Blaise Pascal

Pascal was a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist born in 1623 in Clermont, France. He is best known for what is called Pascal’s Wager, in which he explains that since God might or might not exist, you might as well act as if he does, since if you’re wrong you lose nothing, but if you’re right you gain eternal happiness. As a mathematician, Pascal worked on probabilities and what is known as decision theory, which he uses in his Wager. As a scientist, he attempted to disapprove Aristotle’s belief that vacuums do not exist in nature. As a philosopher, he embraced skepticism (the belief that knowledge is uncertain), and argued that knowledge is ultimately based on intuition. Pascal is considered to be the start of what is known as Christian existentialism, because he saw faith as that which allows man to find happiness in an otherwise harsh universe.

Before becoming philosophical and religious, which he is now best known for, Pascal became famous in Paris as a mathematician, scientist, and inventor. He invented the first mechanical calculator as well as a wheel for playing roulette. He became interested in gambling problems, and developed the study of probabilities and what is known as decision theory. Today, he is also known for what is called Pascal’s triangle, which shows different relationships that exist between numbers.

Pascal recognized that geometric truths, although they make use of logic and reason, are fundamentally based on axioms which cannot be proven. In this way, the fundamental principles upon which geometry is based, are accepted not on the basis of reason, but on intuition. After becoming religious later in life, Pascal would extend this belief to explain that all knowledge of fundamental principles comes through intuition, and therefore faith in God. The French philosopher Descartes would disagree with him on this point, believing instead that we can come to know fundamental principles on the basis of reason.

As a scientist, Pascal contributed to our understanding of the scientific method by explaining that if even one instance is found where a theory is contradicted, that theory therefore cannot be true. Pascal was interested in pressure, and would invent a hydraulic press as well as the syringe. He would also become interested in barometers. Aristotle had believed that vacuums did not exist in nature, since “Everything that is in motion must be moved by something.” After conducting experiments, Pascal argued that the space found in a barometer alongside mercury was caused by air pressure, and therefore that the existence of a vacuum was in fact possible.

For Pascal, science was valuable in so far as one learned about the world through sensory experience. Likewise, mathematical reasoning was valuable because it allowed one to draw conclusions on the basis of accepted principles. However, because Pascal recognized that fundamental principles, such as those of geometry, are only obtained through intuition, he rejected both the belief that knowledge comes to us through reason (i.e. rationalism) as well as that knowledge comes to us fundamentally through the senses (i.e. empiricism).

Pascal had been influenced by the earlier French philosopher and Christian thinker Montaigne, who belief that since humans are finite beings, human knowledge is fundamentally uncertain. Pascal goes so far as to say that even skepticism is uncertain, since “It is not certain that nothing is uncertain.” He believed that atheists (those who believe God does not exist) and skeptics (those who withhold judgment) have come up with good reasons, but ultimately the existence of God is not something that can be proven to be true or false based on reason. There is a limit to reason, and therefore to be a Christian means to submit to having faith.

After becoming famous as a mathematician, scientist and inventor, Pascal had a mystical experience which led him believe in God and Christianity. He embraced Catholicism, and famously attacked the Jesuits in his writings The Provincial Letters. He was annoyed at how the Jesuits seemed to let people off the hook for sinning by what he considered to be false reasoning (known as casuistry). Finally, Pascal will put forth his own philosophy in a work known as Pensees (“Thoughts”), where he famously puts forth what is known as Pascal’s Wager.

Pascal explains that God either exists or he doesn’t, and that it is impossible to know with certainty which is true. For this reason, he is opposed to all those philosophers and theologians who attempt to prove God’s existence based on rational arguments. Even though we don’t know whether God exists or not, nevertheless Pascal explains that we must make a choice. Since we are alive, we must choose to act as if he does or doesn’t. There is no way around it. Since we must choose, Pascal explains that the rational thing to do is to choose to act if God does exist, since we have nothing to lose if we are wrong, but everything to gain if we are right. This is known as Pascal’s Wager.

In this way, while Pascal opposes rational arguments for God’s existence, he explains why it is nevertheless rational to act as if God does exist. Since one can’t simply believe something because they want to, Pascal goes on to encourage people to perform Christian rituals which are intended to make someone more likely to truly come to believe in God. Pascal’s Wager will be argued against by the French philosopher Diderot, who explains that “an Imam could reason the same way,” and therefore that there is no reason to believe in a Christian God or the Christian belief that one will be rewarded in the afterlife with eternal happiness anymore than it would make sense to believe in the truths of Islam or any other religion.

Pascal himself actually believed in God. He sees the world as a harsh place, and man as a weak creature. He writes, “What a chimera then is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe!” In his Pensees, he seeks to show people just how weak man is, in order to get people to embrace the Christian faith and way of life, which he sees as a light in a world of darkness. As such, he is considered to be the start of what will become known as Christian existentialism, most famously expressed by the 19th century philosopher Kierkegaard.

Following Augustine, a medieval philosopher and theologian who deeply influenced Catholicism, Pascal embraced the doctrine of original sin. He recognizes that the idea that all human beings are flawed because they’ve inherited a sin committed thousands of years ago by Adam goes against all notions of reason and justice. However, he sees man as a weak and flawed creature, and therefore explains that “man is more inconceivable without this mystery than this mystery is inconceivable to man.” Recognizing the limits of reason, Pascal is willing to embrace faith that God has revealed fundamental truths to particular people over time, which he sees as the truths of the Christian faith.

Pascal would be opposed by Descartes, who took up the position that it was possible to known fundamental principles. What Pascal considered intuition, Descartes saw as reason. While both of these French philosophers were also famous mathematicians, scientists, and true believers in God and Christianity, they are separated in this way by their philosophies, and in particular, their understanding of the limits of reason. Pascal’s Wager breaks with the tradition of arguing for the existence of God on the basis of reason, instead putting forth a practical reason for believing in God, or at least acting as if he exists. Pascal’s contributions to math and science have led to a programming language being named after him (PASCAL), and today he is recognized as one of the greatest French writers of his time.