Some superficial notes on Pascal

31 01 2011

I read a post recently on Pascal’s wager. Overall, I am not so sure of the tone taken by most of the participants in that discussion. But one must point out first that Pascal’s wager takes place in the context of his anthropology. Being a Jansenist, he was profoundly pessimistic about the powers of man, while giving great weight to the infinite power of God. This quote, also from his Pensees, came to mind in connection to this issue:

One little thought could not be made to arise from all bodies taken together, for this is impossible and they are of different orders. One single movement of true charity could not be derived from all bodies and all spirits; for that is impossible. It is of another order, and is supernatural.

While there is an “orthodox” interpretation of this idea, in the Jansenist mind, this means that the natural order is more than superfluous when applied to revealed truths. In a sense, the heavens could not sing the glory of God in Pascal. They are part of a barren universe devoid of meaning. They sing nothing, or if they sing something, it is a lie.

Related to this is perhaps the response that Pascal may have given to the author of the post cited above when he says that the courage of conviction is more important than the fear of eternal loss at the heart of the wager. There is a Spanish saying that goes, él que se salva sabe todo, él que no se salva no sabe nada (he who is saved knows everything, he who is not saved knows nothing. In traditional Christian discourse, salvation is an absolute good that determines all others. While one could try to hold to the idea of the absolute justice of God, the argument is a bit of a cop out because we have no real idea what that justice would look like.

Which gets me to the false presupposition at the heart of the argument. The presupposition, alluded to by Christopher Hitchens, is that a God who would offer Pascal’s wager would be foolish and far from sincere. The death bed conversion, embodied best by the Good Thief on the Cross, is a sign that God is a finicky monarch who is satisified by mere flattery. This extends further into the very modern notion that God’s behavior has to be reasonable and acceptable to modern attitudes. The fear at the center of these attitudes is that God’s behavior may be completely contigent, that absurdity and capriciousness are signs of the absolute power of God, and not signs that God doesn’t exist. In Pascal and the “traditional” world, one can be saved by dumb luck and bad faith. Such an idea for us seems vulgar and perverse. That is why many have to argue for universal salvation, and so forth. A god who would behave otherwise would be “unpreachable”.


27 01 2011

Because I am feeling a little Nietzschean today, dammit

Just because something is broken doesn’t mean that there is someone around smart enough to fix it.

Ideas have consequences, but never the consequences we expect them to have.

God doesn’t care about 95% of what we obsess about in His name.

[Related: Some people pretend that God can’t take care of His own affairs, so we have to be indignant in God’s place.]

For some, cynicism is the wall that defends the city of belief.

Consciousness is the universe defecating on itself.

[I stole that one from somewhere, but I don’t remember. Plagiarism through forgetfulness.]

Nietzsche and me

26 01 2011

image credit

From Slate

The attraction of Nietzsche to socially maladjusted young men is obvious, but it isn’t exactly simple. It is built from several interlocking pieces. Nietzsche mocks convention and propriety (and mocks difficult writers you’d prefer not to bother with anyway). He’s funny and (deceptively) easy to read, especially compared to his antecedents in German philosophy, who are also his flabby and lumbering targets: Schopenhauer, Hegel, and, especially, Kant. If your social world fails to appreciate your singularity and tells you that you’re a loser, reading Nietzsche can steel you in your secret conviction that, no, I’m a genius, or at least very special, and everyone else is the loser. Like you, Nietzsche was misunderstood in his day, ignored or derided by other scholars. Like you, Nietzsche seems to find everything around him lame, either stodgy and moralistic or sick with democratic vulgarity. Nietzsche seems to believe in aristocracy, which is taboo these days, which might be why no one recognizes you as the higher sort of guy you suspect yourself to be. And crucially, if you’re a horny and poetic young man whose dream girl is ever present before your eyes but just out of reach, Nietzsche frames his project of resistance and overcoming as not just romantic but erotic…

So does that make Nietzsche and Jared Lee Loughner philosophical brethren after all, joined in the same fanatical fight against nihilism? In a word, no, and Loughner’s pathological fixation on the meaning of words is the giveaway. One way of looking at Nietzsche’s project is that he set out to teach himself and his readers to love the world in its imperfection and multiplicity, for itself. This is behind his assaults on religion, liberal idealism, and utilitarian systems of social organization. He saw these as different ways of effacing or annihilating the world as it is. It is behind his infamous doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence—in which he embraces the “most abysmal thought,” that the given world, and not the idealizing stories we tell of it, is all there is, and he will affirm this reality even if it recurs eternally.

I must admit that the first authors that I got into as an adolescent were Nietzsche and the existentialists. I think any bookish boy needs to have such a phase, but could I read Nietzsche with a straight face now? Or Sartre for that matter? There is something self-absorbed and frustrated about what they write. There is something angry and at the same time envious in all of their prose. Content with life as it pretty much is now, I give very little weight to Nietzsche and Co. If anything, I am becoming more pro-Hegelian and pro-Marxist by the day. The best way to subvert the social order is perhaps not to cynically stand against it, but to take it seriously. Growth in maturity is a product of being able to accept hypocrisy without much comment.


25 01 2011

picture credit

Here is a good post from a guy who I think I have had online scuffles with:

…I’m referring to is the very common run of the mill NFP promotions that see NFP as properly belonging to every marriage because the very use of NFP naturally enhances and perfects marriages, so that all marriage before the advent of NFP, and all those now who don’t use NFP are in marriages which are suffering from not using NFP…

So that what has occurred is the machine has been substituted for the natural in a kind of a machine ordered cult. An error which appeals to machine ordered societies, where solutions are seen as involving some type of gadget. Where the interior life has been given over to the sensible, where our perfection comes from without.

Which is a common enough occurrence where happiness is the next gadget purchase away.

Mexico as symptom

24 01 2011

…Thus the dream is that, since the excess was introduced from outside, i.e. is the work of an alien intruder, its elimination would enable us to obtain again a stable social organism whose parts form a harmonious corporate body, where, in contrast to capitalism’s constant social displacement, everybody would again occupy its own place. The function of the Master is to dominate the excess by locating its cause in a clearly defined social agency: “It is they who steal our enjoyment, who, by means of their excessive attitude, introduce imbalance and antagonism.” With the figure of the Master, the antagonism inherent in the social structure is transformed into a relationship of power, a struggle for domination between us and them, those who cause antagonistic imbalance.

Perhaps this matrix also helps us grasp the reemergence of nationalist chauvinism in Eastern Europe as a kind of “shock-absorber” against sudden exposure to the capitalist openness and imbalance. It is as if, in the very moment when the bond, the chain preserving free development of capitalism, i.e. a deregulated production of excess, was broken, it was countered by a demand for a new Master who will rein it in. What one demands is the establishment of a stable and clearly defined social body which will restrain capitalism’s destructive potential by cutting off the “excessive” element; and since this social body is experienced as that of a nation, the cause of any imbalance “spontaneously” assumes the form of a “national enemy”.

-Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology

The book from which this quote was taken was not an easy one to read. As in many of Zizek’s books, this wasn’t so much a book that held to one theme, but used certain themes from Kant and Hegel to elaborate upon a number of themes. For example, the chapter that preceded the one where this quote is found takes its inspiration from a theme from Richard Wagner’s Parsifal. In the last chapter, “Enjoy your nation as yourself”, Zizek tries to break open a matter near to the history he was living: the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the rest of Eastern Europe in the early 1990’s. Zizek uses the tools of Lacanian analysis and critical theory to discuss why these countries broke apart the way they did, often in violent and genocidal blood baths. As you can see from the above, Zizek attributes this to the re-entrance of these regions into the capitalist sphere. The shock from this transition led to these peoples trying to find stability again in the midst of the societal chaos re-introduced with generalized commodity production.
Read the rest of this entry »

Marriage “not for all”

23 01 2011

I am surprised that this has not gotten more coverage among Catholic talking (or typing) heads. Perhaps such an idea is now obvious among “informed Catholics”. To be married in the church, it is not enough to be in love, to want to have sex, or even to want kids. There is some sort of strange Gnostic illumination one must undergo (“be properly catechized”), otherwise, your marriage isn’t really valid. Of course, this isn’t really the position of the Vatican, but it can seem to be when faced with an explosion in the American context of annulments, often for frivolous reasons.
Read the rest of this entry »


21 01 2011

The first time as tragedy…

20 01 2011

Lately, I have been seeing a trend in Catholic discourse. Maybe it’s just me, but I really do think certain people are heeing and hawing back their way to the pre-Vatican II Church. First, of course, there is the whole Latin Mass movement. Interesting, but barely a blip on the radar screen in the real world. Then, there was Tuesday’s post about a bishop in Kazakhstan (who do you have to piss off to get stationed in Kazakhstan?) calling for a new Syllabus of Errors. Then it was some convert professor bemoaning the death of a homogenous Catholic philosophy, as they had before the Council. And finally, and most bizarrely of all, some right wing canonist is saying that permanent deacons on the books are supposed to be celibate, as are all of the other married men ordained to orders without having to put away their wives.
Read the rest of this entry »

Necessary lies

19 01 2011

Continuing with my man crush of Zizek:

In one of the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks Putin and Medvedev are compared to Batman and Robin. It’s a useful analogy: isn’t Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’s organiser, a real-life counterpart to the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight? In the film, the district attorney, Harvey Dent, an obsessive vigilante who is corrupted and himself commits murders, is killed by Batman. Batman and his friend police commissioner Gordon realise that the city’s morale would suffer if Dent’s murders were made public, so plot to preserve his image by holding Batman responsible for the killings. The film’s take-home message is that lying is necessary to sustain public morale: only a lie can redeem us. No wonder the only figure of truth in the film is the Joker, its supreme villain. He makes it clear that his attacks on Gotham City will stop when Batman takes off his mask and reveals his true identity; to prevent this disclosure and protect Batman, Dent tells the press that he is Batman – another lie. In order to entrap the Joker, Gordon fakes his own death – yet another lie.

The Joker wants to disclose the truth beneath the mask, convinced that this will destroy the social order. What shall we call him? A terrorist? The Dark Knight is effectively a new version of those classic westerns Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which show that, in order to civilise the Wild West, the lie has to be elevated into truth: civilisation, in other words, must be grounded on a lie. The film has been extraordinarily popular. The question is why, at this precise moment, is there this renewed need for a lie to maintain the social system?

Consider too the renewed popularity of Leo Strauss: the aspect of his political thought that is so relevant today is his elitist notion of democracy, the idea of the ‘necessary lie’. Elites should rule, aware of the actual state of things (the materialist logic of power), and feed the people fables to keep them happy in their blessed ignorance. For Strauss, Socrates was guilty as charged: philosophy is a threat to society. Questioning the gods and the ethos of the city undermines the citizens’ loyalty, and thus the basis of normal social life. Yet philosophy is also the highest, the worthiest, of human endeavours. The solution proposed was that philosophers keep their teachings secret, as in fact they did, passing them on by writing ‘between the lines’. The true, hidden message contained in the ‘great tradition’ of philosophy from Plato to Hobbes and Locke is that there are no gods, that morality is merely prejudice, and that society is not grounded in nature.

Read the rest here

Found via Titusonenine

P.S. I thought that Dark Night movie sucked.

A new Syllabus?

18 01 2011

Found at Vox Nova, this article was very much of interest to me, in that I think there is a profound forgetfulness as to why Vatican II happened in the first place. Calling for a new Syllabus of Errors strikes me as one of those paradoxical statements, such as “no freedom for the enemies of freedom”. For a council that explicitly aimed to convince rather than condemn (seen in the tragicomic governing style of John Paul II – except if you were a Marxist), the final farcical act would be to use authority for anti-authoritarian purposes (“I said be convinced about our communion of love, dammit, or you’re out of the Church!”) I guess I may have been right about Papa Ratzinger’s reign as being the “Thermidor of Vatican II”. Only this time, I think the Napoleon preceeded Thermidor. Hey, these things never work themselves out like we think they will. Maybe we should now wait for the 1848 of the Church, or even the 1917.