Thursday, 7 July 2011

Pascal Pensee Number 45


Man is nothing but a subject full of natural error that cannot be eradicated except through grace. Nothing shows him the truth, everything deceives him.

The two principles of truth - reason and senses - are not only both not genuine, but are engaged in mutual deception.

The senses deceive reason through false appearances, and, just as they trick the soul, they are tricked by it in return: it takes its revenge. The senses are disturbed by passions, which produce false impressions.

They both compete in lies and deception.

Blaise Pascal - Pensees - Number 45. Translated by AJ Krailsheimer, Penguin edition of 1966.


Since, as Pascal shows, we have no reason to believe either reason or the evidence of the senses (experience), whence comes truth?

Only by grace - in other words from God.


Truth is either inbuilt by God (in the form of inborn reason) and/ or truth is received by revelation from God during the human lifespan derived from the evidence of our senses - by experience, as an increase in genuine knowledge.


Reject God and you reject both reason and the evidence of the senses as sources of genuine knowledge.

(Neither chance nor evolution could arrange matters such that reason and/or the senses provided genuine knowledge; why should they?)


The choice is God or nihilism (denial of truth, of reality): there is no other option.



  1. why aren't intuitions about god any less deceptive than senses or reason though?

  2. As a good Platonist, I have to disagree with Blaise on this one. Causes are discernible from effects in context, and natural laws can be learned; however, it's a slow and careful process. Intuition is priceless because it is most directly shaped by our origins, and closest thus to the raw logic of our cosmos.

  3. @MK - They are not intuitions *about* God (i.e. they don't come from humans) but revelations *from* God. Thus human limitations are transcended.

    Pascal's point is that we *must* believe that knowledge begins with revelations from God, or else we have nihilism, there is no possibility of saying anything about anything.


    @BS - I don't think Plato would have disagreed with Pascal - surely Plato (like everyone at that time) believed in god/s, believed in the necessity of god/s? (I means as a *reality* - indeed *the* reality)

    - albeit not a 'monotheistic' creator god/s nor a loving (Christian) God.

  4. I met Pascal through Peter Kreeft, and that book was a formative influence on me. But this picture of reason and the senses sounds ridiculous to me. It is Calvinism. Your comment sort of gloss over the finality of the indictment of our two principles.

    I understand that you mean rejecting God a priori and proceeding from that assumption. But I believe an honest agnostic can come to God through reason and the evidence of the senses. I don't think this in any way reduces the necessity of grace, I think it just gives a unity to all experience, of which reason and the senses are the fundamental input. We are fallen and must always keep this in mind when using either, but truth has nothing to fear from any question.

  5. While it's certainly true that the senses can be deceived by false appearances, that is a captious rule for the guidance of human activity. Most appearances must correspond with reality otherwise we should never be able to trust our senses at all. All human endeavour relies on this reasonable trust.

    We conduct our 'normal' quotidian lives on the empirical basis that what appears to be the case usually is the case. Experience confirms what philosophers maintain is purely hypothetical.

    When I'm a passenger in a plane flying at 35000 feet, I could never doubt the truth that if the aircraft stalls my life is in danger. I cannot console myself at that critical moment by reflecting that the plane and its passengers are merely apparent to my senses, perhaps even figments of my imagination, so I have nothing to worry about.

  6. @GR - "But this picture of reason and the senses sounds ridiculous to me. It is Calvinism."

    I don't follow this. Obviously it is *not* ridiculous - and if it really did seem ridiculous to you, then surely that would be *your* problem - not Pascal's - I believe Pascal! ;-)

    But why do you say it is Calvinism? I don't see why it should be - and presumably neither did Pascal (who was - Roman - Catholic, for those who don't know him).


    @Alex - I'm afraid that stuff is not relevant.

    Pascal's point is that our experience could be (and sometimes) is a delusion - what seems reality can be (or rather seems to be) changed by illness (delirium, dementia, schizophrenia, mania, melancholia), drugs (LSD, mescaline), dreaming sleep etc - there is our own experience of such changes, there is the knowledge we seem to have that others are radically different in their understanding of reality (now and in the past).

    And there are animals (some of whom only have one or two senses, apparently, and a much simpler understanding of 'the world' - e.g. in terms of perceived concentrations of ions. How would an earthworm perceive an aircraft flight? - and so on).

    And so on.

    If we know, then we know that our senses cannot tell us about reality - only about what seems to be reality.

    if we take reason as assumed to be valid, then we cannot then use reason to validate reason.

    This isn't a weird or silly modern 'paradox', nor is it nihilism - but it is one of the fundamental human philosophical perceptions, going back to the very earliest ancient Greeks at least. And there is a solution, an answer - but only one answer.


    But really, the proper answer is that this discussion is metaphysics, and natural science, experience, empiricism - has no bearing on it.

    Although I had been reading philosophy for forty years, I didn't 'get' this whole business of metaphysics until a couple of years ago when I read Ed Feser's book on Aquinas.


    I agree that we must trust reason and experience, but if we are merely the accidental product of evolution (natural selection being a proposition which we derive from the use of reason and experience - which is of course a circular process) - then why should we trust the reasoning powers and sensory data of an accidental, contingent thing?

    (I have tried to explain too much too briefly, sorry!)

  7. How is this post consistent with your belief that there were once Scientists who searched - often successfully - for truth?

    (I'll take it for granted that their findings were necessarily approximate, tentative, and limited.)

  8. @dearieme -

    um, how to put this briefly?...

    The first intellectual specialization was theology, from which came philosophy, from which came science, then science split and split and split again.

    But the process was gradual, generations overlapped, residues of previous generations remained.

    Early scientists were operating such that science was embedded in philosophy, and in Christianity (or Judaism).


    First philosophy then science was initially very successful because it was practiced by those brought up as Christians or Jews, but it was specialized to exclude religious explanations, and scientists spent more time and effort on understanding chunks of the world than anyone had done before, and they also worked together in social groups.

    So science is based on non-divine explanations, time and effort, and helped by group time and effort. I think that is all that can be said about the 'methodology' of science.


    Science further specialized by rejecting consideration of beauty and truth.

    Although their science was defined in terms of excluding the divine and ignoring considerations of beauty and virtue, early scientists sought the truth and did so honestly because (in a nutshell) that was how they were brought up to behave.

    They brought these values from *outside* science.

    Later generations of scientists stopped being honest and truthful, because they were not brought up to be like that - indeed their careers were punished if they were honest and truthful - there are no *scientific* reasons for being honest and truthful when it harms your career, when it contradicts peer evaluations (i.e. committee voting).


    So science became closed off from the transcendental = a glass bead game, its purposes and successes peer validated, not looking outside of the profession.

    So now science = a career as a professional scientist, with purely career values. Science is evaluated (and funded) from within this circle. A free spinning cog sustained by hye and spin and lying (e.g. AGW).


    Then science became reabsorbed into 'religion' i.e. the modern 'religion' of Leftism/ Liberalism/ PC. This has completely happened in huge swathes of science, most of science - some areas of science remain less affected.

    Real science was therefore a transitional phase, self-destroing - explicitly it was working outside of transcendental values, implicitly it was regulated by these values.

    (Clear as mud...)

  9. Pascal's history with the Church was actually a little strained (he was condemned as a Jansenist, and recanted).

    What I mean is, you are rejecting any choice in the matter. Now, I may be out of line doctrine-wise, because most of this is my own musings, but I've come to these conclusions over a pretty long time. One idea that I hold to be fundamental is that in order for a choice to be pleasing to God, it must be free from coercion. I accept that man has no hope of salvation outside of grace. But if there is not some point when a man must make a choice that is completely his own responsibility, the great yes or the great no, then this life is a cruel joke. And what is he to base this decision on? Have you never been lied to by someone that you had reason to trust? Do you KNOW that all religion was not invented as an opiate for the masses? Has God ever spoken to you directly? The opportunities for doubt are everywhere. I accept that our reason is fallen, and our senses act at a remove that cannot be bridged. But they are gifts of the Creator none the less. And even if you are agnostic, if you are not actively resisting Him (making a choice, often in opposition to reason or the senses) I believe He can get in through them.

  10. "They are not intuitions *about* God (i.e. they don't come from humans) but revelations *from* God. Thus human limitations are transcended."

    But don't you still need to use human reason to decide whether or not something that seems like a revelation from God is in fact a revelation from God (rather than a message from Satan or an idea from your own mind)?

  11. The Continental Op7 July 2011 at 18:35

    There is something gnostic fishy about this Pensee. To say our physical body (and world) is always deceiving us about everything is not much different from saying, "Matter is evil."

    It's also a direct contradiction of Romans 1:20, where it says, "his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made."

  12. @WmJas - yes reason but not only reason, many other things too.

  13. @TCO - I think you have misunderstood - maybe you could read the surrounding and similarly themed Pensees? It seems clear enough in context.

  14. how about 'why are revelations from god any less deceptive than senses or reason?'

    another angle: even if god is aiming true revelations at us, wouldn't we botch them?

    that people make conflicting claims about revelations from god suggests either deception on their part, or confusion interpreting revelations.

    this seems to put revelation on a similar ground to reason and the senses--they seem potentially useful but are flawed.

    it's a bit like hume said--you'll have a meeting of skeptics who will deny cause and effect, and then use cause and effect to determine how to leave the room. nihilism seems impractical, so we guess and go and muddle through. sense, intuition and reason all being a part of the tactics we use.

  15. @MK - the first step is to acknowledge that there are such things as revelations.

    That there really is God and he really might reveal things to at least some humans at some points in history.

    Once that has been acknowledged as a genuine possibility, then - and only then - can you begin to analyse whether a specific experience really is a revelation and how accurately it has been apprehended etc.

    But if you don't believe that divine revelation is even potentially real and possible, then there is no point in discussing the matter further, is there?

  16. Nick DiStefano8 July 2011 at 05:45

    nihilism or God?

    moral relativism has often been used to challenge religion. "why is western belief more true than eastern belief?" this is often coupled with framing questions so that they seem absurd such as "where is the proof that Jesus was the son of God?"

    it is then natural to fall back on assumptions that are so basic as to not be obvious targets for questioning- leading to humanism as few intuitively question the maliciousness of human suffering

    the specter of nihilism is raised when basic humanist assumptions are questioned such as "why is suffering worse than photosynthesis?" and the assumptions of humanism (or whatever has replaced religion) are framed so as to seem absurd "how do you know suffering is bad?"

    while I am a Christian and I subscribe to the Eagleton popularized, liberal theologian authored(partly inspired by medieval writers but contextualized for this discussion recently) version of using humanism's moral relativism to undermine humanism, I am afraid there is a third possibility.

    the liberal theologians get around the "moral relative" critiques of religion by turning them on humanism (or other substitute) and saying "so it's religion or nihilism"

    I say this too

    I think it is what you are saying when you say "God or Nihilism", Professor (please correct me if I am wrong)

    but (I think) the problem is that we must make assumptions outside of rationality in order to begin thought. Christians assume all-loving all-knowing God while humanists/other make different assumptions such as suffering is bad.

    as soon as you step outside reason, as you must do with faith(assuming God)- the box is open and all assumptions are equally valid- be they god or demon, fairie or goblin. here is where we must have faith in our belief system be it humanism or Christianity- faith not only in the falsity of nihilism but in the at least incompleteness of humanism/other possibilities. humanism/other possibilities are equally as rational as faith

    here is where many humanists trip up by denying that they are making assumptions and denying that they are making any leap of faith- though it is certainly outside the realm of reason to assume "suffering is bad" (as justifications devolve into tautology)

    in saying this they are shortsighted and so dismiss religion on rationally inconsistent ground

    but faith cannot destroy intelligent humanism (humanism that acknowledges that it is based on arbitrary assumptions) using moral relativism- it can only humble it and force it to admit that it too is a faith-based creed

    though I would argue that it is a decrepit shadow

  17. Yes, reason and many other things. I don't mean to focus specially on reason. Perhaps I should have said "human faculties" rather than "human reason." In determining what is and is not a revelation, and what the meaning of any particular revelation may be, we have no choice but to fall back on our fallible human faculties.

    Revelation (and, yes, I accept that it is possible) simply does not transcend human limitations. God's knowledge would transcend all limitations, of course, but revelation is God's knowledge as communicated to man and is therefore necessarily limited and fallible.

    Epistemologically speaking, revelation -- even real revelation which really comes from God -- is not so different from ordinary sense data, which also presumably has its ultimate source in Absolute Reality but which we receive only through the filter of our fallible human faculties.

  18. @WmJas - I think your concept of revelation is inadequate.

    "Revelation (...) simply does not transcend human limitations."

    By this definition, you deny the reality of revelation, or at least you imply there is no *need* for revelation; and you limit the content of revelation to that which humans could have known without revelation.

    Surely, divine revelation must by definition be able to transcend human limitations?

    If you ask how revelation can transcend human limitations, then you must ask the question in a spirit which first accepts that revelation does in fact transcend human limitations, then you can try to explain how this works.

    But the inability of you personally (or me personally, or anybody who you happen to be able to access and understand) to explain how this *works* (explain this to your own satisfaction) cannot be used as a reason for rejecting the initial assumption that revelation is real and can transcend human limitations.

    This would be to make belief in revelation dependent upon second-order and contingent matters: such as the existence of theologians who have generated an abstract analysis of the process of revelation, your awareness of these theologians, your ability to understand them - and so on. None of which really matters.

    The essence of revelation is that it is a real possibility, it has happened, and it has (in some way) transcended human limitations.


    The next question is how we, as limited humans, sort out the real from the mistaken or fake or demonic revelations; how we understand them, how we sort out the real from the admixture of error and misunderstanding etc... and that is, in a nutshell, the history of the various Churches and denominations.

  19. I guess "transcends human limitations" can be interpreted in different ways. Certainly there is a sense in which revelation transcends our limitations by giving us information which we would be incapable of getting in any other way. What revelation does not and cannot do is allow us to transcend the basic human condition of fallibility and uncertainty. Someone who thinks God has revealed a truth to him can be deceived, just as surely as someone who thinks he sees something can be deceived.

    A man who can see has transcended some of the limits of a blind man, but he can still be deceived. A man who receives revelations from God has transcended some of the limits of other mortals, but he, too, can still be deceived. By adding revelation to reason and the senses, we certainly gain something -- a great deal -- but we do not (contra Pascal) eradicate the possibility of error.

  20. @WmJas - I think you have misunderstood Pascal's point - I don't see anything here or anywhere in Pascal about eliminating the possibility of *error* - nor was this a theme of pre-modern (pre-Descartes) philosophy (so far as I know).

    I would say that the possibility of human error was simply taken for granted by Pascal, Aquinas, Aristotle, Plato etc.

    What Pascal was talking about was surely a different matter altogether. A matter of metaphysics, not natural science.


    Discussions of human fallibility as such get nowhere (except round in circles) unless and until the metaphysics is agreed.

  21. but i am willing to entertain the possibility revelations are real. the key for me is determining the true from false ones. in other words, god could give clear, true revelations, but how are they different than clear true senses or reasoning, if we humans can botch them?

    i would distinguish between haughty intuition and humble intuition--haughty intuition says other people's professed intuitions, even if honest, are wrong, and mine are true.

    resolving disputes between two haughty intuitives is through fighting till unconditional capitulation of one side or mutual annihilation or disablement.

    arguably, if humble intuitives foster classical liberalism, and classical liberalism's laissez faire approach makes for the most wealthy econonomies, and the most wealthy economies make for the greatest powers, then the classical liberal humble intuitives are the meak who inherit the earth.

  22. @bgc

    Plato keeps an attitude of not knowing about the nature of the divine, but his metaphysical model (idealistic monism) suggests the presence of the divine. He explores a number of topics and seems more inclined to non-anthropological monotheism, but I'm sure someone has done a more exhaustive study than I have. The point I was making is that Plato would not have said knowledge comes from the divine alone; to him, it is discernible, but follows patterns of the divine, e.g. logic itself exists as something separate from materiality. These two views probably amount to the same thing but take different directions there.

  23. Bruce, you write: "I don't see anything here or anywhere in Pascal about eliminating the possibility of *error*"

    But you quote Pascal as follows: "Man is nothing but a subject full of natural error that cannot be eradicated except through grace."

    If Pascal is not saying here that revelation (and only revelation) can save us from being subject to error, what on earth is he saying?

  24. @WmJas - Pascal is meaning error as a 'meta-concept'.

    Pascal means error as contrasted with truth; not error as contrasted with certainty.

    My feeling was that you were asking about how can humans be certain of anything (the 'modern' post-Descartes question); whereas Pascal was asking the ancient question of the nature of truth and how humans might apprehend it - to ask what possible grounds might there be (in principle) for a creature like a human to be able to apprehend the truth of things; and how might humans know about this.

    I think the root of what Pascal is saying is that the only answer to questions about the validity of human experience and reason (and given that such questions seems to arise almost inevitably; experience and reason are not perceived as self-validating, there is disagreement about them) is divine revelation.

    If we ask whether reasoning is valid, the only kind of answer involves deity and the only knowledge we could have of such matters would need to come from the deity communicating with humans (revelation) - a *personal* God, in other words (not just a force of nature or 'how things are' - because such would not communicate with humans).

    So we have a choice between the ultimate explanation that reasons and sensory experience are (in some general way) valid, and that know this (only) by divine revelation - and on the other hand nihilism; which is that reason and sensory experience are the ultimate explanation, with nothing to be said about their validity - because any further explanation is merely derived from the application of reason and sensory experience.

    Or, the only reason we have for trusting reason and senses is if they are God-given and their validity is God-underwritten.

    All other explanations are circular; and indeed self-refuting (by Cretan Liar/ relativism type paradoxes).

    We *must* rely on reason/ experience - and the only reason for doing so is that these faculties are (in some way, to be decided separately) to be divinely 'endorsed'.

    If they are *not* (in some way) divinely endorsed, then we know *nothing* (not even that we know nothing).


    This leads onto the next set of problems about how do we get revelations, how do we evaluate them, communicate them etc. without the whole thing falling apart due to human error. The Christian answer to *that* (as I understand it) relates to matters such as Grace, or the continuing activities of the Holy Ghost, or continuing revelations to humans. But all that is a different question from the one Pascal is addressing.

  25. Bruce, thanks for your patience in trying to explain this, but it still seems very problematic to me.


    I don't see how revelation escapes the circularity of other modes of knowledge. Whatever God reveals is true. How do we know? Because God knows everything and cannot lie. And how do we know that? Because God has revealed it.... and so on.


    If knowledge is poured into your head directly -- whether by God or by evolved instincts or whatever -- it's not really knowledge in the sense of justified belief. It's just information, which may or may not be true. Obviously, lies can be poured into one's head just as easily as truth.


    If the only possible way to know the truth is to receive it by revelation (that is, for someone who knows the truth to communicate it to you), there must be an infinite regress of communicators. Therefore revelation cannot be the only possible way to know the truth.

  26. @WmJas - the way I think of it (philosophically, and this derives from reading Ed Feser on Aquinas) is that we must make an assumption or assumptions. If we make the assumption of a 'personal' God then we can have a coherent philosophy. Minus this assumptions and we have nihilism. It is the assumption that prevents the infinite regress.

  27. So why not just assume, as most people do, that reason and experience are broadly valid and make that our regress-terminating assumption?

  28. @WmJas - "So why not just assume, as most people do, that reason and experience are broadly valid and make that our regress-terminating assumption?"


    (The history of philosophy post-Aquinas)


    We are discussing matters here not at the ultimate level but at the level of philosophy - in my understanding, the entire history of philosophy post-Aquinas has been a series of greater and greater failures to do exactly what you suggest.

    Or, you could say (alternatively) post-Descartes; but the essential point stands intact: modern philosophy has utterly failed to generate a coherent account of reality on the basis of reason and experience minus God.

    (Recalling that Aristotle regards 'God' (but not the Christian God) as rationally essential to a coherent metaphysical understanding.)