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!

Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Cellphone, by Philip Reed

by-terimakasih0-public-domain-via-pixabay-croppedIt is mildly subversive and perhaps a little quaint when someone clings to their flip phone and refuses a smartphone. Refusing both kinds of phones is viewed as downright lunacy, especially if the person refusing was born after the mid-1970s. But I’ve never had a cellphone and I’m not going to get one. I have several reasons, and they are good ones.

The first is cost. No cellphone means no monthly bill, no possibility for an upgrade, no taxes, and no roaming charges (whatever those are). In an era of stagnant wages and growing income inequality, it is remarkable that people unthinkingly spend $75 or more per month on something that we hardly knew existed 15 years ago, much less counted as a necessity.

The second is concern for the environment. The manufacture of mobile phones (including raw material acquisition), the power they consume, and the energy used to transmit calls and access the internet all produce significant carbon dioxide emissions. The idea that cellphones are good only for a couple of years is widespread, increasing the number of phones that end up in landfills and leak toxic heavy metals such as copper and lead into the soil and groundwater.

The decisive reason, however, for me to refuse a cellphone is the opposite of everyone else’s reason for having one: I do not want the omnipresent ability to communicate with anyone who is absent. Cellphones put their users constantly on call, constantly available, and as much as that can be liberating or convenient, it can also be an overwhelming burden. The burden comes in the form of feeling an obligation to individuals and events that are physically elsewhere. Anyone who has checked their phone during a face-to-face conversation understands the temptation. And anyone who has been talking to someone who has checked their phone understands what is wrong with it.

Communicating with someone who is not physically present is alienating, forcing the mind to separate from the body. We see this, for example, in the well-known and ubiquitous dangers of texting while driving, but also in more mundane experiences: friends or lovers ignoring each other’s presence in favour of their Facebook feeds; people broadcasting their entertainment, their meals, and their passing thoughts to all who will bear witness; parents capturing their daughter’s ballet performance on their phones rather than watching it live; people walking down the street talking animatedly to themselves who turn out to be apparently healthy people using their Bluetooth.

The cellphone intrudes into the public and private realms, preventing holistic engagement with what is around us. Smartphones only perfect their predecessors’ ability to intrude.

The disembodying and intrusive effects of cellphones have significant implications for our relationships to the self and to others. Truly knowing and understanding others requires patience, risk, empathy, and affection, all of which are inhibited by cell phones. Cellphones also inhibit solitude, self-reflection, and rumination (formerly known as ‘waiting’ and ‘boredom’), which I think are essential for living a good life.

Long before cellphones, human beings were good at diverting themselves from disciplined attention. ‘The sole cause of man’s unhappiness,’ observed the French philosopher Blaise Pascal in the 17th century, ‘is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.’ This propensity for diversion was notably confirmed in a recent study where subjects preferred to give themselves electric shocks rather than occupy themselves with their own thoughts for 15 minutes.

Pascal believed that the height of human dignity is thought, and that the order of thought begins with oneself, one’s creator, and one’s end. He linked this kind of thought inextricably to genuine rest and happiness. Avoiding a cellphone allows, for me, space for thinking and so enables a richer, more fulfilling way of life. With fewer tasks to perform and preferences to satisfy, life slows to a pace compatible with contemplation and gratitude.

A cellphone-free life not only helps to liberate the mind, but also the body. The ancient Greek philosopher Anaxagoras presents a different view of human nature from Pascal: ‘It is by having hands that man is the most intelligent of animals.’ We can be pretty sure that Anaxagoras was not anticipating the advent of smartphones. On the contrary, refusing a cellphone enables one to use one’s hands to carry out meaningful activities (playing the piano, gardening, reading a book) in such a way that one is fully absorbed in those activities, so that they reach their height of meaning.

Without a mobile phone, it is easier to concentrate on what is in front of me: my spouse and children, my work, making dinner, going for a walk. I try to choose my activities thoughtfully, so when I do something, I don’t want to be somewhere else. What cellphone users call multitasking does not interest or impress me.

Of course, it’s true that cellphones can be used responsibly. We can shut them off or simply ignore the incoming text. But this takes extraordinary willpower. According to a recent Pew survey, 82 per cent of Americans believe that cellphone use in social situations more often hurts than helps conversation, yet 89 per cent of cell owners still use their phones in those situations. Refusing a cellphone guarantees that I won’t use it when I shouldn’t.

Some people will insist that if I’m going to refuse a cellphone, I should also refuse a regular telephone. It is true that using a landline introduces similar disembodying, mediated experiences as to mobile phones. But there have always been natural and physical limits placed on the use of a regular phone, which is clear from the name ‘landline’. The cellphone’s mobility introduces a radical form of communication by making its alienating effects pervasive. I want to protect what unmediated experiences I have left.

The original meaning of ‘connect’ indicated a physical relationship – a binding or fastening together. We apply this word to our cellphone communications now only as metaphor. The ‘connections’ are ethereal; our words and thoughts reach the upper regions of space next to the cell tower only to remain there, as our devices disconnect us from those with whom we share space. Even though we have two hands, I’m convinced that you can’t hold a cellphone and someone else’s hand at the same time.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Philip Reed is an associate professor of philosophy at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York State. His scholarly interests are in ethics and moral psychology. (Bio credit: Aeon)

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!