Thursday, April 7, 2011

A short essay: The Absence of Reason

At this point, I've been blogging on the topic of the Republican Party being renamed the Church of Cut My Taxes for nearly a week, and I think I ought to expound a little further on what I mean to say by this.

In previous posts (here, here, here, and here), I've pointed out that the GOP position on taxation for nearly the last decade has been that tax cuts are necessary in all budgetary and economic circumstances.  When George W. Bush came into office, the economy was growing and the national budget was in surplus, working toward paying off the national debt.  President Bush campaigned on the idea that the surplus should be given back in the form of tax breaks.  Fine.  Of course, then the budget slipped into deficit, and the economy into a recession.  Then we were told by the Republicans that it would be disastrous to raise taxes in a recession (despite Reagan and Clinton both having done so with very successful results), and we got more tax cuts.  That "stimulus" didn't really work, and as a result we've gotten a continual meme from the GOP that ever more tax cuts are the only solution.  Not only that, but the implication is that when the current tax cuts don't work, it's because we didn't cut taxes enough and we'd better get about cutting them further.

This reasoning (or lack thereof) is completely circular and self-sustaining.  When tax cuts work, we need more tax cuts.  When they don't work, guess what, we need more tax cuts.  The suggestion of ever increasing taxes is anathema, and grounds for excommunication.  This is the way the fundamentalist religious mind operates.  That the GOP's fervor for tax cuts has become so dogmatic is really unsurprising, given the growing interconnectedness between the Party and religious extremists.  Hence, the Church of Cut My Taxes.  Even secular conservatives have fallen into religious thought in this respect.

The ultimate problem, I would argue, is absence of reason in general.  The acceptance of claims without evidence in one sphere of life leads to the acceptance of other such claims elsewhere.  Here we are in the year 2011, with science making new and breathtaking discoveries about every facet of the universe.  These discoveries are based on a scientific method of hypothesis and research of claims that are falsifiable.  A scientific theory that cannot at least in some imaginable scenario be proved false is no theory at all.  And yet at the same time, "faith," by which I mean the blind acceptance of a proposition without evidence, is promoted as a virtue.  Most especially, faith is directed at concepts which simply cannot be proved or disproved, like the existence of God or the supernatural.  That sort of faith is antithetical to reason and clear thinking.  And not without consequence.

To steal an analogy from Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World, suppose that I tell you I have a fire-breathing dragon in my garage.  You'd probably be skeptical, since dragons are presumed not to exist (based on the evidence that no one has ever seen one), and you'd demand that I prove the existence of my dragon.  When you look in my garage and, lo and behold, there's no dragon, you're probably going to think you've been proven right, and that I have no dragon.  Ah, but did I mention my dragon is invisible?  And what about the fire?  Surely we should feel the heat from a fire-breathing dragon.  "No," I tell you.  "My dragon breathes heatless, invisible fire."  Then you could try to feel for my dragon, but I also forgot to mention that the dragon is intangible.  And so on.  In other words, I have an invisible, intangible dragon that breathes heatless fire.  But you cannot prove that the dragon doesn't exist, since I have defined my dragon in such a way that there isn't any method to prove or disprove that it does exist.

Of course, that is all nonsense.  As Sagan summarizes:
Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?  If there's no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists?  Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true.  Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder.  What I'm asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.  The only thing you've really learned from my insistence that there's a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head.
The English philosopher Bertrand Russell made exactly the same analogy with his famous teapot, and modern-day religious satires, such as the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Invisible Pink Unicorn, likewise make fun of the absurdity of such thinking.  Is someone irrational for saying that they don't believe in dragons, unicorns, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster?  Absolutely not.  Yet express disbelief about a supposedly omniscient, omnipotent, infallible, invisible, intangible deity and people of faith will accuse you of defective reasoning at best, and wickedness at worst.  President George H.W. Bush even voiced the opinion that atheists should not be considered equal citizens of the United States.  All this for refusing to accept on no evidence whatsoever a claim that is on precisely the same standing as the aforementioned dragon in my garage.

But I've wandered slightly off my chosen topic now.  My point is that this sort of irrational thought, the kind that religion requires above all else, leads to the acceptance of other claims on just as little evidence.  Some of this, of course, comes down to command theory.  If you believe in a deity, and you further believe that said deity has rules and laws, then obviously any violation of those laws cannot be tolerated.  The entire opposition to marriage and other rights for homosexuals, for instance, is entirely incoherent without the belief that God himself condemns homosexuality.  That position is still incoherent, but not in the mind of the believer.  What other reason is there to care whether two gay men who love each other want that relationship to be on the same footing as my relationship with my wife?  There is none.

But divine command is only the most obvious way in which minds become susceptible to unreason once it becomes customary to form beliefs based on faith and not evidence.  Take an extreme example - in this case, a racist.  The racist believes that, for instance, aryans are superior to any other races.  What evidence supports that position?  None whatsoever.  In fact, scientists have shown that there really isn't much genetic basis for "race" at all.  Still, the racist believes what he believes because he or she believes it, and for no other reason.

Now, I don't want to be misunderstood here, so I'll be very clear: being in favor of tax reductions and racism are not at all the same sort of belief, and I am not trying to draw a moral connection between the two.  But a person who dogmatically believes that more and more tax cuts are always necessary is taking that position on faith, especially when one looks at the evidence that the last two recessions in the '80s and '90s ended when taxes increased.  Of course, not all proponents of tax cuts believe so dogmatically.  Just as there is a time to increase taxes, there is a time when cutting taxes is appropriate.  A person who says that understands that a worthwhile position must be contingent - that is, it must be subject to change upon changing evidence and circumstances.  Otherwise it is merely dogma.  Most atheists, myself included, are even willing to grant that their unbelief is contingent.  Upon being shown conclusive proof that God exists, I would change my mind.  I just haven't yet seen such proof, and I doubt the possibility of it.

The key point is to understand that positions need to be falsifiable and contingent in order to have any meaning.  A pacifist who dogmatically states that "War is never the answer," is just as wrong as the person who claims that tax cuts are always the answer.  There are some international crises that can be resolved through no means apart from conflict, regrettable as that fact may be.  The Second World War springs immediately to mind.  That does not mean war is always the answer.  It depends, and disagreement is okay.  Most questions don't have a right or wrong answer, but the reasonable mind is willing to be convinced by evidence, even if that evidence is unpleasant.  So it should be with tax policy.

Minds may disagree about when it is appropriate to cut, increase, or maintain tax rates, but the person who says that one of those is the solution to every problem has disqualified himself from the discussion, because no argument - no matter how well supported - in favor of the opposite position would convince that person.  The dogmatic believer instead stubbornly refuses to hear the evidence contrary to his or her position and takes it as a matter of faith that of course their position must be the only justifiable one.

Next time you run into a tea partier who demands budget cuts to programs for the poor and middle-class while insisting that they are "taxed enough already," try asking them when they think a tax increase would be appropriate.  Wartime?  A national debt crisis?  Government revenue at the lowest percentage of GDP since the 1950s?  If they say yes to those things, well, that's what we're up against right at this moment.  But if they cannot imagine a state of affairs where their present belief is not applicable, then they are simply the dogmatic believer, rejecting evidence and reason for the self-satisfaction of faith.

Or, as I prefer to put it, just another congregant of the Church of Cut My Taxes.

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