Pascal on Automation

How much does automation, habit, affect a Christian’s belief structure? How much of our make up is reason versus habit? See what Pascal says:

For we must make no mistake about ourselves: we are as much automaton as mind. As a result, demonstration is not the only instrument for convincing us. How few things can be demonstrated! Proofs only convince the mind; habit provides the strongest proofs and those that are most believed. It inclines the automation, which leads the mind unconsciously along with it. Who ever proved that it will dawn tomorrow, and that we shall die? And what is more widely believed? It is, then, habit that convinces us…We must resort to habit once the mind has seen where the truth lies, in order to steep and stain ourselves in that belief…, for it is too much trouble to have the proofs always present before us… When we believe only by the strength of our own conviction and the automation is inclined to believe the opposite, that is not enough. We must therefore make both parts of us believe: the mind by reasons, which need to be seen only once in a lifetime, and the automation by habit…
(Pascal – Pensees)

In my book, “Pursuing Wisdom: Unmasking Theology” I define a Mode as the behavioral response of a conscious or subconscious pre-selection of automation in reaction to insecurity or ambiguity. The idea is that in order to cope with the natural insecurities man faces in light of being disconnected with God by sin, there is a defense mechanism set in place within us to choose our own way to resolve this fear. Obiously man is powerless to create his own true eternal security. There is only the illusion, the shroud that can be pulled over in order to mask what is really going on. Therefore the most content human, apart from having salvation in Jesus, would be the true dualist or the pantheist who is so completely detatched from the existence of this insecurity that they experience an illusion of peace. The effort of my book is to assist in unearthing modes with the Christian so that he/she may engage in a deeper more genuine relationship with Jesus Christ.

Pascal’s words in the excerpt above provide a helpful insight into understanding that automation, in itself, is not bad. Automation, or habit, is a part of every human. The effort of trying to remove habit completely from our lives and live completely by constant choice in every situation would be quite disastrous. Likely, there would be emotional breakdowns in the grocery aisles as to which brand to buy and by the end of the day, if one made it that far, he/she would be a basket-case without automation. I think what Pascal is saying here is that automation can be a good tool when proper ideas of belief are “steeped” or “stained”. And yet I think that Pascal skipped over a danger here about the automations, the habits that perpetuate our self-dependency. The “modes” that exist in us usurp our efforts to engage in honest discourse with our Lord and in our fellowship. In growing up in a Christian home, I knew well how to put on Christianity. If someone in discipleship came to me and said I just need to give myself over to Jesus, then I would, of course, “do” that. But the true surrender is a heart issue. Therefore, while I completely believe that it is the Holy Spirit who does the transforming in us (Rom. 8:26-27; Jn 14:26), I also believe that He offers us opportunities to unmask these modes in our lives by deeply acknowledging where we have been dependent on ourselves not just in our daily choices but in automation as well.

Pascal’s advice is valuable because it takes automation and properly positions it as a method of firmly rooting our beliefs. Pascal was a rationalist who recognized that completely relying on empirical “truths” is not stable for Christian development. These “truths” are often subjective and this is proved by simply observing that many times fixed constants are actually unfixable variables (Pursuing Wisdom 108,138). If automation is used to ground the proper belief then we can move on in our sanctification. But if we don’t at least acknowledge that there can be faulty automation within us, then we will continue to operate in mode and thus taint our walk and the walks of those that come in contact with us. We must look within and pray that the Holy Spirit will unearth the foundations in us that are not rooted in Jesus.