The Paradox of Tolerance

To tolerate or not to tolerate—that is the question.

Tolerance is a self-contradictory principle.

It is self-contradictory because it is reflexive. That is, as a principle it acts upon itself, or it includes itself in its scope. As a principle, tolerance dictates that we must be tolerant of everything. We cannot pick and choose what we will tolerate and what we will not. If this is so, then tolerance requires us to tolerate even intolerance. Thus, if somebody is preaching or practising intolerance, the tolerant person cannot, in principle, speak out against what the intolerant person is doing, since speaking out against intolerance would itself be an act of intolerance. In other words, the principle of tolerance requires us to grant intolerant people the right to be intolerant. This is clearly self-contradictory, since tolerance cannot condone what it specifically sets out to be against (i.e., intolerance), but it nevertheless requires itself, logically, to do just that.

Tolerance as a principle, then, is clearly illogical, and therefore irrational. It is much more logical and rational to espouse intolerance, for then one does not get entangled in any contradictions—self or otherwise. Intolerance as a principle does not require us to be consistently and universally intolerant: it affords us the option of being tolerant if we so choose, and intolerant whenever it pleases us to be so. This is straightforward and clear-cut, and one has no difficulty following this principle in living one's life. The intolerant person's simple motto is: "I like the things I like and I hate the things I hate, and I will hate the people who like the things I hate, and I will make that hate known to them in no uncertain terms." What could be easier? It's black and white, like the world George W. Bush inhabits. "If you are not with me, you are against me, and so you are my enemy, and I will treat you as such." George W. Bush practised this philosophy to perfection during his presidency, rewarding those who supported him and "punishing" those who didn't. No moral dilemmas for him—and for others like him who like their world in black and white rather than in shades of grey.

And yet, …

We have the intuitive sense (beyond what the rational mind tells us) that there is something wrong with this reasoning, logical and rational though it is. Intolerance, we have learned from experience, does not work very well in practice. Religious wars, witch hunts (ancient and modern), persecution (political, religious, and social)—these are all the luscious fruits of intolerance, fruits whose flavours we would rather not have tasted. Mahatma Gandhi put it perfectly when he said: "An eye for an eye ends up making the whole world blind." We might say: Intolerance breeds intolerance in a downward spiral. One has only to look at George W. Bush's failed presidency to see the truth of this. Oddly enough, tolerance does not always breed tolerance, but it often does, and this is what recommends it to us as the superior of the two principles.

Game theory tells us that antagonism towards one's opponents is not usually a winning strategy. John Nash (the real-life mathematician on whom the movie A Beautiful Mind was based) has shown that being aware of and accepting (we could say "tolerating") the play strategies of one's opponents is essential to winning. A "Nash equilibrium" is a situation in which each player's strategy is an optimal response to the play strategies of the other players. There is no room for "selfishness" or George-Bush-style "go-it-alone" bravado here. While tolerance and intolerance are not exact a "game," the principles of Game Theory can be applied in a broad way to understanding why tolerance is the superior of the two principles. If you tolerate the opinions of those you disagree with, the chances are greater that they will tolerate your opinions. And if everyone held to the principle of tolerance, then we wouldn't even need to worry about chances being greater or less: we would know right off the bat that others will indeed tolerate our opinions. In this climate of tolerance, there would be a lower risk of conflict, and instead of expending our energy fighting each other, we could put it to more productive ends.

What the paradox of tolerance teaches us is that rationality is not always in lock step with practicality. The rational thing to do is not always the best thing to do, the most practical thing to do, the right thing to do. I am not speaking here of the morally right thing to do, but rather, the right thing in terms of common sense. It should be noted that common sense is not always rational. Philosophers often dismiss common sense precisely because of this. But if common sense had prevailed, world history might have run a very different course.

So what shall we say of tolerance? Should we be rational and reject it as a guiding principle because it is self-contradictory and therefore illogical? Or should we yield to the irrational side of our natures and embrace tolerance despite the fact that it is self-contradictory and illogical? I think most people would agree that the latter is the more "sane" of the two options.

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Homo Economicus—Homo Irrationalis

On the fundamental irrationality of human behaviour

In an op-ed piece entitled "No Hurt Feelings in Germany" in today's New York Times (April 5, 2009), Christoph Peters writes:
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Hyper-rationality

On the flight into reason

Hyper-rationality is the unquestioning faith in the efficacy of reason.

This is something of an irony, since those who take the hyper-rational approach to reason are violently opposed to "faith" of any sort. They (rightly) condemn "faith" as "irrational," but they then go to the opposite extreme of making reason supreme. In so doing , they inadvertently turn reason into a sort of surrogate God, to whom they must pay homage at all costs. This is rationality carried to the extreme, beyond rational limits, hence the term "hyper-rationality." It is important to remember that one can be under the tyranny of "reason" just as much as one can be under the tyranny of a god (or gods). To make reason absolute is to make reason into a "god," since only God is, by definition, absolute. To fail to acknowledge the limits of reason (as hyper-rationalists do) is to view reason in god-like terms.

Hyper-rationalists cling to their faith in reason as desperately as believers cling to their faith in God. Both are attempting to escape from something by fleeing into the arms of something else. Here, however, the focus is not on what believers are fleeing from (enough has been said about that by others elsewhere), but rather, on what hyper-rationalists are attempting to escape. The fact that they are taking refuge in rationality would suggest that they are fleeing from a recognition of their own irrationality—or rather, the irrational aspects of themselves. (Remember Newton's Third Law of Motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.) They are (often unconsciously) terrified by the prospect that they might in fact have an irrational side that could take over at any time. They have to repress this irrational side at all costs, since it may well go out of control once it is allowed to express itself. So the hyper-rationalist, in an attempt to convince himself or herself of his own absolute rationality and his or her own sense of being completely in control, makes a great external display of being hyper-rational and committed to reason 100 percent. In doing this, the hyper-rationalist is somewhat like Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, who "protested too much" in Shakespeare's play. The excessive protestations cast doubt on the claims.

Are there any grounds for this analysis of the motives of the hyper-rationalist? As it happens, there are.

Scientists have known for a long time that at the core of the human brain, clustered around the brain stem, is a bundle of neurological structures that are identical to the structures that form the brains of reptiles. This part of the human brain is often called the "reptilian brain." It is completely irrational—about as "rational" as a snake or a lizard or a crocodile. The human capacity for rationality is located in the neocortex, the outermost layer of the brain (also known as the "new mammalian brain"), which happens to be a very late addition in evolution. (See David Ritchie's fascinating book, The Binary Brain, for more details.) Irrationality is an inescapable part of our evolutionary inheritance. David Ritchie talks about how the reptilian brain (irrationality) and the new mammalian brain (rationality) are in constant conflict with each other. He notes that the new mammalian brain does not always win in this "contest of wills." More often than some of us would like to admit, we act irrationally: we succumb the dictates of our reptilian mind. Thus, the flight into rationality is simultaneously a flight from one's own irrationality, and hence a denial of one's capacity to be irrational, a rejection of a vital part of oneself. And of course, we flee from what we fear, so it can be concluded that hyper-rationalists fear their irrationality and seek to escape from it by taking refuge in an excessive and exaggerated devotion to "reason."

There is another dimension to hyper-rationality: the flight from emotions. Ever since Descartes, the Western world has held the mistaken notion that emotions are irrational. For the most part, we have accepted Descartes dichotomy between reason and emotion unquestioningly. However, science has once again shown that all is not as it appears to be. In his book Descartes' Error, Antonio Damasio has amassed an impressive body of neurological evidence to show that at the biological level of brain processing, reason cannot, and does not, function on its own. Emotions are inextricably interwoven into our most "rational" decisions and thoughts. If hyper-rationalist are fleeing into the embrace of reason, they are also, unwittingly fleeing from their emotions. And as before, they are fleeing from their emotions because they fear them. And they fear them because they think they are unable to handle them—or simply because they just don't know how to handle them.

"Hyper-rationalism" is something of an oxymoron, since true rationalityis always modest enough to recognize its own limitations. True rationality would never claim for itself the status that hyper-rationalists ascribe to it. Reason is not something absolute, some god-like principle: it is practical and grows out of the day-to-day experience of human beings as perceived by the human senses. We now know that these senses are notoriously susceptible to deception, so any system of reason based on the evidence of the senses is bound to be flawed in some way. Aristotle formulated the Law of Non-Contradiction based on the commonsense observation that something could not be true and not true at the same time. But anyone who has some knowledge of quantum physics would know that this does not apply to the quantum world. Reason would tell us (following Aristotle) that things cannot have two different states at the same time, or be two different things at the same time. Yet quantum physicists tell us that light is both a wave and a particle. Reason tells us that a cause cannot be separated from its effect in time and space. And yet, the principle of nonlocality in quantum physics holds that at the quantum level this is indeed possible. Einstein, ever the rationalist, found Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle highly unsettling—and to the hyper-rational mind it undoubtedly is. He famously quipped: "God doesn't play dice with the universe." To his highly rational mind, the probabilistic nature of quantum physics was utterly abhorrent. But he, as it turns out, was wrong. God (if we will temporarily allow that there is such a thing!) does indeed play dice with the universe—Einstein and "reason" notwithstanding. Incidentally, it has been proposed (on the basis of rather compelling evidence) that Einstein suffered from Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form a autism, in which emotionality and social interaction are impaired, but sensory perception and cognitive processes (rational functions of the brain) are enhanced in some cases.

Hyper-rationality is a defense mechanism: it defends against all that is threatening and causes unease. Emotions and irrationality are anathema to the hyper-rationalist because they bring uncertainty and doubt—and for some people uncertainty and doubt are unsettling. If we can embrace uncertainty and doubt, and along with them our emotions and our phylogenetic irrationality, we do not need the defense of hyper-rationality. We can live a fuller, more balanced life.

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Atheist Churches? Come now, Mr. Dennett!

A reaction to Daniel Dennett's suggestion

In a recent video posted on Big Think, Daniel Dennett suggested that secularists should band together and form organizations along the lines of churches to provide a supportive "community" for non-believers. He noted that the "community, loving, and care" provided by religion are a "good thing." He said, with a somewhat wistful twinge in his voice: "Sometimes when there is nobody around to love you and take care of you, it's great to have a group that you can be welcomed into." He went on to speak of "churches without dogmas" that provide a "community of care, helping the world" and of "credalists organization that do a lot of good work," and suggested that these can serve as a model for secularist churches.

I find this rather difficult to swallow.

First, can a church "without dogmas" properly be called a "church"? What would distinguish such an institution from other charitable and social-uplift organizations such as Oxfam, UNICEF, CARE, the Salvation Army, and so on? If all it does is "good works," then it is no different from secular organizations that do "good works." And if it is no different from secular organizations, then why call it a church? The very essence of "church-hood" is the adherence to a unique set of beliefs about God, man, and the world. What holds the church community together is the common set of beliefs shared by its members, beliefs that are held as a condition of membership. One cannot get baptized into a church without affirming the dogmas of that church. A church without dogmas is as unthinkable as a brothel without prostitutes. I wonder what Dennett would say to a brothel whose inmates did not engage in sex in exchange for money, but went around feeding the poor instead, or provided in-home care for bed-ridden old men. I wonder if he would still call it a brothel.

Second, the moment atheists (or agnostics, or secularists) form a church-like community, atheism (or agnosticism, or secularism) will devolve into a religion. This is precisely what atheism (or secularism) is against. Atheists are atheists because their atheism gives them the freedom to think what they like; it does not bind them to any particular set of beliefs. A "church" of atheists would immediately turn atheism into a system of beliefs and would require adherence to those beliefs as a condition of membership. This is the very antithesis of atheism.

Third, I find it rather mercenary to want to be a memeber of a church or similar "community" merely for the sake of having someone to love you and take care of you when all else fails. Christians are required to love one another by the tenets of their faith (and, of course, by the express injunction of Christ to do so). But Christians are not members of a church simply in order to have someone to love and take care of them in time of need—or at least they should not be. That would be a prostitution of Christianity. Christians are (or should be) members of whatever church they attend because they are followers of Christ, regardless of whether they will have someone to fall back on when they are destitute. The love and caring of the Christian community (such as it is) is merely a side benefit—the icing on the cake, if you will.

Loving and caring can and does occur across religious and sectarian lines. In countless communities around the world, Muslims show caring for their Christian and Jewish neighbours, and Hindus help Sikhs, and Catholics and Protestants come to the aid of each other in time of need, and non-believers take care of their religiously inclined fellow community members when it is called for. Churches don't have a monoploy on loving and caring.

The last thing the world needs now is yet another church. And the last thing that non-believers need is to mimic the behaviour of their believing counterparts. Anyone who does not have the courage (or strength) to be an atheist entirely on his or her own, even in the face of opposition from the entire rest of the human race, is not worthy of being an atheist. If you want community support, go become a Christian! After all, there already are, according to Dennett, "churches without dogmas," so a non-believer or secularist, according to him, should fit right in at some such institution. Where, then, is the need for secularist churches?

Atheist churches? Come now, Mr. Dennett!

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