Pascal and friends

Today in CoPhi it’s Pascal, Spinoza, Locke & Reid, and a Philosophy Bites interview with Anne Phillips on multiculturalism.

In EEA, we look with Gus Speth at Capitalism and Environmentalism, respectively “out of control” and (sadly) ineffective.

And this will need to be brief, it’s time for me to make some exams. Or rather, time for me to put the finishing touches on the exams my student collaborators have proposed. (But as Pascal says, sometimes you have to write long just because you don’t have time to make it short.)

So okay, in a quick nutshell: there’s more to Blaise Pascal than his famous Wager [SEP], there are all those thoughts (Pensees) and there’s also his antipathy for his fellow  philosophe Francais, Montaigne. I usually compare-&-contrast Montaigne and Descartes, so this makes for a nice new menage a trois (without an accent). Blaise is hostile to both Rene and Michel but is a cautious gambler, finding Descartes’ God too antiseptic and too, well, philosophical. And he finds Montaigne a self-absorbed, trivia-mongering potty-mouth.

But Montaigne would not at all disagree that “the heart has its reasons which reason knows not.” And isn’t it funny to think of Descartes philosophizing in his hypothetical armchair, asking if his fire and his body (etc.) are real, pretending to speculate that all the world and its philosophical problems might be figments of his solipsistic or dreamy or demon-instigated imagination? And then funnier still to come across this quote from Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”  But look what happens when a philosopher sits quietly in a room alone: you get the Meditations!

Pascal also said

“Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.” And “It is man’s natural sickness to believe that he possesses the Truth.”

And

“There are two equally dangerous extremes: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.”

And

“The nature of man is wholly natural, omne animal. There is nothing he may not make natural; there is nothing natural he may not lose.”*

And

“The weather and my mood have little connection. I have my foggy and my fine days within me…” [Or as Jimmy Buffett says, carry the weather with you.]

And all military veterans especially should appreciate this one:

“Can anything be stupider than that a man has the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of a river and his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have not quarrelled with him?”

And this will be an epigraph for my Philosophy Walks (or its sequel Philosophy Rides):

“Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death.”

But Pascal does finally blow the big game of life, for betting too heavily on self-interest. He’s obsessed with “saving [his] own soul at all costs.” That’s a losing proposition.

[*That statement about us being “omne animal” sounded flattering, to me, being a philosophical naturalist and a friend to animals. But later epigraphs indicates Pascal’s platonist perfectionism and his derogatory attitude towards humanity and its natural condition. Without God’s grace, he writes, we are “like unto the brute beasts.” He doesn’t seem pleased about that, but I’m with Walt Whitman: “I think I could turn and live with animals, they’re so placid and self contain’d… They do not sweat and whine about their condition… They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God…”]

Spinoza believed in Einstein’s God, and vice versa. They were pantheists, a lot less tormented by the vast and starry universe than Pascal (“all these stars frighten me”) with his personal and possibly punitive God. As Jennifer Hecht notes, there’s a howling statistical error at the heart of Pascal’s specious reasoning: “We may be struck by lightning or not, but that doesn’t make it a fifty-fifty proposition.” And his bad wager underscores something more to appreciate about Spinoza.

What Pascal decried as the misery of man without the Biblical God, was for Spinoza the liberation of the human spirit from the bonds of fear and superstition.

[Descartes to DeismTlumak on free willDescartes before the horse (& Spinoza/Einstein slides)…]

Locke said the key to personal identity is memory. Oh-oh! But Thomas Reid, Mr. Scottish Common Sense, helpfully said you can get there from here: if you remember  yourself in (say) 1998, and that Self remembers itself in 1980, and that one remembers version 1975, and so on… well, you’re the same person you were back in the day. Whew! That’s a relief. The Ship of Theseus may be seaworthy, after all.

Anne Phillips says one of the smartest things I’ve heard anyone say about the niqab, the Islamic full face veil, and whether it has a place before the faces of those who most directly influence our children:

“…it’s a bit problematic sending a message to 11-year old children that it’s impossible for men and women to engage in face-to-face communication.”

And J&M note other problems

Speaking of teaching our children well: Gus Speth says one smart thing after another, including:

“Future generations cannot participate in capitalism’s markets…the essence of sustainable development is equity toward future generations.”

“…today’s environmentalism doesn’t work well enough… We have won many victories, but we are losing the planet. It is important to ask why.”

Unfortunately, this election season, no one’s really asking. Walter Cronkite used to ask “Can the world be saved?” Honestly, it’s too soon to tell. But I think William James had it right, long ago, when he wrote:

“The world may be saved, on condition that its parts shall do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.”

So there’s our challenge: to do our best. Push that stone, and push it again. And be happy. Sail on, sail on, sailor. Watch out for those shoals, those rocks and bergs. Be safe. And prepare the rafts.

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