Dwan Adams of the Peace Corps made such a terrific pitch, I’m expecting half the class to have run off and joined when I get to Bioethics tomorrow. I’m half considering it myself. I don’t know how she made life in a tent in Mongolian winter sound appealing but she did. So, you want to join?
Today in CoPhi it’s Pascal, Spinoza, Locke & Reid, and a Philosophy Bites interview with Anne Phillips on multiculturalism.
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
“There are two equally dangerous extremes: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.”
“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.”*
“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 indicate 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..."]
So how can I come up against this biggest question, the ultimate question, “Do I really believe in a personal God,” and then turn away from the evidence? How can I believe, just because I want to? How will I have any respect for myself if I did that?
I thought of Pascal’s Wager. Pascal argued that it’s better to bet there is a God, because if you’re wrong there’s nothing to lose, but if there is, you win an eternity in heaven. But I can’t force myself to believe, just in case it turns out to be true. The God I’ve been praying to knows what I think, he doesn’t just make sure I show up for church. How could I possibly pretend to believe? I might convince other people, but surely not God.
Spinoza believed in Einstein’s God [Tippett], and vice versa. Gambling with your soul? Einstein famously said God does not play dice with the universe. God doesn’t play at anything, or listen to anyone, or save or punish or forgive. God just is.
They were pantheists, Spinoza and Einstein, 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.
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. (But see below.*)
“Consider the herds that are feeding yonder: they know not the meaning of yesterday or today; they graze and ruminate, move or rest, from morning to night, from day to day, taken up with their little loves and hates and the mercy of the moment, feeling neither melancholy nor satiety. Man cannot see them without regret, for even in the pride of his humanity he looks enviously on the beast’s happiness. He wishes simply to live without satiety or pain, like the beast; yet it is all in vain, for he will not change places with it. He may ask the beast—“Why do you look at me and not speak to me of your happiness?” The beast wants to answer—“Because I always forget what I wished to say”; but he forgets this answer, too, and is silent; and the man is left to wonder.”
Gayatri Devi says if you want a better memory you must make yourself forget more.
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.”
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. Prepare the rafts.
And consider the Corps.