Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: truth

Words are Like Maps

Words are like maps. Their meaning shifts as our we find our own position upon the map, as we identify the journey we’ve travelled and our plans for future travels. We may use the same map, but in radically different ways and with radically different meanings.

Weil’s or Pascal’s Wager

Here is Pascal’s famous wager, which proposes the absolute rationality of believing in God: 

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….

“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.

Blaise Pascal, Thoughts

Pascal appeals to our reason, by asking us to recognise that reason itself has come to its limits. Instead we must make that great existential choice – we must commit ourselves. But to choose not to believe is to risk everything – an infinity of happinesses.

There is a power to this argument, but it is also fraught with problems. In particular, as Simone Weil recognised, its very logic is inconsistent with true faith.

Here is an alternative wager, put forward by Weil:

If we put obedience to God above everything else, unreservedly, with the following thought: ‘Suppose God is real, then our gain is total – even though we fall into nothingness at the point of death; suppose the word ‘God’ stands only for illusions, then we have still lost nothing because on this assumption there is absolutely nothing good, and consequently nothing to lose; we have even gained, through being in accord with truth, because we have left aside the illusory goods which exists but are not good, for the sake of something which (on this assumption) does not exist but which, if it did exist, would be the only good… 

If one follows this rule of life, then no revelation at the the moment of death can cause any regrets; because if chance or the devil governs all worlds we would still have no regrets for having lived this way. 

This is greatly preferable to Pascal’s wager.

Simone Weil, Gateway to God, p. 44 

The attraction of Weil’s wager is that she refuses to separate truth and goodness. If God exists then we have truth – even without Paradise or any eternal happiness – even if we crumble away into nothing. We had faith in truth, even if that truth turns out to be inconsistent with our eternal happiness.

And, if God does not exist, we also lose nothing, because we have not deluded ourselves with meaningless goods. She will not allow Pascal’s easy separation of a good that may be false.

Weil’s is the harder road, but it is the better road. Faith in God cannot be a gamble on a free ride to Heaven. And belief cannot mean just the mouthing of words or the holding of ideas. Belief is our commitment – belief is an action of the will – the very essence of our being.

The Emptiness Within

The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain… a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite. The beatific vision – God. I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found – but the love of it is my life… It is the actual spring of life within me.

Bertrand Russell from Selected Letters

Bertrand Russell was a celebrated atheist and one of the most important philosophers of the analytical school of philosophy that dominated the teaching of philosophy in Britain and America during the twentieth century.

This analytical approach hinges on a particular strategy for doing philosophy – identifying those truths that have certainty – and building out from there.

Hannah Arendt reflected on the problem with this strategy:

…truth is a rather difficult deity to worship because the only thing she does not allow her worshippers is certainty. Philosophy concerned with truth ever was and probably always will be kind of docta ignoratia – highly learned and therefore highly ignorant. The certainties of Thomas Aquinas afford excellent spiritual guidance and are still much superior to almost anything in the way of certainties which has been invented in more recent times. But certainty is not truth, and a system of certainties is the end of philosophy.

And Goethe made the same point rather more tartly:

To be uncertain is uncomfortable, but to be certain is ridiculous.

This then leads us to the rather peculiar paradox – we may not be able to have certainty and truth.

To the religious this paradox is resolved through faith and an acknowledgement of the mystery of certain fundamental truths – but to the non-religious this seems like a cop-out. I see no intellectual trick which we use to harmonise these conflicting approaches to life. But I think that Russell’s honesty helps us understand something of the price paid by those who will only have truth with certainty, and so often find themselves without anything.

Telling Truth and Fighting Slander

…for slander is a most grievous thing: in it the wrongdoers are two, and the person who suffers wrong is one. The slanderer does a wrong in that he speaks against one who is not present, the other in that he is persuaded of the thing before he gets certain knowledge of it, and he who is not present when the words are spoken suffers wrong in the matter thus – both because he has been slandered by the one and because he has been believed to be bad by the other. 

Herodotus

One of the earliest childhood rhymes we learn is:

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. 

But as we know this only part of the truth. Sometimes sticks and stones may hurt much less than the words that we use to hurt others.

Kant observed that lying, telling untruths was wrong not just because we hurt another person, but also because it is an attack on the possibility of truth for all of us. Each lie blinds us, both the lier himself, the person he lies to and everyone then drawn into an understanding that has been viciously twisted.

Slander is even worse because it mixes lying with malice and, as we know, there is no guarantee that a lie will be discovered.

The lies of the powerful write our history and drive the greatest crimes. Joseph Goebbel’s assertion that you simply need to repeat the lie enough for it to be believed is all too credible.

How do we react to the power of the lie and the evil of slander?

It is difficult to judge. St James wisely observes:

But the human tongue can be tamed by no man. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

We know he’s right and the temptation to gossip, blame and deceive ourselves as much as others can be overwhelming. We must begin by learning self-discipline in this regard.

But is there not also a danger that waiting simply for justice to arise, staying quiet, is also rooted less in a sense of justice and more in a lack of courage?

I was in Adelaide for the last two weeks and outside my bedroom window was a great piece of graffiti:

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will always save me

Words too must be used in the cause of justice, truth and love. Finding the right words is difficult, finding the right time to speak even more so.

As I look back at my own life so far I think I have learned one thing: speak truth to power. It is often those who are most powerful who need to hear the truth, and often those around them will do everything to disguise the truth from them. Five truthful words to a politician may be more effective than five thousand words to a civil servant. And the five thousand words to civil servants may suck the life out of you.

When you find (as I have done) that you are repeatedly banging your head against a wall – just stop –  then find another way.

Christ instructed us:

Be as innocent as doves, but as wise as serpents

Sometimes the silence of listening, waiting and understanding must be matched by an ability to say the right thing, at the right time to the right person.

Action is the Pointer of the Balance

Action is the pointer of the balance. We must not touch the pointer but the weight.
Exactly the same rule applies to opinions.
If we fail to observe it there is either confusion or suffering.

Simone Weil from Gravity and Grace

This thought may seem hard to grasp, but I think its really important.

Weil understands that our actions or our opinions are the fruit of our will and our understanding.

If people do things that we think are wrong, or express views that we think are mistaken, then we can try to change those things directly:

  • We can ignore them, move our attention elsewhere, or
  • We can disadvantage them, make things more difficult for them, or
  • We can punish people, inflict pain upon them, or
  • We can create laws which threaten punishment

To put the matter like this is not to imply that any of these options is inherently wrong – systems of law and codes of behaviour are necessary frameworks for human beings. But all of these measures are acting on the action – they don’t touch the heart of the matter.

The same is even more obviously true with opinion. You can make it wrong, immoral or politically incorrect for me to say what I think; but you have not changed what I think. Moreover you risk twisting my unsayable thought into something worse. My unpalatable opinion may then become the means by which I confuse myself or the means by which I could lose faith in you.

My opinions, at least my honestly expressed opinions, are the fruit of my understanding. This is not just a matter of knowledge. My understanding is the picture I have the world in all its fullness. It is changed by logic, by knowledge and by the human will itself – that is by our heart’s awareness of things.

If we want to change someone else’s opinion then we must change their understanding; and if we are to do this then we must engage honestly in debate. We cannot expect to take the field by storm. We may find in fact that we must change – that we have something to learn – that our heart too has been misplaced.

Genuine change is inner change – and nobody should be in a position to dictate that change.

It is for this reason that I have always found the notion of ‘values training’, in all its forms, somewhat suspect. It is all too easy for it to slip into a kind of subtle bullying or an attempt to teach people a different language, a new kind of cynicism.

I remember spending several says running values training for leaders within Lennox Castle Hospital, a dreadful institution north of Glasgow. We offered people all sorts of ways of rethinking what they were doing; we tried to show them the way in which prejudice was generated, the injustice of institutionalisation and the many opportunities for positive community lives for people with intellectual disabilities in the community.

On the face of it the training was a success.

But some months later I returned to ‘The Castle’ to begin the process of helping people escape back to the community by means of the organisation I’d set up called Inclusion Glasgow. And so I met again many of the ward managers and staff that I’d met at the values training events.

Nothing in practice was different, except that now the staff were inoculated against the change. They knew the language and they had worked out how to rationalise what they were doing now inside the institution in a ‘new language’. Too often this is what happens when we only operate at the level of language and apparent values.

Partly this problem was made greater because the values training was completely disconnected with any real opportunities to live those values – to work differently and to see the fruit of that work. This is part of what makes for genuine and inner change.

As the great Dr Bill Schwab said: the treatment for attitude is experience

We must avoid trying to change attitudes by only attending to the surface of things. The weight is in the heart and the proper means to touch the heart is only with truth and love.

Two Kinds of Collaboration

…a man has no significance in a totalitarian state. The only thing that matters is the inexorable movement of the state mechanism. A mechanism needs only cogs. Stalin used to call all of us cogs. One cog does not differ from another, and cogs can easily replace one another. You can pick one out and say ‘From this day you will be a genius cog’, and everyone else will consider it a genius. It does not matter at all whether it is or not. Anyone can become a genius on the orders of the leader.

Dimitri Shostakovich from Testimony (conversations with Solomon Volkov)

This statement is taken from a book which is still treated with suspicion by some – they think either that Volkov fabricated these exchanges or that Shostakovich himself was guilty of re-inventing his own past.

It has been interesting to read Ian MacDonald’s The New Shostakovich, a book which explores the process by which the composer, like so many others, was made to collaborate with a communist regime that he loathed. MacDonald argues, persuasively, that the horror, tragedy and vicious pettiness of communism is reflected in many aspects of his music – if you have the ears to listen.

This book also reminds us how many of us in the West were willing to suspend disbelief in the crimes of communism. The dream of a utopian, state-controlled future was enough to lead many intellectuals to simply disregard the uncomfortable truths that kept emerging Soviet Russia.

Shostakovich’s own collaboration can be understood. He had to try and protect himself, his family, his friends, and his music. He was threatened with death and he saw many of those he loved and respected led away to death. But how can we excuse the collaboration of Sartre, George Bernard Shaw and so many other Western intellectuals, who simply didn’t want to admit that they were wrong? Their own collaboration helped to perpetuate the largest system of mass murder in human history and their only excuse was that it might have been a little embarrassing to admit that they were wrong.

Every Statement

Every statement is an exaggeration, including this one.

What does ‘God’ mean?

The rav asked a disciple who had entered his room: “Moshe, what do we mean when we say ‘God’?” The disciple was silent. The rav asked him a second and third time. Then he said: “Why are you silent?”

“Because I do not know.”

“Do you think I know?” said the rav. “But I must say it, for it is so, and therefore I must say it: He is definately there, and except for him nothing is definitely there – and this is He.”

Martin Buber from The Tales of the Hasidim

Wittgenstein – following Kant – provoked a great deal of philosophical musings on the nature of theological language. He seemed to suggest, not that it was false, but that somehow its meaning could not be treated as equivalent to everyday talk of tables, teachers or tragedies.

It can be seen that Hasidic thinkers had already covered the same ground. However they were more aware that truth itself is one of those categories that is hard to pin down. I may be confidently using a term like ‘table’ and you may assuredly understand me. But we can be less sure about the real and ultimate truth of our assertions. Often the price certainty of certainty is a kind of emptiness.

The Rabbi understood the truth of God’s existence without being confident he understood the meaning of the term God – this is as it should be when our language tries to grasp that which is by its nature greater than us. The price of meaningfulness is certainty.

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