Mind and Body:
From René Descartes to William James

"Where There is Gambling, There is Faith":
Exploring the Grounds for Risk-Tasking

Story Evolution

A dialogue following on Grobstein's
Writing Descartes ...

George Fox, featured at an
Exhibit on "Assertive Quakers"

Throughout the 'logues and postings of this site, which explores the interactions between "being and thinking," there is repeatedly sounded a keynote about "risk-taking." I'd like to take a little time here to draw out that note, and to sound alongside it both a general query about the role that "faith" plays in our willingness to take risks, as well as a more pointed one (to anyone interested in biting) about wherein their faith lies.

My touchstones are three:

Trying to figure out--by writing out--what it is I "think" about this matter will, I expect, take me to my own faith that our brains, in interaction with their various parts, with one another's brains, and with the world, are rich and resourceful enough that I (we?) can have "faith," and a sense of "justification," in their outcomes...but let's see where this goes. Something else interesting could turn up along the way....

I want to begin with the novel (my current obsession), Monique Truong's The Book of Salt. The narrator, who has just lost his job because of a sexual indiscretion with a colleague, is engaged (pp. 193-196) in an argument with his dead father. The old man, who made a steady income by surrounding himself with "gamblers desperate for good luck in any form," has evoked his life-time mantra that "where there is gambling, there is faith." He is now, after death, charging his son with failure: "you gambled and you lost." His son defends what he has done:

Yes...I gambled. I gambled away my position...a pitiful lifetime tenure that...I was not lucky to have....I gambled away the ...coveted position....I gambled away a future--"better," I know, was presumed....

I took one look at [my lover's] face and one look around me, and I thought, Really, what do I have to lose? The answer to this question, believe me, depends on what the gambler believes is fixed and constant in his life. What will always be there? What will never change? Even if the gambler should lose is the implied condition tacked onto the end of these questions. Another way of thinking about it is: What does the gambler have faith in? Those who never wager, I imagine, do not have to ask themselves these questions, never have to acknowledge that the answers are few. The answer, or if he is truly lucky, the answers, define the gambler's notions of risk and restraint. If "nothing" is the gambler's answer, he is bound to lose because there is nothing to guide him back from the edge, nothing but the urge to jump. Risk encourages a gambler to be brave. Restraint advises a gambler to be prudent. It is the balance between the two that keeps him in the game.

I had faith....You had no...faith in me whatsoever, if you thought that I was naive enough to see salvation in [my lover's] arms....I understood the limitations, the demarcations, the barbed-wire rules of such engagement....In his eyes...I did not see a promotion....I did not see a paid ticket to somewhere else--"better," again, was presumed....I did not see my savior. I saw a man worth gambling for because I had faith....

The narrator, of course, stops short of saying wherein his faith lies. But his claim made me start wondering wherein (if at all) our own rests. The word "faith" has been very little used in the various conversations swirling around this site:

There is much other description, throughout these pages, of managing risk:

These last two points sound what seems the base note/bottom line throughout the dialogues, the suggestion that we might give a go at understanding "risk" as "opportunity": It is precisely in the space of not being sure how to act, and hence acting in the face of "risk", that one has the room to become something different from what one has been.

So: my question for anyone who's been traveling this way, and wants to go a little further, is this: if, not knowing the road, we have committed our life to a way (the way of gambling, of risk-taking) wherein lies our faith that doing so will be productive?

This seems a complicated question to me, one without a certain answer, because I have still echoing in my head the sound of some 300 years (!) of Quaker Advices:

Shun the use of ...gambling....these practices lead to a personal willfulness...to self-absorption and to forgetfulness that each person's humanity is share by all persons. Epistles of the Yearly Meeting of Pennsylvania and the Jerseys, 1694-1695.

We are faced at every hand with enticement to risk money in anticipation of disproportionate gain through gambling....The Religious Society of Friends continues to bear testimony against betting, gambling, lotteries, speculation, or any other endeavor to receive material gain without equivalent exchange, believing that we owe an honest return for what we receive. Faith and Practice, Baltimore Yearly Meeting, 1988.

Gambling, even in the forms of sweepstakes and lotteries... harms the community by fostering a get-rich-quick, and something-for-nothing attitude. Faith and Practice, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1997.

Of course one strong strand of the Quaker caution has to do with the ways in which a strong addiction can draw us away from engagement with others (or with God). There has been considerable related discussion on this site, this summer, of the "addictive" (and so destructive) quality of internet conversations; one correspondent has described Serendip as an intellectual stimulant drug; another mentions the way the "obsessive" nature of web-work can draw us out and away from creative places of individual meaning-making . Those are important matters for further thinking.

But the main point right now seems to me to be other. Here (at long last; thanks if you're still with me) is where I've arrived: Quakerism, in its search for justice and equality (not to mention the certainty of simple truth), insists on "equivalent exchange," advises against risk-taking without predictable and equitable return. Writing Descartes has taken the risk that, in an unjust world, exchange will not be equivalent, that what is offered will often generate no return, but may sometimes return far beyond what is given. Taking such a risk is grounded not in a conviction in equality, or justice, or rightness, but rather in a conviction that those who neither expect a return for what they give, nor give up on the process of searching together, may generate something far beyond what any of us alone has dreamed of--and in that we can trust.


So pertaining to that wonderful risk synthesis page and my sudden feelings that my risks are less risky than I'd originally thought, I went on Serendip and found this: Risk-Enhancing Phenomena in Gambling . Key points:

1) Similar to previous findings, the results indicated that risk-taking behaviour increases as one becomes more familiar with the gambling activity.

This is true with Serendip--I know what it's about, who it's about, I've been there before, "won" more than "lost" and knowing the drill makes me want to participate more... this is not so for people who've never entered--it's easier to be somewhere you've been before... even if you are exploring in new ways.

2) It was hypothesized that people playing in groups would exhibit more risky behaviour than those playing alone.

The playground of Serendip encourages group play--if one person opens up, you have the courage to open up more- with yourself and with others.

3) Although players in our study realized that the outcome of the game was uncontrollable, they kept betting more as they progressed through the experiment. It has been suggested that when people win, they perceive the "illusion of control" ...to a greater extent, and eventually bet irrationally to satisfy their beliefs....

So what is "winning" for me anyway, winning is getting an e mail or a response that shows me that I have helped with some forward motion--that I am helping build the bridge, the fort, the cathedral--without myself being torn down. This feeling of winning is artifical, superficial--ego based... BUT it is also human... The difference between something like Serendip and gambling is indeed that "beyond the ego" part... the part that helps us genuinely get somewhere with ideas... WITH GAMBLING YOU'RE AIMING TO GET SOMETHING, with such intellectual gambles, like those on Serendip you're aiming to get somewhere...a somewhere which doesn't just help you but others... the other centeredness, the something larger, is what makes it ultimately worthwhile... and of course as you're trying to get "there" you realize that the important part is the forward motion... I agree with you that

Taking such a risk is grounded not in a conviction in equality, or justice, or rightness, but rather in a conviction that those who neither expect a return for what they give, nor give up on the process of searching together, may generate something far beyond what any of us alone has dreamed of--and in that we can trust.

If that's true, how does one get to that point?

1) Through embracing messiness.
"In the rubble of devastation and disaster are buried hidden treasures"

2) Through not worrying about loss...
"Lose everything, and the real will still remain"

3) Through a conviction that your blanket will come out of the dryer and that you will survive in the interim and besides it's your duty as a part of a larger "body of humans" (the mind-body problem could also be thought of in a more plural sense... WE think therefore...). Anyway, it's your duty to put your blanket in the dryer once and a while...

It's not so much that we're afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it's that place inbetween that we fear... it's like being between trapezes. It's Linus with his blanket in the dryer. There's nothing to hold onto. -Marilyn Ferguson

Charles Dubois said, The important thing is this: to become able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become. To me this relates to what you said:

So: my question for anyone who's been traveling this way, and wants to go a little further, is this: if, not knowing the road, we have committed our life to a way (the way of gambling, of risk-taking) wherein lies our faith that doing so will be productive?

I think that the problematic word there is the word productive... What do you mean by it? When people say productive I think that there's this element of "good, useful" being dragged along beside it... but everything that one does is in some way productive, in that something is being produced and that that something will in some way interact with another something and sometimes, with luck... create a new things (echoes of Evolit). So therefore one does not need to have "faith" that something will be productive... because everything is... maybe it isn't in the way that we want it to be... but that's where the human mind comes in... for example, something like cancer can be considered productive... cells multiply, spread... and sometimes kill... we call this destructive because the mind brings theory to it--emotions too (another under-explored part of the mind body problem) and so we see what's productive as destructive... I think what people have faith in/ hope for is that things will turn out in a somewhat controllable way-- that the body and mind will feel secure in the process of whatever is produced and if not, then it'll be for a greater good... for something beyond the comforts of the mind and body. Faith, to me, seems to be a bit of a human construct, a necessary one--but it also seems in direct opposition to words like productive.

Reading your page made me think of this poem by Rudyard Kipling, "If." Here are the parts I'm flagging...

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;

and an equally interesting part which I hadn't remembered...

If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim...

I like these parts--I think that there is no such thing as gambling or loss... there is just hurt and pain... we look for a reason (gambling) and a cause (loss)- but ultimately there is nothing that you can actually lose... you can hurt a lot... but everyone's already headed towards the ultimate loss of self, in death... here it might be interesting to insert that passage from The Mind-Body Problem where Noam gives a proof of whether or not one ceases to be the self once the mind is no more...

If you can think and not make thoughts your aim... hmmm... this definitely warrents a further exploration... if you can think without trying to think? If you can think without being concerned with thinking? That is to say, just be and allow thoughts to happen....

Okay I'm getting really tired here but here's a taste of the "else" of my thinking... Sartre from No Exit:

Estelle: I feel so queer. Don't you ever get taken that way? When I can't see myself I being to wonder if I really and truly exist. I pat myself just to make sure, but it doesn't help much.

Inez: You're lucky. I'm always conscious of myself--in my mind. Painfully conscious.

Estelle: Ah, yes, in your mind. But everything that goes on in one's head is so vague, isn't it? It makes one want to sleep. I've six big mirrors in my bedroom. There they are. I can see them. But they don't see me. They're reflecting the carpet, the settee, the window--but how empty it is, a glass in which I'm absent! When I talked to people I always made sure there was one near by in which I could see myself. I watched myself talking. And somehow it kept me alert, seeing myself as others saw me...

This idea of intellectual gambling and risk seems to be to be very much about others... risking is somehow affirming... wanting to see oneself as others see the self-- then realizing that it's ultimately not productive to look in the mirror all the time... that maybe "self" is a means of connecting with "other" and also that the mirror is somehow also the other--even a mirror can't provide an acurate picture of self. We think and we are but we can't really know/see who we are.

Finally Nietzsche, as he pertains to something ....your daughter Lily said...posted somewhere ... had to do with disappointments : In the end one loves one's desire and not what is desired (from part four of his Epigrams and Interludes).I think it would be fun to do a mind/body problem symposium or something--a spin off of the beauty one--

Perhaps there is something useful in all of this unfiltered thought association?

Yes, "useful," "productive," "filterable"--and " squeezable," as you yourself showed in the "final bite" you took on the forum, where these thoughts have "become simpler and clearer." And therein lies the faith--that our musing aloud, mirroring back, exchanging thoughts, expanding thoughts, tightening our thinking, will always be productive in this way: a conviction that those who neither expect a return for what they give, nor give up on the process of searching together, may generate something far beyond what any of us alone has dreamed of--and in that we can trust.

See on-line forum for continuing conversation and to leave your own thoughts.

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