freedom to pursue a spiritual life. If the world is less attractive, an other-worldly life is more attractive, and if an other-worldly life is superior to a worldly life, then an unattractive world lead more people to superior and ultimately happier lives.

The problem comes when you tear away the curtains of your civilization's legitimation, and rather than basking in the rays of God's love, you are freezing, naked and alone in a cold and empty universe. Theistic traditions promise that God will find you if you wait long enough in despair; Buddhism says that once you experience the absolute emptiness of selflessness, ideas like freezing, naked, alone, cold and empty become just about as meaningful as ideas like rich, warm, and fulfilled. So the room has two exits, but you have to choose one.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Borrow, so when do the under chimps rise up again?
Sorry, I was gnawing on a melon rind and hooting at the moon and mayhaps missed the point.

6:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ex-cellent work Borrow. I think it must be stated that
Jesus also confounds Pareto's principle by Mathew 20, the parable of the workers in the vineyard. A working doing a half days work is paid the same
as the one who does a whole. Is he working more
efficiently, doing the essential 20% of the task to yeild the 80%? No. He is doing spiritual work which by its
very nature defies ratios, measurable outcome, even
cause/effect. So there's Christ as a facilitator of a new space and relationship to authority, the cyber kingdom of God, and Christ as a Manager who
truly 'thought outside of the box'. Who saw the Matrix
for what it was. N.O. Brown

6:53 AM  

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