Man's greatness is so obvious that it can even be deduced from his wretchedness, for what is nature in animals is wretchedness in man, thus recognizing that, if his nature is today like that of the animals, he must have fallen from some better state which was once his own. (Pensées, Penguin, p. 59, #117, tr. Krailsheimer)
"What is nature in animals is wretchedness in man." That is a profound insight brilliantly expressed, although I don't think anyone lacking a religious sensibility could receive it as such. The very notion of wretchedness is religious. If it resonates within you, you have a religious nature. If, and only if.
Man's wretchedness is 'structural': man qua man is wretched. Wretched are not merely the sick, the unloved, and the destitute; all of us are wretched, even those of us who count as healthy and well off. Some of us are aware of this, our condition, the rest hide it from themselves by losing themselves in Pascalian divertissement, diversion. We are as if fallen from a higher state, our true and rightful state, into a lower one, and the sense of wretchedness is an indicator of our having fallen. Pascal writes that we "must have fallen from some better state." That is not obvious. But the fact remains that we are in a dire state from which we need salvation, a salvation we are incapable of achieving by our own efforts, whether individual or collective.
How do we know that? From thousands of years of collective experience.
It is surprising what different people will read into and read out of a text. A reader challenged me to find a valid argument in Blaise Pascal, Pensees #108 (Krailsheimer, p. 57): "What part of us feels pleasure? Is it our hand, our arm, our flesh, or our blood? It must obviously be something immaterial."
1. We are sentient: we feel pleasure, pain, etc. (suppressed premise) 2. Nothing material could be sentient. Therefore 3. As subjects of sentient states we are not material beings.
This is a valid argument, hence not a non-sequitur, as my correspondent had claimed. (Non sequitur is Latin for 'it does not follow.')
There is no doubt that we have material bodies. And there is no doubt that many physical pains and pleasures can be assigned more or less determinate bodily locations, typically where some damage or stimulation has occurred or is occuring. Those are 'Moorean facts.' As data of the problem they are not in dispute. The question, however, is whether that which feels pleasure and pain, etc., call it the subject of sentient states, is material or immaterial in nature. Pascal thinks it obvious that it is not. I don't think it is obvious one way or the other. But I do maintain that there are very good reasons to hold that the subject of sentient states is immaterial. To put it another way, I don't think it is obvious that materialism about the mind is false. But I do think it is reasonably rejectable.
My correspondent subsequently suggested the following argumentative reconstruction of the above passage:
1. We feel pleasures, pains, etc. 2. We do not feel these sensations "in our hand or arm or flesh or blood." 3. Therefore, not in any part of our body or in our body as a whole. 4. So, if not in our body (the "material" part of us), then in an "immaterial" part of us (mind or spirit). 5. So, An immaterial part of us must exist as the only part of us in which pleasures, pains, etc can reside.
The trouble with this reconstruction is that it is uncharitable: it ascribes to the genius Pascal a premise he could not possibly maintain, namely, (2). (2) is plainly false, and so not reasonably imputed to any half-way intelligent person, let alone to one of the most powerful minds of the 17th century. "I take it that Pascal meant to suggest that we don't experience pains and pleasures as located in various parts of our body. But we do, all the time."
But surely Pascal in not denying the obvious, namely, that we say things like, 'Doc, I've got a pain on the left side of my left knee.' It is a plain fact that we experience physical pains and pleasures as located in various part of our body: toothaches in a tooth, headaches in or at the head, etc.
The point, however, is that the pleasures and pains as felt, as experienced, as data of consciousness, cannot be identified with anything physical. It may sound paradoxical, but it is true: physical pains and pleasures are mental in nature. My patella is not mental in nature, nor is my chondromalacia patellae, nor are it causes. But the pain I feel is mental in nature. And it is clearly not literally in the knee, or literally in any part of my body or brain. 'In' is a spatial word. You will not find my knee pain literally in my knee or literally in my brain. What you will find are the physical causes of the pain.
That's one point. Related to it is the point that the subject (that which feels them and that in which they inhere) of these sensory qualia is also irreducibly mental in nature. (No doubt the transition from the first point to the second is subject to Humean scruples, but that is whole other post.)
Now it may not be obvious that Pascal is right to maintain that pains and their subjects are irreducibly mental in nature, and thus immaterial. But I think it is perfectly obvious that this is what Pascal is maintaining., and that what he is maintaining is in no way ruled out by any obvious fact. My judgment, of course, is not based on that one slender quoted passage but on having read the whole of Pascal's magnificent book of Thoughts.
I recently quoted Blaise Pascal, Pensees #108 (Krailsheimer, p. 57): "What part of us feels pleasure? Is it our hand, our arm, our flesh, or our blood? It must obviously be something immaterial."
A reader comments, "Doesn't P. 108 strike you as a hopeless non-sequitur, if we take it as an argument at all? Just try to recast it as a valid inference."
If I thought that the aphorism embodied a non sequitur, I would not have approvingly quoted it. So let me rise to the challenge and present Pascal's thought in the form of a valid argument.
But let's first note that the first question in the Pascal quotation is genuine while the second is rhetorical. The second, therefore, is a statement in interrogative dress. The second question expresses the proposition that nothing material is the subject of sentient states. Needless to say, Pascal is not talking about just hand, arm, flesh, and blood. They are but examples of any physical part of the body where 'body' covers brain as well.
But does the passage embody an argument? The 'must' in the third sentence suggests that it does. So let's interpret the passage as expressing an enthymematic argument. The argument could be made explicit as follows:
1. We are sentient: we feel pleasure, pain, etc. (suppressed premise) 2. Nothing material could be sentient. Therefore 3. As subjects of sentient states we are not material beings.
Clarificatory note: (2) is to be understood as saying that nothing material could be the ultimate subject of sentient states, the ultimate bearer or possessor of such states. This is compatible with the admission that, in a secondary sense, the body of a sentient being is also sentient. (Compare indicative sentences and the propositions they express. That propositions are the primary truth-bearers does not prevent us from saying that sentences are in a secondary sense either true or false.)
The above is a valid argument: the conclusion follows from the premises. Hence the Pascal passage, interpreted as I have interpreted, does not embody a non sequitur, let alone a "hopeless" non sequitur.
Of course, a much more interesting question is whether we have good reason to accept the premises. Since the first is self-evident, the soundness of the argument rides on the second. Now some will say that the argument begs the question at the second premise. But that depends on what exactly 'begging the question' amounts to. Let's not go there. And please note that begging the question is an informal fallacy, whereas accusations of non sequitur question the formal validity of arguments. I will cheerfully concede, however, that the anti-materialist must support (2): he cannot just proclaim it obvious or self-evident as he can in the case of (1).
I will conclude by pointing out that although (2) is not self-evident, neither is its negation. So this is a point on which reasonable dispute is possible. This is a live issue. (That some do not consider it such is not to the point.) Subsequent posts will examine the case for the immateriality of the subject of experience.
What part of us feels pleasure? Is it our hand, our arm, our flesh, or our blood? It must obviously be something immaterial.
Is it my eyeglasses that see yonder mountain? No, they are merely part of the instrumentality of vision. Is it my eyes that see the mountain, or any part of the eye (retina, cornea, etc.)? The optic nerves or the visual cortex? All of this stuff hooked together? If you say yes, then what accounts for the unity of the visual experience? Eyeglasses, eyes, and all the rest are merely parts of the instrumentality of visual consciousness, its physical substratum. Not eye, but I see the mountain. What am I? Arguably, if not obviously, something immaterial.
Blaise Pascal says not to look to ourselves for the cure to misfortunes, but to God whose Providence is a foreordained thing in Eternity; that the foreordainment was that our lives be but sacrifices leading to purity in the after-existence in Heaven as souls disinvested of that rapish, rotten, carnal body -- O the sweet beloved bodies so insulted everywhere for a million years on this strange planet. Lacrimae rerum. I dont get it because I look into myself for the answer. And my body is so thick and carnal I cant penetrate into the souls of others equally entrap't in trembling weak flesh, let alone penetrate into an understanding of HOW I can turn to God with effect. The situation is pronounced hopeless in the very veins of our hands, and our hands are useless in Eternity since nothing they do, even clasp, can last. (Vanity of Duluoz, p. 133. Photo by Tom Palumbo.)
This topic is generating some interest. I 've gotten a good bit of e-mail on it. Herewith, a summing-up by way of commentary on an e-mail I received. Joshua Orsak writes:
I wanted to email you to tell you how once again you have elevated the medium of the Internet blog with your recent threads on "The God of the Philosophers" and "The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob". As a minister, a person interested in mystical experience, AND with a keen interest and even passion for philosophy, I have always found myself perplexed why we have to bifurcate our heart-based and mind-based encounter with the world like that. Personally, I've always thought of philosophy (of religion) and religion as encountering the same Divine reality in different ways. In philosophy we study God as an object, in religion we encounter Him as a subject.
"God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob -- not of the philosophers and scholars." Thus exclaimed Blaise Pascal in the famous memorial in which he recorded the overwhelming religious/mystical experience of the night of 23 November 1654. Martin Buber comments (Eclipse of God, Humanity Books, 1952, p. 49):
These words represent Pascal's change of heart. He turned, not from a state of being where there is no God to one where there is a God, but from the God of the philosophers to the God of Abraham. Overwhelmed by faith, he no longer knew what to do with the God of the philosophers; that is, with the God who occupies a definite position in a definite system of thought. The God of Abraham . . . is not suspectible of introduction into a system of thought precisely because He is God. He is beyond each and every one of those systems, absolutely and by virtue of his nature. What the philosophers describe by the name of God cannot be more than an idea. (emphasis added)
Buber here expresses a sentiment often heard. We encountered it yesterday when we found Timothy Ware accusing late Scholastic theology of turning God into an abstract idea. But the sentiment is no less wrongheaded for being widespread. As I see it, it simply makes no sense to oppose the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob -- the God of religion -- to the God of philosophy. In fact, I am always astonished when otherwise distinguished thinkers retail this bogus distinction. Let's try to sort this out.
It is first of all obvious that God, if he exists, transcends every system of human thought, and cannot be reduced to any element internal to such a system whether it be a concept, a proposition, an argument, a set of arguments, etc. But by the same token, the chair I am sitting on cannot be reduced to my concept of it or the judgments I make about it. It too is transcendent of my conceptualizations and judgments. The transcendence of God, however, is a more radical form of transcendence, that of a person as opposed to that of a material object. And among persons, God is at the outer limit of transcendence.
Now if Buber were merely saying something along these lines then I would have no quarrel with him. But he is saying something more, namely, that when a philosopher in his capacity as philosopher conceptualizes God, he reduces him to a concept or idea, to something abstract, to something merely immanent to his thought, and therefore to something that is not God. In saying this, Buber commits a grotesque non sequitur. He moves from the unproblematically true
1. God by his very nature is transcendent of every system of thought or scheme of representation
to the breathtakingly false
2. Any thought about God or representation of God (such as we find, say in Aquinas's Summa Theologica) is not a thought or representation of God, but of a thought or representation, which, of course, by its very nature is not God.
As I said, I am astonished that anyone could fall into this error. When I think about something I don't in thinking about it turn it into a mere thought. When I think about my wife's body, for example, I don't turn it into a mere thought: it remains transcendent of my thought as a material thing. A fortiori, I am unable by thinking about my wife as a person, an other mind, to transmogrify her personhood into a mere concept in my mind. She remains in her interiority delightfully transcendent.
It is therefore bogus to oppose the God of the philosophers to the God of Abraham, et al. There is and can be only one God. But there are different approaches to this one God. By my count, there are four ways of approaching God: by reason, by faith, by mystical experience, and by our moral sense. To employ a hackneyed metaphor, if there are four routes to the summit of a mountain, it does not follow that there are four summits, with only one of them being genuine, the others being merely immanent to their respective routes.
I should think that direct acquaintance with God via mystical/religious experience is superior to contact via faith or reason or morality. It is better to taste food than to read about it on a menu. But that's not to say that the menu is about itself: it is about the very same stuff that one encounters by eating. The fact that it is better to eat food than read about it does not imply that when one is reading one is not reading about it.
Imagine how silly it would be be for me to exclaim, while seated before a delicacy: "Food of Wolfgang Puck, Food of Julia Childs, Food of Emeril Lagasse, not of the nutritionists and menu-writers!"
Blaise Pascal, Pensées #113 (Krailsheimer tr., p. 59):
It is not in space that I must seek my human dignity, but in the ordering of my thought. It will do me no good to own land. Through space the universe grasps me and swallows me up like a speck; through thought I grasp it.
Pascal is right: what good will owning acres and acres of land do me? In the end a man needs only -- six feet.And before the end I should be seeking truth, not lusting after land. So I remind myself when the urge to buy land grips me.
Man is neither angel nor beast; and the misfortune is that he who would act the angel acts the beast.
The first half of the thought is unexceptionable: man is indeed neither angel nor beast, but, amphibious as he is between matter and spirit, a hybrid and a riddle to himself.
The second half of Pascal's thought, however, is unfair to the beasts. No beast can act the beast the way a man can. No beast is bestial in the way a man can be bestial. The difference is that while the beast acts according to his nature, man freely degrades himself contrary to his nature. Having done so, he allows his freely indulged passions to suborn his intellect: he constructs elaborate rationalizations of his self-degradation.
It is not our animality that corrupts us but our free misuse of our animality, a misuse that derives from our spirtuality.
The greatness of man is so evident that it is even proved by his wretchedness. For what in animals is called nature we call wretchedness in man; by which we recognize that, his nature now being like that of animals, he has fallen from a better nature which once was his. For who is unhappy at not being a king except a deposed king? Who is unhappy at having only one mouth? And who is not unhappy at having only one eye? Probably no one ever ventured to mourn at not having three eyes; but anyone would be inconsolable at having none.
Blaise Pascal, Pensees #98 (Krailsheimer tr., p. 55):
How is it that a lame man does not annoy us while a lame mind does? Because a lame man recognizes that we are walking straight, while a lame mind says that it is we who are limping.
Please forgive the following reformulation. Point out to a man that he is crippled, and he won't contradict you, though he might take umbrage at your churlishness. But point out to a man that his thinking is crippled and he is sure to repy, "No! It is your thinking that is crippled."
People talk glibly about wasting time on this, that, and the other thing — but without reflecting on what it is to waste time. People think they know which activities are time-wasters, philosophy for example. But to know what wastes time, one would have to know what is a good, a non-wasteful, use of time. And one would presumably also have to know that one ought to use one's time well. One uses one's time well when one uses it in pursuit of worthy ends. But which ends are worthy? Does this question have an answer? Does it even make sense? And if it does, what sense does it make? And what is the answer? Now these are all philosophical questions.