Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
- Ephesians 3:20-21
All day long I have held out my hands
to an obstinate people,
who walk in ways not good,
pursuing their own imaginations—
a people who continually provoke me
to my very face,
offering sacrifices in gardens
and burning incense on altars of brick;
who sit among the graves
and spend their nights keeping secret vigil;
who eat the flesh of pigs,
and whose pots hold broth of impure meat;
who say, ‘Keep away; don’t come near me,
for I am too sacred for you!’
Such people are smoke in my nostrils,
a fire that keeps burning all day.
- Isaiah 65:2-5
“Pascal’s … ideas were aimed primarily at what he called libertins – ex-Catholics who had left religion as a result of the sort of free thinking encourages by skeptical writers such as Montaigne. In one of the longer fragments, Pascal discusses imagination. He offers little or no argument for his claims, being concerned merely to set down his thoughts on the matter.
“Pascal’s point is that imagination is the most powerful force in human beings, and one of our chief sources of error. Imagination, he says, causes us to trust people despite what reason tells us. For example, because lawyers and doctors dress up in special clothes, we tend to trust them more. …
“What makes things worse is that though it usually leads to falsehood, imagination occasionally leads to truth; if it were always false, then we could use it as a source of certainty by simply accepting its negative. After presenting the case against imagination in some detail, Pascal suddenly ends his discussion of it by writing: ‘Imagination decides everything: it produces beauty, justice, and happiness, which is the greatest thing in the world.’ Out of context, it might seem that he is praising imagination, but we can see from what preceded this passage that his intention is very different. As imagination usually leads to error, then the beauty, justice, and happiness that it produces will usually be false.
“In the wider context of a work of Christian theology, and especially in light of Pascal’s emphasis on the use of reason to bring people to religious belief, we can see that his aim is to show the libertins that the life of pleasure that they have chosen is not what they think it is. Although they believe that they have chosen the path of reason, they have in fact been misled by the power of the imagination.”
- Sam Atkinson (senior editor), The Philosophy Book, Big Ideas Simply Explained
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) is probably most famous, in the philosophical world, with Pascal’s Wager, which I have already written about, around three years ago, Larger or Smaller. The wager basically says that if a Christian believes in heaven and an atheist or agnostic believes in nothing after death, then the only rational side of the wager is the belief in God. If you are correct, you have heaven awaiting, and if you are wrong, your condition after death does not change at all.
I have mentioned Pascal many times, even using Blaise Pascal as the namesake for my fictional detective’s, Deviled Yeggs’, youngest child, Blaise Yeggs.
Pascal’s attack on “imagination” might better be focused on the source of the false imagination, Satan, but that does not diminish the philosophical work. Pascal, who died before the age of forty, packed a lot into a short life. He was a scientist (Pascal’s Law), a mathematician (laying the claim for probability theory), a philosopher, and late in life, he created the first public transport service, and he gave all his profits to the poor. When he converted to Christianity, he mostly settled his studies in theology. That may be due to a fear that his “imagination” regarding mathematics or science might lead to falsehood. Truly, Pascal did more than just talk about his faith, but he followed with his actions.
But focusing on the imagination, it seems that, with the exception of Christian fiction, you cannot have a novel published without cursing involved in the dialogue. Often gratuitous sex is thrown into the storyline. Gratuitous in that it neither propels the plot forward or explains any aspect of a character in the novel.
But in real life, not fiction, how many fights have escalated into major conflicts over a misunderstanding of what the other might have said or done or even thought?
I am reminded of an old story from Jerry Clower about boiled okra, or as he might have said “okreee.” He said that during the depression, his mama might fix a batch of boiled okreee and no one was that hungry to eat that slick, slimy, bad smelling stuff. Note: I apologize to all those who like boiled okra, and I even like it in a Creole stew and some of the dishes my wife makes, mixed with other vegetables. I am simply relating a story.
So, back to the story, Jerry would explain that after the meal, he might have to be the one who cleaned the table after the meal. He said one time, he took that bowl of boiled okreee onto the back porch and called the dogs. Two of them dogs run up there fast and the one slurped up the okreee and swallowed it in one gulp. It was so slick and slimy that it went down so fast, the dog did not realize he had eaten anything. The other dog and the first dog looked at the empty bowl, thinking that the other dog had eaten all the good food. Those two dogs ended up fighting all night long and neither one of them knew what the fight was all about in the first place.
Clower’s story, like many of his stories, has a lesson for all of us. Our imagination, aided by the Devil, can get us blaming others for what we think they might say, think, or do, without ever knowing for sure. We waste a lot of time brooding over what we think they said and what we think they meant by what we think they said, and they have not meant anything by it at all.
Have you ever lost a friend in this way?
If we go into a relationship with a loving heart and a forgiving heart, we might not even hear them say the thing that we really didn’t truly hear in the first place.
But as for Pascal’s conclusion regarding beauty, justice, and happiness, Pascal lived near the end of the Renaissance Era. There is a great deal of man-made beauty in the world today that emerged from that period, especially in the arts and architecture. But at the same time, the ground roots of civilization, including the justice system, emerged at the same time. The author of the quoted book may not have seen all of what Pascal meant – maybe his imagination was running amok.
While imagination, left without boundaries, can discover great things, it could also lead down paths that need not be trod. Imagination is not necessarily evil. Our great discoveries in science since the time of Pascal have started with someone asking, “what if…?” Yet, although we have great technology today as a result of someone else’s imagination, the thought of imagining anything today seems too hard for us to grasp as all this technology zaps our minds of the imagination to create better things. And we are paying the price for much of this technology by rapidly growing the technology before we discovered the side effects. Forget industrial waste, as if you could. Our world’s trash disposal problem is wrecking the environment.
But as the “green agenda” has us chasing those problems, has anyone asked what the side effects will be to the solutions that are imagined?
No wonder Pascal left his mathematical and scientific imagination, and focused on philosophy.
If you like these Tuesday morning essays about philosophy and other “heavy topics,” but you think you missed a few, you can use this LINK. I have set up a page off the home page for links to these Tuesday morning posts. I will continue to modify the page as I add more.
Soli Deo Gloria. Only to God be the Glory.