Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Expert Problem

I was listening to NPR the other day and heard some pundit complain about something I've heard in many venues: namely, that so little of the stimulus money has been spent. This article lays out some of the details, as do many others if you care to look. Why, you might ask, is it so hard to actually spend this money and get some stuff built? After all, there are no shortages of rundown or overcrowded highways, or congested rail corridors, or outdated airports. Let's get to work!

Not so fast. The reason you don't see new bridges and tunnels being built, as happened frequently in the Great Depression, is in large part because we now have experts to clutter up these projects. Nothing gets done by the people who make things without the people who think about things having their say first. In many ways, the white collar worker is the enemy of his blue collar brother, as the reports, analyses and meetings of the former slow up the building, creating and manufacturing of the latter.

Just take a look at this page updating on progress for the Second Avenue Subway line here in NYC: you see study after study, recommendation after recommendation, but words like, "dig" are barely to be found. A century ago, this city was criss-crossed with subway lines, built largely by private industry. But now it seems it takes decades just to study the possibility of a project. I work a half block away from where the proposed line will run, and strongly doubt I will ever ride it.

Obviously, there is merit in looking before you leap, and considering the best way to execute a project as well as its possible impact before starting. But projects like the Big Dig are beset by cost overruns and engineering failures even after the best minds study the problem endlessly, so how much value do all these reports really provide? The country aches for renewal, and improving our infrastructure is part of that. So lets stop the debating and get to work.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Faith and Knowledge

I just finished reading an interesting piece in Slate by Ron Rosenbaum on agnosticism. It tapped into something that I think is a logical challenge of being a religious believer: namely, that the only way you can be 100% sure your faith is right is to be in some way delusional. Faith is almost meaningless if it ia guaranteed.

Does that make me a religious agnostic? (Or a Catholic agnostic, to be more specific?) I do think the medieval Church would have condemned this line of thinking, but I am not sure the Church of John Paul II, and now Pope Benedict, would. How can one say that religious belief cannot be compelled, acknowledge the legitimacy (if not the truth) of other traditions, and then state that a member of the Church must profess 100% certainty in all of its teachings? To believe is not to know.

And to go further, I think there is a good, theological reason we cannot be absolutely sure of our faith claims, one that has been said many times: to make God undeniable is to remove the free will which is His greatest gift to us. Even within an individual heart, an unearned certainty in one's faith turns the believer from a free soul to an automaton. And history shows that those who are absolutely certain in a belief, whether in the Catholic Church, or Islam, or Communism, or Atheism, or the superiority of a certain race, are likely to do horrible things in the furtherance of their beliefs.

There are few humans so incurious about the world that the question of why we are here will never come to them. And that sliver of a non-materialistic question opens the door to belief. As the compulsion to believe fades from human society, I think religion will get more confused and less hierarchical, but the need people have to 'grow in faith' together (a process more halting and unsteady than the phrase implies) will remain. There will be a purges and renewals in faith, as has happened periodically throughout the history of all the great religions, but the existance of doubt does not destroy, and may increase, the need for organized churches.