Happy Birthday, Blaise Pascal!

Blaise Pascal, crayon drawing by Jean Domat, c. 1649, in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Blaise Pascal, born on June 19th, 1623 in Auvergne, France, was a mathematician, philosopher, physicist, scientist, theologian, inventor, and writer.

This polymath was so talented in so many areas that any one of them could have kept his memory and influence alive to this day. Steven West writes in Philosophize This that we could ‘feel completely inadequate when we learn that he invented the calculator (yes, the calculator) at age 18.’ David Simpson writes in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘In mathematics, he was an early pioneer in the fields of game theory and probability theory. In philosophy, he was an early pioneer in existentialism. As a writer on theology and religion, he was a defender of Christianity.’ Jean Orcibal and Lucien Jerphagnon write for Encyclopædia Britannica, ‘He laid the foundation for the modern theory of probabilities, formulated what came to be known as Pascal’s principle of pressure, and propagated a religious doctrine that taught the experience of God through the heart rather than through reason.’

Pascal’s Wager is probably his best-known idea, keeping his name alive in popular culture as well as among scholars. The argument can be summarized thusly: You can believe in God, or not believe in God. When it comes to the effect of the state of your belief on your possible eternal afterlife, if you don’t believe in God, you may very well be damned for all eternity. But if you do believe in God, you may achieve salvation. When it comes to the effect of your state of belief on your life here on Earth, whether or not you believe in God, your life will not be affected hugely. We’re all constrained as a matter of course by cultural expectations and codes of behavior, after all. The religious constraints we might find inconvenient and even tedious sometimes don’t, generally, significantly burden your life more than any others, while the practice of religion can add a great deal of meaning and satisfaction to life. Since we stand to gain much more than we might lose, all in all, it’s the most logical and therefore best bet to believe in God.

Now Pascal is an extremely intelligent man, and he knows belief is something you can’t just flip on like a light switch. That’s why he advises that the prudent person will choose to believe in God for the reasons described above and then behave as if they believed it. With enough acts of piety, religious study, and time among other virtuous and true believers, they are bound to end up believers themselves. This is very insightful psychologically: it accords well with what we now know about how the brain works, and his ‘fake it till you make it’ belief formation process is very like modern cognitive behavior therapy. Enact the change you wish to see in your mind, and your mind will follow, or to use modern terminology in common use, your brain will be ‘rewired’.

I’ve heard many people object to Pascal’s Wager on the grounds that they think religion does have too many negative effects to accept that the wager in favor of God-belief is a good bet. To ignore what your reason tells you about how unlikely it is that anything exists outside of the natural world, and that contradictions within and among the scriptures of the world indicate that none of them are divinely inspired, and so on, makes you a traitor to reason and critical thinking and science. It undermines your ability to perceive and understand the real world on its own terms. And betraying your own powers of reason, so that you can feel safe about an afterlife that no-one can demonstrate happens anyway, infantilizes you by subjugating your critical thinking to your superstitious fears.

I don’t buy the first objection anymore, though I once found it convincing. After all, few are better at reasoning and critical thinking than Pascal. His formidable powers of reason don’t appear undermined in any serious way overall considering his incredible lifetime achievements in mathematics, physics, logic, practical invention, and science. Choosing to believe in God clearly doesn’t seem to hamper his intellect one bit.

I still object to the Wager, but on these grounds: I think Pascal, unjustifiably, assumes too much when constructing his argument in the first place. Why, for example, bet on the idea that God would even be pleased by and liable to reward belief in him, even if eventually sincere, when it originates in this sort of self-serving calculation? Why not assume instead that God, if he exists, would reward honesty itself, whether in believers or nonbelievers, so long as their state of belief results from good faith efforts to seek truth? This seems, to me, more in line with the inclinations of the creator of a rational, ordered universe, the ultimate expression of reason, which in turn requires fearless, honest inquiry if it’s to be known, understood, and appreciated in the fullest way possible.

But this wager is just one relatively minor result of Pascal’s exploration of this fascinating world, and given his pioneering inquiries in the areas that would later be known as probability theory and game theory, it’s not surprising that, in brainstorming, he came up with this possible solution to the problems of belief vs. reason. And whether or not he got it right, it’s long captured the public imagination and really does make us think, as he’s done exquisitely during, and throughout the centuries after, his all-too-short life.

Learn more about the great Blaise Pascal:

Blaise Pascal – by Desmond Clarke for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) – by David Simpson for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 

Blaise Pascal: French Philosopher and Scientist – by Jean Orcibal and Lucien Jerphagnon for Encyclopædia Britannica

Pascal’s Wager and – +EV your way to success!! – by Steven West, Philosophize This!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Raconteur Street Blues, by East Street Prophet

Painting on a wall, photo by East Street Prophet at 518 Song of My People

I grew up around some of the great narcissists of our time. History won’t remember them, so I have to. They were great storytellers, who forged a knack for survival into an unequivocal hunger to live like kings. They spoke of riches and wealth that they couldn’t have possibly known, yet painted a picture so alluring we had no choice but to believe. They were raconteurs, wizards possessed of a singular illusion that painted the world in their image and presented it to us, as if it were ours.

A Raconteur is a person who excels in telling anecdotes. Also, an anecdote (Please note: I don’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence. I mean to provide clarity.) is a usually short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident. A raconteur is a great storyteller. I’ve always considered the word to be closer to ‘being a good bullshitter’, which is worth its weight in gold. Anyone can tell a story, but getting people to care is a miracle akin to walking on water.

Storytellers are plentiful. You can see them in coffee shops behind laptops, biding their time until they have a chance to share, connect and separate. It’s in that singular moment, where we connect, that things change. They can become dangerous in a moment’s notice, as they infect your mind with complex riddles that the storytellers have been working on since the dawn of time. You might wonder, ‘why would a person share such a riddle?’ you can’t think like that. It’s how any good storyteller wants you to think. They want you to assume they have no reason to hurt you. There’s no harm in believing what they believe. There’s no harm in believing them without question.

The thing that all decent ‘raconteurs’ must ask themselves periodically is ‘do I care more about myself than I do the story?’ I’ve lived among some of the great bullshitters of modern history. We heard plenty of stories growing up, yet so few of them added up in a way that it could make me care. The raconteurs possessed this trait that added depth to their stories, not just with what images they infused, but with how they made us feel. We felt involved. They tugged on our heartstrings and moved us toward an end that we couldn’t see. They possessed our future, as we waited for these mindless heathens to comb through the vast wasteland of their psyches in search of an end to whatever narrative they were painting.

Any good story comes from a single point. It’s not the beginning. It’s just a point. They wanted to make a point. They’d lie about having sex, so they’d present a narrative that made the possibility of them having sex seem possible. They’d plant a few mental images here and there, forming past and future around this premise. Ultimately, their goal was to forge a real, however unlikely, narrative, in order to make us believe.

The raconteurs believed what they said. The proof was in their words. They told us to take it from there, because taking a man at his word is as good as taking it in blood… at least when you’re a child. When we were kids we lied and it helped. We had impossible things to accomplish in a collapsing world full of poverty and the imminent threat of some incomprehensible bullshit. We had to hide sensitive information from our parents, while taking advantage of our God-like inertia, limitless energy and simple-mindedness. We had to prove to other kids that we were cool, while, at the same time, making our parents think we’d never do the cool things that get you into trouble. It added to our personal mystique, having accomplished nothing, we needed something to set us apart. We’d lie about drinking and drugs, losing our virginity, feats of the utmost stupidity… you know… harmless bullshit.

Truth is the trickiest thing. Everyone says they want it, but when it’s not something they agree with they have a reaction that makes you wonder. Truth. It’s a funny thing, because I could write out the truth as I see it and (hopefully) half of you would love me and the other would hate me. The trick for any good raconteur is understanding the right formula, while having as full an understanding as you can of the truth. I believe that you can’t write a decent story, even if it sounds like nonsense, without a sense of truth. It has to be written, spoken and lived with conviction. Truth has to appear in every word, exactly as you’ve seen it, while managing not to conflict with the truth, as it is. You should, as a good storyteller, align yourself with the truth in order to make your narrative more honest and compelling.

I never thought about truth when I was young enough to fall for these stories. The morality of lying, as one presents it to himself, so that he might further his ends, has become all the more staggering as I’ve reached adulthood. I’ve been trying to think of the right way to word this question. I doubt it’s perfect, but it needs to be asked. I’m curious as to what everyone believes:

Can you have a moral premise without any evidence?

Some raconteurs have no regard for the truth. In all honesty, as a kid I didn’t care. I was surrounded by some of the greatest storytellers of my time. I couldn’t be bothered to figure out how some of these impossible stories could be real. I believed with all my heart, because I was a stupid kid who still believed in Santa. (FYI I believed in ghosts for longer than I believed in Santa, but I also assumed the ghosts would grant a wish or needed my help or whatever.) These are men who have learned to lie in a way that ‘everyone believes that you believe what you say’. You believe them, no matter the evidence to the contrary, because they, not their narrative, hold up well against the barrage of truth that assaults them on all sides.

They’re not not-sympathetic characters. Their truth is a depressing harangue of emotion and pain that most couldn’t understand. What’s worse, they keep it to themselves. They keep it! They hide all that pain and suffering, but even more, they hide the truth! They move with such intent when they tell their stories, as if revealing a deeper, more significant wisdom, while simultaneously hiding it from the world. It’s in their emphatic gestures, their movements, as if their bodies shift depending on the tone of their narratives, not to mention their eyes… it’s in all these things that those of us who were forced to listen HAD to believe.

We believed it all the more, because we lived it. They borrowed from our lives and, in this way, we added to the false narrative. Storytelling is a necessary skill. It made us feel good in a time where people were laughing at us, because our river was full of poison and visitors had no reason to… visit. The pain of being alive could’ve shown itself in crime and self abuse. For us, it showed itself in acceptance of nonsensical bullshit and downright lies.

Near-possible realities were a simple narrative that captured our attention, which begs the question: why do they need our attention? Evil raconteurs are like evil yogis. You can assume they don’t exist, as if there is no darkness when there is also light, but this is another simple narrative that’s easy to digest. The simple narrative is used to ensnare. You don’t need to talk about angels to be a good raconteur. You have to make people believe. This is that much more significant. You MAKE people believe. You take them on a journey, where they start out as a skeptic and then, through a few twists and turns… holy shit… you just made someone believe in angels.

(Also, if you don’t make them believe, you at least allow them to suspend reality for a time, which is kinda the same, although I admit there are differences.)

Making people believe and sharing with them a deeply personal truth is about as different as water and oil.

For what it’s worth, they thought they were kings, but that never stopped them from fighting to become that oh-so-desirable, and unquestioned ruler of the universe. They lied and stole and fought, but the stories to me became all the more touching. These people, the Raconteurs, were at war with themselves, as well as the truth and as well as a circumstance of poverty and extreme depravity, which was plentiful, in our ever-collapsing society. They fought for freedom: the freedom to be as insane and harmful to oneself as you can get. They fought to make the world a weird place.

Originally published at 518 – Song of My People

~ East Street Prophet 518 writes beautifully about hometown Rensselaer, just across the Hudson River from Albany, NY, and their experiences within the 518 area code: Albany, Rensselaer, and Troy, and various outlying places as well. They’ve been having a lot of fun with it and creating a bit of ‘folklore’ from local stories at 518 – Song of My People

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!