Thursday, July 20, 2006


The Power of Prayer

The Age of Enlightenment started about 300 years ago, but yet we see the persistence of superstition in even the most advanced societies.

This is pernicious. Belief in the unverifiable in one area conditions people into accepting myths in other branches of knowledge as well. Let's start with the most pervasive belief in all major religions - the power of prayer.

There is a simple test to determine cause and effect. It's usually called the "scientific method". One performs some action (the experiment) and sees what happens. If there is a certain outcome then one can infer that there was a cause and effect relationship. The other key part of the method is that the experiment must be repeatable by others and also produce the same result.

What happens with prayer? There have been very few actual scientific experiments because all stories about the efficacy of prayer are anecdotal. But recently there was a real scientific experiment on the power of prayer to promote healing and lessen complications in heart surgery patients. Depending on how one interprets the data the results were either that there was no effect, or even a negative effect. The latter being attributed to some sort of psychological impact on patients who were told that they were being prayed for.

In general people pray and if what they wished for comes about they say "my prayers were answered". If they don't get their desired result they say "I didn't pray hard enough", or "God chose not to answer by prayers", or "God moves in mysterious ways". Translated into scientific terms: the experiment (prayer) produced random outcomes, thus implying there is no cause and effect.

For those willing to acknowledge the lack of the efficacy of prayer there are two possible explanations. The most common one among the religious is the "Deist" one. God started up the universe, but isn't concerned with day-to-day events. The other is, of course, there is no supernatural being that influences human outcomes. In either case, if the conclusion is that there is no cause and effect why continuing praying?

This leads to the other big issue of the day - the existence of a supernatural being (or beings in some parts of the world). Those who "believe" are not content to keep these ideas to themselves. They feel compelled to try to convince the non-believers of the errors of their ways. Why? This is only a guess on my part, but since everyone who prays knows at first hand the results are unpredictable. Thus, lurking in the back of the minds of the faithful is the thought that their whole belief system is false. This gives rise to the need to obliterate all forms of dissent: out of sight, out of mind. We have plenty of examples of what this type of intolerance leads to when the faithful also get political power. History has examples ranging from the Inquisition to present day imposition of Sharia law.

The same fear of having one's belief system challenged (or one's children's) is what is behind much of the censorship and suppression of knowledge that is taking place. In order to prevent the dissemination of scientific evidence about key areas of human behavior and social policy, the faithful have taken to distorting reality, funding authoritarian religious programs and trying to disallow other points of view to be presented.

Just to mention a few: the effects of global warming, the efficacy of private (that is church-sponsored) schools over public schools, the efficacy of "abstinence only" sex education, the teaching of Darwinism, and the definition of "life". In a world where other societies are not being inhibited by such false doctrines the ability to make real scientific and social progress is proceeding apace. In societies where theology trumps reality not only is human freedom curtailed but so is economic progress and world competitiveness. For a good current example one only has to look at Iran. It has fallen back 100 years in economic power, women are mistreated, it's only economic influence is because of oil and unemployment stands at 30%. This is the real power of prayer.

A true democratic society is inconsistent with authoritarian religions which seek to put their stamp on social policy. "Liberal" theology is just as incompatible with democracy as any other type. Each says "believe me without evidence (that is have faith), and do as I say." Democracy works only when people have access to all the facts and can judge for themselves.

Can Humans Govern Themselves?

There has been a lot of discussion about the personality type that believes in a hierarchical organization of social structures. People like George Lakoff and John Dean have popularized research on this subject in recent books.

While complaining about the abuses that occur when this type of personality dominates they ignore the more fundamental issues of how organizations should be structured.

The world has frequently had a top-down organizational structure. Primitive tribes frequently had a powerful leader. The family was usually headed by the man with all other members subservient. As society expanded, tribal leaders became national leaders. In many cases they were believed to have magical powers. Thus we have thousands of years of history of kings, emperors and the like.

Many religions have a similar organization. There is a supreme authority at the top and lesser authorities below. With the coming of the Age of Enlightenment the hereditary aspects of leadership were replaced by more democratic versions. The new governments had presidents or prime ministers instead. Some religions vote for the leaders as well.

Corporations are also organized in a similar fashion with a president or CEO who is given wide discretionary power. In many cases stockholders believe that a firm can be radically changed if just this top figure is replaced.

What the popularity of hierarchical structures shows is that most people implicitly believe that a strong father model is the best form of organization. This is a form of unconscious infantilism: "Daddy will make it right." By giving so much power to a single individual we are abdicating our own responsibilities as citizens, stockholders, or members of social organizations. Daddy can't make it right; the world is just too complicated and the degree of knowledge needed is too great to trust a single individual. Of course, all these people have advisers, but we allow them to make arbitrary decisions even when they contradict the advice given.

The UN has tried to avoid this problem by using a consensus approach in some forums. Similar arrangements have been made in other settings such as the EU and the WTO. Hierarchical arrangements have not been the only choice in historical times either. There have been many (smaller) societies where a council of elders, or similar, makes decisions. Usually these are by consensus, but sometimes by majority vote.

Requiring consensus prevents extremism and rash choices. As the personality studies cited above have shown those who rise up in hierarchical organizations tend to have autocratic personalities and are just the type of person that should not be allowed arbitrary power.

Is the human race mature enough yet to move away from the "Let Daddy do it" model? Look at the misery brought on by just a handful of sociopaths in the 20th Century: Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Pol Pot, etc. We can't force other countries to adopt consensus governance, but we could certainly discuss it for our own organizations.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


Let's Abolish Philanthropy

First a definition to make things clear. I distinguish philanthropy and charity. Charity is when you give $100 to the Red Cross, or the March of Dimes. Philanthropy is when you give $100 million to a foundation modestly named after yourself.

Charity is good, philanthropy is bad. I explain why below.

In order to be a philanthropist one has to be wealthy. There are only three ways to become wealthy, run a successful business, inherit wealth, or earn it from one's own talents. In the third category I include entertainment and sports figures. Many have become wealthy, but none of them really falls into the category of wealth that I'm discussing, so let's exclude them.

Those that inherit wealth are just the heirs of the business magnates of a prior generation, so for our purposes all those in the philanthropist (or potential philanthropist) class made their fortunes in business. How? The simple answer is that they were clever enough to overcharge for their product. This overcharge may be in the form of making the price too high, or underpaying their workers, or sometimes underpaying their suppliers. Why do these people allow themselves to be cheated, don't we live in a market economy?

The question answers itself, if there were a real competitive marketplace then these people wouldn't be amassing so much wealth. The accumulation of wealth is proof that the marketplace isn't working well, or, to put it in Marxist terms, that there is some sort of monopoly power in place. We all know this from personal experience, cable companies overcharge because they are the only provider in a region. Microsoft squeezes out all the competition using illegal practices and gets to charge whatever it wants for its software. Even when the monopoly is not complete, collusion between firms ensures that no real competition will take place.

The result of this lax enforcement of market regulation rules results in super rich individuals from Rockefeller to Gates. At some point many of these super rich decide they are tired of being vilified and want to be remembered more kindly by history, so they become philanthropists. At this point their image changes, no longer are the greedy capitalists, now they are kindly people helping mankind. I claim their change of heart just makes things worse. Now they go from making excess profits without regulation, to spending their gains without regulation.

For every Carnegie or Rockefeller there is a Coors, Olin or Scaife. Their great wealth allows them to promote whatever agenda suits their fancy. Perhaps Carnegie favors world peace, but Olin or Scaife prefer to set up think tanks which promote their personal neo-con agendas, who decides where the money goes? Then there are the foundations which appear to support humanitarian aims, the Gates Foundation is a recent example.

What all these have in common is that they are antithetical to the goals of a democratic society. If the philanthropist's wealth had been properly taxed or otherwise regulated during its accumulation the funds would have gone into the public treasury where it would have been spent subject to the will of the people. As it is, if Bill Gates decides he wants to support AIDS research that's what gets funded. Is this the best use for the money? Are the projects he choses the best? Who gets to decide? He does.

People will disagree and say that our form of government has always favored the entrepreneur and rewarded initiative. That may be true, but in prior periods (before the first Gilded Age) the amount that a single person or family could accumulate was rather modest. It has only been with the rise of the mega corporation and the bending of laws to favor wealth accumulation that such wide disparities in wealth have arisen. It is not healthy for a country to have one person worth twenty or thirty billion dollars, even if they become "philanthropists".

Such imbalances in wealth violate the basic premise of a democracy, are inefficient from an economic point of view, and put too much power in the hands of a few. Our society needs to rethink our attitudes towards inequality.

Philanthropy is not the answer.

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