Pascal's Pensées: Week 31, Avoid the False Dichotomies


Two extremes: to exclude reason, to admit reason only.


One of the things that bothers me about almost every political or theological debate is that they always end up with a false dichotomy. If you are for X, then you have to be against Y. If W is important, then you're saying Z is unimportant. If you say Q is good, then P is bad.

This is why our politics is such a mess. Politics is the art of balancing competing goods. Take vaccine mandates. On the one hand, is it good, as a public health measure, to have a large proportion of the population vaccinated? Answer: Of course that is a good thing. It saves lives. On the other hand, should your body be protected from any invasions from the government? Answer: Of course. No one wants to live in a world where the government has total control over your body.

Trouble is, during a pandemic, we have to balance these goods, public health and mortality rates against individual liberty and bodily autonomy. 

Now, I'm not here to tell you how to balance those goods. I've got better things to do today than debate people on the internet. My point is that we can't see the good as the good. That is to say, we demonize the good the other side represents. We force the debate into a false dichotomy, that, for example, if you're for vaccine mandates you hate liberty. Or vice versa. 

This a troubling situation because when you demonize the good you're blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. When you demonize the good you can't tell up from down, or left from right, morally speaking. When you demonize the good with these false dichotomies you lose your ability for moral choice and navigation. You're lost.

Anyway, back to Pascal's point. In the religious life we often pit reason and emotion against each other. For example, if you're a charismatic you're unreasonable, a holy roller, an emotional leaf in the wind. But you can be charismatic and theologically sound and rigorous. Don't use false dichotomies to create theological straw men.

In short, faith needs to be reasonable. It really does. But we must also take care not to make reason the sole criterion of faith. It's not reason versus unreason, it's not an either/or. 

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