Tuesday, July 8, 2008

"I think, therefore I am," but what about God?

René Descartes

It took me all day to realize that the Marquis de Sade's argument against God, which he puts into the mouth of his character, Dolmancé, the chief debaucher of La Philisophie dans le boudoir, may very well be a response to René Descartes' argument for God set forth in his Meditations on First Philosophy. In this work, Descartes proceeds by means of his method of doubt. His method consists of doubting, or disbelieving, everything and starting from scratch with what has to be true of necessity.

The conclusion he arrived at, of course, is the famous cogito ergo sum (i.e., I think therefore I am). He proceeds from this deduction to a far less convincing conclusion, which does not necessarily follow from his premises, that God exists because this thinking creature requires something to whom he can attribute both his origin and his continuity. De Sade delivers a death blow to this Cartesian argument, namely that, if Descartes is correct, God "is just the dead end of human reason, an illusion made at that point when that reason can go no further". So, our arguments matter. Besides, it was Descartes who introduced the hard and fast subject/object distinction with which we still grapple.

Similarly, most people find Pascal's wager insufficient for belief. This wager is set forth in thought 233 of Pascal's Pensées (i.e., Thoughts).

"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; where-ever 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."
As the note on the door of a former professor read: "Gambling is immoral. Say 'No' to Pascal's wager"


  1. Of course, the wager is not an intellectual argument for God. If it were it would only prove the God of the philosophers and not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

    No, the wager is a response to a culture enamored with risk in certain forms, distracting itself to death with gambling and other games and entertainment. So, to the casino denizens, Pascal says psst I've got a better risk for you. Life itself is a drama which doesn't need the roulette wheel.

    What amazes me is how quickly this concrete image snatched from life was turned into another abstraction in religious history.

    PS. how are classes going? How much time you have left?

  2. Thanks for the context. Given that I agree with you. However, the wager is often employed apologetically, as an intellectual argument, which is an abuse. That it does not reveal the God who is love because God is Father, Son, and Spirit, it leaves people cold.

    Classes are going well, thanks for asking. I have a boatload of work to do. I am working on a paper on the definition of infallibility, I have book review to complete, etc. I hope to graduate next fall.

  3. you're totally right about the abuse of the wager: Pascal would be horrified to find himself remade in the mold of Descares (I will never forgive Descartes). Maybe you'll blog a bit on infallibility at some point...

  4. I am poised to do just that. However, I think Catholics would be surprised to learn how the dogma came about and how ill-advised it was and deleterious it remains for the church.


Heeding the most important call of all

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