On a Roller Coaster

Blaise Pascal, 1623-1662

In our honors course we discussed a few intriguing minds over the last week.   Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza and Blaise Pascal were to of the most fascinating, each dealing with the power of the unleashing of human reason in the 1600s alongside the loss of authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

Baruch "Benedict" Spinoza, 1632-1677

Spinoza (1632-77) was a determinist and philosophical monist, who died when he was only 45.   Pascal (1623 – 1662)  was a fideist and Jansenist who gave up his amazing scientific career at a young age to devout himself to religion.  He died when he was only 39.   They both lost their mothers when they were young, both lived in ill health, both were on the margins of their religion (Spinoza rejected by the Jewish community while Pascal’s Jansenism was ultimately branded heretical by the Pope).

Though each were responding to the Meditations of Rene Descartes, they went in different directions.   Spinoza maintained a strong rationalism, even while rejecting Descartes dualism of mind and spirit.  Pascal was the ultimate skeptic, noting that even contradiction did not prove something untrue (nor did lack of contradiction indicate truth).

Pascal without a doubt had the more impressive intellect.   His early scientific discoveries are amazing.   He is said to have invented the first computer, pioneered work in probability (he lived in a community where gambling was very popular), and once when we had an energy audit at our house the auditor measured air pressure in “Pascals” — a remnant from his early work on barometrics.  There is even a computer language named in his honor.

Ultimately he sacrificed his scientific career to use his intellect to use reason to destroy reason.   He was one of the first who understood that reason itself cannot be a path to truth and that ultimately it could undercut any argument.   He seemed to sense that Christianity’s embrace of reason might come to haunt it later.    He took Descartes skepticism but, while Descartes escaped it through his “first principle” (cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am), Pascal was unconvinced.   Overwhelmed by the absurdity of life, the superstition and pettiness of human nature, he decided that the only way to truth was through the heart.

Consider his rejection of the principle of contradiction.   That seems straight forward, if two things are in contradiction one of the two cannot be true.  I cannot be both human and not-human.  But Pascal’s skepticism extended to even the observations and logic that allows such linguistic constructions to be built.   You can never know through reason, reason devours itself.   But, he argued, through God’s grace you can know in your heart God’s love, and that will give one the perspective and understanding to live in an absurd world.   The heart has reasons that reason cannot understand.  Fideism was faith, and faith alone, with a commitment to an Augustinian notion of grace.

Spinoza, on the other hand, rejected the notion that there was anything different about mind/spirit and body, and saw reality as being all the same stuff, positing a deterministic world decades before Newton’s physics provided the clockwork universe (though keeping with Descartes’ view on universal laws.)    Perhaps an atheist or maybe a pantheist, Spinoza saw of all reality reflecting God’s will unfolding by necessity in a path already perfect and predetermined.   Free will is an illusion; reality is.

Good and evil become relative for Spinoza, something is only good or bad relative to your experience of it; as part of the whole neither good nor evil exist, all is perfection.   Humans can drive themselves crazy worrying about what will happen next, what their life has in store, or fretting over some mistake or threat.   But all of that is pointless, nothing can be changed.   Perhaps the only thing one can do is train oneself not to be shaken or disquieted by how reality is unfolding; one must just accept it with the knowledge that it is as it must be.

It strikes me that the two very different philosophies have one thing in common: they want to make the ride of life more bearable.   For each, life is like a roller coaster.   For Spinoza it’s a ride that you cannot alter.  After you’re strapped in and the roller coaster starts going up the first hill, there is no way you can change your experience.   Every curve, dip and loop is pre-determined, you cannot stand, move or do anything until the ride stops.   What you can do is enjoy the ride, scream, be scared, hate the ride, be mad, or whatever — all that you control is how you respond.   For Spinoza life is like that, to experience life to the fullest one must accept it is as it must be.

Pascal sees the absurdity of human existence in the tumultuous 1600s, as well as the roller coaster ride of reason.   Reason can prove anything, given the right assumption and definition.   Yet it can destroy any proposition, no truth claim can be made in the abstract through reason; all empirical claims can be questioned.   Skepticism may annoy philosophers, but it’s powerful, especially if one extends it to being skeptical of even skepticism itself!

So absurd, humans using this tool “reason” to try to figure life out, yearning for the “right answer,” or a “first principle” upon which to build some edifice of knowledge.   Doomed to fail or be locked in delusion, the absurdity of the whole effort overwhelms Pascal who decided that faith alone is the key.   God’s grace saves us from this trap, the heart can understand clearly what the head cannot comprehend.   Faith provides meaning where reason is helpless.

It’s easy to dismiss these brilliant thinkers now.   Quantum mechanics throws Spinoza’s determinism for a loop (though it creates a capacity for free will to exist within Spinoza’s framework — we may be playing out one path in a pre-determined set of possible paths).    Pascal’s faith in God can be seen as seeking emotional solace.   Moreover Pascal’s famous wager (a metaphor used because of all the gamblers of his era) is thrown a curve by the existence of many potential Gods to believe in.

Yet the roller coaster ride is still here.   Pascal criticized the way people lived through distractions, afraid of asking the question “who am I” and “why am I here.”   He certainly would recognize the same tendency in our modern hectic consumer society where distraction is a way of life.    Looking beyond the distractions and asking those questions leads many to the same kind of solution Pascal embraced: faith.   It may not always be Christian faith, but its a belief in the heart that life matters.

It’s a shame that we so rarely take the time to think about our intellectual history and how philosophers and thinkers handled the changes that have been sweeping western civilization for a millennium, and which now confront other cultures and peoples.  Understanding Pascal and Spinoza — and others — gives us insight on core dilemmas we still face, and how people worked through them in the past.  It won’t answer the timeless questions, but will help us get insight into various ways the nature of our world can be understood.  It is enriching and enlightening.

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  1. #1 by Sean Patrick Hazlett on October 27, 2011 - 03:05

    Funny you mention Pascal. His wager has an entire chapter dedicated to it in my book. Something to do with game theory and climate change…

  2. #2 by renaissanceguy on October 27, 2011 - 06:42

    Good work. You wrote an excellent summary of their ideas and did some good analysis and application.

  3. #3 by Jeff Lees on October 27, 2011 - 08:00

    Perhaps this is why, coming right of the Continental tradition following Pascal and Spinoza, Kant’s greatest contribution of all of modern philosophy is called the “Critique of Pure Reason.” Kant’s rejected of the usefulness of “analytic judgement,” along with the distinctions of the “form” and “content” or reason that followed in his tradition seems to, at least in part, address Pascal’s problem.

    • #4 by Jeff Lees on October 27, 2011 - 08:02

      My proof-reading abilities at 3am seem to be rather diminished…..

  4. #5 by Susan on October 28, 2011 - 18:54

    I loved this post.

    and …. this idea (the heart can understand clearly what the head cannot comprehend) is certainly something to contemplate

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