Morality and the Human Condition, #16–Pascal’s Optimism About The Meaning of Life.
By Robert Hanna
Table of Contents
II. The Standard Conception of Morality
II.1 The Moral Question and The Meaning Question
II.2 How Ethics Relates to Morality
II.3 How Morality Relates to Rationality
III. Three Classical Challenges to the Standard Conception of Morality
III.2 Eight Logical Principles of Human Rationality
III.4 Psychological and Moral Egoism
IV.1 God and The Divine Command Theory
IV.2 Does an Essentially Rational God Exist?
V. Three Classical Moral Theories
V.1 Aristotelian Virtue Ethics
V.1.1 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, books 1–3: A Brief Exposition
V.1.2 Four Worries about Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics
V.1.3 Contemporary Virtue Ethics
V.2.1 Not-So-Happy Little Campers: Ten Big Problems for Millian Utilitarianism
V.3 Kant’s Ethics of Persons and Principles
V.3.2 Three Classical Worries about Kant’s Ethics
V.4 All-Things-Considered Conclusion of This Section
VI. Pascal’s Optimism and Schopenhauer’s Pessimism
VI.1 Pascal’s Optimism About The Meaning of Life
VI.2 Schopenhauer’s Pessimism About The Meaning of Life
VI.3 Pascal or Schopenhauer? Optimism or Pessimism?
VII. Existentialism, the Absurd, and Affirmation
VII.1 Two Kinds of Existentialism
VII.2 Nagel and the Absurd
VII.3 Camus and Affirmation
VIII. The Ethics of Authenticity
VIII.1 Existential Ethics and the Concept of Authenticity
VIII.1.1 What is Authenticity?
VIII.1.2 Authenticity and Radical Freedom
VIII.1.3 Inauthenticity, Freedom-Refusers, and Freedom Deniers
VIII.2 Two Important Problems for Existential Ethics
VIII.3 Sartre on Principled Authenticity
IX. The Nature of Death
IX.1 The Ambiguity of “Death”
IX.2 The Nature of Our Own Death
IX.2.1 Nagel On the Nature of Our Own Death
IX.2.2 Suits Against the “Deprivation” Account of the Badness of Death
IX.2.3 Some Critical Worries About What Nagel and Suits are Saying About the Nature of Our Own Death
X. The (Im)Possibility of Human Immortality
X.1 Williams on the Tedium of Immortality
X.2 Fischer on How Human Immortality Could Be a Good Thing
X.3 Some Worries About What Williams and Fischer are Saying About Human Immortality
X.4 Human Life Without Immortality
This installment contains section VI.I.
But you can also read or download a .pdf version of the complete short course HERE.
VI.1 Pascal’s Optimism About The Meaning of Life
To start the ball rolling on this issue, I want to jump into our TARDIS again, travel back to the 17th century, and consider a classical text, lifted from Blaise Pascal’s famous work, the Pensées, that’s generally — and, as I’ll argue shortly, quite mistakenly — called “The Wager,” but should have been called Optimism About the Meaning of Life.
I mean, doesn’t Pascal simply exude optimism?
But seriously folks: in this classical text, Pascal argues
(i) that yes, life has meaning,
(ii) that God is that meaning, hence God is the meaning of life,
(iii) that, as rational but ineluctably finite and “human, all-too-human” animals, we can’t possibly either know God’s nature, or know or prove whether or not God exists, hence we do not have a sufficient reason either for knowing or believing that God exists, or for knowing or believing that God does not exist, but also
(iv) that we do have sufficient reason for living optimistically, that is, for living as if we believed that an essentially rational God exists, therefore
(v) that our lives have meaning precisely insofar as, and precisely to the extent that, we live optimistically.
It’s crucial to note here that Pascal’s optimism is radically different from Leibniz’s optimism, according to which this actual world is the best of all possible worlds (see section IV.2) — which is nothing but (as Voltaire rightly insisted) a cruel joke.
This is because Pascal’s optimism holds even if we hold — as I think we must — that this actual world is very far from being the best of all possible worlds, hence this actual world is thoroughly non-ideal: i.e., this actual world is a complete fucking mess.
Even so, here we are, for better or worse: therefore, we have no rational choice but to deal with this actual world as best we can, according to our conception of the highest good — that’s Pascal’s optimism.
And here’s his text.
Infinite — nothing. — Our soul is cast into a body, where it finds number, time, dimension. Thereupon it reasons, and calls this nature, necessity, and can believe nothing else.
Unity joined to infinity adds nothing to it, no more than one foot to an infinite measure. The finite is annihilated in the presence of the infinite, and becomes a pure nothing. So our spirit before God, so our justice before divine justice. There is not so great a disproportion between our justice and that of God, as between unity and infinity.
We know that there is an infinite, and are ignorant of its nature. As we know it to be false that numbers are finite, it is therefore true that there is an infinity in number. But we do not know what it is. It is false that it is even, it is false that it is odd; for the addition of a unit can make no change in its nature. Yet it is a number, and every number is odd or even (this is certainly true of every finite number). So we may well know that there is a God without knowing what He is.
Is there not one substantial truth, seeing there are so many things which are not the truth itself?
We know then the existence and nature of the finite, because we also are finite and have extension. We know the existence of the infinite, and are ignorant of its nature, because it has extension like us, but not limits like us. But we know neither the existence nor the nature of God, because He has neither extension nor limits.
But by faith we know His existence; in glory we shall know His nature. Now, I have already shown that we may well know the existence of a thing, without knowing its nature.
Let us now speak according to natural lights.
If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is. This being so, who will dare to undertake the decision of the question? Not we, who have no affinity to Him.
Who then will blame Christians for not being able to give a reason for their belief, since they profess a religion for which they cannot give a reason? They declare, in expounding it to the world, that it is a foolishness, stultitiam; and then you complain that they do not prove it! If they proved it, they would not keep their word; it is in lacking proofs, that they are not lacking in sense. “Yes, but although this excuses those who offer it as such, and takes away from them the blame of putting it forward without reason, it does not excuse those who receive it.” Let us then examine this point, and say, “God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.
Do not then reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. “No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all.”
Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see.
Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. — “That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much.” — Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. It is all divided; wherever the infinite is and there is not an infinity of chances of loss against that of gain, there is no time to hesitate, you must give all. And thus, when one is forced to play, he must renounce reason to preserve his life, rather than risk it for infinite gain, as likely to happen as the loss of nothingness.
For it is no use to say it is uncertain if we will gain, and it is certain that we risk, and that the infinite distance between the certainty of what is staked and the uncertainty of what will be gained, equals the finite good which is certainly staked against the uncertain infinite. It is not so, as every player stakes a certainty to gain an uncertainty, and yet he stakes a finite certainty to gain a finite uncertainty, without transgressing against reason. There is not an infinite distance between the certainty staked and the uncertainty of the gain; that is untrue. In truth, there is an infinity between the certainty of gain and the certainty of loss. But the uncertainty of the gain is proportioned to the certainty of the stake according to the proportion of the chances of gain and loss. Hence it comes that, if there are as many risks on one side as on the other, the course is to play even; and then the certainty of the stake is equal to the uncertainty of the gain, so far is it from fact that there is an infinite distance between them. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain. This is demonstrable; and if men are capable of any truths, this is one.
“I confess it, I admit it. But, still, is there no means of seeing the faces of the cards?” — Yes, Scripture and the rest, etc. “Yes, but I have my hands tied and my mouth closed; I am forced to wager, and am not free. I am not released, and am so made that I cannot believe. What, then, would you have me do?”
True. But at least learn your inability to believe, since reason brings you to this, and yet you cannot believe. Endeavour then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness. — “But this is what I am afraid of.” — And why? What have you to lose?
But to show you that this leads you there, it is this which will lessen the passions, which are your stumbling-blocks.
The end of this discourse. — Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognise that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.
“Ah! This discourse transports me, charms me,” etc.
If this discourse pleases you and seems impressive, know that it is made by a man who has knelt, both before and after it, in prayer to that Being, infinite and without parts, before whom he lays all he has, for you also to lay before Him all you have for your own good and for His glory, that so strength may be given to lowliness.[i]
And here’s my step-by-step rational reconstruction of Pascal’s argument for optimism about the meaning of life, which, for short, I’ll call Pascal’s Optimism.
1. We’re embodied finite rational beings — ”human, all too human”! — in space and time, both of them mathematically structured and infinite.
2. So, as rational human animals, we’re finite beings in the face of the mathematical infinite, in comparison to which we’re reduced virtually to nothingness.
3. God too, as the highest good, the ground of morality, and the meaning of life, especially including rational human life, is infinite.
4. But our disproportion to God’s nature, as the highest good, as the ground of morality, and as the meaning of rational human life, is not as vast as the disproportion between the number one and infinity, since we’re endowed with rational capacities.
5. We know that the mathematical infinite exists, because we know that there is no greatest finite number.
6. Yet we do know not what the nature of the mathematical infinite is, given our finite minds.
7. But in the case of God, we are necessarily ignorant not only of what God’s nature is, but also of whether God exists or does not exist, precisely because God is a non-spatial, non-temporal, absolutely infinite being — the highest good, the ground of morality, and the meaning of life — especially rational human life — all rolled up into one being, and we are merely finite beings and “human, all-too-human.”
8. Still, even if we cannot know that God exists or that God does not exist, we can still have faith in God, that is, believe in God, that is, believe in a highest good, the ground of morality, and the meaning of life especially including rational human life, without a sufficient reason that would logically justify a claim either to knowledge or to belief that God exists.
9. Thus, as far as either our knowledge of God’s existence or non-existence, or our belief that God exists or does not exist, is concerned, we must be radically agnostic,[ii] i.e., the one thing that we do know about all this, is that we cannot either know that God exists or does not exist, or believe that God exists or does not exist, with sufficient justification, one way or the other.
10. Yet our need for faith in and belief-in a highest good, and our need for our rational human lives to have meaning, drives us inexorably to the question: does God exist or not exist, is there a highest good in this world or not, is there a gorund morality or not, does life especially including rational human life have meaning or not, heads or tails?
11. It’s as if we were forced to gamble literally everything that fundamentally matters to us as rational human animals on a single coin toss, when all that we really know is that we cannot know what the outcome of our wager will be.
12. Given what’s at stake, then, it’s far far better not to gamble at all.
13. Rational human life is not a mere game that you can decline to play: the question of faith in or belief-in God, aka the highest good, aka the ground of morality, aka the meaning of life especially including rational human life, or the rejection of all such faith in or belief-in — existential and moral skepticism to the point of nihilism — and the intense anxiety that accompanies our need to resolve this question, necessarily drive us to choose one way or the other.
14. In other words, to think of this as a mere bet or wager is absolutely absurd and fundamentally self-stultifying: that is, it would be absolutely absurd and fundamentally self-stultifying for us to try to calculate whether it would be more in my rational self-interest to choose to have faith in or belief-in God’s existence, or not — after all, it is the eternal salvation of my soul and the difference between
(14i) a world and a life with a highest good, a ground of morality, and meaning, in them, on the one hand, and
(14ii) existential and moral nihilism, on the other,
that is at issue, a choice that has essentially nothing to do with rational self-interest and calculation.
15. In view of radical agnosticism and the self-evident abject failure of any attempt to apply probabilistic, self-interested reasoning to the most important question about our rational human existence — and in the face of our intense anxiety about the question of God, aka the question of the highest good, aka the question of the ground of morality, aka question of the meaning of life especially including rational human life — and add to that the bracing fact of pervasive natural and moral evil, and The Metaphysical Argument for Atheism from the Fact of Evil[iii] — the only rational alternative is to act as if you believed that God exists, which is the same as to have faith in and belief-in God’s existence, the highest good, the ground of morality, and the meaning of life especially rational human life, which is the same as living optimistically.
16. For to live optimistically is precisely to demonstrate, by means of our actions themselves, that which cannot be known, believed with sufficient justification, or logically proved, one way or the other.
17. Therefore, precisely insofar as, and precisely to the extent that, we live optimistically, our lives have meaning.
Something that needs to be specially emphasized, before moving on, is just how infinitely far the rational reconstruction of Pascal’s famous text that I’ve just presented is from the standard reading of that text as a wager, that is, as an application of rational decision theory and probabilistic reasoning to the debate between theists and atheists.
The standard reading, in effect, treats Pascal’s argument as nothing but a theological video game for rational decision theorists, Las Vegas in the Sky with Diamonds.
— To which my response is,
[i] B. Pascal, Pascal’s Pensées (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1958), pp. 65–69.
[ii] See also section IV.2 above.
[iii] See section IV.2.
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