Let’s read Pascal (22): Don’t underestimate the power of habit in shaping what you believe

Let's Read Pascal

There is a website that will tell you how many days of your life you have spent watching particular TV series.

According to “statistics brain”, in 2013 the average American watched 5.11 hours of television per day, or nine full years over a lifetime (though the Bureau of Labor Statistics seems to think that in 2012 it was 2.8 hours per day; either way, it’s quite an investment of time). According to the same site, the average American youth spends 900 hours a year in school, and 1200 hours a year watching TV, consuming 16000 thirty-second TV commercials over the same period. In 2005 the Guardian calculated that the average London commuter would see 130 adverts in a 45 minute journey through the capital, and in a day we are “exposed to” around 3500 advertising messages, though of course we cannot recall them all and we do not notice many of them consciously.

How many of those TV hours and how many of those adverts reflect a life that is lived, to quote Don Carson, with “eternity’s values in view”? Some, perhaps, but the overwhelming majority do not.

On a daily basis, we are enculturated (habituated, indoctrinated, evangelized, proselytized, brainwashed: choose your verb as a function of how insidious you find the situation) subtly and repeatedly into viewing the world and ourselves in a certain way. We are enculturated into wanting certain things (whether those “things” be objects, lifestyles, values or character traits) and, by default, into not wanting other things that are simply absent from the ambient enculturation.

What does this have to do with Pascal? The link is in the importance of recognising the role that habituation has in shaping who we are. The reader need not worry: this post will not turn into a tirade against capitalism or the marketing industry. I do however want briefly to explore how belief formation functions, both in relation to marketing and more broadly. In reading through the Pensées again this year, one of the book’s themes that has given me most pause for thought is Pascal’s insistence on the importance of custom (enculturation, habit) in the way we form beliefs. Here is one example from, pensée 252:

For we must not misunderstand ourselves; we are as much automatic as intellectual; and hence it comes that the instrument by which conviction is attained is not demonstrated alone. How few things are demonstrated? Proofs only convince the mind. Custom is the source of our strongest and most believed proofs. It bends the automaton, which persuades the mind without its thinking about the matter. Who has demonstrated that there will be a to-morrow, and that we shall die? And what is more believed? It is, then, custom which persuades us of it; it is custom that makes so many men Christians; custom that makes them Turks, heathens, artisans, soldiers, etc. (Faith in baptism is more received among Christians than among Turks.)

Pensée 252 continues with Pascal stressing the importance of custom not just in arriving at beliefs, but at maintaining the beliefs we hold:

Finally, we must have recourse to it when once the mind has seen where the truth is, in order to quench our thirst, and steep ourselves in that belief, which escapes us at every hour; for always to have proofs ready is too much trouble. We must get an easier belief, which is that of custom, which, without violence, without art, without argument, makes us believe things, and inclines all our powers to this belief, so that out soul falls naturally into it. It is not enough to believe only by force of conviction, when the automaton is inclined to believe the contrary. Both our parts must be made to believe, the mind by reasons which it is sufficient to have seen once in a lifetime, and the automaton by custom, and by not allowing it to incline to the contrary. Inclina cor meum, Deus. (“Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain!”, Psalm 119:36)


I feel that it would take a whole book to tease out the consequences (and to question some of the assumptions) of what Pascal says here, but let me just touch on just one point in this post. It flows from the sentence “It is not enough to believe only by force of conviction, when the automaton is inclined to believe the contrary”. In other words, we try in vain to believe something that cuts against the grain of our habits. This is why what we believe will always, ultimately, be linked to how we behave or, to put it another way, this is why epistemology is rightly understood as a branch of ethics. Our beliefs follow our behaviours as much as our behaviours follow our beliefs, and the cognitive/behavioural dissonance engendered by claiming to believe one thing while living as though the opposite thing were true will eventually resolve itself by either a change in belief or a change in behaviour.

This, I think, is the sense behind Pascal’s much maligned and almost always spectacularly misquoted advice to the skeptic to “Kneel down, say your prayers, and you will believe”, as if Pascal were goading us to pretend to have faith. Let me quote the relevant pensée (250) in full:

The external must be joined to the internal to obtain anything from God, that is to say, we must kneel, pray with the lips, etc., in order that proud man, who would not submit himself to God, may be now subject to the creature. To expect help from these externals is superstition; to refuse to join them to the internal is pride.

First of all, this pensée is not only talking about the unbeliever coming to faith, but about any prayerful encounter with God, whether by believer or unbeliever. Secondly, Pascal explicitly states the limits of the thought’s application in its final sentence: ‘To expect help from these externals is superstition; to refuse to join them to the internal is pride’. If I seek the Christ who did not come to be served but to serve, the Christ who made himself nothing, and the Christ sent by the God who “opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5), if I seek this Christ in a spirit of intellectual or moral pride then we will most likely not find him, however acute our reasoning powers. The whole person must come to God, not just the mind. Another way of putting this is that lifestyles and habits generate plausibility structures and restrict our freedom to believe certain things, regardless of whether those things happen to be true or not.

I don’t think there is anything more controversial here than saying that, if we are exposed to n hours of TV and n commercials per day, enculturating us into particular habits of mind and behaviour, our desires will increasingly reflect a proportion of the choices offered to us, rather than other choices that happen not to be offered (after all, the companies do not pay for advertising for disinterested aesthetic reasons). Similarly, we are likely to find ways of living not reflected in this enculturation to be alien and implausible.

These Pascalian reflections raise an interesting set of questions for Christian academics to ponder:

  • Are there any lifestyle choices, values or character traits that “fit” particularly well with my discipline?
  • If there are, why do they fit well? What do they reflect about the discipline itself? How, in turn, is the discipline formed by them?
  • How do these choices and values predispose the discipline to holding certain truths, and how do they make other truths seem implausible?
  • Is there any point at which my discipline and people in it are professing to believe one thing but behaving/writing as if a contrary thing were true?
  • Where does an enculturation into my discipline resonate with an enculturation into the values of God as revealed in the bible, and where is there the greatest dissonance between the two?

Let’s read Pascal (13): “Custom is our nature”

Let's Read Pascal

In the second section of the Pensées Pascal has a series of thoughts (I almost wrote ‘posts’!) that probe the place of custom and habit in our lives. For Pascal, custom plays a large part in forming all our beliefs, not just our religious beliefs:


Custom is our nature. He who is accustomed to the faith believes in it, can no longer fear hell, and believes in nothing else. He who is accustomed to believe that the king is terrible … etc. Who doubts then that our soul, being accustomed to see number, space, motion, believes that and nothing else?

In this thought I love how Pascal begins with the example of religious faith, establishing the role that custom plays in arriving at and maintaining religious belief, and then widens the circle to include empiricists who believe only what they are accustomed to seeing. One point that this thought makes brilliantly is that everyone ought to be aware of the role of custom in forming our faith commitments, not just those faith commitments that carry a religious label. Empiricists are just as custom-dependent as religious believers. If we deny that custom has had a role in bringing us to the commitments we hold—whether they be religious, atheist or agnostic, left or right wing—then we are displaying a worrying ideological naivety. If we are not aware of influences on us we are much more vulnerable to being manipulated by them.

One possible reaction to this truth is to lurch to the conclusion that all beliefs formed in part by custom must necessarily be false. Not only is this belief itself conditioned by custom, but it is also wrong. Alvin Plantinga sketches a helpful example:

Suppose we concede that if I had been born of Muslim parents in Morocco rather than Christian parents in Michigan, my beliefs would have been quite different. [But] the same goes for the pluralist… If the pluralist had been born in [Morocco] he prob­ably wouldn’t be a pluralist. Does it follow that … his pluralist beliefs are produced in him by an unreliable belief-producing process?

Alvin Plantinga, ‘A Defense of Religious Exclusivism’, in The Ana­lytic Theist, ed. James F. Sennett (Eerdmans, 1998), p. 205.

There is a falsehood abroad that the only authentic or free choice is a choice without any conditions whatsoever: a choice in a vacuum, without influences or predispositions. Such a choice would be impossible and unjustifiable. We always choose and think within a framework of predispositions and plausibility structures. That is not wrong, it is just being human.

As Christian scholars we will do well to think about the customs and traditions of thought that operate in our own disciplines. What habits of thought reign unchallenged simply because they are customary? And what habits of thought are helpful for our disciplines, though they are established on custom?

Custom has a right and proper role to play in bringing us to the convictions we hold, both academically and in broader life. Everyone does it, and custom per se, like faith, is neither good nor evil: it depends what the faith is in, and it depends what has become customary. Custom is neither to be slavishly and unthinkingly obeyed, nor naively ignored. The dangerous position is not the one that acknowledges its customary predispositions, but the one that naively pretends it has none.

Let’s read Pascal (11): Pascal, Cicero, and the role of the Christian academic as gold smelter

Let's Read Pascal

In a one-sentence pensée, Pascal casually refers to Cicero:


All the false beauties which we blame in Cicero have their admirers, and in great number.

Pascal is not name-dropping here; Cicero forms part of his intellectual landscape, and he sees fit to make reference to him in this thought. Just like Paul at the Areopagus, Pascal makes use of proverbs and maxims of pagan origin in his arguments. In the Pensées he displays at least an acquaintance with Cicero, Pliny, Seneca, Tacitus, Virgil and Horace, in addition to Augustine, Thomas, Josephus and the Qur’an. In addition, he demonstrates a familiarity with the work of antagonists closer to his own day: Montaigne, Pico della Mirandola and Descartes.

This is far from uncommon in great Christian thinkers. Calvin’s first published work (hardly juvenilia and certainly formative) was an edition of Seneca’s De Clementia in 1532, and he is not averse to quoting and referring to Cicero and Seneca in the Institutes. More often than not he disagrees with them (though not always), but what strikes me is that he has read them and can wield their writings in argument. Even the bibline-blooded Luther sees fit to make over fifty references each to Cicero, Virgil and, yes, even Aristotle in Table Talk. Augustine peppers his work with references to and quotations from Cicero, Seneca, Virgil, Homer and Pliny (among others), and indeed reminds his readers in On Christian Doctrine that

if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it.

The rest of this section (II,40,60) is worth quoting in full:

For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves were not making a good use of; in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also,–that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life,–we must take and turn to a Christian use.

Augustine, Calvin, Luther and Pascal had no qualms about walking away from a good secular book with their pockets stuffed with gold, and then smelting down this gold—so laboriously dug up from God’s rich seams by the secular author—in order to return it to its rightful use in the service of God. As an aside, as I write I am trying to think of a widely read Christian book written in the last twenty years that makes similar use of secular learning. I dare say there are some, but none come readily to mind.

Here’s where I think all this hits the road for us Christian academics (and I don’t just mean professors: postgrads and postdocs count yourselves in). Perhaps for all of us, and certainly for some of us, one of our roles is as the church’s gold smelters. As we chew through reams of secular learning there will be, if we believe in common grace, “also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God”. We need to gather up that laboriously extracted gold and smelt it down so that it is usable by our local churches and by God’s Church more broadly. This might consist in anything from a quick email to the pastor giving a head’s up on an interesting book or offering a paragraph-length review of it, to writing articles for Christian journals or websites about current trends in scholarship, to giving seminars to Christian audiences… The mode which the smelting takes is not the important thing; what is important is to take the very best of secular learning in all fields and carefully, discriminatingly, consider how it might be put to the service of the church. As Nicholas Wolterstorff reminds us, the answer may not come overnight, but if we never ask the question it will surely never come at all. We may or may not have the theological chops to work through all the ideas from a Christian point of view, but we can at least be that important link between what the best secular thinkers are saying and what is nourishing God’s church.

Just as Augustine, Calvin and Pascal fed their understanding of God’s word and God’s world with the best of secular learning (while of course also dismissing the worst of it), and just as they sharpened their understanding of God and his word by contrasting it with acute secular thinking, who is better placed than we who work in academia to mediate the best of contemporary secular learning to today’s church? If not we, then who?

Let’s read Pascal (9): Would you rather know something about everything, or everything about one thing? The pitfalls of expertise

Let's Read Pascal

The intense specialisation and consequent fragmentation of the contemporary university is well documented. Fields of specialism are constantly shrinking and anyone who wishes to keep their job is required to become an “expert” in smaller and smaller parcels of knowledge with each passing decade.

While this trend certainly has its reasons (not least that we know more information about more objects of knowledge than we have ever known before), it comes at a cost that we are sometimes slow to count. Consider this pensée:


Since we cannot be universal and know all that is to be known of everything, we ought to know a little about everything. For it is far better to know something about everything than to know all about one thing. This universality is the best. If we can have both, still better; but if we must choose, we ought to choose the former. And the world feels this and does so; for the world is often a good judge.

Would you agree with Pascal? If you could only choose one of the two options, would you rather know a little about everything, or everything about one thing? With tongue just a little in cheek, we could frame the choice in this way: would you rather be a public intellectual or an academic?

In an age when the language of choice to refer to university employees is increasingly “experts” (just google “the university expert” and you’ll see what I mean), the species formally known as “dons”, “professors” or even “academics” now serve the public good by injecting off-the-shelf snippets of “expert” information into the “real world” when we are so bidden.

What we lose in the race to know everything about smaller and smaller areas is the wisdom (let’s use that word) that comes from a broad understanding, the balance that one disciplinary outlook and one set of disciplinary presuppositions can bring to another set, and the explosive arcing that comes when disparate areas of knowledge are brought into contact with each other. It also cements disciplinary group-think and the internal feedback loop of affirmation that can beset any closed group.

What we most risk losing, perhaps, is more serious than any of these disciplinary peccadilloes. We are in danger, in becoming too identified with our specialty or “expertise”, that our identity is first, foremost and foundationally as God’s creatures and forgiven sinners saved by grace who will give a final account of our lives to God alone. Why is this important to remember? One reason is that it ensures against one of the great academic temptations: to think that the expertise which we have the privilege of developing at the taxpayer’s expense in some way enhances the quality and worth of our souls. Now I know that to put it like that sounds ridiculous, but is there not a sense in which we are tempted to consider ourselves just that little bit elevated as people by virtue of our “superior knowledge and wisdom”? Elevated as academics: quite possibly; elevated as people: to think so would be spectacularly to misunderstand the very heartbeat of both the Old and New Testaments.

In his Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller quotes Dr Martin Lloyd-Jones musing on the trajectory that leads a person away from humanity and into to expertise: “there are many whom I have had the privilege of meeting whose tombstones might well bear the grim epitaph . . . ‘born a man, died a doctor.'”

God grant that it may never be said of us: “born a human being, died an expert.”

Let’s read Pascal (4): is my opponent mistaken, or incomplete?

Let's Read Pascal


When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true.

Here Pascal nails the crucial principle of walking in others’ shoes. If we can’t see why someone’s position is true for him or her, why it would make sense and be attractive, then we are not yet in a position to engage with it in a critical way. It is also the sound advice imparted in the Latin motto audi alteram partem (listen to the other side). Quite apart from being good academic etiquette and courtesy, a very careful and sympathetic attention paid to the arguments of those with whom one disagrees is often the very best soil for top quality scholarship to take root.

It strikes me that there are strong parallels between this pensée and the way in which Tim Keller handles 1 Corinthians 1. Engaging with the secular culture around us is not always (perhaps not mostly) a question of opposing, but of enlarging. Keller and Pascal here both start from the principle that the opponent of the Christian faith is not utterly wrong, but partial and incomplete.

This also reminds me of the thought-provoking maxim (I’ve never tested it) that all non-Christian positions (secular as well as religious) are in fact Christian heresies, taking some of the truths of scripture over others, or emphasising some over others in the wrong proportions. It seems to me a plausible hypothesis, and it would be interesting to follow up with some examples. Our task in our academic disciplines and in apologetics alike is frequently to adopt a posture not of “no!” but of “yes, but…”



Let’s read Pascal (2): intuitive and mathematical thinking

Let's Read Pascal

I said in a previous post that I was starting to re-read Pascal’s Pensées, and I invited you to grab a copy and read along. I originally thought that I could go at the pace of one section per day, but after starting with section one yesterday I find I’ve got a pile of notes and so much to say that I think I’ll have to slacken the pace. I was reminded just how brilliant a book this is for Christians in academia, from a whole range of angles, and I’m looking forward to sharing some of the treasures I found in section 1 over the coming days.

Here’s the first one…

Pascal begins in the first pensée by drawing a distinction between the intuitive and the mathematical mind. The intuitive mind grasps the whole as a whole without the need for analysis, whereas the mathematical mind seeks to find first principles and carefully reason forward from them.

What I love about Pascal is that he doesn’t say that one way of reasoning is necessarily and always better than the other, but he points out defects in both of them:


The reason, therefore, that some intuitive minds are not mathematical is that they cannot at all turn their attention to the principles of mathematics. But the reason that mathematicians are not intuitive is that they do not see what is before them, and that, accustomed to the exact and plain principles of mathematics, and not reasoning till they have well inspected and arranged their principles, they are lost in matters of intuition where the principles do not allow of such arrangement. They are scarcely seen; they are felt rather than seen; there is the greatest difficulty in making them felt by those who do not of themselves perceive them. These principles are so fine and so numerous that a very delicate and very clear sense is needed to perceive them, and to judge rightly and justly when they are perceived, without for the most part being able to demonstrate them in order as in mathematics; because the principles are not known to us in the same way, and because it would be an endless matter to undertake it. We must see the matter at once, at one glance, and not by a process of reasoning, at least to a certain degree.

Pascal continues by lamenting that each of us is to some extent one-legged in this respect, hobbling along with either the intuitive or the mathematical bent more developed in us:

And thus it is rare that mathematicians are intuitive, and that men of intuition are mathematicians, because mathematicians wish to treat matters of intuition mathematically, and make themselves ridiculous, wishing to begin with definitions and then with axioms, which is not the way to proceed in this kind of reasoning. Not that the mind does not do so, but it does it tacitly, naturally, and without technical rules; for the expression of it is beyond all men, and only a few can feel it.

It strikes me that, as well as individuals, academic disciplines and sub-disciplines can suffer from similar imbalances. Are there insights or avenues of investigation in your discipline that are simply unthinkable because they would need to draw on the “wrong” sort of thinking. Both ‘intuitive’ and ‘mathematical’ disciplines can be guilty of this.

And what about us? Our academic training and disciplinary expertise will almost certainly predispose us to certain ways of thinking, sometimes more intuitive and sometimes more mathematical, and this predisposition will most likely permeate the whole of our thinking lives, not just our academic life, and influence the way we think about Jesus and the bible as well. Our disciplinarily inflected mode of thinking will have its strengths, and generally speaking we are very well aware of those strengths (they are probably part of the reason we chose our discipline in the first place). But it will also predispose us to certain weaknesses, and we are less conditioned—often also less willing and less encouraged by others—to admit the dangers in the predispositions of our academic disciplines. Pascal would have us know where we sit in the schema of intuitive and mathematical thinking, and know our weaknesses as well as our strengths.



Pascal: when I love someone, what or whom am I loving?

“What is the Ego?

Suppose a man puts himself at a window to see those who pass by. If I pass by, can I say that he placed himself there to see me? No; for he does not think of me in particular. But does he who loves someone on account of beauty really love that person? No; for the small-pox, which will kill beauty without killing the person, will cause him to love her no more.

And if one loves me for my judgment, memory, he does not love me, for I can lose these qualities without losing myself. Where, then, is this Ego, if it be neither in the body nor in the soul? And how love the body or the soul, except for these qualities which do not constitute me, since they are perishable? For it is impossible and would be unjust to love the soul of a person in the abstract, and whatever qualities might be therein. We never, then, love a person, but only qualities.

Let us, then, jeer no more at those who are honoured on account of rank and office; for we love a person only on account of borrowed qualities.” — Pascal, Pensées 323.

Let’s read Pascal’s Pensées

Let's Read Pascal
Today I’m going to start re-reading one of the books in my personal intensive treasure trove, Pensées by Blaise Pascal. I remember the time I first read it, fourteen years ago now, after picking it up almost by accident in a second hand bookshop. That first reading was on holiday (misty forests and long walks with no-one around), which always helps to give a book the chance really to sink in. What struck me most in that first reading was how perceptive and contemporary Pascal is in his analysis of distraction and entertainment (though for him the main distraction seems to be hunting and not TV). Since then I’ve grown to love the way he parses the three orders of materiality, intellect and faith, and his searing analysis of human foibles (including my own). And then there’s the brilliant passage on The Self, which I’ll blog in a separate post once I finish this. I’ve never been a huge fan of the famous wager, but I do think most people misunderstand what Pascal is trying to do with it. What I’ve learned most from Pascal, I think, is the shape of his thinking, the way he undermines commonplaces and gets inside the heads of those he is engaging, walking in their shoes in order to show them the shortcomings of their position.Pensées First Edition

Anyway, this time through I’ll be listening along to the LibriVox version. It’s completely free and public domain, and I can listen to it on my way to work and while I’m doing the cooking. I tend to listen with a little Dictaphone close by so that I can make quick audio notes of ideas (either Pascal’s or my own in reaction to him) that strike me while I listen.

Why not grab yourself a copy and read (or re-read) along with me. If you’re reading or listening along, let me know in the comments section below. If you’re on android, you can use the nifty LibriVox Downloader. I’ll be blogging some of the best bits over the coming weeks.