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Critique of pure Reasoner

Essays and commentary related to topics in Tom Reasoner's "Truth and Beauty" blog

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

NPOs vs the government

Many people view NPOs as the government's competitor, and the government, like an NPO, does not pay taxes - it only collects them. The difference between the two is that one can vote not to pay the government for any particular activity, but whether you do or not is not your personal decision. With NPOs, the funders decide exactly what they think it's worth. That actually makes them, weighted by total income, more responsive than the government. It's also true that many smaller or younger NPOs are incredibly wasteful and essentially do very little good for the dollar, counting on the relative ignorance of their contributing audience and their obscurity to shield them from scrutiny.

As a contributor, writing off that portion of your money you gave to this alternate government is not usually profitable. If one pays 50% of one's income in taxes, then one effectively gets refunded 50% of one's contributions (assuming one itemizes). That only softens the loss. A person must believe in what (they think)the organization is doing.

Of course, it's still taking diverting income from the government, which has well established and controls responsive to democratic ideals despite its unwieldy size and lack of fair competition. What can this money be used to do when used by NPOs? Anything not specifically illegal. If you want to make an NPO for the manufacturing of fingernail clippers (but not for profit) then you're good to go. Of course, then at least you're producing something. What does a television evangelist produce except broken promises and loyalty to a figment and a demagogue?

NPOs have many of the virtues and weaknesses of a direct democracy versus a representative one. NPOs must court their funders directly, but they can do this as often by misleading them because those funders are not professional funders, they are merely people who have wider lives to live. Of course, in the case of religious organizations, it's even worse...

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Epistemic disconnect

I've been asked before if I would consider dating a religious person, and in every instance the uncomfortable truth beneath my equivocation has been "no, I would not." Now, Catholics and Jews and people of all sorts of religious backgrounds regularly (though certainly not universally) avoid partner relationships with those not of the same 'faith,' but we secular humanists like to think we are so much more tolerant and accepting of every person's beauty. Is my position not a denial of that; am I not evincing a sort of atheist bigotry?

Well, it traces back to 'epistemic disconnect,' my jargon-term relating to my belief that fundamental differences in how two people arrive at truth will be a permanent stumbling block in finding stable common ground. My 'bigotry' actually relates more specifically to my perception of the sources of religious faith rather than to any specific (distal) characteristics of their metaphysical opinion. I cannot have a life partner who holds 'faith' to be a permissible path to truth. I can hardly have a cogent discussion with one who sees faith or revelation as superior to reason.

Before I proceed I should throw in some caveats - the equivocation I mention above does not spring entirely from aversion to revealing my narrow-sounding position to my interlocutor(s). As with most things, the truth is in the middle somewhere - many 'religious' people aren't particularly divorced from reason at all, and certainly there exist a variety of religious beliefs that fall closer to the secular humanist's end of the spectrum than the fundamentalist hardcase's. I tend to be well-disposed toward Wiccans and liberal Christians, for example, though even they make me squeamish if we're talking about dating. They would still work better for me than an atheist who believed in hard gender roles or racial superiority. The point of difference is what my prospective partner sees as counting as evidence or justification - and no one who believes in old-school religion is going to be on the same page with me there.

What about intuition vs reason? What if someone believes in the superiority of (not-explicitly-supernatural) intuition over reason? From a certain perspective, this is true. Axioms and the rules of logic are our intuitions codified. If base intuition is absolutely unreliable then reason has no traction, and Descarte's demon has won: we will never believe anything about the world that could be counted as true knowledge.

The real virtue of reason and the logical system it implies is that it directs us to pare our intuitions hierarchically. If logic brings it to our attention that some later-acquired belief or intuition conflicts with a primal one like "A thing can not be 'A' and 'not A' at the same time and in the same respect," then our deeper intuitive belief directs us to discard or correct the shallower one. Religions, however, frequently direct us to change our system of logic to place the beliefs that constitute religious doctrine in a special category labeled "faith" to which we must not fairly apply our paring shears of intuitive consistency.

And that bolloxes it all up.

Some people want to paint faith as a virtue because morals and comforting beliefs can be put in the invincible box, but the reality is that anything can be placed in that box without answering to reason. In fact, I would argue the persistent existence of the box and its vestiges are the primary stumbling blocks to making the most we can of human nature. We can't get rid of our lack of omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence, but we can at least do our best to see things clearly. There's enough temptation for us to believe things convenient to us without creating a social construct that privileges unreason.

And on a more personal note, what sort of dialog can I have with a person who will believe in a square circle if a book tells her to?