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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Friday, January 09, 2009

Downfall Of Gods

As a true blue Star Wars fan, it's unavoidable that I would sometimes ponder about the implications of its story arc.

Not sure if movie reviewers have noticed this, but I've discovered a recurring theme that runs through the entire story -

The hunger for absolute power gradually corrupts and ruins everything.

Just consider this:

1. In the beginning of the story, the Jedi Order was supposed to represent the light side of the Force - all that is wise and good.

They defeated the evil Sith Lords and have enjoyed great social power and prestige in the Old Republic for a thousand generations.

So why is it that when they felt an imbalance in the Force, they automatically assumed that it's the Sith who needed downsizing?

Indeed, their obsession with the absolute eradication of the Sith completely blinded them to the Darkness that lies within themselves. As the separatist war progressed, the Jedi Order would make more and more compromises to its core principles until it eventually turned on itself - a Jedi Knight would become a Sith!

From that point onwards, the Jedi Order was doomed.

2. The Jedi turncoat was Anakin Skywalker-slash-Darth Vader, the chief protagonist of the whole series.

Anakin's personal story is a microcosm of the main theme - a kind, brilliant boy who slowly develops a thirst for power after a personal tragedy and numerous setbacks.

He realizes that he always wants more power and comes to believe that he can do the absolute good, if only he can acquire the absolute power.

Eventually this quest for power will cost him everything that he treasures - ironically the very people he wants to protect with that power.

3. Interestingly, the same motif is repeated once again during the Empire; except that this time the "hapless" victim was none other than Emperor Palpatine himself!

He was obsessed with the elimination of his enemy, perhaps the only thing he had in common with the Jedi.

A wicked, scheming political wizard, Palpatine had manipulated many evil people in order to rise to great power.

With practically all of the Old Republic's military might under his command, he could have simply rendered the Jedi harmless, but he wanted to kill them all.

He wanted this so much that he was willing to take a huge risk by converting a Superstar Goody-Two-Shoes Jedi Knight to become his own apprentice, gambling that Anakin's desire for power would wipe out any trace of good left inside.

Unfortunately for the Emperor, Anakin was far more conflicted than that.

Blissfully unaware of this inner conflict, Palpatine even had the audacity to order Anakin to bring his powerful son to Palpatine's personal lair, so that he can witness their mutual destruction.

Talk about a recipe for disaster.

Of course, the Emperor never achieved absolute power and was killed - ironically by his greatest ally...


In this sixth article about social systems, I am going to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of Centralized rule vs Power Sharing.

From the leadership's point of view, centralized rule is certainly more convenient.

Without dissent from other powerful groups, the leadership class (or a single leader) can quickly and decisively impose new policies that has the potential for a lot of good.

Conversely, an evil leadership class can also quickly and decisively impose new policies that can cause a lot of damage to society.

Without external checks and balances, nobody can stop them. Using internal "self-regulation" as a means of checks and balances will only be effective if members of the leadership class are not acting in unison, which isn't likely to happen if there is an effective centralized rule.

Unfortunately, power sharing via "rule-by-committee" isn't perfect either. When there are many powerful political groups fighting it out in parliament, policies will take much longer to pass, if they ever do. All this politicking can render unitary action very difficult, making the government weak and indecisive.

Thus, it's not surprising that most audacious conquerors in history, such as Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and Hitler all utilized direct, centralized command.

In particular, Alexander quickly conquered and united all the city states of Ancient Greece - previously ruled by committees.

Nonetheless, even a dictator needs to have some form of checks and balances in order to avoid making mistakes that can ruin everything.

After all, he wants to gain absolute power, not to lose his entire kingdom.

But in order to get accurate feedback from other people, he must give them enough power to counteract some of the decisions he might make in the future.

Giving away power in order to gain more power?

The quest for absolute power is an unsustainable, impossible quest.

At the end, the dictator either gives away too much power and become sidelined, or seizes too much power and becomes a victim of his own mistakes.

That is the reason why even till today, the only sustainable method for leaders to hold on to power is a broadly centralized rule with much of the power shared by groups acting as checks and balances on each other.

OK, now let's imagine for the moment that a single, absolute power does exist and is somehow sustainable.

Is this the face of ultimate good or ultimate evil?

Wouldn't you be at least a little bit disturbed by an absolute authority who is checked by no one and is answerable to no one?

He is advised by no one and constrained by nothing.

Under normal circumstances, a personal relationship with a powerful authority can confer special benefits to you. A leader may be willing to listen to you because your idea may benefit him - for example, to help him gain more power or avoid making stupid mistakes that will cost him his crown.

But what can you offer the absolute authority of the Universe? A friendly hug???

He doesn't lack power and never makes mistakes - not from his point of view anyway.

As I have written in the previous article, human social groups are stable precisely because they do not have absolute power; they only have emergent authority derived from their component individuals. Critical mass and organization help to keep the group behaviour locked into rigidity.

But how would an absolute authority maintain behavioural stability?

You would expect him to do whatever he wants, wouldn't you?

To make up rules, to break rules, to constantly change his mind, to redefine love as hate and hate as love, to redefine good as evil and evil as good, to redefine true as false and false as true - all on a whim.

There is no one to stop him.

It's worse if this ultimate power is supernatural - not only can you do nothing about it, you can't even see it coming!

So how can anyone really feel comforted by a belief in a supernatural absolute authority?

Any ordinary person should only feel constant fear.

But yet many people say they feel comfort and peace when they think of a supernatural authority.

Perhaps they are unaware of the full implications of such an authority. Maybe they are misattributing their confidence in emergent authority to a faith in supernatural authority. It is also possible that they are actually feeling fear, but calling it "comfort" so as to avoid offending the supernatural authority.

In any case, it's not the existence of a supernatural authority that really matters; it's whether such a supernatural authority has any relevance to human life.

Is he listening?

Does he even know you?

If an absolute power decides to passively watch as millions of people starve and thousands of believers who are all faithful to him kill each other in horrific ways (even as relatively powerless humans struggle to find solutions) ...

Do you think you can change his mind?

And do you think you can believe in the promises that he makes?