There’s much more to Blaise Pascal than his famous Wager [SEP], which we’ve already encountered in CoPhi.
Besides his mathematics and “Pascaline,” his proto-computer, 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. 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.
Voltaire, whom we’ll soon meet, intervened in the Pascal-Montaigne conflict. He called Pascal a “sublime misanthropist” whose vision of humanity as imprisoned and terrorized by the immensity and uncertainty of the cosmos was “fanatic.” (Bakewell)
“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.]
“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?”
“Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death.”
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.
And probably not Richard Rorty, for whom philosophy is not about nailing down the unequivocal Truth but rather continuing the never-concluding Conversation of humankind.
Rorty was the most controversial philosopher on the scene back when I began grad school, having just published his brilliantly and infuriatingly iconoclastic Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Everybody had to have a view on it, and on his view that philosophy’s long quest to represent “external reality” accurately was a waste of time we were free to give up. We could ditch our “comic” efforts “to guarantee this and clarify that.”
Philosophers get attention only when they appear to be doing something sinister–corrupting the youth, undermining the foundations of civilization, sneering at all we hold dear. The rest of the time everybody assumes that they are hard at work somewhere down in the sub-basement, keeping those foundations in good repair. Nobody much cares what brand of intellectual duct tape is being used.
My current position, after several oscillations, has settled at last into the earnest wish that more philosophers wrote as wittily and as well as he did. Almost none do. Did he get pragmatism and truth right? I guess that’s what he’d call a duct tape question.
Rorty, with his metaphor of mind as (cloudy) mirror, is a good segue to the discussion of philosophy of mind, also on tap today.
Dualism gets us ghosts and spirits and other non-physical entities. Scary! But not for most students, I’ve found, so deeply have most of them drunk from the holy communion trough. It’s not a question of evidence but of familiarity and fear, in many cases – fear of the alternative. A student expressed that just the other day, asking with incredulity and contempt how anyone could possibly ponder facing the end of mortal existence without an immortal safety net firmly in place (in mind).
Why do they think the evolution of mind so closely parallels that of the brain? They don’t think about it, mostly.
Nor do most think much about the possibility of mind and body being on parallel but never-converging tracks, pre-arranged to keep a synchronous schedule and never throw up a discordant discrepant “occasion.” And forget too about epiphenomenalism (which Sam Harris seems to be trying hard to revive).
If neuroscientists ever succeed in mapping the brain and modeling the causal neurological events correlated with thinking, will that solve the mystery of consciousness? Is there a gap between the explanation and the experience of pain, pleasure, happiness, etc.? I say no and yes, respectively. But let’s try and draw that map, it may take us to interesting places none of us have thought about.