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”.


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12 responses

8 02 2011
The 27th Comrade

Yes, children: always remember that, if it comes to it, cite your studies of Buddhism, mention two professors, remembering to note that they are your professors, and then finish of by labeling your interlocutor a troll, even when you are the six-comments-in-a-row type. It never fails. To add flavour to it, call your interlocutor either of dense and illiterate, and leave open the option of being consulted as teacher, as the instructor of the foolish.

Here, one says he loves apes, but will not stand anyone calling an ape an ape. He must be a Roman Catholic, a philosopher, or both.

If we argue for the same things without realising it, one or both of us should improve on his clarity-of-writing skills.

7 02 2011
KarlH

I don’t think you’re entirely incorrect and I’m entirely correct about everything. If there’s something I’ve gotten out of my studies of Buddhism (especially studying the Zen/Pure Land divide), it’s the idea that individual conceptions may be not entirely true but nevertheless lead one to self-mastery and into truth. C.S. Lewis presents a similar concept at the end of the Last Battle.

As for me, I like apes. I like sex; I like the variance of appearances and sensations; I like the way our digestive system works. I have a great love for all growing things. Two of my professors have done original work on corporeality and its relation to Christianity—one of them has done so from the perspective of Plotinus and the Neoplatonists and argued that the body is saved in its entirety as a memory in relation to its historical condition. The other has done a lot of scholarly work on corporeality in general in early Christianities and touched upon theology secondly. Is Platonism true? I don’t know. I’ve commented a few times about the issues of an Absolute-based philosophy and the problem of subjectivity and human experience in a philosophy that focuses solely upon an Absolute as Being.

Part of the issue is that you are jumping to conclusions about what I mean and you do not realize this. I’m trying not to laugh at you almost because we are arguing for some of the same things and you cannot even see it. Really, you are doing this. Have you looked up what religious humanism even means? Geez.

And, c’mon. “Scoff at faith?” I didn’t scoff at you. I scoffed at how proud and stuck-up you are and the fact that you don’t seem able to leave your own head. It is impossible to even discuss these things with you. Look at this glaring error: “And how does one leap in faith, if God is just somehow up there and does not intervene?” Did I not just say “Really, this giant leap of faith towards…whatever, seems more like a terrible symptom of the modern temperament and an unstated belief that God is somehow “up there” and doesn’t intervene everywhere and at all times.” I am saying that God DOES intervene and is not just up there as a vague metaphysical principle. God is active and alive in everything that goes on.

And I wasn’t saying that philosophers are somehow saved by their philosophy. What I said was that they know they can speculate and contemplate all things but there is a point where all one can do is lay it down at the feet of God and bind together all their concepts with silence. I was trying to do this subtly so you could perhaps learn something (or reject it) but you seem to be either dense or illiterate. If you want to actually try and understand what I am saying and ask for further explanations, do so. Otherwise, I really don’t see how this “discussion” can go anywhere. And frankly, I don’t have time for it. The internet is already populated enough with troll threads and those who never try to understand what the other person is saying.

7 02 2011
The 27th Comrade

I think you will find the Christological issue of the threat of the divine infinity swallowing up the finite character of Christ’s humanity in every Protestant tradition.

Au contraire, you find the threat of the de-divinisation of Christ more often. After all, textual critics’ biggest issues are not how to harmonise Calvary with his Divinty, but rather to harmonise, say, His miracles with his “mere” humanity.

If you didn’t have your head up your ass you’d see that I was not saying that Christ was wrong in the usual sense about something and you misunderstood me greatly about other things, approaching what I said with a priori assumptions.

Ah, but you did say Christ was wrong in the usual sense. Do you not see your comment? How can one be corrected by a simple woman, being finite and all that, yet this not be an implication that this someone was wrong? I even guessed right the simple woman you meant, because that passage stands out for that seeming correction of what comes off initially as calousness on Jesus’ part.

You also speak about faith as a giant leap but let’s remember that Martin Luther saw hobgoblins. The Christian faith was not unreasonable or an ENORMOUS fideism to the Reformers and the divine and supernatural was not really so far away as in the cold undecorated churches of Calvin.

Alas, I am not a Protestant. These men are not my standard; I am not of their schools. I am a sad chimera of things that neither adds up to Christianity nor avoids having Jesus Christ at the root, but somewhere in this faith system sits the sentence written by Paul: Children of Abraham, the man of faith.
And as for Abraham’s leap of faith, it is hard to describe it as anything else when you believe that triple-barren loins will sire a child in a year. And Sarah, who knew more about Abraham’s impotence than we should be discussing here, managed a silent laugh over this same promise. When you believe, even when those in the know have laughed, you are leaping (or there is no such thing as leaping in faith).

Really, this giant leap of faith towards…whatever, seems more like a terrible symptom of the modern temperament and an unstated belief that God is somehow “up there” and doesn’t intervene everywhere and at all times.

Abraham was not modern. And how does one leap in faith, if God is just somehow up there and does not intervene? In the case of the followers of Jesus Christ, we say we are justified by faith, like Abraham (“Abraham believed, and it was credited to his as righteousness.”), and due to the sheer intimacy (and even invasive totality) of this justification unto righteousness, for no such believer is God merely “up there”. He is here with us: Immanuel.
That article you linked to speaks of the sacraments as the here-with-us; we (well, I) speak of the justification. After all, Jesus did not come to muck about with the Law. If you want sacraments, do those that Jesus did (and the modern Christians do not do them). However, for that you need only Moses, and John 1:17 lies un-used on the floor in such a case. But make justification your way to relate to Jesus, and you done got it down pat; and God will be Immanuel. Forget the libations, think of the liberation!

If you honestly want to consider another perspective which seems terribly unlikely given your suggestion that I and other religious humanists are damned …

I did in fact maintain that religious humanists are damned. But should they care, since they (almost by definition) do not consider me correct?
I can honestly consider wrong perspectives, of course. I do it all the time, such as just before I do the uncouth act of declaring those who scoff at faith damned.

Oh, and stop calling men apes. We are made in the image of God and Christians carry His likeness even if we’re not yet perfect. You insult God’s Creation when you say such things.

Men are apes, and that is a good thing! Apes like us are made in the image of God. Shall we now stop referring to our having body hair, our having sexual urges, our having to defecate, our having two legs with ten toes, lest we offend the image relation? No, instead: learn to see the glory in the ape, for it is fearfully- and wonderfully-made.

7 02 2011
KarlH

Ha, I was originally going to write “Moses knew it and listened to a burning bush” but thought halfway that in my next sentence I wanted to allude to Kierkegaard’s “The Sickness Unto Death.” That’s embarrassing.

I am not Catholic and philosophy is only a past-time of mine and not something I’m committed to. I don’t believe in Ontology and I don’t believe in orthodox Thomism. I grew up as a good little Protestant. I realize the issues of discursive thought—this was a result of the Fall. I think you will find the Christological issue of the threat of the divine infinity swallowing up the finite character of Christ’s humanity in every Protestant tradition. If you didn’t have your head up your ass you’d see that I was not saying that Christ was wrong in the usual sense about something and you misunderstood me greatly about other things, approaching what I said with a priori assumptions. You also speak about faith as a giant leap but let’s remember that Martin Luther saw hobgoblins. The Christian faith was not unreasonable or an ENORMOUS fideism to the Reformers and the divine and supernatural was not really so far away as in the cold undecorated churches of Calvin. Really, this giant leap of faith towards…whatever, seems more like a terrible symptom of the modern temperament and an unstated belief that God is somehow “up there” and doesn’t intervene everywhere and at all times. If you honestly want to consider another perspective which seems terribly unlikely given your suggestion that I and other religious humanists are damned, read the article “Christianity in a One-Storey Universe” by Fr. Stephen. It can be found here: http://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/christianity-in-a-one-storey-universe/

Oh, and stop calling men apes. We are made in the image of God and Christians carry His likeness even if we’re not yet perfect. You insult God’s Creation when you say such things.

7 02 2011
The 27th Comrade

This leap of faith works just as well for every religion and we could argue for years about which one is “true.”

Yes, I am not arguing for Christianity, but for faith. Fortunately for Christianity, it is the only system of belief where everything starts in faith and ends in faith. Many people do not know it, and Roman Catholics anathematise it, but Romans 1:17 is only from Christianity, and therefore makes Christianity true, at the expense of other faith-demeaning systems of thought, such as those of the Greeks (today rendered as Roman Catholicism and general logical-makes-ontological nonsense).

Moses understood this and was ready to sacrifice his son for it. Socrates understood this and attacked any truism. Musicians understand this and end their songs in silence.

Also, it is Abraham, the man of faith, who was to sacrifice his son; not Moses. But, yes, Abraham would have to be sanitised and turned into a philosopher before the people of today, such as the Roman Catholics, would accept his action. The rest of us just say “Let God be true and every man a liar,” knowing that we are men. The point of faith is that even faith can be disappointed. You, you see the importance of it take the leap. But faith is also faith in faith; so that you actually do have 70,000 fathoms under you.

Christ came to baptize the experience of man, and I do not think Christ would reject using reason.

Of course Christ would not reject the using of reason. What He did reject was the supremacy of reason over faith. On many occassions He said “You have seen and believed; but blessed are those who do not see and yet believe,” something that Peter re-iterated in one of his epistles (the first, I believe).

Did he not once find himself corrected in morals by a simple woman?

No, He did not. The Syro-Phoenician woman is the one who got corrected. Gentiles were not supposed to call Him by His Hebrew title (“Son of David”), and so He reminded the woman that she as a Gentile, and that He gave her the miracle even as a Gentile. (See His reference to dogs, which was a shorthand for Gentiles at the time; the woman the pleaded to be accepted as a Gentile, in a time when Jesus had come for the Hebrews, not the Gentiles, and Jesus gave her a waiver.)
As for you on Jesus being corrected, do you not know anything about Jesus? Jesus does not get corrected; He corrects. You must be a Catholic, or a philosopher, or both. 🙂

Reason is part of our human condition—it is the human intellect trying to comprehend the mind of God.

No, it is not. What is with this mind-worshipping generation? No wonder they cannot worship a god they have not created in their heads (and adorned with names like Prime Mover, and spoken for in defence before unbelievers, for idols do not speak for themselves). You seem to think that the reasoning of an ape is different from its urinating or cooking. How is urinating related to God’s (shall we say?) urinating?

If Christianity exists outside of the human category, to hell with it. Our souls might as well be vegetative.

At least you are honest. For you, Christianity is upheld by philosophy and other human pursuits. Yet others say, Let God be true and every man a liar. Some approach God with philosophy, and others humble faith, but God has chosen how He will be approached, and He has chosen who He will receive. The way you approach is your choice, of course, but God has said, “Whosoever believeth in Him”.

6 02 2011
KarlH

Because belief does not necessarily equal beliefs…sheesh. If all you said is true, how can we even listen to people? This leap of faith works just as well for every religion and we could argue for years about which one is “true.” Kierkegaard’s leap of faith is a leap of faith that there is something communicated in recursive thought and our fragmented lives despite the fact that these concepts fall short of an Absolute. Moses understood this and was ready to sacrifice his son for it. Socrates understood this and attacked any truism. Musicians understand this and end their songs in silence. As such, faith is trust—trust that something—meaning and purpose—is and can be communicated and the world is not just a bunch of disconnected realities that end in nihilism. Christ came to baptize the experience of man, and I do not think Christ would reject using reason. Did he not once find himself corrected in morals by a simple woman? Reason is part of our human condition—it is the human intellect trying to comprehend the mind of God. Yes, it becomes bad when we think we know everything. Some people approach God with philosophy, some people approach God with a humble faith. But a good philosopher already knows that there is more being said than what is on the page. There doesn’t have to be such a sharp divison as you make things out to be. If Christianity exists outside of the human category, to hell with it. Our souls might as well be vegetative.

5 02 2011
The 27th Comrade

… that absurdity and capriciousness are signs of the absolute power of God, and not signs that God doesn’t exist.

No; rather, they are signs that apes should not, and cannot, understand all of God. Which is okay, for He made faith, not reason, the way to reach Him.

Charles Curtis: I co-sign, both on the Kierkegaard and the 1 Corinthians 1. Together the greatest answer to modern rationalistic bullshit.

but where did we get the idea that the exercise of our intellect, and a result of its finiteness (error) warrants damnation?

For one, I get it from the conjunction of John 3:16 (“Wgosoever believeth shall not perish …”), and Hebrews 11 (“Faith is confidence of things not seen … whoever comes to God must have believe that He exists and rewards those who seek Him. For without faith it is impossible to please God.”) Now, having been told to have faith, why do we instead seek to see (via theorems, or via crafting idols) before we believe? Here, have a condemnation.

1 02 2011
Michael Liccione

I’ve long interpreted quaesumus more lightly than you, as a form of deference to authority. I take it to connote that, when we ask God for something of a kind we know he approves, we may still not demand it, or even presume that we’re going to get it in a form we would recognize.

31 01 2011
Kelly

Being the author of that post, I stand by my initial concern, and by what motivated the post.

Integrity, honesty, the courage of having one’s convictions, these aren’t things that place us in opposition to God (even if we hold wrong conclusions while possessing such qualities). Erroneous views hopefully will be corrected in time, but where did we get the idea that the exercise of our intellect, and a result of its finiteness (error) warrants damnation?

31 01 2011
sortacatholic

Forgot two citations here. Is there a way to footnote in wordpress comboxes?

Mohrmann, Christine. “Quelques observations sur l’evolution stylistique du Canon de la messe romain” Vigiliae Christianae Vol. 4, No. 1 (Jan., 1950). 1-19.
JSTOR.

sortacatholic:

“Even by the time of Cicero and the late Republic … request.” (Mohrmann 16 — 17)

“The only instance of quaesumus appears in the quam oblationem.” (Mohrmann, ibid.)

“By contrast, the unde et memores, […] has been satisfied.” (Mohrmann 10)

Christine Mohrmann is still a giant in the field of Roman liturgical philology. Her works are well worth reading. Unfortunately, she published mostly in French, with some Dutch. Nevertheless her works are essential to this field.

31 01 2011
Charles Curtis

I think Dismas’ conversion was of humility and love, and so his salvation is not capricious at all.

Another thing is that accepting Pascal’s wager, or taking Kirkegard’s leap into the void – ideas I think that are rooted in similar impulses – will lead to prayer, which will result in experience of God. I reacted to Kirkegard’s idea when I first read him in just that way – I was caught up in fashionable adolescent angst and “agnosticism,” but I was attracted by that idea – so I jumped, but I did not fall. My prayer and use of the sacraments has long since made God very real.

The epistle read at mass today says that God chose the weak to shame the strong, saves the foolish in the eyes of the world, so that no man may boast before God, only in God. One thing is sure: whatever God does will be unexpected, and that Christopher Hitchens has nothing to lose in conversion and repentance than his pride.

31 01 2011
sortacatholic

Arturo: 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.

If my committee gives the green light, I would like to write my diss. on the word quaesumus in both late antique Roman ritual and the early Roman liturgy. Even by the time of Cicero and the late Republic, the verb quaeso (lit. “I question”) had become a polite grace note to an already explicit question or request. quaesumus is often translated as “we beseech thee” (cf the Prayer Book). However I have often thought that the word is untranslatable. The use of quaesumus in the Roman Missal is akin to the use of “sir” or “ma’am” in American English: the word is merely an honorific particle to demonstrate deference. Nearly every collect in the Missal contains quaesumus. Its ubiquity demonstrates a residual fear that God will not raise up our crops, remit the pains of purgatory, re-present the unbloody sacrifice, and elevate our thoughts. While “orthodox” Catholicism would not interpret the continual servitude of Christians as an evidence of God’s impenetrable sovereignity, quaesumus certainly encapsulates a certain fear of “capriciousness”.

It’s very interesting to compare the quam oblationem and unde et memores in the Canon. The only instance of quaesumus appears in the quam oblationem. This final presentation of the oblation before the moment of sacrifice carries the final whimper of fear that the sacrifice will not please the Father. By contrast, the unde et memores, with its trifold acclamation of the sacrifice just completed, “hostiam puram, hostiam sanctam, hostiam immaculatam“, both affirms the completion of the sacrifice and the relief that propitiation has been satisfied.

Pascal’s quasi-deistic, fully transcendent sovereign cannot square with the implicit fear contained within quaesumus. The Jansenists wrestled mightily with the purpose of the Holy Sacrifice: for many, only a didactic reduction of the liturgy could remove contingency. Of course, we cannot give honorifics to God if the honor has been applied from before the aeons.

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