Delight Springs

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Montaigne, Descartes, Pascal

"I hate IB," says Younger Daughter as she slaves over her art project at 5 am. What she really hates is having to deal with the fallout from chronic procrastination. As old Seneca said, we have plenty of time. We waste it. The International Baccalaureate program is about developing the "intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills needed to live, learn and work in a rapidly globalizing world" - and it's about learning not to procrastinate.

On the other hand, we tend also to love, with the late Douglas Adams, that lovely whooshing noise deadlines make. I spent most of yesterday anticipating the whoosh, with my Baseball in Literature and Culture conference presentation in Kansas bearing down. It's nominally about Vin Scully, but ultimately about gratitutde and finding meaning in a secular world. I'll mention All Things Shining by Dreyfus and Kelly, and their claim that "the most important things, the most real things..well up and take us over, hold us for a while, and then, finally, let us go." They whoosh. 

And on the other other hand: it was supposed to be her Spring Break last week. I sympathize.

Three Frenchmen today, in CoPhi (after we wrap up all remaining group reports): Montaigne, Descartes, and Pascal - a humanist skeptic, a rationalist/foundationalist, and a fideist gambler, respectively. The first and last were known for slogans in their native tongue: "Que sais-je?" ("What do I know?") and "Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaĆ®t point." ("The heart has its reasons that reason does not know at all.")

Descartes, of course, preferred his previously noted Latin cogito declaration. I can't help repeating Kundera's quip: that's the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothache. I've never been more certain of anything in my life, than of the body's various aches and pains. I'm more certain of them every day. Fortunately, solvitur ambulando is still my working slogan.

Descartes wanted only good apples in his sack, by Nigel's analogy. He was prepared to waste a lot of perfectly acceptable beliefs, in order to avoid potential errors. Unlike James he thought our errors are awfully solemn things, not necessary and instructive steps along the way of life and learning. He rejected what Pyrrho and Montaigne both  accepted, the inevitability of uncertainty. As Sarah Bakewell says of Montaigne, “Learning to live, in the end, is learning to live with imperfection in this way, and even to embrace it." Pascal also hated not knowing, but decided the best route ultimately was not the Rationalist Road.

Might we be dreaming? Doubting Descartes, early in his Meditations, says what do you mean we? Ultimately he decides we're all here, at least as awake as Gilbert Ryle's ghost can be. If we can trust our clear and distinct perceptions we can rule out the evil demon hypothesis, and stop worrying that we might be brains in vats, or humans in matrix-like pods, or something.

Descartes' "most practical critic" was the American C.S. Peirce, who said we shouldn't pretend to doubt in philosophy what we don't question in life. One of Descartes's surprising contemporary admirers is A.C. Grayling. He thinks Descartes was wrong about consciousness and the mind-body problem, but wrong in wholly constructive ways that have benefited subsequent philosophy.

Montaigne, Bakewell points out, answered his own question about "How to live" with hard-won but much-treasured lesson that Epicurus was right, death per se is not one of our experiences. He learned that from his own "near death experience," which he says taught him that nature drips a comforting anaesthetic into our veins when we need it most. “If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.”

But, "as Seneca put it, life does not pause to remind you that it is running out.”

Many readers through the past half-millennium have been struck by the contemporaneity of Montaigne's mind, his capacity for "living on through readers' inner worlds over long periods of history" and speaking to them like a friend and neighbor despite the distance of centuries and the differences of culture. He achieved that authorly immortality so many have aspired to, but so few actually attained.

He achieved, in his own terms, freedom. “Be free from vanity and pride. Be free from belief, disbelief, convictions, and parties. Be free from habit. Be free from ambition and greed. Be free from family and surroundings. Be free from fanaticism. Be free from fate; be master of your own life. Be free from death; life depends on the will of others, but death on our own will.”

"Given the huge breadth of his readings, Montaigne could have been ranked among the most erudite humanists of the XVIth century. But in his Essays his aim is above all to exercise his own judgment properly. Readers who might want to convict him of ignorance would find nothing to hold against him, he said, for he was exerting his natural capacities, not borrowed ones. He thought that too much knowledge could prove a burden, preferring to exert his ‘natural judgment’ to displaying his erudition." SEP

And, as we've already apreciated about him, Montaigne was a peripatetic who said his mind wouln't budge without a big assist from his legs.

Pascal's best thoughts (and worst) are in his best-known book, Pensees.  His best invention was a rudimentary calculator called the Pascaline. His most noted argument was for a wager that asked "what have you got to lose" by believing? That depends on how you think about the integrity of belief, and on how much you value your Sundays. I'm betting there's both more in heaven and earth (if you invert the terms) than Pascal dreamed.

Pascal said: “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” And “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” And Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.” (But, “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.”)   And “I would prefer an intelligent hell to a stupid paradise.” (That's what Mark Twain, and really all the wittiest wits, said too.) And “To make light of philosophy is to be a true philosopher.” (But Nigel says he said he wasn't one.)

“Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.” But, “People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive.” That's why Descartes took the Rationalist Road. Pascal sticks to Faith Street: “It is man's natural sickness to believe that he possesses the truth.”
So, how do you know you're awake and not dreaming? Is it meaningful to say "life is but a dream"? Does "Inception" make any sense at all? Are you essentially identical with or distinct from your body (which includes your brain)? If distinct, who/what/where are you? How do you know? Can you prove it? Is there anything you know or believe that you could not possibly be mistaken about, or cannot reasonably doubt? If so, what? How do you know it? If not, is that a problem for you?

Do you believe in immaterial spirits? Are you one, or hoping to be? Can you explain how it is possible for your (or anyone's) material senses to perceive them?

At what age do you hope to retire? What will you do with yourself then? Will you plan to spend more time, like Montaigne, thinking and writing?

Have you had a near-death experience, or known someone who did? What did it teach you/them? How often does the thought occur to you that you're always one misstep (or fall, or driving mistake) away from death?

What have you learned, so far, about "how to live"? Have you formulated any life-lessons based on personal experience, inscribed any slogans, written down any "rules"?

Do you agree that, contrary to Pascal, most nonreligious people would consider it a huge sacrifice to devote their lives to religion? Why? Is the choice between God and no-god 50/50, like a coin toss? How would you calculate the odds? At what point in the calculation do you think it becomes prudent to bet on God? Or do you reject this entire approach? Why?
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Happy birthday Cy Young, Sam Walton, & Lady Gaga. On This Day

At 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, the worst accident in the history of the U.S. nuclear power industry begins when a pressure valve in the Unit-2 reactor at Three Mile Island fails to close. Cooling water, contaminated with radiation, drained from the open valve into adjoining buildings, and the core began to dangerously overheat. This Day

Aikin & Talisse on swamping and spitballing (YouT)

Priority registration begins Monday. The Philosophy of Happiness (PHIL 3160) returns, Fall 2017 - TTh 2:40, JUB 202. One more thought from Pascal: “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”

5:30/6:40, 58/70/50, 7:03