Pascal & the mind

Somewhere in Walden Thoreau says something about needing a little water in his world, to provide a reflective glimpse of eternity. He also has things to say to today’s headliner Pascal, about not being cowed by the scale of the cosmos. Pascal famously confessed: “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” (No wonder he was frightened, say J & M.) Henry said, in reply to neighbors who wondered if he wasn’t lonely out there by the lake in the woods:Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way?” Unlike his French predecessor, our transcendentalist was at home in the universe.

Trivial pop-culture factoid: last night on “Madam Secretary,” the husband (a teacher)mentioned Pascal.

Less trivially, Voltaire (we’ll soon see him skewering Leibniz) 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.”

Bertrand Russell mostly felt sorry for him, approvingly citing Nietzsche’s critique of Pascal’s “self-contempt and self-immolation.” He meant Pascal’s intellectual suicide, driven by fear.

Fortunately 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 (“Penseesyou can listen for free, here) and there’s also his antipathy for his fellow  philosophe FrancaisMontaigne. 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.

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.”


Reminds me of what Montaigne said about needing to kickstart his mind with his legs.


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…”]

Julia Sweeney, donning her no-god glasses, gets to the nub of what’s wrong with Pascal’s Wager:

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 (TED) and modeling the causal neurological events correlated with thinking, will that solve the mystery of consciousness? [John Searle‘s view…] 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.

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