Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Loser Letters #4

"Former Christian" Mary Eberstadt continues her efforts to get her new atheist friends to see that their tactics for converting Christians aren't working very well in this the fourth installment of her "Loser Letters." Why, she wonders, do the "Dulls" have all the great art.

Eberstadt's letters deserve to become classics.


Hard and Easy Problems

Michael Egnor treats us to a fine explanation of the problems conscious experience poses for a materialist view of the brain. How matter can give rise to the actual sensation of blueness, for example, is a mystery that baffles neuroscientists and which is an embarrassment to those who hold that all of our "mental" experience can be ultimately explained in terms of nothing more than chemical reactions in the brain (i.e. materialism).

Egnor closes his essay with this summary:

The origin of subjective experience is the fundamental question-the hard problem-in understanding the mind. Yet there is nothing in the material world that intrinsically refers to or explains subjective experience. There is nothing in third-person ontogeny from which one would infer first-person ontogeny. No theory in physics or chemistry invokes the emergence of first-person experience. A detailed scientific understanding of the physics and chemistry of the brain-from molecular structure to neurochemistry to electrophysiology to neuroanatomy-would not at any point provide a scientific explanation of why we are subjects and not just objects.

The hard problem of consciousness is the most important problem in understanding the mind, and thus far materialism has provided no insight. It is unclear how it even could provide insight. Nothing about the scientific characterization of matter-and nothing about materialism-explains the emergence of subjective experience. The principal materialist response to this catastrophe for materialist ideology has been to deny the relevance of subjective experience to our understanding of the mind. Yet the retreat to science and the denial of the relevance of philosophy is no refuge. Science is natural philosophy.

You really should read the whole thing, but if you go to the link you should keep in mind that I think he accidentally transposes the words mind and brain in the first sentence. I believe he means to say that materialists hold that the mind is completely caused by the brain.


The Ryan Plan

Jason forwards us an article by Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute that restores, a little bit, one's hope that some members of Congress are at least thinking about the problems this country is facing and coming up with workable solutions. This program for Republicans is the brainchild of Rep. Paul Ryan (R, WI). I say it's a program for Republicans because under their current leadership I can't imagine too many Democrats going along with it:

There are many reasons for the Republican Party's troubles, including an unpopular war, a sputtering economy, and a long string of corruption scandals. But perhaps most important, the party no longer seems to stand for its core commitment to limited government.

Enter Paul Ryan. Late last month, the five-term Wisconsin congressman introduced a comprehensive blueprint for reforming taxes, entitlements, retirement and health care. If Republicans are looking for a road out of the political wilderness, they should pay attention.

Health Care: Ryan would reform our employment-based insurance system by replacing the current tax exclusion for employer-provided insurance with a refundable tax credit of $2,500 for individuals, and $5,000 for families. This would encourage employers to take the money they currently spend providing health insurance and give it directly to workers, who could then use it to purchase competitive, personally owned insurance plans. That would be insurance that met their needs, not those of their bosses, and people wouldn't lose it if they lost their jobs.

Ryan would also allow workers to shop for insurance across state lines. That would mean residents of states like New Jersey and New York, where regulation has made insurance too expensive for many people, could buy their insurance in states where it costs less. And increased competition would help bring insurance costs down for all of us.

Medicare: Rep. Ryan recognizes that the skyrocketing cost of Medicare is threatening to bury our children and grandchildren under a mountain of debt. He would modernize the program, giving seniors more freedom to get the type of coverage that fits their needs, while bringing costs under control. He would give every senior an annual payment of up to $9,500 that they could use to purchase health insurance. The payments would be inflation protected and adjusted for income, with low-income seniors receiving greater support. Seniors would be able to save some of their funds in a Medical Savings Account.

Social Security: Like Medicare, Social Security is hurtling toward insolvency. Rep. Ryan would preserve the program unchanged for current recipients and workers older than age 55, but he would allow younger workers to invest part of their Social Security taxes privately through personal accounts. Unlike the present system, workers would own the funds in their accounts, and when they died, they could pass any remaining funds on to their heirs.

Taxes: Rep. Ryan would radically simplify today's hopelessly complex, cumbersome and bureaucratic tax code. He would give filers a choice: They could pay their taxes under existing law, or they could choose a new simplified code, with just two tax rates (10 percent on the first $100,000 for joint filers; $50,000 for individuals, and 25 percent above that).

His plan would offer virtually no deductions or exemptions, except for an increased standard personal deduction and exemption of up to $39,000 for a family of four. He would also replace our current anti-competitive corporate income tax - the world's second-highest, at 35 percent - with an 8.5 percent business consumption tax (essentially a value-added tax), and eliminate taxes on capital gains and dividends. Although not everyone agrees with this particular approach to business taxation, Rep. Ryan understands that we must bring our corporate taxes in line with those of our competitors if we want to increase economic growth and create more jobs.

Our current level of government spending is unsustainable. According to the Congressional Budget Office, unless we act now, government will consume 40 percent of our national Gross Domestic Product by 2050. That would require a doubling of the tax burden just to keep up.

If a conservative candidate for president were to promote something like Congressman Ryan's proposal he might win in November and drag along the rest of the Republican ticket with him. Sadly, there aren't any conservatives running in November.