A mathematical genius, a philosopher, and a devout Christian, Blaise Pascal’s notions of free will and personal responsibility were complicated by his sense of faith and duty.
Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists.
— Pascal’s Wager
|1642||Invents a simple adding machine to assist his father, a tax collector.|
|1654||Enters the convent/monastery at Port-Royal and dedicates his life to religious meditations and writings.|
|1670||Pensées published posthumously.|
Blaise Pascal is best known as a mathematician and scientist, but he dedicated the later half of his life to religious study and philosophy. As a mathematician, Pascal is credited with the modern theory of probability, the properties of the cycloid, and advancements in differential calculus. His experiments with fluids and their tendencies toward equilibrium led to the hydraulic press.
It is possible to make a comparison between Pascal and Edmund Husserl. Both men were dedicated to mathematics and formal logic. However, their logical studies led to philosophical questions about the nature of existence. As a young man Pascal came under Jansenist influence. At the age of 30 or 31, Pascal experienced a religious awakening. In 1654 he entered the convent/monastery at Port-Royal, devoting his attention primarily to religious writing. His works include Provincial Letters, a defense of the Jansenists; and the Pensées, which preach the necessity of mystic faith in understanding the universe.
Pascal's philosophy is a also forerunner of Kierkegaard's. Pascal concluded that faith is not logical, in much the same way that Kierkegaard concluded that religion was a "leap of faith" requiring pure devotion. For Pascal, this philosophy was the result of a lifetime dedicated to science that could not explain his own religious faith.
The most famous of Pascal's attempts to explain his religious commitment wasPascal's Razor. Paraphrased, Pascal stated that it made more sense to believe in God, in case He existed, than to deny the existence of God and risk the consequences. The difficulty in this argument is that it makes it possible to argue that one should believe in all religions, as that would lower the potential risks of an afterlife considerably.
- Provincial Letters, Essays: 1656
- Pensées, Aphorisms: 1670
QuotesWe run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it. PenséesMan finds nothing so intolerable as to be in a state of complete rest, without passions, without occupation, without diversion, without effort. Then he feels his nullity, loneliness, inadequacy, dependence, helplessness, emptiness. PenséesMan is only a reed, the weakest in nature; but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapor, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows nothing of this. PenséesIt is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason. PenséesMen never do evil so fully and cheerfully as when we do it out of conscience. Pensées