Sunday, January 31, 2010

Modern Philosophy 5

For the class in Modern Philosophy I'm taking this semester, we have to write 15 two-paged papers (minimum) on philosophers such as Descartes, Hume, Locke, and Leibnitz. In this essay, I wrote about Pascal’s Wager. The following is my submission:

Pascal began his discourse by rhetorically complaining that one is born with a soul contained in a body in which finitude is intuited as natural such that one often finds that he need not believe anything more. To counter this apathy, Pascal mentioned infinity as a concept which we supposedly know exists, even though we are ignorant of its nature. Pascal used numbers as an example. There are an infinity of numbers, yet an infinity in number is not even nor odd, for it is unbounded; adding a number to infinity does not change its nature. Similarly, Pascal asserted we may know God exists – by faith, given that God is allegedly dissimilar to the “number” infinity insofar as He has no extension – without knowing what He is, per se. In fact, as a fideist, Pascal believed that God is, when attempted to be understood through reason, incomprehensible to men, as He by His infinite nature can have no point of similarity with us.

Christianity, claimed Pascal, claims its truth is beyond reason. Why, then, should one believe God exists? Firstly, Pascal chastised those who despise those who are upfront about having made a public profession one way or the other, for everyone – whether they admit to it or not – “wagers.” Everyone gambles – whether conscientiously or not – his life according to how he lives. Secondly, Pascal claimed that because reason has no stake in the wager, one’s gain or loss is weighted solely upon the maximal potential for happiness in one’s choice.

Having established the groundwork for his argument, Pascal proceeded to examine what one gains and loses in each respective case so as to determine how one should choose to wager – or, more precisely, what one should choose to believe regarding God’s existence. One’s gain if one chooses to believe God exists and act upon that belief is the potential of everlasting life and happiness, whereas one’s gain if one choose to disbelieve God exists is merely the potential to actualize whatever finite pleasures one desires. Hence, Pascal argued that, faced with this obligatory choice, one should choose to risk one’s finite life in order to gain at death infinite glory, an outcome which is as likely as the annihilation of the soul.

Pascal then particularly sought to rebut the idea that “because the state of the soul at death is uncertain, we should choose according to what is certain, viz. the certainty of pleasures we may only have if we disbelieve God.” Pascal noted that everyone risks a certainty – one’s life – to gain an uncertainty. The idea that the pleasures of this life are certainly within our grasp is illusionary, as one may die at any moment. Hence, one should stake his certain risk upon the best of all uncertainties, and that entails belief in God’s existence.

In order to believe, then, Pascal exhorted that one should learn how to believe from others who already do: by restraining passions rather than demand knowledge of proofs, by generally following their lifestyle, &c. All the while, one should continually remind himself that there is nothing of which he should be afraid, because he risks relatively nothing (which he mustn’t already risk) by following the wager, and, in return, he potentially gains something infinite in worth. Indeed, the only obstacles are one’s passions. No other “harm” can come from choosing to accede to “Pascal’s Wager,” and one even does seeming good works and avoids that which is commonly disdained.

“Pascal’s Wager” itself is an valid argument, but is predicated upon presuppositions with which many could find reason to argue. Because the “Wager” is not an epistemological argument, Pascal’s beginning remarks seem to function as an necessary prerequisite to his “Wager.” In other words, Pascal tried to show that one must be agnostic regarding God’s existence, for otherwise one could dissolve the force of the “Wager” by claiming that truth takes precedence to selfish motivations. While Pascal’s method is sound in theory, in practice it does not seem to work. For instance, if we know the nature of infinity doesn’t change – as Pascal writes – doesn’t that mean we’re not completely ignorant about the nature of infinity? Extrapolating, it seems Pascal confounded or misunderstood the difference between apprehensive and comprehensive knowledge. If one can apprehend God’s existence, the necessity of the “Wager” can only be necessarily persuasive to one who is, epistemologically speaking, a skeptic. Interestingly, one wonders how Pascal himself could have subscribed to theological skepticism, given that he in the same paper pointed to the Bible as a means of knowledge.

An obvious difficulty consequential to the “Wager” is one which Pascal does not address: whose example should one who accepts God’s existence follow? He specifically points out Christianity, yet the “Wager” could equally be used by Muslims, Jews, &c. A hidden premise seems to be that the reward the Christian purports is greater than all others, yet Pascal did not – and cannot, as one could posit an infinite number of alternative world-views – establish this. By logical extension, one must, therefore, make an arbitrary choice, and it seems Pascal’s anti-intellectualism has “proved too much” for Pascal’s taste.

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