Thursday, May 3, 2007

Pascal on Dogmatism & Skepticism

Been reading Pascal lately. In the Pensées, one of the most interesting parts is in chapter VII, "Contradictions" (see section 434 after the link). There he divides humankind into two essential categories: the skeptics and the dogmatists. In my judgment, he represents both sides fairly -- of the skeptics, he says,
The strongest of the sceptics' arguments, to say nothing of minor points, is that we cannot be sure that these principles are true (faith and revelation apart) except through some natural intuition. There is no certainty, apart from faith, as to whether man was created by a good God, an evil demon, or just by chance, and so it is a matter of doubt, depending on our origin, whether these innate principles are true, false or uncertain.

Pascal goes on defending the skeptics, and then offers one interesting sentence in defense of the dogmatists:
I pause at the dogmatists' only strong point, which is that we cannot doubt natural principles if we speak sincerely and in all good faith.

But Pascal doesn't hesitate just because the argument is apparently insurmountable--and seems to speak in all good faith! In reply to the dogmatists' point, he argues from the skeptics' position: "uncertainty as to our origin entails uncertainty as to our nature. The dogmatists have been trying to answer that ever since the world began." Pascal means that, in the skeptical view, we cannot even be sure whether we are sleeping or waking, or: we can doubt natural principles because we doubt what is natural.

That's awesome, but I find that very few skeptics are willing to tread in those waters for more than a few moments. If you take it for granted, for example, that "this" is real and that you're neither dreaming nor in Purgatory nor playing a part in the latest episode of LOST, then you fall into the dogmatist camp. Which means: the easy association between skepticism and modern atheism is unfortunately exaggerated -- in fact, most atheists would fit neatly into Pascal's dogmatist camp, never doubting the very foundation of epistemology (i.e., what is natural, whether they are waking or sleeping, etc.).

So this is Pascal's vision:
This means open war between men, in which everyone is obliged to take sides, either with the dogmatists or with the sceptics, because anyone who imagines he can stay neutral is a sceptic par excellence. This neutrality is the essence of their clique. Anyone who is not against them is their staunch supporter, and that is where their advantage appears. They are not even for themselves; they are neutral, indifferent, suspending judgment on everything, including themselves.

Unfortunately, I don't think Pascal spoke carefully enough here -- plenty of people imagine that they can stay neutral, but few live into that neutrality. The sentence in bold font there should've read: "anyone who can stay netural is a sceptic par excellence." Evidently, in Pascal's day, there were quite a few genuine epistemological demons running around doubting whether A = A. My, how the times have changed! These days, at least in my circles, the spirit of "neutrality" has vanished from the world -- everyone is a dogmatist, and the true skeptic goes totally unrepresented. The true skeptics seem to be so small a segment of the population that "open war" has disappeared or gone deep underground (i.e., to the fringes of the internet). I love how Pascal moves through the end of this point, though you'd have to read the whole chapter to get a flavor for his style. One more little excerpt, that you're free to skip if you think you're a skeptic:
Who will unravel such a tangle? This is certainly beyond dogmatism and scepticism, beyond all human philosophy. Man transcends man. Let us then concede to the sceptics what they have so often proclaimed, that truth lies beyond our scope and is an unattainable quarry, that it is no earthly denizen, but at home in heaven, lying in the lap of God, to be known only in so far as it pleases him to reveal it. Let us learn our true nature from the uncreated and incarnate truth... Nature confounds the sceptics and Platonists, and reason confounds the dogmatists. What then will become of you, man, seeking to discover your true condition through natural reason?

So we are all confounded either by Nature or reason -- and frankly, I would rather be confounded by Nature, like the skeptics.

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