Friday, May 2, 2008

Pascal and the iPod

What does 17th century scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal have to do with the iPod? Plenty.

As you can see in the illustration, Pascal often contemplated the broad philosophical implications of iPod technology. No, not really. There were no iPods in 17th century France. No vinyl records either. They did, however, get tea in Paris in 1636, while Oxford opened its first coffee house in 1650.

Pascal wrote much about diversion and, in turn, the role of entertainment and leisure. With the rise of entertainment-on-demand in our culture, we have ready access to films, music, video games, etc. Pascal argues that even otherwise worthy pursuits such as education can become diversions.

Why do we often seek out diversion? Pascal argued that fallen human beings seek out diversion in order to avoid contemplating the greater matters of life and eternity. In short, we have a hard time making room for silence in our lives and, according to Pascal, we don't want silence because it creates opportunity for thoughtful reflection. But if we have time for thoughtful reflection we'll realize that we're really in a spiritual mess and in need of some definite cleaning up. This makes us unhappy. :-(

What's the solution? We might decide to divert ourselves non-stop, as most people seem to do. This helps squelch our inner turmoil regarding our condition (fallen, wretched beings in need of desperate help). Or we might actively make room for silence in our lives and truly contemplate our situation, doing our best to find a viable solution.

This is not to say that all leisure activities are a detriment or a diversion. We were made to rest at times, to have fun, etc. But let's not overlook the fact that sometimes we seek diversion merely to avoid facing the realities of life and their broader implications.

And yes, I own an iPod. In fact, I've owned a couple. On the back of one of them is engraved the following Pascal quote: "The only thing that consoles us for our miseries is diversion."

By the way, despite the negative views Pascal often gets regarding his Wager argument, he really did have some interesting and useful ideas. One of them, his anthropological argument, is something I've written about in my article, "Greatness and Wretchedness: The Usefulness of Pascal's Anthropological Argument in Apologetics."

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