The Way of Transparency
“Those who claim to speak for Jesus
are precisely the kind of people that Jesus fought against.”
fiction as a field has often been hostile to organized
religion, though not necessarily to spirituality. Ironically, at
least three 20th century cults
directly sourced their ideas and scriptures from SF. Although
Babylon 5 regularly featured priests of various faiths as guest
characters, I can only think of one recent book hero who is embedded
in a religious hierarchy, that being Father Emilio Sandoz, the Jesuit
linguist from The
Sparrow. Unless they are holding up specific
dogmas for ridicule, most SF depictions of religion focus on the
broader philosophical question of theodicy,
or “why is life not fair?” In one episode of Star
Trek: the Next Generation where the android Commander
Data is on
trial, Picard admits that he doesn't know whether Data
has a soul—or he himself, for that matter—and doesn't
seem all that concerned about the answer one way or another, as long
as Data is treated fairly.
The problem of
fairness, of cooperation vs. competition, is one that biology has
been working on from the very beginning, with mostly the same answer
over and over. Cells started as an oily
boundary to keep “my” genes in and all
other genes out. Bodies only work as cooperative systems because the
bones and muscles and organs are essentially slaves, or maybe uncles.
Only the gonads get to make sperm and eggs; only the gonads get to
decide what genes the next generation will carry. Social
insects like ants and bees and termites made the same
bargain at the next level of organization, the superorganism—only
the queen lays eggs, and the rest of the daughters work themselves to
death for the hive. It's OK, though, because genetic similarity
prevents these hierarchies from being purely exploitive. If every
cell in the body, or every worker in the hive, is interchangeable,
then it really doesn't matter who reproduces.
Over and over again,
humans have built societies
that strive to balance cooperation (sameness) and competition
(diversity). Cooperation makes a society faster and more efficient.
Diversity makes a society more robust to catastrophes. Biology's old
strategy of hierarchy is good at cooperation but really bad at
diversity. The temptation to try to monopolize resources for our own
group is just too great for most of us. It doesn't matter whether the
group is defined through genes or language or ideology. The
competitive dynamics are the same.
I was just reading a
specific and modern example of the failure of hierarchy in the
Catholic Church, which has for centuries required its priests to
forgo having children, as a simple and intuitive way to remove that
temptation towards genetic selfishness. In Merchants
in the Temple, Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi
details the efforts of the newest Pope to reform the Vatican's
finances. Corruption is not a small problem. According to Nuzzi, only
20% of the roughly 50 million euros of “Peter's Pence”
donations actually go to the poor. The rest disappears into the
Curia. Pope Pius XII, Eugenio
Pacelli, apparently funneled some of that money into
the Nazis during World War 2. Nowadays, Nuzzi writes,
it seems to line the pockets of the cardinals (assuming those robes
Francis takes a
hierarchical approach, simply demanding as the boss that the
cardinals of the Curia follow his rules for spending, from not hiring
their blood relatives to awarding contracts fairly. Now, if he gets
rid of all the cardinals who disagree with him, he might get his way,
temporarily, and it will be fine drama. But it's not a long-term
solution. Nuzzi suggests that a subsequent pope, after Francis, could
use exactly the same methods to corrupt the power structure all over
again. Or he could just stop paying attention, and exactly the same
thing would happen, more slowly.
Diversity is a great
hedge against monopoly and corruption, but how to insert diversity
into an organization's finances, especially a really big and rich
organization like the Catholic Church, one that has, from its very
beginnings, been founded on Disciplina Arcani, the Way
way proceeded from the practice of Christ himself. He formed his
apostles into clandestine cells . . . The 'Sons of Thunder' . . . met
in safe houses, which Jesus accessed by separate hidden entrances,
and whose locations they revealed to each other through coded
signals, such as following a man with a jug of water through
-- Church of Spies, p. 40
Here's a thought. What
if their roughly 1.25 billion worshipers placed their tithes and
donations directly into a completely public and
transparent ledger, where every transaction
could be audited at any time? Sounds like a story to me.
That ledger is called a
blockchain. It is a type of database that underlies BitCoin
and other online cryptocurrencies.
The computational details of how it works are a bit complicated, but
here are the basics. Our current Internet relies on centralized
servers to store the addresses of all the pages on the
web. Not the content, just the addresses that tell you where the
content is. Those domain name servers are a point of vulnerability
where a hacker (or a government, or a corporation) can manipulate web
traffic, or just spy on us.
A blockchain is
different. As I currently understand it, every computer on the
peer-to-peer “miner” network (analogous to the single
name server, but spread across many random computers) contains a
constantly updating version of the entire database, including the
complete edit history. Updating that history requires two steps: an
unbreakably encrypted request from a single anonymous user to update
the blockchain, and consensus of a large percentage of those
computers that this new request is the only change at this moment.
This makes hackery difficult.
I find it hilarious
can be used to ensure transparency. Even funnier, there's a precedent
for the Catholic Church being an early
adopter of encryption technologies, though usually for
the opposite purpose.
send and receive messages, the Vatican had long resorted to ingenious
devices. In the Renaissance, it pioneered coded communications,
inventing a mnemonic key to mix a cipher alphabet, a practice that
secular powers later copied.”
-- Church of Spies, p. 44
The benefits of a
blockchain approach for the parishioners are fairly obvious, and the
church hierarchy certainly needs to polish up its credibility, on
multiple fronts, but why should the miners do all that work? Well,
the first miner on the network to confirm the new entry, or block,
gets a crypto-coin. From my favorite I-triple-E
blog post on the topic:
old security models, you tried to lock out all of the greedy,
dishonest people. Bitcoin, on the other hand, welcomes everyone,
fully expecting them to act in their own self-interest, and then it
uses their greed to secure the network.”
Recall that this old
lock out model was biology's strategy, as well. In a body, cancer
cells that start dividing selfishly are killed by the immune system
for the good of the entire body. Insect queens generally kill their
rivals while they are still larvae, or else they split the hive in
two. And the history of politics and religion have (so far) been one
long series of coups, wars, and secret
plots. According to Reza Aslan and most other
religious scholars, Jesus himself was crucified not for blasphemy in
declaring himself a god, but for sedition,
in declaring himself a king. They reserved the cross for the specific
crime of rebellion against the Roman Empire—in other words, for
wanting the Jewish homeland to be an independent kingdom.
Given that bloody and
difficult history, a kind of mathematically guaranteed cooperation
would be something truly new
under the sun.
Ph.D., also blogs as @PlotBot2015
on the blockchain-powered community called Steemit, a sort of hybrid
between Reddit and BitCoin, where authors are paid according to the
votes of their readers. Drop by for reviews of SF and popular
This being the smallest and most recent.
Based on Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.
Evolutionary biologists are now explicitly studying religion as an example of human behavior.
There are quite a few of these documentaries on YouTube.
In this radio interview, author Riebling declares Pius XII to be a “man of science” for his technological innovations like Vatican Radio.
Of JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon: “His utter faith in the US dollar sounds rather like the boss of a major record label talking up CDs a year before the iPod was brought to market.”
Nick Szabo writes about these fast-developing technologies
“As has been recognized by numerous historians, the Vatican boasts a superb intelligence organization.” Way cooler than the Hudson Hawk version.
Currency is only one of MANY applications of these technologies. Smart contracts, voting, etc.
Doestoevsky’s alt-history parable about the Inquisition threatening to burn a returned Jesus. Coincidentally translated by Helena Blavatsky, the spirit medium and Theosophist.
Which I happened to find through Reza Aslan.
But possibly obsolete almost immediately. Ah, technology.
Read more by Randall Hayes