Conrad's Reviews > Pensées and Other Writings

Pensées and Other Writings by Blaise Pascal
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Apr 15, 07

bookshelves: masterpieces, philosophy

Not to be mixed up with his first, somewhat less mature work of theology, "Peeneses," this collection of aphorisms and assorted sentence-long bits of wisdom has been pleasing everyone it could since it was written nearly eight thousand years ago. Pascal's influence on such diverse thinkers as Dostoevsky and Wittgenstein has been incalculable, though his fame probably reached its apex when the world-famous comic strip "Modesty Blaise" was named in his honor.

I am no worshipper of the Christ, but Blaise does a good job of demonstrating the impossibility of life without faith... after which you're one good strong push from taking Eucharist and saying rosary. I think of him as a precursor of the critics of Enlightenment like Kierkegaard, but I'm probably overstating my case. He was definitely a precursor of John Updike's, though, and some would say that's enough.
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message 1: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Oct 01, 2009 10:56AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio You had me at Peeneses.

He makes too many crazy statements in this book for me to rate it above two stars. A statement of mine which I'm sure has just knocked you off your seat, right?

I think it was Nietzsche (again, hang on to your seat) who did some serious mourning in print over "Pascal's Fall" from well-reasoned natural philosophy into the gibberish that this text is peppered with. Though, to play fair, Nietzsche committed his own brand of gibberish-sprinkling as well.


message 2: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Oct 01, 2009 11:37AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio One thing that also really colors my low rating of this book is the heavy association it has in my mind to one of the most gratingly stupid conversations (and there are plenty to choose from) in a college class about this book, particularly The Wager. You should've been there, Conrad. One of those rare chances to literally see bullshit fly out of people's mouths and steam bursting out of my ears. The post-conversational clean up was brutal.


Conrad You don't like a theist?! Quelle choquante!

I suppose that as a crypto-fideist it's just as predictable that I love this book. Not because it's systematic - of course it isn't, and it's pretty fatuous of Nietzsche to expect it to be. Not to mention hypocritical - this is the same Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote Thus Spake Zarathustra, right?!

I just appreciate the sheer number of different angles from which Pascal approaches the numinous.


Conrad Now you're just baiting me. I'm not sure how I feel about the wager, but I find the arguments against it to often be contradictory.

Everyone says, sure you can take the bet, but to do so negates the inherent value in believing something because it's the truth. The funny thing is, these are usually the same people who have no problem with instrumentalist theories about truth like pragmatism, theories that say that there's nothing wrong with believing something, even against all evidence, if (for you) believing it is more useful than not believing it. Pragmatism sort of legitimizes Pascal's wager argument.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Crypto-fideist is such a fideist term to use!

There's just some wildy bad scholarship in it, such as claiming that Christianity is the world's oldest religion--he had to have known better, but maybe not.

Hey, Nietzsche reveled in his contradictions and total lack of systematic philosophy. The crypto-fideist in you should love this!

To be serious for a second, his theism really wasn't what put me off, just the poor arguments. I respect and like and in some cases love plenty of work by believers. To reject books on this basis alone would be utterly crazy--like much of Pascal's work in this book. ::wink::

And I do respect Pascal on the whole--he was undeniably brilliant. I suppose I really could rate this book higher. I'll have to give it a skim soon.


message 6: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Oct 01, 2009 11:21AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Conrad wrote: "Now you're just baiting me. I'm not sure how I feel about the wager, but I find the arguments against it to often be contradictory.

Everyone says, sure you can take the bet, but to do so negates ..."


No, the problem (well, one) with the bet is that it reduces the entire span of options to "One brand of Christianity v. a rejection of this one brand of Christianity." He fails to look at the millions of other possibilities for no other reason than his many fundamental assumptions are completely opaque blinders.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio And of course, I think Sam Harris gives a fine summation of (a.k.a. edifies my opinions on) the problem with The Wager here:

http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/on...

"But there are many questionable assumptions built into this famous wager. One is the notion that people do not pay a terrible price for religious faith. It seems worth remembering in this context just what sort of costs, great and small, we are incurring on account of religion. With destructive technology now spreading throughout the world with 21st century efficiency, what is the social cost of millions of Muslims believing in the metaphysics of martyrdom? Who would like to put a price on the heartfelt religious differences that the Sunni and the Shia are now expressing in Iraq (with car bombs and power tools)? What is the net effect of so many Jewish settlers believing that the Creator of the universe promised them a patch of desert on the Mediterranean? What have been the psychological costs imposed by Christianity’s anxiety about sex these last seventy generations? The current costs of religion are incalculable. And they are excruciating.

While Pascal deserves his reputation as a brilliant mathematician, his wager was never more than a cute (and false) analogy. Like many cute ideas in philosophy, it is easily remembered and often repeated, and this has lent it an undeserved air of profundity. If the wager were valid, it could be used to justify any belief system (no matter how ludicrous) as a "good bet." Muslims could use it to support the claim that Jesus was not divine (the Koran states that anyone who believes in the divinity of Jesus will wind up in hell); Buddhists could use it to support the doctrine of karma and rebirth; and the editors of TIME could use it to persuade the world that anyone who reads Newsweek is destined for a fiery damnation.

But the greatest problem with the wager—and it is a problem that infects religious thinking generally—is its suggestion that a rational person can knowingly will himself to believe a proposition for which he has no evidence. A person can profess any creed he likes, of course, but to really believe something, he must also believe that the belief under consideration is true. To believe that there is a God, for instance, is to believe that you are not just fooling yourself; it is to believe that you stand in some relation to God’s existence such that, if He didn’t exist, you wouldn’t believe in him. How does Pascal’s wager fit into this scheme? It doesn’t.

Beliefs are not like clothing: comfort, utility, and attractiveness cannot be one’s conscious criteria for acquiring them. It is true that people often believe things for bad reasons—self-deception, wishful thinking, and a wide variety of other cognitive biases really do cloud our thinking—but bad reasons only tend to work when they are unrecognized. Pascal’s wager suggests that a rational person can knowingly believe a proposition purely out of concern for his future gratification. I suspect no one ever acquires his religious beliefs in this way (Pascal certainly didn’t). But even if some people do, who could be so foolish as to think that such beliefs are likely to be true?"


message 8: by Conrad (last edited Oct 01, 2009 11:33AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Conrad "No, the problem (well, one) with the bet is that it reduces the entire span of options to "One brand of Christianity v. a rejection of this one brand of Christianity." He fails to look at the millions of other possibilities for no other reason than his many fundamental assumptions are completely opaque blinders."

Well, yeah, that too. I'm sure it was quite persuasive in the context of a Christian society, and it's still important to remember that he wrote this when there just weren't any atheists running around.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio I only really get annoyed when people still think that The Wager is a stunning knock-down argument against disbelief. But I can cut Pascal some more slack due to his historico-cultural context. I'm not a total Grinch.


message 10: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Oct 01, 2009 11:42AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio To make some attempt at even-handedness: I wish Harris used gender-neutral language more often.


message 11: by Conrad (last edited Oct 01, 2009 11:54AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Conrad Well, that was a good effort at being fair and balanced.

It's an interesting passage, but I'm going to have to respond to it more fully when I don't have snot running down my face. Ugh.


message 12: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Oct 01, 2009 12:17PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Conrad wrote: "Well, that was a good effort at being fair and balanced.

Haha, I thought you'd like that.

It's an interesting passage, but I'm going to have to respond to it more fully when I don't have snot running down my face. Ugh."

Yeah, I think the chapter on the nature of belief in his first book is quite good. He actually just published (it was made available yesterday) his first full neuropsychological study of the nature of belief--specifically belief and disbelief in religious propositions (as compared to everyday propositions). If you're curious, I uploaded it on GR and there's a link to the article:

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/69...

I did the same thing for the pilot study leading up to the full one as well:

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/57...

Get well. Try tomato soup and grilled cheese. Those always cheered me up when I was under the weather. I recently resurrected this meal from my childhood.


Conrad I can tell you that I am going to absolutely hate anything he has to say about neuropsychology and belief. But I'll take a crack at it. And thanks for the kind wishes.


message 14: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Oct 01, 2009 12:47PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio It's all very small-steps kind of stuff. Not any grand theorizing at all. Pretty much good ol' fashioned, nose-to-the-grind-stone, scientific humility, by my lights at least. Which makes it kind of bland as a particular document, but I still find its potential to be interesting. You very well may still hate it though. I'd be curious to hear how you feel about it and why, however that may be.


Brunette Ummmmm, eight thousand years ago?


Szplug Sounds like Peeneses might make for fun reading, jejune, cocky nature and all...


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