Blaise Pascal: Man of Faith

Blaise Pascal was born in Clermont, France, 1623.

Beginning at the age of two years old, Pascal lived in very poor health. He was never employed, and was constantly taken care of by his sisters Jacqueline and Gilberte. His mother died when he was three, but his father Étienne was an accomplished mathematician, which provided his family with a relatively wealthy upbringing.

While at home, Pascal’s father gave him an education in mathematics. This background developed Pascal’s inquisitive mind, and he began making progress within the field. At the age of sixteen, Pascal wrote Essai pour les coniques, a short essay about conics; in 1645, he started designing a calculating machine. The next year, he began studying barometry; Pascal would then devise an experiment comparing the heights of mercury in barometric tubes at different altitudes. This experiment would provide the necessary framework for later scientists to prove the existence of a vacuum above the atmosphere, which Pascal had predicted. In honor of his mathematical prowess, the pascal unit of pressure was named after him (1971). Another notable piece in mathematics was Traité du triangle arithmétique (1654), which attested to much of his work in probability theory.

Then in 1651, Pascal’s father died, and his sisters departed from his side, leaving him alone.

Three years later (1654), Pascal had a near-death experience that would ultimately turn the focus of his work toward religion; this event had profound effects on how Pascal viewed the world, and was documented in a short piece of his: Memorial. Some historians suggest that this incident, in combination with the death of his father and leaving of his family, caused a manic Pascal to adopt supernatural guidance — his only consolation from a life of misery.

Pascal abandoned his scientific inquiries, and converted to Jansenism — a sect of Catholicism. Much of his explanations of Jansenism were outlined in Provincial Letters; this piece was written in defense of Antoine Arnauld, a fellow Jansenist whose ideas were censored by the Catholic church. Provincial Letters was one of Pascal’s most influential works, setting him down the road to question the validity of reason in religion.

Toward the latter years of his life, in a state of declining health, Pascal began working out his own views on faith. In a posthumously released collection of his notes, titled Pensées, Pascal detailed how knowledge (or more accurately, belief) of God can only be acquired by faith, and also proposed Pascal’s Wager, which according to his understanding of probability theory, suggested that believing in God is the rational (or most beneficial) choice. The ideas submitted in Pensées were Pascal’s most famous philosophical contribution, and remain fundamental to the Catholic faith today.

He later died in 1662, at the age of thirty-nine.

Glossary

Faith: A belief in God despite a lack of reason.

Reason: A tool that uses logic to form knowledge. An idea that uses reason is called rational.

Pascal’s Wager: An explanation, according to decision theory, that describes why believers in God benefit more than non-believers.

Decision Theory: An application of probability theory that determines the value of every possible decision.

Decision Matrix: A table that helps visualize how decision theory works. Along the top are outcomes, along the side are actions, and the cells are comprised of expectations.

Outcomes: A set of possible world-states that are considered in the determination of an action’s expectation. For example: there are two outcomes in Pascal’s Wager — either God exists, or he does not.

Actions: The decisions that an agent can make. For example: believing in God, or not believing in God.

  • This may be contradictory to Pascal’s account of faith, which states that belief in God is not a decision. If so, then this is a flaw of Pascal’s Wager.

Expectations: The result of actions based on the possible outcomes. For example: the expectation of believing in God in the outcome that he is real, is infinite happiness. The expectation of denying God in the outcome that he is real, is infinite misery.

Benefit: When the overall value of an expectation is good rather than bad. This can be understood in a utilitarian sense — good is what makes an agent happy, and bad is what makes an agent miserable.

Rational Decision: The decision to take whichever action that provides the most benefit.

Faith

Blaise Pascal suggested that God is infinite and eternal. Human understanding is incapable of grasping these concepts through reason. Therefore, God cannot be understood by reason.

“If one submits everything to reason, our religion will contain nothing that is mysterious or supernatural.”

Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Rather, anything ‘known’ about God is merely belief. But how can one believe something which they do not understand? Pascal suggests that faith provides a belief in God.

Faith is the belief in God despite a lack of reason. It cannot be explained any further, because it is by definition, irrational. Fortunately for Pascal, one need not be convinced of faith. Rather, it is a gift from God. Therefore, only those chosen (or “predestined”) by God can believe in him. Nobody can believe in God by way of reason.

This account of faith may seem contradictory. It is intended to be.

Reason

René Descartes was not receptive to Pascal’s account of faith. He suggested that God can be known through reason; in the third chapter of Meditations, Descartes lays out his argument.

In summary: our ability to conceive of something maximally real means that something maximally real must exist, and this is God.

Reason is the use of logic to form conclusions; it is how philosophy is generally done.

Comparison

Both Pascal and Descartes were Christians, French, mathematicians, and are considered philosophers. They had more philosophical similarities than differences, even in their epistemology. In terms of the physical world, Pascal submitted that knowledge is attainable. He saw the value of reason in pursuits like science, which could explain mundane things like how vacuums work. Descartes took the value of reason even further, and thought that it could explain the existence of God.

Pascal did not see the value of reason when it came to the divine, for the mysteriousness of God could not (or should not) be explained by any principle. Rather, faith provides a belief in God, which is as close as we can get to knowledge about the divine.

If philosophy makes use of reason (as Descartes would suggest), does Pascal’s concept of faith count as such? In regard to his theology, was Pascal a philosopher? Furthermore, how can Pascal’s irrational belief in God be reconciled with his rational understanding of the physical world? These are difficult questions to answer, and perhaps show the relationship between religion and philosophy.

Pascal’s Wager

Recall that God chooses who has faith (is a believer) and who does not (is a non-believer), so the acquirement of faith exists outside of reason. Therefore, non-believers cannot be convinced into believing.

Pascal’s Wager (from Pensées) is not an argument for God, and does not attempt to convince anyone (for Pascal knew this was impossible). Rather, it attempts to show — based on decision theory — why believing is more beneficial than not believing.

There are two possible outcomes: either God exists, or he does not.

In the outcome that God does exist, and one believes in God (which is considered an action), then one can expect to be rewarded with eternal happiness — meaning they will go to heaven. If one does not believe in God, then pne can expect to be punished with eternal misery — they will go to hell.

In the outcome that God does not exist, both believing in God and not believing in God will result in the same expectation — nothing.

Therefore, the only action with potential benefit is to believe in God. According to decision theory, this is a “rational decision.”

“Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is… If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.”

Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Again, much of Pascal’s Wager may seem contradictory according to the definitions provided in the glossary. It is in fact contradictory, but objections will not be addressed here.

The Value of Pascal

Pascal’s greatest contribution to philosophy is not rational. Despite this, we still refer to him as a philosopher. This is because philosophy is not necessarily a practice in the use of reason. So perhaps philosophy is less rigidly defined; if we are to include Pascal in the “philosophical canon,” we must admit so. But then what is philosophy, and what makes Pascal included?

I submit that philosophy is the use of ‘influential thinking,’ whether rational or not. Therefore, Pascal can be understood as a thinker whose idea of faith was so influential to the Catholic tradition, that he maintains the title of philosopher. Other examples of Pascal’s thinking will support this. His experiment with barometric tubes was so influential, that he is honored today by the pascal unit.

Therefore, Pascal deserves a place in the philosophical canon due to his influence on human thought, despite it being irrational (when in regards to God).

My case for why Pascal should replace any philosopher on the syllabus is weak. If the value of a philosopher, by my previous definition, is their influence on human thought, than Blaise Pascal should replace Margaret Cavendish because she is less influential than the rest. This case is certainly questionable.