Saturday, April 13, 2013

Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal was many things - a theological controversialist, a superb French stylist, an inventor, a scientist, and a mathematician. But he is most known for being a philosopher of the heart. ‘The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing; we know this in countless ways,’ he wrote in Pensées (or Thoughts, 1670), his unfinished book commending Christianity for skeptics. Given this and other references to the heart, many take Pascal to be an early religious existentialist, who, like Kierkegaard, disparaged reason and opted for an emotional leap of faith. One can only wager that God exists for the sake of what can be gained by believing in God if God does exist. This common description is a bit of caricature. The truth is more interesting.
Pascal was possibly the greatest mind of his day, despite a frail constitution and chronic pain. His mathematical and scientific abilities were prodigious and well known, sparking the envy of the older and eminent philosopher René Descartes. Pascal’s scientific research proved that, against received opinion, nature did not abhor a vacuum. He designed the first working calculating machine in order to aid his father in assessing taxes. He also engineered the first mass transit system to help the poor of Paris.
When Pascal discussed religion, he did not put aside his exceptional intellect or deny the power of reason. Instead, he employed a variety of arguments in support of Christian faith, despite the fact that he disparaged traditional arguments for God’s existence as too abstract and generic. (He distinguished ‘the God of the philosophers’ from ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’.) Some of his most searching and memorable lines come from his reflections on the human condition contained in the fragments of Pensées, which were written with the skeptic’s doubts in mind. Speaking for the baffled skeptic, he writes, ‘Why have limits been set upon my knowledge, my height, my life, making it a hundred rather than a thousand years?’ Pascal wanted the skeptic to be puzzled by his own contingency and to seek out answers to these riddles.
Pascal addressed this sense of cosmic wonder by delving into the condition of the one wondering. ‘What sort of freak then is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious!’ This polarity at the heart of humanity - or ‘greatness and misery’ - is both troublesome and resistant to simple explanation. Humans are neither angels nor beasts; neither entirely praiseworthy nor entirely blameworthy. They are, rather, enigmas to themselves.
Finding no consolation in human philosophy, Pascal appeals to biblical revelation to solve the riddle. We are great by virtue of our origin as God’s creatures, made in the divine image; we are miserable because of original sin. Pascal believed that the evidence for both propositions was abundant once one took them seriously.
Pascal presents this case as an argument for Christianity, but he realised the limitations of unaided human reason. Therefore, he attempts to strike a balance between conceiving Christianity as either an airtight rational system devoid of mystery or as a dark mystery that escapes understanding entirely. Nevertheless, there are ‘reasons of the heart,’ or first principles, which can be known intuitively. These include mathematical, common sense, and religious beliefs.
Pascal realised that some skeptics would not be convinced to embrace Christianity by evidence or rational arguments alone. Therefore, in the famous wager argument, he appealed to the eternal stakes involved in Christianity’s truth or falsity with respect to one’s belief or unbelief. The wager is not an argument for the existence of God (which the hardcore skeptic would reject), but rather concerns situations where one must make momentous prudential decisions under conditions of uncertainty. Pascal challenges the unbeliever to believe in God, despite the lack of proof, because of the infinite gain (heaven) that accompanies belief if Christianity is true. There is little for the believer to lose if Christianity is false. On the other hand, there is much to lose if Christianity is true and one fails to believe (the loss of heaven). A terse fragment outside the longer wager fragment captures the essence of this proposition: ‘I should be much more afraid of being mistaken and then finding out that Christianity is true than of being mistaken in believing it to be true.’
Therefore, Pascal advises the unbeliever to become a believer by engaging in certain religious practices that may result in belief and the eventual beatitude. But Pascal thinks the skeptic can in this way find certainty; it is not brainwashing. He may find ‘reasons of the heart.’ Pascal does not offer the wager as the essence of faith, but as a step toward truer faith.
Because of the fragmentary nature of Pensées, interpretations of the wager (and other arguments) differ, but readers of Pascal will, nevertheless, find themselves in for an intellectual adventure.
Douglas Groothuis
Suggested reading
Groothuis, D. 2003. On Pascal. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
Hammond, N. 2003. The Cambridge Companion to Pascal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Pascal , P. 1995 [1670]. Pensées. Harmondsdworth: Penguin.

1 comment:

Brian D Scarborough said...

Thanks for posting about my favorite philosopher/mathematician/apologist Blaise Pascal. I discovered him in college in a class on Modern French Philosophy. Then I encountered him again in a math class, Probability and Statistical Inference. I love reading the Pensees especially the one you referred to about the heart having reasons the reason knows not of.