Monday, February 22, 2016

Pascal's Dreary Pensees

The remarkable mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote his Thoughts, as they are called, apparently with the (additional) thought in mind that he would one day publish them in a more refined, finished form.  Some believe he intended an apology for Christianity.  It is within these Thoughts that his famous, or some would say infamous, "Wager" appears.

If he intended to publish, death intervened; mercifully.  I say "mercifully" because if there is one thing that can be said with any certainty, judging from these Thoughts, it is that Pascal held a monumentally dismal view of life.  So dismal, in fact, that he describes Montaigne, that sedate, even-tempered gentleman, as "lewd."  Perhaps the word in the version I read is a mistranslation; perhaps "lewd" meant something then it doesn't mean now, but one who thinks Montaigne lewd is, it would seem to me, otherworldly in the extreme.  Regardless, Pascal's dreary view of life can, I think, explain something about the "Wager." 

Perhaps there were moments when Pascal enjoyed being alive.  That's difficult to imagine in reading this grim succession of pronouncements, but it's possible.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that what he held in the low esteem so relentlessly expressed in this work was not life but human intelligence, or even knowledge or the pretense of it.  We can know nothing for certain, says Pascal, and for him this is the equivalent of saying we can know nothing at all.  And indeed, why should we?  We are, as he is eager to tell us, insignificant in the universe; he was well aware of this being a mathematician and a physicist.  Even at that time it was clear our world is but a small speck.

This plainly was of great concern to him.  These dour musings seem to radiate with the conviction that this should not be; to shimmer with the resolve that we cannot allow this to be, or in any case cannot tolerate it being the case.  Fortunately for us, God exists, and we are significant to him.  We must be significant because God deems us to be, and God must be because we must be significant.

So Pascal is amazed and angered by those who doubt the existence of God.  He resents them, in fact.  Nobody should doubt the existence of God, according to Pascal, until he has made every effort to believe in him, to not doubt him.  Only those who have done this and failed to believe in him should be viewed with anything but contempt.  Those failures, it seems, would according to Pascal be worthy of pity if not respect.

The view that we should try as hard as we possibly can to believe before we don't believe is an interesting one.  If one has an open mind on the question of God's existence, it would it seems be difficult to do one's utmost to believe in God nonetheless.  It's possible that what Pascal is saying is that one should participate diligently in the worship of God, act as if we believed in God and thereby open oneself to God.  If after that diligence one doesn't conclude God exists, then at least one made the effort.

Pascal, of course, thinks that if we seek God we'll find him, so it's doubtful he had any expectation that there could be such a thing as an atheist who had tried very hard to find God.  It would seem, instead, that he was merely urging those who doubt to be insincere and act as if they did not doubt.  They would thereby believe.  By acting, sincerely, as if we believe we will come to believe.  As an argument, this doesn't appear persuasive, to me at least.

Pascal's difficulty (if I may hazard a guess) appears to arise from the conviction that it is without question that we should believe in God.  Atheism is inexcusable as a result, even perverse.

As for the "Wager", a review of it as it appears in this work reveals that it is premised on what seems to me to "stack the deck."  Pascal creates a choice which he then maintains is not a choice, as the only choice to make is clear.  According to Pascal, there is no question that we must accept that after we die, either we are "annihilated" or not.  We are not annihilated if God exists.  We must--literally must--choose to think we will be annihilated on death or that God exists, which means we will continue after death.  Nobody really wants to choose annihilation, nobody with any sense would do so.   So, we naturally choose not to be annihilated, which means we must believe in God.

The Epicurean view that death is nothing and therefore should mean nothing to us is not one Pascal favored.  Apparently, he didn't even think it was possible to hold such a view.  Nonetheless, it was accepted by Epicureans, and this seems to render dubious Pascal's claim that we must choose God.

Pascal was a man who required certainty, although he was well aware of probabilities.  It seems that lacking certainty in life he imposed his own certainties in the form of assumptions which would  mandate a certain choice, in the ultimate form of God.  How disappointed he must have been with life, and how desperate to contrive a certain afterlife!  The "Wager" is no wager, really; there is no chance, no risk, in Pascal's mind, in any case.

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