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?