Reflections on Aphorisms #55

Another shorter Sunday reflection, this time on Pascal.

Little bit of trivia: the programming language Pascal (named after, well, Pascal) was the first that I had any experience with. Not sure if that matters to anyone, and I probably couldn’t write a line of Pascal if my life depended on it now, but it’s kinda funny. I heard someone talk about it like it was one of those old “back in the day” languages not too long ago.

Aphorism 89

Desire and force between them are responsible for all actions; desire causes our voluntary acts, force our involuntary.

Pascal

My biggest gripe here is–and I’m willing to bet that it comes down to this being out of context and maybe not translated well–that Pascal doesn’t explain the difference between desire and force.

For instance, I have a desire and a need to eat. I always eat as a voluntary act, but all the same it is not optional. If I don’t feel like eating, and I have gone days without food (say, for instance, if I am ill), I will eat food out of respect for my needs.

I guess the better distinction here is voluntary and involuntary.

I’ve studied a lot of Carl Jung’s work, and one of the things that goes into Jung’s work is this assumption that the self is made up of a conscious, known, element and an unconscious, unknown, element. This is a simplification, but it’s good enough for a layman like myself when discussing less serious topics.

One of the things about the notion of a voluntary act is that it’s something that we choose, but the degree to which we choose something versus being forced into it is uncertain.

I would posit that there are things which appear voluntary which are actually forced (e.g. by our unconscious urges and desires), and things which appear involuntary which are actually chosen by the same mechanism.

Take, for example, the notion of a Freudian slip (Freud was Jung’s mentor). This is the idea that one can consciously undertake an act, but the execution is dependent upon the unconscious agreeing to the proceedings.

A great common example would be the act of speaking or writing while one’s mind is on another subject and talking about the real subject rather than the topic of the conversation. I do this from time to time as a writer, and if you’ve read much of my writing you’ve probably seen it in a place or two.

Jung takes it a bit further (though one could argue that most psychoanalysts do) by arguing that it’s not just the surface level stuff but also ties into selective memory, mishearing/misreading things, and so forth.

Kazuo Ishiguro touches on this a lot in his novel The Remains of the Day, where it’s clear that the narrator is intentionally avoiding the memory of certain things that he or members of his household have done in the past.

The Freudian slip in daily life may be overstated because a lot of what often slips out is not truly unconscious but rather suppressed in the conscious (e.g. not wanting to reference something embarrassing or inconvenient), but it’s worth talking about nonetheless.

But I ramble.

I think that what I want to get at here is that I challenge Pascal’s assertions that we can form a neat dichotomy around force and desire. I believe in the concept of free will, but also that it is limited. I believe that people have free will in the sense that they choose available decisions around the circumstances they’re in. It’s possible for people to be in situations where their decisions are made for them by the unconscious, and therefore not technically using their free will, and to this extent a certain portion of all actions are deterministic.

Resolution

Be aware of what I do, and how I came to do it.

Don’t fall victim to the temptation to classify.

Remember that words are markers for concepts, and concepts do not reflect reality.

Reflections on Aphorisms #49

Good day today. Not perfect by any means, but I was a lot more productive than usual and didn’t feel like I was stressing myself out to do it.

That’s a good place to be in.

Now I just need to get around to doing some final formatting and posting some of the writing I’ve been doing.

Aphorism 79

What organized dating sites fail to understand is that people are far more interesting in what they don’t say about themselves.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Interpretation

One of the things that Carl Jung talks about is the notion of the shadow and the idea that there’s a large part of us that we just don’t see.

An experience I recently had was a reflection upon my life in which I realized that a lot of what I’ve done in the past has been lost to me, to the point that I just don’t remember it.

The deepening of my appreciation for Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels notwithstanding, one of the things that feeds into this is that we really are poor judges of ourselves.

Our brains seem to function through comparison a lot of the time. We use schemas and heuristics that are based on having a concept of something, and then taking individual instances of those concepts and finding the similarities and differences (e.g. we would refer to a cat that has lost a leg as a three-legged cat, though it is not fundamentally less a cat and more a biped for the absence).

In our lives, these idiosyncrasies don’t tend to be the primary way we think about ourselves. We may be incredibly aware that other people are not like us, and deeply conscientious, but even then our methodology for comparison is mediocre.

Some of this is because we’re not fully capable of understanding ourselves (can a brain understand a brain?) but also because our whole context is centered on personal experiences, with rare exceptions stemming from literature and arts.

Another part of this is, in line with the Jungian way of thought, that we don’t really want to know ourselves. To see ourselves in total objectivity may liberate us, but more likely it would annihilate us because we’re not as good as we desire ourselves to be and I suspect that a lot of people don’t have the will to confront who they really are. That’s why people burn out before seeking radical change in their life.

Resolution

Spend time looking for my own unseen qualities.

Remember that the self is impeded and bolstered by hidden factors within it.

Embrace change when it is promising.

Aphorism 80

The strength of a man’s virtue should not be measured by his special exertions, but by his habitual acts.

Pascal

Interpretation

Following a path isn’t about a two-minute sprint.

Life has no fixed destination; every minor change will cause a different outcome.

The problem with this is that it is impossible for a single action to set the moral current of a life (or, for that matter, almost any other major defining factor in life). Even things that seem to be a single action may indeed be a product of a bunch of different factors.

For instance, you’ll often hear people say that getting married is the most important event in their life.

However, the impact that a good marriage has is not centered on a single event; there’s the initial meeting, dating, engagement, actual wedding, and life together that all come together to make a marriage good.

The relationship will in that case be built up of countless small actions, often not even the result of conscious decisions, rather than a single large action. There may be symbolically significant moments, often those that have the highest conscious valuation, but these are not the defining elements. Nobody has a happy marriage because their wedding ceremony is fantastic. There may be an association, but it is not a causal one.

There’s a second element of Pascal’s statement that should not be overlooked.

People often do one thing that earns them the disgust and hostility of everyone around them, or have one moral flaw that seems to tarnish everything about them.

Of course, generally the people who let themselves be overcome by their vices have not done a very good job of cultivating their virtues. There is also another point here: as with a good marriage, a descent to the worst crimes and immorality may be made up of several small and seemingly insubstantial and unnoticed elements.

Ive lost the trail of where I was going with this, so I’ll just state it clearly:

It’s always possible to redeem oneself by pursuing the right path, but it’s a constant, conscious effort.

Resolution

Do not foster in yourself little vices; they grow up into large and ugly creatures.

Remember that existence is a marathon, not a sprint. One achievement can’t sustain a lifetime.

Look for the hidden virtues and cultivate them; eradicate the hidden vices.

Reflections on Aphorisms #44

Just one aphorism today, but it’s from Pascal so I expect some good things.

Aphorism 70

Who is unhappy at having only one mouth? And who is not unhappy at having only one eye?

Pascal

Interpretation

I’ve always had an interest in the transhumanist movement, though I’m not sure that I’d call myself a supporter of it. I certainly can get behind some of the ideals, but the consequences can be major.

One of the recurring themes of transhumanism is an identification with the corpus, the body, the physical and material part of the being.

One of the things that transhumanism often espouses is altering the body so that it is more fit for purpose, whatever the particular purpose in mind is. This can often take on a dystopian bent: modification for the sake of attuning one to a meaningless or all-consuming task.

What is the goal of a person’s life?

To bring enlightenment from the unknown, to serve and worship God, to follow the Heroic path.

I think Pascal’s purpose behind this statement is to say two important things:

First, we don’t tend to think outside the box and appreciate what we could be.

I’m not certain about this point, but it was what first stuck with me.

Second, we have certain needs. The reason why people have one mouth is because there’s no need for further communication. What we output is less important in many ways than our inputs. If you think of a human like a machine, many of our defining traits as opposed to other animals is an immense focus on getting and indexing information (e.g. our height relative to our body mass, our advanced visual processing, our physical development being slow to give time for mental development, consciousness).

Image by Madjid H Kouider from Pixabay

One of the great advancements in human development comes from the use of external devices to aid our perception. This is not a new concept, though many of our more significant advancements in this field are less than a thousand years old.

Like the observatories we have built to observe the skies, we desire to pursue other extensions of our senses.

It is an intrinsic fact that the modern mind pursues more information than mere senses provide.

In the past, we have turned to religion and superstition deal with the phenomena that exist at the liminal borders of our consciousness, but as belief structures centered on the presence of the unknown have been eclipsed by scientism we don’t have as much of that any more.

The result of this is that we desire more eyes.

Resolution

You can never have too many eyes.

More information equals more resolution, not more certainty.

Take the unknown and make it known.