Submitted by Charles Knighton
It has become a self-help axiom that one way to achieve an ambition is to act as though you had already done so: to become a winner act like a winner. Perhaps the most striking example of the flaws in this thinking comes not from a so-called life coach but a great Christian philosopher, Blaise Pascal.
Pascal reasoned that without knowing whether God existed or not, it was a better bet to believe that he did than that he didn’t. Believers had comfort in this life and a better chance of getting into any next one, while non-believers would have to live without any hope and no entry ticket through heaven’s gate, should it turn out to exist after all.
The logic of this is dubious, but even if it holds, how can you get yourself to believe in God if you don’t have good reasons to think he exists, merely that it would be good for you if you did believe?
Pascal’s answer is that you should act as though you do believe and, in time, belief will come: “He who is accustomed to the faith believes in it.” There seems to be something very wrong about this. By cultivating the right habits, a person may end up with what looks and feels like genuine piety. But since its basis is nothing more than a self-serving desire to tilt the odds of happiness and salvation in your favour, it can be no such thing.
This shows why there is more to who we are than what we do. What also matters is how and why we do it. For instance, one volunteer in a soup kitchen might be trying to impress a potential mate, while another doing exactly the same work could be acting out of a genuine sense of duty. What looks like the same action, even the same way of life, can in fact be very different, depending on the beliefs and desires that are driving it.
So the old saying “the habit does not make the monk” turns out to cover more than our appearance: what we do or how we behave can reflect, even mould, but not entirely make who we really are, which comes from within.
What might a close examination of our seemingly altruistic behaviour discern?