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!

New Podcast Episode: Remembering Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc by Amy Cools, about 1998

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

My fascination with Joan of Arc, born sometime in 1412 and put to death by fire on May 30th, 1431, is long-standing, beginning in my girlhood. Joan, as you likely know, is the French national heroine who fought to remove medieval France from English rule, whose exploits turned the tide and guaranteed France’s ultimate victory in the Hundred Year’s War.

She was the daughter of prosperous peasants in Domrémy, France. On a self-proclaimed mission from God to restore French rule to the rightful heir of the House of Valois, she convinced the local baron, military leaders, and eventually the crown prince to put her in charge of the dispirited French army, despite the fact that she was illiterate, militarily inexperienced, and a teenage girl…. Read the written version here

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!

Happy Birthday, Morton White!

Morton White in 1981

Well, happy belated birthday, anyway. White was born on April 27, 1917, but I’m publishing this two days late because I had copied Wikipedia’s wrong date onto my list.

The world lost Morton White less than a year ago as I write this today, and I first learned of him through reading his obituary in The New York Times. As I read, I knew this is a man and an approach to philosophy I must learn more about. Being immersed in other projects, I learned little about him in the intervening eleven months. Happily, I was just reminded by going through my list of significant dates in the lives of the world’s great thinkers (by no means comprehensive!) I placed two of his books on hold at the San Francisco Public Library and will commence reading them on this 100th anniversary of his birth.

White was a philosopher and historian of ideas. According to the Institute for Advanced Studies, ‘he maintained that philosophy of science is not philosophy enough, thereby encouraging the examination of other aspects of civilized life—especially art, history, law, politics and religion—and their relations with science’. And as William Grimes put it for TNYT, his ‘innovative theory of “holistic pragmatism” showed the way toward a more socially engaged, interdisciplinary role for philosophy’.

I studied philosophy with great love and enthusiasm as an undergraduate, yet I found myself then as now just as curious about other disciplines, especially history and the arts, and have often felt that the lines dividing these areas of study are sometimes artificial and even impediments to understanding. Since then, I’ve been pursuing my studies in the broader history of ideas as well, informally for the past few years, formally at the University of Edinburgh starting this fall. No doubt, White has influenced the direction my studies in intellectual history will take in ways I’ll learn as I go along, and in many more ways than I’ll ever know.

Learn more about White and his fascinating ideas with me:

Holistic Pragmatism and the Philosophy of Culture‘ – chapter 1 of A Philosophy of Culture: The Scope of Holistic Pragmatism, New Jersey: Princeton University Press 2002, in which White summarizes what his holistic pragmatism is all about

Morton White, Philosopher of Holistic Pragmatism, Dies at 99‘ – Obituary for the New York Times by William Grimes, June 10, 2016

Morton White 1917–2016 – His memorial page at the Institute for Advanced Study website, June 08, 2016

And you can find his selected bibliography at Wikipedia

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!

Remembering Margaret Fell

Margaret Fell, with George Fox before the judges, from a painting by J. Pettie 1663, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Margaret Fell with George Fox before the judges, from a painting by J. Pettie, 1663

Margaret Fell was born on some unknown date in 1614, so let’s take this occasion to remember her on the date of her death, April 23rd, 1702.

Fell’s lived a life as passionate as it was long. She was an unconventional thinker for her time, a zealous and progressive religious activist at times imprisoned for her beliefs, a prolific writer, well-traveled, a mother of eight children and a wife twice.

An early adherent and eloquent promoter of Quakerism, Fell is now considered one of its founders. She converted to Quakerism after hearing a sermon by one of its most charismatic preachers, George Fox, and almost immediately launched into a lifetime of hosting Quaker meetings and speaking out on behalf of her new religion. After her husband died some years later, Fell married Fox, probably more as a co-missionary than as a romantic partner since their work, travels, and imprisonments kept them apart for much of their marriage.

As I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the history of human rights, I’ve long admired the Quakers because, along with Unitarians and Deists, so many have been leaders in the struggle to expand, establish, and promote them. That’s because these faiths emphasize the importance of individual conscience, the primacy of the human mind, God’s rational nature, and the moral equality of all human beings.

Fell believed in the Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light which God has caused to shine equally in the hearts of all beings; all we need do is heed it. Therefore, one does not need ministers, priests, or any other authorities or intercessors to achieve salvation. And because God has created everyone for the same purpose and gave everyone that light, everyone is spiritually equal and capable of understanding and proclaiming the Truth. We can see how this doctrine, central to Quakerism, readily aligns with human rights movements centered on a belief human spiritual and intellectual equality. The right of women to speak in church and write religious texts, in her time limited to men, was a cause particularly dear to Fell’s heart. While Fell’s belief in the equality of women was limited to their role as spiritual beings, Quakerism tended to encourage ever-more progressive beliefs in its adherents. Over time, Quakers came to be leaders in the abolitionist and pacifist movements, promoting the right of all to receive equal and universal education and for women’s rights in social and political spheres as well.

In light of her achievements as a female religious pioneer, and the human rights advances facilitated by the Quaker faith she helped found, Fell’s contributions should continue to be remembered and celebrated.

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

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Sources and inspiration

Broad, Jacqueline, ‘Margaret Fell‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Jacoby, Susan. Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion. New York: Pantheon, 2016 (see chapter on Margaret Fell)

New Podcast Episode: A ‘Light’ That Obscures: The Misrepresentation of Secular Thought in Pope Francis’s First Encyclical

foot-washing-255x212Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Like many, I’ve found myself pleasantly surprised and impressed by many of the sayings and doings of the new Pope. He emphasizes helping the needy and is critical of over-judgmentalism and of hyper-materialism (he practices what he preaches by driving a cheap car and living in a simple apartment). He also goes out of his way to spend time with ordinary people, be it in a correctional facility, in processions, or on the phone. Often dubbed ‘The People’s Pope’, he’s making the most of his promotion, on a mission to do real good in the world. Catholic or not, most people are thrilled that such an influential person is providing such an excellent example of how to live a life of service and of mercy.

But I wasn’t quite as pleased the author of an article in the Huffington Post about Pope Francis’ first encyclical Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith) co-authored with the previous Pope, Benedict XVI. The author says that the encyclical ‘…reflects Francis’ subtle outreach to nonbelievers’. While I consider myself an atheist, I’m a cultural Catholic, brought up with that religion. Since so many of my loved ones are observant Catholics and the Catholic church is so influential in the world, I’m very interested in what goes on in it. The first encyclical of a new Pope is a big deal, and this encyclical does a good job of promoting Catholic teaching with inspirational language and metaphors. However, the authors also resort to bad arguments to make their point… Read the written essay here:

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!

O.P. Recommends: Fareed Zakaria on What America Could Learn From Singapore About Racial Integration

Singapore, Satay stalls along Boon Tat Street next to Telok Ayer Market by Allie Caulfield, Public Domain via Wikimedia CommonsIn thinking recently about the nature of government and its proper roles, I recalled this Fareed Zakaria piece about Singapore’s engineered diversity.

In it, Zakaria praises Singapore’s efforts to reduce racial and religious bigotry by increasing the diversity of its neighborhoods. The government’s tactics to achieve this would be intolerably intrusive to most Americans, and indeed to the citizens of most modern democratic nations. When it comes to race and class, the Singaporean law favors the government’s interest in providing an environment where citizens are brought up in familiarity with people who are different than they are, and therefore less subject to the harmful effects of bigotry, over the rights of individuals to freely choose where to live.

So can Singaporeans be considered more free than Americans when it comes to race and class? What does it mean to be free, in this sense? We struggle here in the United States from the ugly effects of entrenched bigotries, ancient and new, long after we considered it okay to sanction them by law: we live in self-segregated neighborhoods where racial minorities and the less wealthy enjoy a far lower level of health and personal safety, religious minorities (at this moment in our history, especially Muslims, although Quakers, Catholics, Jews, and others have had their turns) are subject to the suspicion and hatred born largely of ignorance, and social mobility is extremely slow. But we can choose to live, at least on paper, wherever we want. Does that really make us more free?

And if we generally agree, as a society, that we believe the end of bigotry is a worthy moral goal, is it right and proper for the government to be the arbiter of that goal? Is morality a governmental concern at all? Or is it the government’s role to keep out while citizens wrangle with important moral questions, interfering only to protect its citizens from bodily harm?

Along with Zakaria, I find much to admire in Singapore’s goal, and its tactics do appear to help foster social cohesion and reduce conflict. Would Americans would ever ‘go for’ anything like that, if our conflicts of race, class, and religion continue to set us against one another? I doubt it. But I don’t think we should kid ourselves that it makes us any more truly free.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

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Source and inspiration:

Zakaria, Fareed. ‘What America Could Learn From Singapore About Racial Integration’. The Washington Post, June 25, 2015 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/from-singapore-lessons-in-harmony-and-diversity/2015/06/25/86fcbfa2-1b72-11e5-93b7-5eddc056ad8a_story.html

Frederick Douglass on Faith and Doubt

Frederick Douglass c. 1855, image Public Domain

In his lifetime and to this day, Frederick Douglass is a hero to the religious and non-religious,to believers and skeptics alike, each claiming him as a champion and exemplar of their values. Why the discrepancy? In his speeches, letters, and published work, Douglass reveals himself as both believer and doubter, a man of deep Christian faith who experiences a great deal of religious skepticism throughout his life.

Douglass is a self-professed believer in God and a Christian, yet he’s a vocal critic of most Christian denominations of his day, especially those of the United States. As a young man, Douglass struggles with religious doubts as he observes, time after time, that the most pious slaveowners are the most cruel. His master Thomas Auld, Edward Covey the slave-breaker, Reverend Daniel Weedon and the neighboring Hamiltons in Baltimore, among others, routinely and mercilessly whipped and abused their slaves, often to the point of great injury and near death, all justifying their behavior through Bible passages. In his second autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass writes: ‘…The religion of the south…is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes…. Were I again to be reduced to the condition of a slave, next to that calamity, I should regard …being the slave of a religious slaveholder, the greatest that could befall me’ (159). In fact, he discovers to his surprise that the most decent master he ever had, William Freeman, was the only one without religion.

In his early days as an abolitionist activist and speaker, his accounts of his youthful doubts occasioned by his bad experiences with religious people cause many to accuse him of irreligion. But over time, he makes it clear that’s not religion itself he hates, it’s what he considers ‘false religion’. And no religion is as false as that which endorses slavery, which, first and foremost in Douglass’s time, was the Christian denominations of the American south.

But Douglass’s condemnation of American Christianity only begins with the southern churches; it by no means ends there. He calls on his fellow black people to leave any church, shaking the dust off their feet as they go, if their pastors or fellow parishioners subject them to indignity or unequal treatment. If anyone is segregated into balconies or back rows, or required to wait to receive communion after other colors or classes of parishioners, or their pastors preach against resistance to slavery, or the church in any other way indicates that black people are not deserving of the exact same respect, in degree and kind, as fellow children of God, then their church is revealed as just another peddler of false, corrupted religion. And all of these betrayals of the true Christianity, as Douglass perceives it, were as nearly pervasive in the northern churches as in the south.

Douglass believes that these practices, disrespectful of certain of God’s children, are not only unjust; they’re blasphemous because they’re direct attacks on the goodness and true nature of God. That’s because Douglass perceives the true God as not only ‘the God of Israel, Isaac, and Jacob’, but more broadly, the God of the oppressed. He sees this theme, this common thread, linking the plundered and oppressed desert tribes of Biblical Canaan (not mentioning that they did some plundering of their own) to those in his day who are suffering, reviled, and denied their natural rights: black people, women, the Irish, the abolitionists. Time and time again, Douglass relies on his interpretation of God as the God of the oppressed to show how the fugitive, the disenfranchised, the famine-starved left to die by their own governments, the righteous, reviled, and steadfast opposer of slavery and defender of the downtrodden, are actually those closest to him, are those who understand and share in his true nature.

But Douglass’s faith also appears at least as naturally derived as it is scripturally revealed. That’s because Douglass uses nature as a litmus test to reveal the truth and integrity of religion. Since by nature all people need and take joy in food and drink, physical and spiritual comfort, love, and beauty whatever their color, sex, or place of origin, and all people suffer alike from cold, hunger, thirst, cruelty, and neglect, and all people are just as capable of improvement through education and moral edification, then all people share the same nature, possess the same dignity, and have the same rights. Scripture may appear to allow for bigotry, unequal treatment, and bad behavior and even require it, but nature is observable and incontestable. So, if an interpretation of scripture seems to allow or require one to treat any of their fellow human beings as less than equally beloved, equally valuable children of the one God, that interpretation is certainly wrong since it violates the natural God-authored order of things.

In the end, Douglass relies on Jesus himself to tell us how to recognize true faith in true religion: ‘Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them’ (Matthew 7:20). It’s not whether or not one professes belief in a religion, or can quote passages of scripture or the work of theologians, that reveals the worth and nature of faith. Douglass believes that true religion (which for Douglass, is true Christianity), always reveals itself by how well its adherents defend and promote justice and the equal dignity of all human persons. Conversely, if a religion commands or even permits injustice, it must be false. Where you find kindness and justice, there you find faith, and nowhere else.

It’s not the outward form or classification which indicates the true tree of religion to Douglass, it’s the sweetness and wholesomeness revealed in the fruit of true faith.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

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

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Sources and Inspiration:

Douglass, Frederick. The Heroic Slave: A Cultural and Critical Edition. Eds Robert S. Levine, John Stauffer, and John McKivigan. Hew Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom: 1855 Edition with a new introduction.. Re-published 1969, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.