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.

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