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Pascal's Paradox

The test of a first-rate intelligence
is the ability to hold two opposed ideas
in the mind at the same time, and still
retain the ability to function.

F. SCOTT FITZGERALD





What do I mean when I say I love the beloved? Who do I love?

When I see the beloved, I cannot help but see her in her outward aspect, that is, in her appearance. She gives herself to be seen first and without remainder. In front of this spectacle, I cannot deny what I see, and what I see is her reality in the flesh.

Holding my attention and letting it stay there, she gathers my gaze and prevents it from wandering away from her or becoming lost to itself. We see this when we look into each other's eyes as we talk. My eyes do not rest on her nose, forehead or even the organic eyes; I look through them in search of the person I am talking to. In their double void, her eyes swallow my vision and freeze it in suspension. I may find no visible object to hatch onto yet I say that I see her. And she welcomes me by letting herself be seen.

In the happenstance that my eyes "drift" from hers or lose focus (relegated to the foreground or background), I no longer see her at all, and, thereby I lower her to the rank of other beings in my surroundings, that even if she then possesses the dignity of a thing, I become indifferent to her as I am to the tree, the car, the sky. In this case, I disqualify her as not only the beloved but also as a person. If I fail to see her, how can I profess that I love her? To be sure, I may respect her but only as a spectacle to behold; yet my world is full of phenomena that I neither respect nor even more so love. I have to see her if I am to love her.

But paradoxically I have to transgress her as any old physical object which I see and touch. Pascal's paradox: when I love the beloved because of what I see in her through this or that characteristic (e.g., her pristine face, her intelligence, her gentleness, etc.), I love this or that characteristic but not her. At the same time, if I insist that it is her that I love and not her characteristics, what do I end up loving? Nothing. Because, say it were possible to take away all her characteristics, what would I be left with? The self? But I have no experience of that. Hence, the logic goes, it is impossible to love.

We may stop here and give up any attempt to reach the beloved as this paradox presents us with an aporia. Or we may take this paradox to its limits and see where it takes us. Let us try the second option even just for fun and see how it goes.

The second option is to take Pascal's paradox to its extreme limits. The paradox can be put in another way: I cannot but see the beloved but at the same time I cannot say that I love her because of what I see (e.g., a figure, a body, even her accidental features, etc.). The danger is loving her for what I see in her. Why is this a danger? Because any old other, object or thing may possess such and such characteristics or accidents which I find in the beloved I profess to love first and above all. The Helen in the Iliad has the most beautiful face that ever graced history, and I, a lover of beauty, can easily fall in love with her. My dog shows its affinity for me the way it wags its tail and barks as I sound the horn of my car when I arrive. My parents show more concern for me than anyone else I know. So how can I say that the beloved, whose face I admire and whose affinity and genuine concern msake me feel loved, is just such the only one I truly love when her characteristics could easily be substituted by others?

Can I say that I love her because she is the best possible collection of all the characteristics I love? (Hence the popular question "what do you look for in a man/woman?") Leibniz would agree. Yet the essence of this "best possible collection" is straightaway mathematical and economical. "Mathematical" because it looks for the maximum possible experiencing of the other much in the same way that a mathematician looks for the apex of a parabola. "Economical" because it looks for the optimal level where there are maximum earnings at minimal cost. Yet shall I dare say that I love the other because she is statistically the optimal choice among all the possible configurations? I'd never be able to get married if I think that way. But this remark misses the point.

If I then try to insist on saying that it is really her that I love and not her substitutable characteristics, I am confronted with an urgent question. So what do I love? Or better: Who do I love? I answer, "her--who she truly is, her person, her self." But who is she, where is this person, who is this self I say that I love? Can I locate it in space? Can I point to it? I am confronted with another aporia. Fact is, the beloved doesn't even know her self, her person or who she is. A question to her self, it would be sheer hubris for me to say that I know her better than she knows herself, that I found her when she is still looking for herself, that I saw the person that she couldn't even see in a mirror. Why is this? Simply because I have no experience of her self.

Remember that what I see and feel are her characteristics and not her; if I am supposed to love her for who she really is, I cannot remain on the level of my lived experience of her, e.g., what I see and what I feel. Phenomenologically speaking, what I experience is her advance into the realm of phenomena wherein I am able to intuit her and constitute her as something meaningful (e.g., that she is this or that). She cannot but show herself as phenomenon. This is not some deficiency on her or my part. This is the very law of consciousness. But again, I cannot say that what I love is my lived experience of her (because of this or that characteristic she manifests). But if I insist that it is her and not my experience of her that I love, what then do I end up loving if I cannot experience her? Kant already said that you can't know the thing-in-itself because we have no experience of it; so we can only know its phenomena. So to say that I love her and not her phenomena and my experience of it is like saying that I love a ghost that I never see.

We have only magnified the difficulty of the paradox without actually solving it. But whoever said that paradoxes are equations to be solved? If it were an equation, then a paradox would be a wrong equation like one plus one is three. Then we end up saying that love is "wrong," "impossible," or put an "x" over it. But everywhere everyday experience points to the contrary. We love. We cannot deny that. But what we are here trying to question is the way that this undeniable reality shows itself.

The Greeks called the way something shows itself under the name doxa. Originally, doxa meant the way something "seems" or "appears" to a person. Only secondarily has doxa come to mean as "opinion" or "judgment" which is nowadays relegated to the status of the subjective, the arbitrary, a point of view. Yet the word "opinion," experienced essentially, still retains the more original meanings of "seeming" or "appearance." We say, "The movie seems to be . . ." or "It appears that he. . . ." My opinion of something, anything--if I am not deceiving an other--is my judgment of what I see or perceive (aisthesis). And I see something because something is shown to me. There is a primacy of what appears over whatever judgment I may make about it. This is why I may have a "wrong" or "right" opinion or judgment. True knowledge for the Greeks is having the "right" opinion while having the "wrong" opinion is quasi-knowledge, belief or not-yet knowledge. But whether or not I have the right or wrong opinion, though important this may be, is only secondary--in primacy and not only in succession--to the self-showing of the phenomenon. I cannot have an opinion of what does not appear.

Why is this crucial? What seems to be a digression into etymology and the Greeks becomes relevant to us who ask about the way that love shows itself. How? Because we are now able to understand that Pascal's paradox is only something that seems or appears (doxa) contrary (para). In other words, the way love shows itself--I repeat, how I cannot love her characteristics but at the same time I have no experience of her person which I claim to love-- simply seems contrary to each other. We see what it shows and call it a paradox while the aseity of love remains a unity. The challenge then if we seek to have any knowledge of love is to overcome this seeming contradiction not by negating its two opposed manifestations but by uniting them, taking them as a whole, in short, looking for its synthesis. This we must do if we are to save love from arbitrariness or whimsical subjectivity.

Kant encountered somewhat the same problem of paradoxes in his Critique of Pure Reason. To summarize rather sketchily, he was asking how we are to "prove" the existence of what we strictly have no phenomenological experience of but cannot be denied by everyday experience. He saw three examples of such paradoxes: the self, the world and God. These three "entities" cannot be experienced as such, but--this is critical--I need to think it is there. I cannot see or locate the self but without this self I would be a bifurcated reality without any unity--but I experience a certain unity "within" me, for example, when I say "I." I do not see or grasp the world, not just because it is enormous (a planet), but because it is the very horizon in which any experience of other phenomena becomes possible; it "contains" any possible "here" or "there." Lastly, Kant sets aside all arguments for the existence or non-existence of God by saying that all arguments are both correct and wrong; correct because they "grasp" something of God, but wrong because God is always greater than any possible proof--these are what he called antinomies. His answer? God can neither be proven to exist or to not exist because we do not have an experience of Him not because He is a non-being but because our very intellect cannot categorize Him.

Having said that, I still need to think them as if (als ab) they exist. Otherwise, all my phenomenal experiences of men, the world and God would collapse like a ship without a captain that goes nowhere. I have to imagine that I have a self, that there is a world and a God to find meaning in the various phenomena I experience. I have to or else. . . Is this a cheap trick, you may ask? Why do we have to think or imagine them as if they exist when we do not experience them? Kant humbly answers that there is no other way, and that, at the bottom of it, it is a fact of reason. In other words, we do not know why.

Let us then use Kant's framework. When I say that I love the beloved, I do not only love her characteristics which give me certain (pleasurable) lived experiences. On the one hand, I insist that is her that I love and that I cannot reduce her to the characteristics she possesses. On the other hand, it is through these characteristics that she, i.e., her person, manifests or shows itself. Take the body as privileged example. I cannot reduce her to her physical aspect, figure, her plastic face; but I also can never see her if it were not for her body through which--as an intermediary--she shows herself, e.g., speaks, acts, etc. She is not her body but at the same time she is her body (Marcel). This added paradox is overcome by our everyday experience of relating to all people: we face them when we talk to them, we care for their physical needs to show our love, we honor their remains when they pass away, etc.

I have to imagine her as a person which is a unity--or, more than that, a synergy--of all her characteristics. I have to think that even though I pass through the mediation of the body, that I do not stay there but transgress it to reach her person or self. I have to hope that I know her--her unfathomable self--even if I really don't. Finally, I have to believe that it is her--both visible and invisible--that I love and no one else. By imagining, thinking, hoping and believing that it is her I actually love, I then individualize her as unsubstitutable, like no other, or, which comes to the same thing, she becomes the one that I love and only this. Simply put, it is only by loving her that I finally let her appear.

As a paradox to the mind, love can be an absurd problem with no answer. But the heart knows the answer. This is why it is still able freely move and love in spite of the mind. Like Kant's fact of reason, there might be a certainty of the heart. It was Pascal himself who said that "The heart has reasons of which the mind knows nothing."

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