Pascal for Today’s Culture: The Problem of Self-Love

August 17, 2015

Blaise Pascal was well regarded in the 17th century as a scientist, mathematician, inventor and thinker. A prodigy from a young age, Pascal was wildly successful on several fronts over the course of his short life. One of his most significant contributions was his Pensées, a collection of philosophical and theological fragments that remain incomplete due to his early death at the age of 39. My recent reading of his Pensées has been from Peter Kreeft’s Christianity for Modern Pagans, in which Kreeft systematically proceeds through the “essential pensées” of Pascal, including 203 of the original 993. Each pensée is followed by a brief analysis, clarification or expansion from Kreeft on the thought of Pascal.

Self-love and our fallen nature

Reading Pensées has stretched my mind in a number of ways, particularly in Pascal’s discussion of self-love. With targeted and clear diction, Pascal speaks to the rampant and destructive self-love in the world surrounding him, indicting himself as he does it. This self-love, Pascal observes, is inherent to our fallen human nature. While that nature is fundamentally the same today as it was in Pascal’s day, our culture’s idolatry of individualism gives Pascal’s words particular meaning and significance today.

To frame Pascal’s discussion of self-love, it is helpful to begin with a question he proposes, from pensée 978: “Is it not true that we . . . like (others) to be deceived to our advantage, and want to be esteemed by them as other than we actually are?” Indeed, perhaps nothing is more deeply rooted in American culture than this desire. The real substance of our existence pales in importance to its appearance.

Self-love and social media

Consider the entire premise of social media presence: we create online profiles that feature the most exciting, enviable pieces of our lives or the most intellectually stimulating fragments of knowledge that we have to offer, filling our feeds with images or topics that appeal to the specific cultural subset we seek to impress. Our actual selves are crushed under the weight of perception. This is perhaps the most tangible manifestation of the deception of self-love today, but we display it in any number of ways, all intended to promote a targeted and specific image of ourselves that we find pleasing. Whether we actually are that person is essentially irrelevant.

Self-love and constructive criticism

Pascal proceeds to discuss how self-love keeps us from giving or receiving constructive criticism. We each have blind spots and deeply need the correction of others, but in a culture that praises self-love, giving or receiving this correction becomes difficult as we become unwilling to do so for fear of its damaging effects. Our self-love obscures our understanding of our deep need for correction. Pascal explains with a metaphor, again from pensée 978: “A Prince can be the laughingstock of Europe and the only one to know nothing about it” because “telling the truth is useful to the hearer but harmful to those who tell it, because they incur such odium.” Unwilling to do the painful and stretching work of growth through correction and criticism, we choose to remain in a perpetual cycle of “disguise, falsehood and hypocrisy.” This is not what we were created for.

The root of self-love

Ultimately, the deceptions from self-love that we create and live in are rooted in a desire to make ourselves God. Though biblical examples abound, the most poignant is King Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel. Surveying his vast kingdom from his rooftop, Nebuchadnezzar becomes intoxicated with power and filled with self-love, declaring, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30b). Nebuchadnezzar then hears a voice from heaven: “the kingdom has departed from you . . .until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Daniel 4:31b, 32b). Nebuchadnezzar is driven from his kingdom and forced to wander the earth like an animal, “made to eat grass like an ox” (4:33). His story represents an extreme example of the cosmic rebellion each of us acts upon when we live in our self-love.

Pascal points out the foolishness of living in this manner in pensée 617: “It is false that we deserve this position [of God] and unjust and impossible to attain it, because everyone demands the same thing.” The world is teeming with God-complexed individuals, and we blindly throw our hat into the ring. Kreeft puts it succinctly in his analysis to pensée 617: “Few think they are God in theory, but all do in practice.” Kreeft goes on to point out the problem: “there can be at most one winner” in this battle to be God. Ultimately, the satisfying of all my desires and the entirety of control that I possess if I am God infringes on that of all other beings. If I am God, no one else is God. If God is God, I am not. The point is this: ultimately, somebody wins. Our Creator has a distinct advantage.

The answer to self-love

Pascal thus places mankind in an immensely bleak condition: denying our brokenness, we seek prosperity through deception of ourselves and others, sinking deeper and deeper into our fallen nature even as we believe we are improving our standing. Thankfully, like any good apologist, Pascal does not bring us to the depths and leave us there. He proceeds to point to the cure. In pensée 617 Pascal points out: “No other religion has observed [1] that this is a sin, [2] that it is innate in us, [3] that we are obliged to resist it, let alone [4] thought of providing a cure.” No other source diagnoses and cures our human condition like Christianity.

The message of Christianity to Pascal’s presentation of self-love is a message of human weakness. In the words of the Lord to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” The great irony of human existence is that in the pursuit of saving ourselves, we inevitably destroy ourselves. The message of the Bible is not that we are using the wrong method to save ourselves, but rather that the very act of saving ourselves is wrong.

In pensée 562, Pascal puts it like this: “There are only two kinds of men: the righteous who think they are sinners and the sinners who think they are righteous.” The righteous are those who know, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, that “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (64:6). Not even our best deeds can bring us close to Christ, and therein exists the great freedom of Christianity. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). Christ has set us free from the need to perform, enabling us to accept and embrace our weaknesses, knowing that there is where the Lord will meet us. When we turn our eyes from ourselves to the only true God in a world of imitators, we will find what we crave.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24