Monday, April 24, 2006

Michael Miner, John Kass, “The Great Perhaps” and Blaise Pascal

In his usually well-written column in the free giveaway paper that’s tailored to the screwed-up kid market, The Reader, media critic Michael Miner has a murkily philosophical go at the Trib’s John Kass, entitled “The Gospel According to Kass: There’s No Doubt About it.” The Reader is a uniform and unitary publication, incidentally which has a strict code of not allowing a conservative opinion to penetrate its folds (with one exception: a cover story I wrote more than twenty years ago which somehow got by its editor and for which the paper has been steadfastly doing penance). One with no doubts on religious verities clearly irks Miner, who’s sort of a throwback to the old nihilistic, semi-hippie news reporter days of the `60s. Indeed, the publication is a relativists’s dream; some of its ads are scatological: it has no absolutes except that there are no absolutes—and the contradiction this presents fits the muddle it presents for its young, post-college, bar-hopping, dating-game readers.

I know it’s heresy to say it, but Kass has been a far more serious writer than the late Mike Royko who gave us belly laughs and sarcasm but not much more. Kass has blistered The Da Vinci Code. Miner says he has doubts about everything. The issue isn’t that Kass has figured everything out in the Great Beyond but that he has faith. Miner evidently is tortured because like Kass he hasn’t figured everything out but has no faith. The great theologian Tertullian, who wrote at the end of the second century.said on his deathbed: “I go to the Great Perhaps.” Unless you have had a mystical personal conversation with God, no one can know with certainty what comes next. That is why faith is a great treasure. “The Great Perhaps” is a brilliant way to say it.

What Miner should do is read Blaise Pascal. This great philosopher-scientist-mathematician who lived at the time of Rene Descartes, another mathematician, concocted a brilliant theorem known as “Pascal’s law.” The author of the Pensees, born in 1623, he produced at 16 a pivotal scientific paper on conic sections, pertaining to the intersection of a right circular cone and plane, which generates one of a group of plane curves, including the circle, ellipse, hyperbola and parabola. He was easily greater than Descartes. By 19 he had developed a calculator that gives him the right to lay claim to being the father of the computer (unlike Al Gore). He concentrated on the law of probability and advanced differential calculus. In physics, he invented Pascal’s Law stating that pressure applied to a confined fluid is transmitted undiminished throughout the fluid (now applied to hydraulic machines). He also helped invent the barometer. But there is another Pascal’s Law, pertaining to God, that would help Michael Miner.

In contrast to Descartes who wrote “I think therefore I exist” and therefore postulates that if he possesses the idea of God as an all-perfect being, the idea cannot have been produced by me; for the fact I doubt proves I am an imperfect being and an imperfect being cannot cause what is most perfect,” Pascal wrote, “If one can do nothing except for what is certain, one ought to do nothing for religion. For it is not certain.” Thus I am a Pascal man. However before you conclude I am well-named after Thomas the Doubter, consider a bit more about Pascal. He continues, we are constantly running risks for the uncertain: in war, in commerce, in journeys. Moreover, nothing in human life is certain. It is not certain we shall see tomorrow; but nobody thinks it’s irrational to act on the probability of his being alive the next day. “And,” he says, “there is more certitude in religion than there is our living til tomorrow.”

What, then, does Pascal, the ironist, the speculative mathematician propose? It is a brilliant reposte to professional doubters like Michael Miner. Don’t let doubt destroy you but construct a mathematical theorem. Thus he invented what is known as “Pascal’s Wager.” Pascal’s wager is this: Suppose we tend not to believe in God and when we die we find we have been wrong—He exists. The choice was obviously a tragically wrong one so the risk we took was fatal. On the other hand, suppose we believe in God and find out when we die He doesn’t exist? What have we lost? Nothing but we have been prudent in judging risk. Suppose we believe in God and when we die we find out He does exist? The worst risk from the standpoint of probability is to deny the existence of God flatly with runs the risk of being disappointed if He does exist.

That was an unpopular thing to say at the time because it was opposed to purely rational philosophy—from the standpoint of Thomism and the purely rational ala Decartes. Pascal’s view, “the heart has reasons of which reason itself knows nothing, ” should be popular today and probably would be if Western civilization were taught in universities today. . Reason, he said, cannot solve the mystery of man’s state; faith alone can answer questions which reason can merely ask. I agree with Pascal but give him for credit than he himself did: he used reason to ignite faith. It has comforted me for decades.

For Pascal the scientist, the mathematician, the physicist, the believer, doubt is perfectly understandable. But the prudent man applies faith, looking at the risks. I don’t know whether John Kass, a friend whom I deeply admire, applies Pascal’s logic to his belief but I do. And I advise Michael Miner to do the same. It is a big jump but beneficial and settles doubts.

That’s why, despite the fact that I go to church, pray, fear that God will be more just than to me, I may very well go to my death saying, with Tertullian, “I go to the Great Perhaps” but it is counterbalanced with Pascal. And so it can be for Michael Miner. And all of us. Do not make a fetish of doubting. Make a fetish of faith and applying Pascal’s Wager.

Heavy stuff but worth it. Are you a Pascal, Descartes or Nihilist? Your comments?


  1. John Thomas Mc GeeanApril 24, 2006 at 4:58 AM

    I am a BELIEVER: In the words of the old Holy Name Pledge " Believe all the Sacred Truths which the Holy Catholic Church believes and teaches."

    I am not a fan of relativism. It is destroying our civilization. I have been more than a little edified by your columns in this blog. I also read the Tribune to read the Column on page two written by John Kass.

  2. Thanks for putting Pascal's Wager up. It will make a perfect Sunday morning "Message of the Day."

  3. "Suppose we tend not to believe in God and when we die we find we have been wrong-He exists. The choice was obviously a tragically wrong one so the risk we took was fatal. On the other hand, suppose we believe in God and find out when we die He doesn’t exist? What have we lost? Nothing but we have been prudent in judging risk."

    The prudent may be calculating. The faithful may be prudent. Fetish or not, the doubting or risk analysis described above reads like an extension of the associative property of arithmetic – the faithful are calculating.

    I'm not questioning the validity of the revelation, but it reminds me of this from William Blake's "Everlasting Gospel"

    "The vision of Christ that thou dost see
    Is my Vision's Greatest Enemy:
    Thine has a great hook nose like thine,
    Mine has a snub nose like to mine…."

  4. I think doubting hipsters are afraid of appearing naive. To them, God is the same as a fairy tale, and it's a fate worse than death for a hipster to be naive.

    Doubt is the mark on an intellect, but faith is the mark of a man who can overcome his doubt.

    Humble is the man who can subvert his intellect to acknowledge One who is greater than himself.