Friday, 12 January 2018

Pascal's Wager and the Way of Epistemic Humility

The problem with Pascal’s wager is that it is a wager, and so the stakes are fixed in advance. Betting is about winning some value you are already aware of, not learning that there is something new out there to be valued. If you set out to acquire beliefs without learning, you are cheating: gaining epistemic ground without doing epistemic work. By contrast, in the cases of aspirational faith, coming to believe that, e.g., we will still be friends on Monday, is part and parcel of a bigger project of learning to become a different kind of person. The project is intellectual, involving a change in beliefs, but it is not only intellectual — and its intellectual character is inseparable from its affective and motivational character.

Pascal may have been making a related point to the effect that the mind does not have a monopoly on wisdom when he famously declared that “the heart has its reasons which reason does not know”. But that sentiment, however beautifully expressed, leaves the crucial questions unanswered. Because suppose that Pascal is right, and someone’s heart has reasons that her reasons does not know. Do things have to stay that way? Couldn’t her reason learn those reasons? And wouldn’t that, in turn, be her heart’s opportunity to grow?
(Agnes Callard writing in The Stone N.Y.T.)

Such is her summing up in a nicely thoughtful and pleasant essay. Pascal’s Wager contains an irony that is missed by the non-believer namely the notion that a prudential option is possible in the matter of faith.

In the Year of Grace 1654,
Monday, the 23rd of November
Feast of St. Clement, Pope and Martyr,
and others in the Martyrology.
Vigil of St. Chrysogonus, Martyr, and others.
From about half past ten in the evening
until about half past twelve,
God of Abraham,
God of Isaac,
God of Jacob
Not of the philosophers and scholars.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
God of Jesus-Christ,
Deum meum et Deum vestrum.
(“My God and Your God,” John 20:17)
” Your God will be my God ”
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything,
except God.
He is to be found only by the ways
taught in the Gospel.
Greatness of the human soul.
“Righteous Father, the world has not known Thee,
but I have known Thee.
Joy, Joy, Joy, tears of Joy,
I have separated myself from Him
Dereliquerunt me fontem aquae vivae
(They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters,” Jer. 2:13)
” My God, wilt Thou leave me? ”
Let me not be separated from him eternally .
This is the eternal life,
that they might know Thee,
the only true God,
and the one whom Thou has sent, Jesus Christ ”
I have separated myself from Him:
I have fled from Him, denied Him, crucified Him.
Let me never be separated from Him.
We keep hold of Him only by the ways
taught in the Gospel.
Renunciation. total and sweet
Submission. total and sweet
Total submission to Jesus-Christ
and to my director
Eternally in joy
for a day’s training on earth.
Non obliviscar sermones tuos.
(“I will not forget Thy words,” Psalm 118:16)
(written on parchment found sown inside his coat after his death)

Following on from “the heart has its reasons....

277 The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know…
278 It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by reason.
279 Faith is a gift of God; do not believe that we said it was a gift of reasoning…

Does this sound like a man with a prudential option plan or a man who would mock the notion of a safe bet? There are no epistemic grounds for that leap. What you must do is say to yourself ‘I don’t know and there is no way that I can know by my own power’. A partial emptying of your need for regimental rationalism is to associate with believers.

Can I call this the way of epistemic humility?

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