[For context, read this post.]
Apart from his mathematical work, Blaise Pascal is most well known for his infamous “wager,” an argument for belief in God which plays a central role in his Pensées (that is, “Thoughts”; his notes toward a defense of the Christian religion). Perhaps only Anselm’s ontological argument has a worse reputation. But–as with the ontological argument, for that matter–there’s actually a lot to be said in the wager’s favor; and the things to be said for it open out onto the system of the Pensées as a whole. So the simplest reason to read the Pensées is this: it will clarify how concepts like chance, certainty, infinity, and self-interest, play a role in our understanding of belief (or lack thereof) in God.
Pascal never puts it this way–though (or because) he was a mathematician, his prose style put elegance above clarity–but the wager boils down to a complex practical syllogism:
- When truth is not available, one should seek happiness.
- The return in happiness on various actions can be compared.
- So one should do what has the greatest expected return.
- Some course of action B presents itself, with probability of success R>0, such that the return on the action depends on some event G, with probability P>0;
- And such that it has the following expected returns: ex(not-B)=(1-P)*u+P*x, and ex(B)=(1-R)*((1-P)*v+P*y)+R*((1-P)*w+P*z); that is,
no attempt | B fails (1-R) | B succeeds (R) Not-G (1-P) u v w G (P) x y z
- And such that u, v, and w are finite, z is positively infinite, and x and y are either finite or or negatively infinite.
- So no matter the specific values of P, R, u, v, w, x, or y, the expected return on attempting B is (infinitely) greater than that on not attempting it.
Practical conclusion: One should (attempt to) B.
The argument certainly seems valid. Pascal, of course, takes G=”God exists” and B=”believe in God,” and declares it sound. Is it?
In isolation, this move invites many objections, which seem to me to be of three basic types:
- Why should G=”God exists”? And why the Catholic God? This is the most obvious point of attack. Other possibilities, after all, present themselves: the Muslim God; the Hindu God; Zeus; Odin; the Flying Spaghetti Monster; and no one said P need be large, so long as it’s greater than zero.
- Why should B=”believe in God”? The usual objection is to point out the strangeness of choosing to believe; we can’t belief because it will make us happy, we have to believe because we think it’s true! It’s less frequently noticed that, just as with (1), there are other possible B’s that gum up the works: for example, flip a coin, and if it lands heads, believe in God; or, wait till your deathbed, then believe in God; or, do nothing, and perhaps wind up believing in God anyway. It doesn’t matter that these have a lower chance of success than an immediate conversion; after all, no one said R need be large, so long as it’s greater than zero.
- Why suppose z can be infinite? Why allow infinite returns in the first place? Not only do we have a hard time imagining infinite returns (Heaven always sounds rather boring), but allowing it causes numerous problems. (1) and (2) are just warm-ups. Consider: what if we acknowledge the possibility (no matter how slim) both of “negative infinite returns, no matter what strategy one adopts” and “positive infinite returns, no matter what strategy one adopts” (e.g. predestination)? This situation would contradict the second theoretical premise: it would be impossible to compare expected returns with one another, for every course of action would include infinity minus infinity, which is not zero, but rather undefined.
In response to objection (1), I believe, Pascal would ask another question: Why suppose P can be greater than 0? It’s easy to take for granted that any logically possible event, no matter how implausible, has at least some positive probability; but are we really justified in doing so? We might (I would) instead require that, before we grant that there is a chance an event will happen, we demonstrate that it is not only possible, but probable, in the original sense of tending toward a proof; demonstrate that there be reasons for believing it to be the case. So for any G, we must ask: why think G? Pascal spends much of the Pensées arguing that “the Catholic God exists” is the only G for which we can offer plausible reasons.
In response to objection (2), a similar question arises: Why suppose R can be greater than 0? What reasons do we have for thinking that we are able to B? Pascal agrees that one cannot choose to believe. One can, however, choose to “immediately put oneself in a position which will bring one to believe in the Catholic God.” That this does not involve “dishonest” belief is is easier to accept if you think of “belief in God” as less like “belief that there’s a chair” and more like “belief in reading”. We cannot choose to believe, any more than we can choose to know how to read; but we can choose to seek a teacher, and, Pascal spends much time arguing, this is the only course of action which we have any reason to think will succeed.
Objection (3) does establish a paradox. However, it holds only if we allow for more than one G. It is not, then, a weakness of the argument, but a strength. If you really, truly find multiple incompatible religious systems plausible, then Pascal’s wager gives you reason to feel paralysis. If, on the other hand, you accept Pascal’s arguments for the only plausible G and B, then your only rational option is to try to B. This will make game-theoretic reasoning in the future somewhat useless: B will win out every time, in every situation. So perhaps exclude infinite returns when deciding among strategies all of which are compatible with trying to B. But none of this is reason to dismiss infinite returns a priori. And Pascal gives many reasons for believing infinite returns to be plausible.
So the application Pascal would make of the wager commits him to three further claims:
- Our actions can have infinite consequences.
- Catholicism is the only plausible account of an adequate response to these consequences.
- Immediately and wholeheartedly immersing oneself in Catholicism is the only plausible strategy for becoming Catholic.
The wager makes no sense if we do not take into account his arguments for them. He does not pull them from thin air. All three follow from the second pillar of the Pensées: the Machine.
By the Machine, Pascal means the World seen as a mechanism. It is to establishing this point of view that most of the Pensées devotes itself. It is, for this reason, less argument than rhetoric; or, perhaps, not rhetoric, but poetics.
(1) The mechanism is of infinite size; indeed, as Pascal writes in the most famous sentence in French literature, “The silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” It is as if, for Pascal, this aesthetic sublimity requires an ethical absolute to counter-balance it. Either our actions can have infinite consequences, or they do not matter in the least, overshadowed as they are by the vast cosmic void.
(2) The mechanism includes humanity. We are selfish animals, acting according to a shallow (that is, finite) conception of our self-interest. Catholicism–in any case, Christianity–is the only instance of a way of life spreading throughout the world that is not based on selfishness, but rather on charity. Pascal has much more to say about the virtues of Christianity, but this alone, he believes, is enough to single it out as potentially divine: it indicates that an outside force tampered with the mechanism.
(3) This outside force is able to affect us because, though we are part of the mechanism, we, alone in the universe, are capable of thought: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed.” He is not, however, a willing reed; he inclines where the wind blows him. Thought offers a fulcrum outside the universe, but does not offer an unmoved motive force. We cannot, in fact, supply that force; it must come from outside. We can only consider–from within the mechanism–how best to position ourselves for the outside blow. This involves not doing something, but being something: adopting the appropriate habit, making it part of the fabric of our lives. So the death-bed conversion strategy doesn’t work; in fact, no strategy will work. For it is not neutral to put belief off till tomorrow. Resolving to believe tomorrow is not resolving to believe August 21th, but rather resolving not to believe now. If we put belief off till tomorrow, we are putting on unbelief today.
Postscript: I suspect that one reasons Pascal left the Pensées the way he did–fragmentary and disheveled–was that, though he had the argument, the wager, down, he could not get the poetics, the machine, quite right. He could not find an order of words which would not just lay out the idea for the reader to take or leave, but would operate like an Audenesque poetic machine, forcing the reader to adopt the perspective of infinity. Of course, such a machine is impossible; grace cannot be externally compelled. But that does not stop perfectionists from making the attempt. This applies, I suppose, to Wittgenstein as well. People often say that the two have much in common.
[For context, read this post.]
The Eumenides (“The Kindly Ones”) is the final entry in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the only extant ancient Greek dramatic trilogy. (The final tragedy, anyway: the three tragedies would normally be associated with a more light-hearted “satyr play.” Only fragments of the Oresteia‘s satyr play Proteus have survived.) And it’s a play about endings, but also about beginnings. The end of the blood-feud, the beginning of the rule of law. The end of unconscious violence, the beginning of conscious self-control. It tells the story of how the name of Kindly Ones was bestowed upon the Furies, the chthonic goddesses of vengeance, in compensation for the pardoning of Orestes, whom they would otherwise have hounded to his death.
For, as seen in the preceding Libation Bearers, Orestes had murdered his mother Clytaemnestra and her lover Aegisthus to avenge his father Agamemnon on the orders of the sun-god Apollo.
For, as seen in the preceding Agamemnon, Clytaemnestra had murdered her husband Agamemnon on his return from the Trojan War to avenge her daughter Iphigenia; and was aided by Aegisthus, who sought to avenge his brothers. Agamemnon’s concubine, the Apollo-beloved-and-cursed Cassandra, they murdered also.
For, as described at various points throughout the trilogy, Agamemnon had sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to calm the winds preventing the Greek armies from sailing to Troy; and his father Atreus had killed Aegisthus’ brothers and served them to their father Thyestes in a pie. Now Atreus and Thyestes were brothers, the children of Pelops; and Pelops was the son of Tantalus, who killed him and served him to the gods, who then resurrected him. So the matricidal Orestes comes from a long line of fillicides and fratricides.
It’s not difficult to see why the house of Atreus was considered cursed. It’s hard to make much sense of such a sequence of events, such a senseless repetition of violence, apart from some such concept. It’s quite tempting, in fact, to give the story a psychoanalytic reading, making it about the repeated expression of unconscious desires, and the need to confront and sublimate them, to bring them into Apollo’s light; or to give it a political reading, making it about the chaos of barbarism, and the need to channel it along the lines of civilization. And neither would be all wrong.
But what I find fascinating about the trilogy is how the sublimation, civilization, whatever, happens. The dawn of reason, in the Oresteia, is itself unreasonable. The undoing of the curse begins when Apollo, god of reason, demands Orestes avenge his father–a matricide to break the series of fillicides. But he does so not with reasons, but with threats; and he may well himself be moved less by Agamemnon’s death than by that of Cassandra, itself only a side-effect of the feud. Then, when the Furies hound Orestes and he seeks the gods’ protection, Apollo may cleanse Orestes of his ritual guilt, but it is Athena, not Apollo, who provides the final resolution and reconciliation, who makes enough enough.
She does so, moreover, in a way that does not rely on Apollo’s “arguments” at all. Nor does she provide many arguments herself–at least not ones we can take seriously. Rather, she delegates the decision to a jury of Athenians; she provides, not a reasoned decision, but a decision procedure. Never mind that the jury splits 6-6 and the decision devolves to Athena again. What matters is the form: the institution of the rule by law, of the impartial jury; and the endorsement of this rule by the chthonic chaos that it supercedes. The gods play-act at putting Orestes on trial so that we can imitate them in total seriousness. The Furies, persuaded less by anything promised them than by Athena’s invocation of the power of persuasion, accept a new order in which persuasion, not brute force, rules the land:
ATHENA: Are they taking thought to discover that road
where speech goes straight?
In the fearsome look of the faces of these
I see great good for our citizens.
While with goodwill you hold in high honor
these Kindly Spirits, their will shall be good, as you steer
your city, your land
on an upright course clear through to the end.
The entire trilogy feels like a dream. Its characters sleep-walk through their lives, tossed this way and that by the warring of the gods against themselves. Only pitifully inadequate reasons are given for any action, but despite this everything feels full of sense, feels, in fact, inevitable. Then, in the Eumenides, the gods step center stage, and bring the real conflict–not between persons, but between the forces that control persons–into the open. The conflict is not resolved–it cannot be resolved–but it dissolves itself, and we awaken.
I have felt this dream-like quality every time I read the Oresteia, and every time I read the Eumenides in particular. It is, to my mind, the best reason to do so. The play shows us what it would be like not to be reasonable, not to live in a world where speech goes straight, and reminds us that the route from such a world to a world like our own might not itself be one we would call reasonable. Waking up does not much resemble shouting “Eureka!” upon suddenly realizing that we were asleep.
[For context, read this post.]
Don’t ask me why one should read Plato. That would be to say why one should study philosophy, and Plato’s Apology, his account of Socrates’ trial, did that already. Read that instead.
I will say a few things, however, about why one should read Plato’s Phaedo, which is, as it were, the sequel to the Apology, giving an account of Socrates’ conversation with his friends before his execution concerning why his execution will not bother him. For the Phaedo is–as one of my professors pointed out–a somewhat strange choice of Platonic dialogue, if you’re only going to read one. She meant strange for me in particular, but it’s also, I think, strange in general. Strange for me, because, if I’m interested in beauty and eternity, why not read one of the dialogues that actually brings those two concepts together–say, the Symposium, or the Phaedrus? Strange in general, because, well, it makes so much less sense than Platonic dialogues usually do. Socrates, usually a fount of reasonableness, instead spends the dialogue spouting forth cryptic statements and arguments that do not prove what they claim to prove. What’s going on here?
My choice of the Phaedo was, to be sure, determined in large part by happenstance–for example, I’d read neither the Symposium nor the Phaedrus before putting my preliminary list together, and so never even considered selecting them. But I also think that, in an important sense, the Phaedo fits for me just because it is so very strange. Because I am not, in fact, all that interested in beauty. It’s rather the connection between art and truth that I think significant (a connection to which beauty is, of course, relevant). Plato normally says very little about art, but his dialogues are marvelous instances of it, and perhaps no dialogue more so than the Phaedo. Its suggestive strangenesses are a part of its artistry, as is its self-consciousness about the connection between suggestive strangeness and artistry. That is: the strangest parts of the dialogue seem to be somehow about art, and I do not think this is a coincidence.
Without developing a full reading of the dialogue, then, I’ll list here what strike me as some of its strangest aspects. This will also serve as a summary of the dialogue’s content, though, as you’ll see, it barely mentions what most think the dialogue’s most important part.
(1) Near the beginning of the dialogue, Socrates, who in other dialogues almost always speaks disparagingly of poets and poetry, reveals that, in the time since his trial, he has been composing hymns to Apollo and putting Aesop’s fables in verse. Why? Because, Socrates says,
The same dream came to me sometimes in one form, and sometimes in another, but always saying the same or nearly the same words: ‘Cultivate and make music,’ said the dream. And hitherto I had imagined that this was only intended to exhort and encourage me in the study of philosophy, which has been the pursuit of my life, and is the noblest and best of music. The dream was bidding me do what I was already doing, in the same way that the competitor in a race is bidden by the spectators to run when he is already running. But I was not certain of this, for the dream might have meant music in the popular sense of the word, and being under sentence of death, and the festival giving me a respite, I thought that it would be safer for me to satisfy the scruple, and, in obedience to the dream, to compose a few verses before I departed.
Huh? This kind of bet-hedging argument might appeal to someone more practically-minded, but Socrates is decidedly not that; he often argues that you should do what is right, and do nothing until you know what is right–no guessing allowed. Has he really had a change of heart? Is this “Socratic irony”? Or….?
(2) The majority of the dialogue Socrates spends attempting to prove the immortality of the soul. But his arguments are quite poor; indeed, they seem to have less to do with immortality, and more with eternity:
(i) From cycles: “the living come from the dead, just as the dead come from the living.” But that the living come from the dead, does not mean that the now-living are the same as the previously-living that have died! That life goes on does not mean that my life goes on.
(ii) From recollecting: We have a concept of “the equal” that is not reducible to individual equal things, so we must have had it before we began to see things as equal, i.e., before birth; and now, when we think we come up with the concept, we are in fact remembering it. But to have a priori knowledge is not the same as to have always been alive! Being alive before one’s birth would not even help: we would still require an explanation for how the immortal soul came to learn the eternal truth of the Equal in the first place.
(iii) From affinity: the body decays, and the soul does not, because “the soul is in the very likeness of the divine, and immortal, and intellectual, and uniform, and indissoluble, and unchangeable.” But this is just begging the question! Why think that, because the objects of knowledge are eternal, therefore the individual knower is eternal also?
One might almost think that Socrates has been proving, not that individual souls, our souls, are immortal, but that something like an eternal Soul-principle, an eternal divine Knower, exists; and that our knowledge “imitates” his, imperfectly–meaning that, however eternal the divine Knower is–perhaps as eternal as the form of Table–my soul is just as immortal as this table….
(3) Socrates seems to be aware that his arguments are not entirely convincing; or, at the least, that they cannot sustain conviction on their own; they will require repetition:
[Socrates: ...] Like children, you are haunted with a fear that when the soul leaves the body, the wind may really blow her away and scatter her; especially if a man should happen to die in a great storm and not when the sky is calm.
Cebes answered with a smile: Then, Socrates, you must argue us out of our fears—and yet, strictly speaking, they are not our fears, but there is a child within us to whom death is a sort of hobgoblin; him too we must persuade not to be afraid when he is alone in the dark.
Socrates said: Let the voice of the charmer be applied daily until you have charmed away the fear.
Why would it require repetition? It sounds almost like a noble lie; but not quite, for it’s not false that the Soul exists–it’s just that the child will fail to understand what this means, and perhaps cannot fully understand it; the child will insist on it being about me, and my soul, not Soul proper. I do not think it a coincidence that the child of selfishness is spoken of in terms of hobgoblins and charms; for art and magic, too, have something to do with the self, with the individual will.
(4) After the initial arguments, Simmias and Cebes raise a number of further objections, and Socrates says, in response, that the worst thing to be is a misologist:
When a simple man who has no skill in dialectics believes an argument to be true which he afterwards imagines to be false, whether really false or not, and then another and another, he has no longer any faith left, and great disputers, as you know, come to think at last that they have grown to be the wisest of mankind; for they alone perceive the utter unsoundness and instability of all arguments.
Is this an admission that his previous arguments were false? Or at least imperfect? Certainly Simmias and Cebes’ objections–that the soul might be just a harmony, and that the soul might last for a long time, but still finally cease to exist–reveal a more sophisticated understanding of the problem than his initial arguments allow for. His responses are philosophically complex; indeed the philosophical heart of the dialogue, including Socrates’ philosophical autobiography. But I will not summarize them here. For the purposes of this post, I would say, they have little relevance: they only reinforce the sense that when Socrates says “soul,” he does not mean my soul.
(5) Like several Platonic dialogues, this one ends with a mythological account of the afterlife; this time, however, the myth is not quite the last thing we hear, and Socrates afterwards explains the purpose of the myth; and the talk of a “venture” recalls the issues with bet-hedging I discussed earlier:
Wherefore, Simmias, seeing all these things, what ought not we to do that we may obtain virtue and wisdom in this life? Fair is the prize, and the hope great!
A man of sense ought not to say, nor will I be very confident, that the description which I have given of the soul and her mansions is exactly true. But I do say that, inasmuch as the soul is shown to be immortal, he may venture to think, not improperly or unworthily, that something of the kind is true. The venture is a glorious one, and he ought to comfort himself with words like these, which is the reason why I lengthen out the tale.
(6) Socrates’ last words appear, on their surface, to concern something utterly trivial, and in this very triviality seem to insist on an allegorical over-reading:
Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?
Asclepius was the Greek god of medicine. Socrates owes him a debt: why? Because he has been healed of the sickness of physical life, which for the philosopher is a kind of death? Or might there be some other reading? The language of “debt” reminds me, again, of the language of “safety” and “venturing.” I wonder if there is not some sense here of the importance of paying debts within this life and this world, despite all Socrates has to say about its irrelevance compared to the eternal world of Forms.
I don’t usually say much here about politics. But because I’ve already written about the philosophical implications of the Hobby Lobby case, I figure I should also address the most recent ACA ruling. For the typical conservative response to the latter may, at first glance, seem to contradict its response to the former. After all, “Hobby Lobby can have religious freedom” and “Congress cannot have intentions” at first sight translates into “Corporations are persons, governments are not”–a position, alas, no more coherent than its contrary. If collective action is possible, shouldn’t it be possible in all cases?
I don’t think the conservative position necessarily entails a contradiction, but it does, again, seem to me that conservatives aren’t doing a very good job defending themselves against the charge. Consider some of the reasons conservatives give for the impossibility of Congressional intentions:
More generally, what Arrow showed is that group choice (aggregation) is not like individual choice.
Suppose that a person is rational and that we observe their choices. After some time we will come to understand their choices in terms of their underlying preferences (assume stability–this is a thought experiment). We will be able to say, “Ah, I see what this person wants. I understand now why they are choosing in the way that they do. If I were them, I would choose in the same way.”
Arrow showed that when a group chooses, there are no underlying preferences to uncover–not even in theory. In one sense, the theorem is trivial. We know or should always have known that a group doesn’t have preferences anymore than a group smiles. What Arrow showed, however, is that without invoking special cases we can’t even rationalize group choices as if leviathan had preferences. Put differently, the only leviathan that rationalizes group choice has the preferences of a madman.
A nice result, in theory–indeed the mathematics behind it is well worth looking into. But when it comes to practical application, it has two gaping holes, neither of which should come as a surprise:
- Individuals persons are not entirely rational, and not only are their preferences unstable, but they are only sometimes even coherent. Having “the preferences of a madman” is not particular to groups.
- Corporate action is a kind of group action, and it can be rationalized just as easily as individual action. Groups need not always have “the preferences of a madman.”
So if Congressional intentions are impossible, it cannot be a result of the nature of group choice: reasonable Republics are not less possible than reasonable philosophers. Rather, it must have something to do with how Congress, in particular, makes decisions. To make explicit the allusion to Plato, it will have something to do with how democracy really means the rule of that thousand-headed Hydra, the passions.
How does Congress make its decisions?
Consider a king–he need not even be mad; perhaps he seeks a kind of democracy–who gives the following order: “Go to the place where three roads meet. For each person that passes by, record a dash if they’re on road one; a dot if on road two; and a blank if on road three. Using Morse code, translate the result of this into English, and treat it as the law of the land.” This process, miraculously, produces a legible document; produces, in fact, the ACA. In the course of enacting the new law, however, an ambiguity arises regarding whether subsidies are available for insurance purchased on federal exchanges, or whether they are limited to insurance purchased on state exchanges.
Is speculating as to how the king would have rewritten the law, had he known of the ambiguity, the best way to resolve it? Surely not. Does the king lack the ability to have reasons, or to intend things? Again, surely not.
Democratically enacted laws–however much it might pain patriotic Americans–are analogous to the result of such a process. We can, of course, inquire into the causes of certain lines of the ACA having the shape they do–for example, asking why the authors drafted the law the way they did, or why certain representatives voted the way they did– but this is akin to asking why the relevant persons were travelling the relevant roads at the relevant times, or to asking why each head of the random-like Hydra was inclined in the direction it was inclined. It would have nothing to do with the king’s reasons for giving the order he did, and it would tell us nothing about how the result of the Hydra’s writhing ought to be interpreted.
Interpretation is, however, necessary, for practical reasons: the ambiguities must be resolved. The best way to do so would be to ask the king how he wants it resolved–and this is entirely different from speculating as to how he would have answered such a question. The king may, however, refuse to clarify the law, yet without repealing it; and this would throw us back to the problem, only tangentially related to the problem of group intentions, of how to interpret a piece of writing which has been, not murdered, but orphaned.