Wednesday 29 September 2010

My recollection/ understanding of Pascal's Pensees

After one reading and about a month of cogitation my recollection/ understanding of Pascal's Pensees is as follows:

That Christ was, indeed, the Son of God was confirmed (for his contemporaries) mainly by the fact that he fulfilled the prophecies of the Jews regarding the Messiah, and by the miracles and wonders he performed.

Prophecy and miracle confirming that Christ was who he said he was, his statements are therefore true. (Revelation.)

Also, that we should want Christianity to be true, and to become Christians, is compelling; because the Christian promise or hope answers to our profoundest needs and greatest desires; whereas the promise of all other religions does not answer to our profoundest needs and greatest desires (nor, in most instances, do other religions even attempt to do this - nor to answer questions about creation, purpose, meaning etc.).

Other religions therefore do not answer the deepest questions (even if they were true), but Christianity does.

Therefore, since it has no rival, we should be Christian because even if we regard the evidence for Christianity being true as being inconclusive, or open to doubt, or indeed very probably false; so long as we are not 100 percent convinced that the evidence cannot possibly be true (and this belief would be irrational), then we ought to believe Christianity from sheer common sense...

(and also from an understanding of probability theory - a small chance of infinite benefit always being a better bet than a greater likelihood of finite loss - Pascal being a mathematical pioneer in this field).

(This last being my understanding of Pascal's 'wager').


Jonathan said...

Interesting that you say that, because I've long thought that Buddhism was the religion that answered those needs, desires, and questions.

I was raised Catholic, and I quickly came to associate religion with the image of a judgmental, jealous, anthropomorphic God who had all the bad qualities of humans without any of the good ones, and spent his time looking for ways to smite the humans he created while claiming to love them but showing no signs of it. If Catholicism offers any chance of transcendence, the church does a terrible job of advertising it to those of us raised in the religion. It was made clear that even if we tried really hard, few of us would make the cut; most of us would rot in hell.

Buddhism, by contrast, replaces God with Godhead, which is in almost all respects the opposite of the God I was raised with, has no anthropomorphic qualities at all, and would be utterly foreign to anyone I've ever heard preaching God. The notion of an angry superman looking for any excuse to torture me for eternity is replaced with a force that is not judging me, but is perhaps compassionately rooting for me to overcome the barriers to transcendence, while acknowledging its difficulty.

I have recently become aware that there have been small outcroppings of Christian mysticism that believe that ordinary people can have direct contact with God(head), and that these have historically been repressed by the organized Christian churches that insist on imposing a layer of clergy between God and their followers (no doubt to consolidate their power). Perhaps these tiny groups of mystics would have something to offer me; I suspect they'd sound a lot like Buddhists.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jonathan - If one looks at Christianity historically, I don't think it would be possible to regard Christianity as having introduced 'damnation'.

For the Old Testament Jews, the soul after death (except for a few prophets, perhaps) faced a very bleak prospect as 'gibbering ghosts' in Sheol/ Hades - an existence without self-knowledge or volition.

(See C.S Lewis's Reflections on the Psalms.)

Christianity was 'good news' because it offered the possibility of rescue from this horrible fate - rescue, in principle, for the whole of humanity.

a Finn said...

Jonathan: "... I quickly came to *associate* religion with the *image* ..."

- Although I don't know in which and what kind of catholic congregation you belonged, it seems you imagine fake images by comparing perhaps to soothing and relaxing commercial products/ entertainment. Easy, happy, always smiling, soft and weak; the modern commercial religious demand.

I will do my utmost to avoid new age -like "religions" where plastic idol is "compassionately rooting for me to overcome the barriers to transcendence". Christianity includes punishments, and people, communities and society are unreformable without them.

There is also compassion, forgiveness and mercy in the Christian faith, because we are not and can't be perfect.

F said...

It is curious that of the major religions or coherent systems of philosophy, few offer much hope to believer.

As I understand the Jewish philosophy, the "end game" is the creation of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, meaning that the Jewish calling is to make the world a better place, but you are just a small cog in the overall process and you may not have any existence after death. The project goes on, you don't.

My "gloss" on the Confucian end-game is that you can help maintain society in a peaceful, harmonious state. That is the best you can hope for: to be a useful part in maintaining or perhaps improving a functioning society. To what end? There is no higher end.

"Hinduism" has no coherency as a system of thought. Hinduism's success vis a vis Buddhism is real a puzzle for serious Buddhists. Why did an incoherent philosophy triumph over the (in my opinion) very strongly reasoned Buddhist religion? Could it be that Buddhist teachings are fundamentally unattractive? It is safe to say that the forms of Buddhism which are popular in the world today bear little resemblance IN PRACTICE to the original doctrine.

Islam, much as I dislike it, does at least propose an end state that is better than the others mentioned. It seems rather "silly" to spend eternity in the Islamic paradise but given the alternatives...

As Bruce points out, Christianity promises an end state which is, by far, the most attractive of any major religion that I'm aware of.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Colin - thanks for this.

One big problem that Christianity suffers in the modern Western world is that unbelievers (such as myself until a couple of years ago) get the impression that the Christian heaven is more-or-less like the Muslim heaven - what looks much like a human wish-fulfillment-fantasy kind of thing.

But the reality is that the Christian 'heaven' is a God-like state - along the lines that God became man in Christ, such that man could become akin to God.

The Eastern Orthodox Christians seem to be the only ones who have retain a strong and central grasp of this - by the concept called theosis, which envisages the purpse of human life as trying to move on this path even before death, and regards the Orthodox saints as having succeeded.

Another version of this comes with the Mormons, who regard humans as aiming toward becoming Gods, indeed sub-creator Gods who would parent their own 'universe'. Mormons also see the soul as developing after death, making further incremental progress to this goal.

However, Mormon theology (being less than 200 years old; and Mormons not having a professional priesthood) is not fully systematic - and has some incoherences and unwanted implications (e.g. it is partial - with no real account of primary creation, there is a hint of polytheism, in some ways it marks a return to Jewish legalism etc).

At any rate, the prevailing wrong concept of the Christian heaven (which has been successfully propogated in the secular West as a 'straw man') is a stumbling block to intellectuals.

dearieme said...

The best argument I've heard for Christianity - though not good enough for me - was the one recounted by Bede - the one about the sparrow and the mead hall.

Anonymous said...

My problem with this line of reasoning is that Christianity can meet your deepest needs and answer your deepest questions only to the extent that you actually believe it -- in the sense of thinking that it is probably true, or at least plausible.

If I'm 99% convinced that Christian doctrine is not in fact true -- that there is very probably no God, no afterlife, and no objective meaning of life -- how would "being a Christian" -- that is, professing a belief in those things even though I don't actually think they are true -- fulfill my spiritual needs in any way?

Bruce Charlton said...

@wmjas - Belief, in the sense you describe, can be divided into a psychological state of conviction and a statement of what is regarded as true on the basis of intuition, reason and empirical data (of various types).

Modern intellectuals may be in a situation where they regard Christianity as 'true' (or more true) than atheism - yet they not believe it in the psychological sense of having an inner conviction.

Indeed, it seems to me that the psychological disbeliefs of modern intellectuals are often extremely different than their understanding of the truth (and even more different from the implicit truths implies by their behaviours); but that it is the current fashion to regard it as insincere or hypocritical to assert anything which is not felt with psychological conviction.

Yet psychological conviction can be manufactured - as happens in brainwashing, in advertising, and in cognitive therapy.

One answer, I suppose, is for the modern intellectual to regard himself as being deluded in terms of his psychological convictions (intellectuals being more prone to this disorder by virtue of their hypertrophied abstractive tendency and compulsive neophilia), and to undergo a course of self-therapy (training by habit) in order to bring his beliefs into line with his knowledge.