Can Knowledge Bring About a Mystical Experience?

It is a truth near universally recognized that you cannot become a superb mechanic unless — as a minimum requirement — you have a girlie calendar in your garage first acquire a great deal of knowledge.  Moreover, that knowledge needs to be of two sorts.

In no particular order, you must both learn the sort of stuff you can learn from instructors and books, and you must also learn the sort of stuff you can only learn hands-on, by doing something — sometimes over and over again.  The ancient Greeks called the first kind of knowledge logos, and the second kind, gnosis.  We tend to call them “knowledge” and “know-how”.

The question arises, however, whether you need one, the other, or both kinds of knowledge in order to become a superb mystic?

Put differently, must you be of any particular religious tradition or school in order to attain to a mystical experience, the sine qua non of which is a perception of all things being in some sense or way one?  Must you follow any specific teachings or practices?  And do teachings and practices even help?  Or are they really mere ways of idling away the hours before your boy or girl calendar arrives in the mail you attain to a mystical experience?

I suspect many good folks would say “yes” to most of those questions.  Perhaps it is even a cultural assumption — at least in the West — that knowledge is key here.  Especially, book or scriptural knowledge, because we in the West are so accustomed to seeing the bible as key to our spiritual development.  So if we start pursuing a mystical path, we naturally think in terms of how learning all the right things will help us.

But is that assumption borne out by the evidence?  I actually think not.  At least, not nearly so much as we might assume.

For the past forty years, I’ve been an amateur collector of mystical experiences.  When I guess someone might have had one, I prompt them a bit to tell me about it, and they sometimes do.   And something I’ve noticed: A fair number of people have been stumped what caused the experience, for they can recall having done nothing to bring it about.

Again, awhile back, a group of researchers solicited over 2000 accounts of mystical experiences and found that about 20% of them came from nontheists — atheists and agnostics.  Presumably, many of those fine folks had done nothing intentionally to bring about their experiences, although some might have.

It seems to me likely then that any kind of knowledge might not be as key to having a mystical experience as we might at first suppose.  But if that’s true, then it raises a fascinating question.

What, if anything, does the fact knowledge has relatively little to do with mystical experiences tell us about the experiences themselves?

I think it underscores or emphasizes how fundamentally mystical experiences are shifts in perception, rather than gestalt-like experiences.  By “gestalt”  I mean an event in which what you know “comes together at once” to create a new understanding of something.

Of course, that is sometimes called “a new perception” of something, but that’s not what I mean by perception here.  “Perception” in this context is the frame of our sensory fields.  For instance, we see, taste, touch, and feel thirst.  Each of those is a sensory field.  Perception frames them in the sense that it provides or adds to them certain characteristics that are not the things we see, taste, etc.

An example would be our sense that what we are seeing at the moment is real.  That perception of realness is not a property of the thing itself, but rather a property or characteristic of our sensory field of sight.  Again, we perceive things as being us or not us.  That once more is a characteristic of our perceptual frames.

A mystical experience can be seen as an abrupt shift from how we normally perceive things to a different way of perceiving things.   One of the frames that is lost during that shift is our perception of the world as divided between us and not us.

So now we might ask: Do we need to know much for such a shift to come about?

I think not.  For one thing, the neural sciences have now revealed that mystical experiences involve at least a reduction in activity in the parietal brain lobe, most likely an increase in activity in the thalamus, and perhaps a change in dopamine levels, among other things.  Those are things that could be influenced by some kind of conscious or subconscious knowledge, but they don’t necessarily need to be.

Again, there are no techniques of bringing about a mystical experience that guarantee you will have one, but Eastern meditative techniques have been relatively successful.  These, however, do not generally depend on more than the knowledge of how to practice them.

Last, some traditions, such as Zen, are full of stories of people who attain to mystical experiences without need of scriptures, or much need of instruction.  So I think it’s pretty clear that, for those and other reasons, knowledge is not much use in bringing about a mystical experience.

Jiddu Krishnamurti, by the way, was adamant on that point.  He routinely went even further to state that too much knowledge hindered or prevented mystical experiences.  One of his key points was that, if you set off in pursuit of a specific experience, you were likely to find it soon or later, but it would turn out to be a construct of your knowledge.

So there might be a way in which knowledge is not only unnecessary, but actually detrimental.  But where does that leave us?

In a word, calendars!  Krishnamurti had a beautiful metaphor.  Imagine you are inside your house (i.e your mind) and wish for a breeze to come in (i.e. a mystical experience). What can you do to make that breeze happen?  Nothing, of course.

You simply can’t force a breeze to rise.  However,  you can open your windows and doors.  That is, you can remove the obstacles to a breeze coming in, should one arise.

Rumi also said much the same thing: “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

Can Rational Persuasion be Saved?

The European Enlightenment laid the philosophical foundation of today’s representative democracies by coining the notion (or at least by secularizing the Christian notion) that people were basically more or less equally rational — obvious cases of madness, contrariness, and American citizenship notwithstanding.

Of course, the clear implication was that, if people were basically rational, then they were under no obligation to simply swallow whatever they were told to swallow by some authority or powerful elite.  Instead, they had a natural right, by virtue of being rational, to weigh matters for themselves and arrive at a just and fair conclusion that Teresums is insufferable in those matters all on their own.

Obviously, that notion became a basis for justifying republics and representative democracies.  To be sure, you can justify those things without resort to asserting “epistemic equality”, but it’s harder to do.  If some people are naturally much less rational than others — that would amount to saying, they are born to be followers of their “betters”.

Very few of us know all of that today, or at least, very few of us have thought about it.  Even less thought about today is the somewhat more practical role reasoning with folks plays in republics and representative democracies.

To illustrate, consider a biologist and an creationist debating whether or not to include evolution in high school biology courses.  The biologist rationally lays out his or her facts, along with their reasoning, but the creationist immovably responds with pseudo-facts and fallacious logic. Tsk! Tsk! Tsk!  Although that sort of thing never happens in the real world, ’tis not the point here.  The point is: How could the two possibly reach an agreement about what to do?

Well, there are other methods besides rational persuasion.  The public relations and advertising industries have amply demonstrated that you can take all the rational reasoning — all of it – out of persuasion and still persuade.

But when you do, you are in serious risk of soon ending up in bonkersville — or, as we call it in America, the Presidency.  That is simply not the optimal foundation on which to base laws and public policies — for any of a dozen reasons.  The further you depart from reality based persuasion, and the more you indulge in merely emotional persuasion, the faster you create some of the conditions for rule by an oligarchy or dictator.

“Vote for Stanislov! Forget the fake news he wants to crush your skull under his fat butt!  Stanislov will put weed in every pot!”

Beyond that, if even merely emotional persuasion breaks down, then one is left with only heinous means of forcing people to agree upon what to do, or to comply with what is done.  Sooner or later, they’ll be tanks in the streets.  So I think it can be seen, there are advantages to rational persuasion.

Unfortunately, rational persuasion alone seldom if ever works.  Both nearly universal personal experience and the sciences confirm that.  However, most people blame the fact on the fundamental irrationality of human nature.  In truth, I think it would be a bit more accurate to notice that “pure rational persuasion” is missing something.  Namely, any motivators.

Depending on how you slice and dice them, you could write a book on motivators, but here we can boil them down to just two categories: Fears and desires. Not just “pleasure and pain” — some folks seek pain and avoid pleasure. Those categories won’t do here.  But fears and desires pretty much cover all the bases.

Motivators can be so effective, you scarcely need anything else.  “Your house is on fire!  Quick!  Chug these beers so you can pee on it!”  But we’ve already gone over a good reason why they ought to be combined with rational persuasion in a republic or representational democracy.

I do not suspect any of the above — except maybe a minor point or two — is unknown to anyone, but I’ve laid it all out here in the hope it might be useful to further discussion, and because I like to write.  As a bonus, if you wish to finesse your persuasive talents and abilities to rationally persuade people to hop in bed with you, then see my four volume work, The Epistemology of Carnal Knowledge I would recommend you study Ben Franklin’s techniques.

Franklin was a master at the art of rational persuasion, but he was a bit under-appreciated for it even in his day, because he was such an habitually self-effacing man, that he routinely gave credit for his own ideas to whomever he was persuading to adopt them.  That self-effacement was, of course, one of his techniques.

You can’t go wrong studying Franklin.

Rationalism and the Immanent Death of All Religions

When I was growing up, there were arguably few good fantasy novels.  Lord of the Rings was yet to become popular in my home town, but I didn’t feel I was missing anything because science fiction attracted me like no other genre.  Hardcore science fiction.

No unicorns, no dragons — and usually no gods.  Just stuff based on the science or scientific speculations of the day.  Issac Asimov and Author C.  Clark.  In fact, I believe it might have been in Clarke’s book, The Deep Range, where I for the first time came across the notion that rational science was replacing irrational religion in the hearts and minds of all the world’s peoples.

I simply assumed Clarke had a point.  After all, he surely knew more about it than me.  A few years later, I carried the idea with me to university, where I signed up for my first course in comparative religious studies at least half convince religion would be taught as part of the history department within twenty years or so.

I have since then been thoroughly disabused of that notion.  I was actually a bit surprised the other day when someone brought it up again.

Granted, there are plenty of reasons to believe that religion is on the decline in the industrialized world.  Numerous surveys seem to demonstrate that beyond doubt.  For instance,  a 2016 Norwegian study found that 39% of Norwegians “do not believe in God”,  while a 2015 Dutch Government survey found that 50.1% of the population were “non-religious”.   And even in the US, which remains the most religious industrialized nation, younger people are notably less religious than their elders.

Yet, to me these studies are very difficult to interpret for at least two reasons.  They don’t always seem to have clear enough categories, and they often seem to have too few categories.

I’m out of my league in any language but English, so I haven’t studied the non-English language studies, but  I’m suspicious of categories that get translated as “non-religious” or are based on questions that get translated as, “Do you believe in God?”

“Non-religious” can mean so many different things to different people.  I would describe myself as “non-religious” meaning not an adherent of any organized religion, but I’m also a bit of a mystic, and to some people, that’s quite religious.

Beyond that, there are usually not enough categories to these surveys to satisfy my insatiable appetite to categorize things.  Don’t believe in god?  Fine, but do you consider yourself,  an atheist, an agnostic, someone who believes in spirits, ghosts, etc, a Christian atheist (big in the Netherlands), a believer in a “transcendent reality”,  or do you perhaps feel “there just must be something out there”, etc.

But putting aside my uniformed suspicions about the studies I’ve seen, I think there are at least two compelling reasons to suppose religion will survive rational science so long as we’re Homo sapiens.  Both reasons are rooted in the origin and nature of religions.

Now, anytime you speak about the origin and nature of religions some folks are bound to bring up the traditional ideas about that.  Religions began as proto-sciences that tried to explain nature, such as thunder, in terms of supernatural beings.  Thunder becomes a thunder god, in that view.

Freud thought religions began as a desire for a father figure that turned into a god.  Feuerbach, following some ancient Greeks, thought religion began as an idealization of a great man, such as a notable leader, following his death.  Others have argued that religion was begun by people seeking a sense of purpose or meaning in life.  And so on.

I myself would not actually argue against any of those traditional notions.  For all I know, they and many other such notions at least played some role in getting religion off to a start.  But I do think there are two more influential candidates.

There is general agreement these days among cognitive scientists that religion involves the architecture of the brain.  That is, religion is based in our genes, and most likely evolved early in our history.  Beyond that, there is much debate and a handful of theories about exactly what our brain’s architecture has to do with religion.

For reasons of space,  I’ll stick to the one theory I favor.  According to its view, we evolved functional brain modules, such as modules allowing us to think of others as having beliefs, desires, and intentions (Theory of Mind), organize events into stories or narratives (Etiology), or that predispose us to respond to danger signs in ways that might save our lives if the danger is actually real (Agent Detection).  Depending upon who you consult, there are up to two dozen or so such modules.

One way these modules might come together is this:  You’re sitting around a campfire one night, partying over an antelope carcass, when you hear a rustle in the bushes and perhaps even an indistinct growl that you might only be imagining.  You startle, the hair on your neck rises, and chills run down your spine.  “Something is out there!”

That’s Agent Detection speaking.  The rustle could be from a breeze or a harmless small animal.  The growl might only be imagined.  But the key thing here is that you react with fright just as you would if it were known to be a lion.

A few minutes later, you and your buddies pick up your speaks to investigate.  Can’t very well get to sleep with a  possible lion that close in.  But you find nothing.

This is repeated a few times during the night.  Each time you find nothing, but then it happens the next night, and so on.  Sooner or later, your best story-teller cooks up a narrative (Etiology)  in which a malevolent spirit is “out there”,  prowling around your camp,  perhaps waiting for the moment to strike.  But your sense of Agent Detection predisposes you think there must be something there.  Being a spirit, you cannot see him, but you don’t need to — what else could explain something making noises that have no body behind them?

Last, as time goes on, you start ascribing more and more beliefs, desires, and intentions to the spirit (Theory of Mind), until one day you have perhaps a god.  Or maybe not, maybe you and your buddies are devout spiritualists without any recognizable deities.  Whatever the case, you’ve now got something “religious”, in at least some sense of the word.

If the above is true, then we now have one deep root of human religiosity.   A root so firmly grounded in our brain’s architecture that it must be genetically based.  A clear implication is that, having evolved it, we would need to evolve out of it to be entirely free of its influence on us.  Until or unless we do that, we will be born with a predisposition to some kind of religiosity.

But is there another root, as equally well grounded?  It seems curious to me that a second root of human religiosity seems so often ignored.  Even if one dismisses mystical experiences as “rare hallucinations”, that would not actually demonstrate they were of little or no influence on the world’s religions.  Indeed, they seem core to at least Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Taoism, and a significant theme in others, such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

Now, there seem to be about 12-16 different kinds of experiences that are commonly called, “mystical”,  so I should take special care here to clearly distinguish what I mean by the word.  I mean only one quite specific kind of experience, which I call “the mystical experience”,  for lack of being inspired to come up with any other name for it.

The problem here is that, while it is easy to come up with words to describe the  content of that experience, it is impossible to come up with words capable of communicating that content to anyone but people who have had the experience.

Buddhists sometimes describe nirvana as a “cessation of suffering”,  and Christian mystics describe their experiences as “experiences of God”,  but neither phrase is able to communicate what those things mean to anyone other than the people who use them.  The problem is the nature of words themselves.  Words are symbols that ultimately depend on shared experiences to communicate much of anything.  If you had a barn, and I had never seen anything like it,  you would be reduced to describing your barn in terms of what I had seen.  “It’s like your mud hut, Paul, only much, much bigger.”

However, I have had some luck describing mystical experiences as involving a dissolution of subject/object perception, replaced by a perception of all things being in some sense one.  The key is to grasp that subject/object perception is perceiving the world in such a way that you divide the things you perceive into self and non-self.

That is, I not only see the tree in my yard, but I see the tree as “not me”.   That’s the normal, everyday mode of waking consciousness.  But if and when that breaks down and you perceive — if only for a moment or two — the tree and you as unified by some sense of oneness, then you’re having a mystical experience.  The sine qua non of those experiences is that breakdown into oneness.

In addition to that, there is much other content typical of a mystical experience, but it’s much harder for most us to understand how mundane joy differs from mystical bliss, than it is for us to understand we have suddenly lost or abandoned our sense of things being either “me” or “not me”.

Hence, I am only concerned with that one kind of mystical experience, but that’s not to say there are no other kinds — most of them probably more interesting than the mystical experience.

As I said, Christian mystics tend to interpret their experiences as experiences of the Christian God, but so too do most people around the world, and through-out the ages (except they aren’t usually talking about the Christian god).  Not the Buddha, of course, nor Lao Tzu, but so many others use “god” or virtual synonyms for god.  So, although there are an appreciable number of atheists and agnostics who have had mystical experiences, it’s easy to see how the experience could create a sense of deity.

Mystical experiences seem to be as deeply rooted in our genes as the other kind of experiences.  The neural sciences have revealed that they are associated with at the very least changes in the activity levels of the parietal lobe and the thalamus.   There seems to be evidence that they might also have something to do with “brain chemicals” like dopamine.  So, I think despite our understand of them is still quite limited we do now know enough to safely say they are genetically rooted in us.

Of course, the implication is that “god won’t go away anytime soon”.   But I think that can be more clearly seen when we consider that the sciences have no means for disproving the notion god might be behind, or the ultimate cause of, such experiences.

Even if we knew everything about their natural causes, we would have no means of knowing anything about whether or not there were supernatural causes to them also.

Now, if all of the above is true enough, then I think its safe to say the imminent death of all religions is not exactly “around the next corner”.  We would most likely need to evolve so far as to become a new species — with a new kind of brain — for that to happen.  So, while people may shift from one form of religiosity to another, I think most of us will retain some kind of religiosity.

I hope the future brings us ever more benign forms of religiosity.

Late Night Thoughts: Intellectual Honesty, Social Engineering, Meditation, and Sex Lives (July 1, 2018)

A couple weeks ago, I looked out my door to see a doe trailed by two spotted fawns passing through my yard in broad daylight — quite an unusual time of day to spot deer moving about so near to the center of the city.

A day or so later, presumably the same doe and fawns — but I’m not sure about that, since I didn’t get their names the first time around.

Since then, just the usual three or four raccoons, and those at night — nearly every night.

♦♦♦

The truth isn’t neutral, is it?  I don’t mean “neutral” in the most important sense — in the sense of being objective.  But rather how we so often feel emotionally about it as being either for or against what we believe or are willing to accept.  As everyone from Plato to the present has known, emotional attachments or aversions can distort rational thinking.

On a perhaps more abstract level, we are subject to cognitive biases — Those are genetically inherited, systematic ways our brains function that cause us to deviate from rational thinking.  The most famous of them seems to “confirmation bias” — a tendency to  “search for, interpret, focus on, and remember information” in a way that confirms our existing notions and expectations.

So far as I can see, there are only two practical remedies.  First, a good education in critical thinking skills,  beginning early in life, and very much including the effects of cognitive biases on us, but also including logic and semantics.  Still, I don’t think that would be enough.

To me, the key is to recognize how much  easier it is for us to notice that someone else is gone off the rails in their reasoning, than it for us to notice we ourselves have.

And then build on that.  Teach the kids to seek out and find people through-out their lives who they can reliably trust to give them honest and accurate feed-back or reality-checks on their reasoning.

I suspect a likely side-effect of that kind of an education would be a general awareness of the importance of intellectually honesty.

Yet, I have little hope any such education will become generally available — at least not anytime soon.  We don’t have the best tradition in America of funding schools well, for one thing.

♦♦♦

July Fourth.  I do not know how far we have departed from the concept of “citizenship” that folks like Alexis deTocqueville noticed we embraced back in the early days of the Republic, but I suspect it’s a great deal further than most of us would be comfortable with — assuming we were to fully grasp what we have lost.

Volumes can and have been written about that, but I would like to focus on Edward Bernays and what he called, “The Engineering of Consent”.

As Bernays believed back in the 1920s, when he founded the public relations industry in America, that the social and psychological sciences had advanced to the point they could be used to engineer consent — or systematically get folks to “support ideas and programs”,  as he sometimes put it.

Not just through normal, more or less amateurish, means of persuasion, but through greatly more effective and reliable “scientific” means.

Now, despite his goals, Bernays was not the evil villain of Hollywood melodramas.  For one thing, he urged professionals in his newly created field to guard against any temptation that might involve them in such nefarious things as undermining the Constitution — especially, the “freedoms of press, speech, petition and assembly”.   Moreover,  his motives seem decent enough in some ways.

Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s nephew, a Jew, and quite aware of how mobs could quickly turn into pogroms against innocent people. Like many people, he thought democracies were especially susceptible to mob rule and violence.  So, it seems that one of his goals was to find ways to defuse those mobs before they even happened.

Yet, regardless of his motives, Bernays made what I regard as more or less a pact with the devil, for his strategy to make democracy safe for everyone has now had a hundred years to bear fruit — and what fruit!

In a nutshell, this was his strategy: Persuade people to seek self-fulfillment through consumerism so that they would be so satisfied with the acquisition of ever more and more material goods and services, they would not feel any need or desire to “take on” or change the status quo.  In short, they would be content with their lot.

Put differently, he sought to change the American culture and mindset from a people intimately concerned with politics as a means to at least create the best possible conditions under which people could seek self-fulfillment, to a people intimately concerned with consumption as the best possible means.

I think if deToqueville can be at all relied on for a glimpse of the political activism of the early Republic, then a comparison of that activism with today’s relatively insipid and dispirited activism is instructive.  We have, to some large extent, realized Bernays’ dream of turning us from a nation of citizens into a nation of consumers.

Should you be interested to learn some of the details, I recommend the award winning documentary, The Century of the Self.

♦♦♦

I read a startling statistic awhile back.  About 40% of married, middle-age women in America report no longer being interested in their sex lives, and that their husbands no longer satisfy them.

Perhaps it’s selfish of me to have immediately thought of myself, but it’s just a fact that I do take pride in how satisfied my two ex-wives were during our marriages.  A whole lot was wrong in both marriages, but not so much the sex.

I often heard them say the sex was “extraordinary”, “mind-blowing”, or even once or twice, “Had never been better”.   At least, those are the sorts of things they would tell me on the nights they came home very late.

♦♦♦

There are so many hard things in life, and I think most of us are all too aware of at least the big ones.  Raising kids, saving up enough money for the rainy days that come too soon and too often, being laid off,  looking for work, struggling for a promotion, and so forth.  The list just goes on.

One of those things, though, is especially curious to me.  As fully as possible appreciating people we are profoundly familiar with.  Most of  the time, I think I do.

But sometimes I meet a new person, and after I’ve gotten to know them a bit, I have the strangest moment of discovery when I realize that I quite likely appreciate them more than most anyone greatly familiar to me.

What to do about that?

New Years resolutions and other self-admonishments just don’t work for me here.   They’re ok up to a point, maybe.  So long as I keep reminding myself of them, I seem to make some progress, but then within a few short weeks, I fall off the bandwagon.

Trying to make a habit of appreciating someone also doesn’t work.  When I get into a genuine habit of “appreciating” someone, it soon becomes artificial.  “It’s Tuesday — time again to tell my brother how much he means to me.”

About the best thing I’ve found has been meditation.  Meditation seems to sharpen my senses a bit, making me more aware for at least a little while of what’s going on inside (e.g. hunger) and outside of me (e.g. the raccoon crossing my yard, a shadow in the night).   In an analogous manner it seems to sharpen my awareness or appreciation of people on the days I mediate.

Moreover, if I meditate frequently enough, then appreciation seems to become, if not permanent, at least somewhat more lasting than the other methods I’ve tried.

Last, it can have the peculiar effect of my seeing someone, not just in terms of what he or she means to me, but somewhat more objectively.  Perhaps.

♦♦♦

Colorado Springs is a conservative town.  It also has quite a few “city deer”, and they are so numerous now that they are viewed by many of us as a problem.

A while back, there was a serious proposal put before the City Council to solve the deer problem by legalizing hunting the animals within city limits.  With rifles and shotguns.

Not all my conservative friends are just as bonkers as I am, but it’s sometimes reassuring that at least some of them are.  So long as they don’t make the rules.

Is There Anything Universal to All Hinduism?

(About a 2 minute read)

Years ago, there was a very thick book that — at the time — was thought to be the best general overview of Hinduism available. It was a bit too scholarly to be called a “popular” book, or even an “introduction” to Hinduism, but it was rated a great overview.

A GREAT BIG THICK overview that, as it happened, was required reading along with A HALF DOZEN OTHER TEXTS for the same university course!

Naturally my obscenely demanding professor of Hinduism demanded that we read that accused book, and in doing so utterly destroyed whatever chances I had up until then of joyously coasting through life without struggle or effort. Not that I’m whining. I haven’t even properly begun to whine about HIM! The very same sorry-butt also…yadda yadda yadda…and I have come to suspect that he was Teresum’s true father…yadda yadda yadda…conceived in a act so unholy the elder gods awoke from their graves to condemn it…

The author of that book began with an anecdote. A young member of the British Parliament was scheduled to debate the greatest orator of the age on the topic of coal mining. In panic, he asked his friend to help him study the topic, about which he knew nothing.

His friend said, “Don’t worry. You absolutely do not need to know a thing! Just remember this: Whenever he says something, rise from your seat and shout, ‘But NOT in the South of England!’ You see, he knows so much about coal mining that he knows there are exceptions to everything he says is true, and he will be forced by his honor to concede your points.”

The young man did exactly what he was advised to do, and by all accounts, won the debate.

More to the point, the author of the vast work on Hinduism used that anecdote to illustrate just how hard it is to say much of anything about Hinduism that all Hindus would agree with.

So, is there anything universal to all Hinduism? If so, what is it?

An Unholy Guide to Pascal’s Wager

(About a 6 minute read)

The alarming thought crossed my mind this morning that you, dear reader, woke up today lusting to hear all about Pascal’s Wager. No sooner had I thought that than I also thought, “By Golly! I should do something about that!” Hence, I have generously created this thread to satiate your strange and unholy desires. .

As you know, Pascal’s Wager is famous — whole libraries have been written about it. Compared to those libraries, this is a pretty brief post.  So I’ve added some links at the end to sources that will take the determined and/or passionate enthusiast further.

Blaise Pascal was a French philosopher, scientist, mathematician and probability theorist who lived from 1623 to 1662. Pascal had several friends who enjoyed gambling, and some scholars have argued that his invention of the famous Wager was in part inspired by his desire to appeal to his friends. The Wager actually comes in three separate and distinct formulations so it is in fact not one wager, but three.

Having said all that, let’s get to the meat of the matter!

Pascal begins by observing that, since God is infinite, we humans are incapable of knowing whether or not He exists…

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.

Pascal then goes on to first insist that it is thus necessary for us to wager whether or not God exists, and then he offers three distinct formulations of his wager…

First Formulation of Pascal’s Wager:

The Third and final formulation of his wager is the most important for this is the formulation that is most often referred to as “Pascal’s Wager”…

Just for kicks, we now turn to Kaufmann’s critique of Pascal’s Wager…

Last, here are some sources for more information about the famous Wager — including two relatively in-depth encyclopedia articles that much more fully explain the wager, and mention several more or less standard critiques Kaufmann doesn’t mention.

Pensées (See section III, subsection #233 for the wagers).

Pascal’s Wager about God (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Pascal’s Wager (Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Comments? Observations? Objections? Muddled Rants? Primeval Screams?