Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Pascal and Quine?

Pascal's account of the separation of infinity and nothing includes a kind of epistemological realization we cannot ever have the amount of knowledge we need to know enough. This both fuels science to try and decipher the universe (quite literally: science is the pursuit of the appropriate cipher through which we understand the inconsistencies and paradoxes of the universe and resolve them in understanding, for Pascal) but also plunges us into the despair regarding our mortality.

Specifically in the context of God's existence, it's not that we have no evidence one way or the other to prove God exists or doesn't. It's that we have too much evidence for God existing and for God not existing. The evidence is inconclusive because both positions are supported, and I argue confirmed, by it. Reason, for this reason, is no help in making the decision between which way to cipher the evidence and come to the truth of the matter.

It's at this point, I think, that all of the issues in philosophy of science concerned with underdetermination are also already there at the birth of modern philosophy through Pascal's authentic approach to method over dogma. By demonstrating Descartes' new principles of philosophy are useless for resolving the most important question, Pascal also wants to show they are useless for all the rest of the questions unless we consider what the resolution of scientific questions has to do with our moral living. In the process, Pascal directly links together these problems of religion and science through this kind of epistemological problem.

And so, if in the end ideas of confirmation or falsification require a total analysis of the interrelationships our scientific beliefs and habits and theories have with one another, then this is the same situation with religious beliefs, habits, and theories.

I think, in the end, this is the modern position. Either one accepts the inconsistency ("Embrace the mystery") or one resists it by asserting the Wager earnestly ("Reveal the truth"). You can gamble as long as you like on holding off making the choice ("I need more information, more reading, more education, more life experiences"), but Pascal is ever correct: you are already enjoined in the game, in the roll, in the cards on the table. You can distract yourself all you want, but the evidence just keeps piling up.

What Pascal doesn't talk about directly, but seems all too damn important given that he came to these thoughts by actually observing his friends gamble away and lose, lose, lose, is this: the House always wins.

This means there's something about the Wager that's wrong, not for all the usual reasons people keep newly discovering for themselves ("Pascal never considered other gods! Pascal never considered God doesn't like betting! Pascal never considered authentic faith isn't so conceited! Pascal &c!"), but for the reasons Pascal subtly interjects through his many imaginative examples: the players always are bound, chained, on the way to death, surrounded by death.

My claim, as I have come to appreciate it for myself, is that we miss too often that the Wager is not the end. It is itself the last distraction before coming to belief, real authentic belief. It is the last temptation of reason denying what is blatant in all other respects:

Humans are genuinely fucked and incapable of being as great as they were. The cause is something omnipotent and beyond them.

Science, exploring to find the real cipher, investigating, sleuthing our way through the mysterious signs and wonders—all are vanity, for Pascal. It is reason's refuge to make itself seem more important and more necessary to live in a world that is dreadful and destructive and damaging; it is seductive for us to think our own reason is sufficient and powerful enough to overcome what is blatant after Pascal's analysis of just how bizarre and monstrous (in the older sense) we humans are. He understood well how convincing scientific methodologies are, because they compel us to think of all the possibilities available and steadily pare away the ones that remain unavailable to us after trying to bring them about. We think we're engaging with a world just as it is.

But underdetermination helps us to see that we're not simply picking out facts when we conduct experiments. We're involving our entire network of beliefs and habits and theories to make sense of the details. We're choosing our world not on the basis of its disclosure to us but on the basis of how we interact with our own imaginative worlds constructed from those beliefs, habits, and theories. We're engaging with a world as it is for us. This ends with Kant, then germinates and fruits in Hegel.

Except for Pascal, we are sinners and fallen from greatness. So, our world is constructed from our sinful vanity and, as a result, it reflects for us all the horror we have with the abyss in ourselves. That abyss is the void we lack in ourselves as a result of the withdrawal of God from us, and this is why the silence of those infinite spaces fills us with dread.

I do not think it is ironic, but intentional. Pascal destroys satirically and empirically the notion of the horror vacui, because the inanimate universe and its material components cannot have emotions and sensations and fears. Humans do. And it's only out there as horror of voids seemingly because the universe reflects what there is in us, the lack. The void.

And the void in the soul sucks, pulls, distorts, and shapes the same as vacuums do in the wild.

So, (super)naturally, humans cannot ever fully make sense of their world, or have the conclusive evidence they need, not until they address and resolve their vacuous vanity.

This, though, they cannot do without the potency of the one who withdrew.

Now, hopefully, you can see why Pascal thought there was no hope for everyone who gave up the search for God. Without that searching, nothing counters the void; with that searching, we learn to love through the void, against the void, beyond the void, to the love that leaves the ego inward collapsed into the void. We learn to be something new, a body larger than the self, a body of thinking members whose self is not our own.

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