Blaise Pascal (June 19, 1623–August 19, 1662) was a French mathematician, physicist, and religious philosopher. Pascal was a child prodigy, who was educated by his father. Pascal's earliest work was in the natural and applied sciences, where he made important contributions to the construction of mechanical calculators and the study of fluids, and clarified the concepts of pressure and vacuum by expanding the work of Evangelista Torricelli. Pascal also wrote powerfully in defence of the scientific method.

He was a mathematician of the first order. In mathematics, Pascal helped create two major new areas of research. He wrote a significant treatise on the subject of projective geometry at the age of sixteen and corresponded with Pierre de Fermat from 1654 on probability theory, strongly influencing the development of modern economics and social science.

Following a mystical experience in late 1654, he left mathematics and physics and devoted himself to reflection and writing about philosophy and theology. His two most famous works date from this period: the Lettres provinciales and the Pensées. However, he had suffered from ill-health throughout his life and his new interests were ended by his early death two months after his 39th birthday.

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The Pensees

Unfortunately, Pascal couldn't finish his most influential theological work, the Pensées, before his death. It was to have been a sustained and coherent examination of and defense of the Christian faith, with the original title Apologie de la religion Chrétienne ("Apology of the Christian Religion"). What was found upon sifting through his personal items after his death were numerous scraps of paper with isolated thoughts, grouped in a tentative, but telling, order. The first version of the detached notes appeared in print as a book in 1670 titled Pensées de M. Pascal sur la réligion, et sur quelques autres sujets ("Thoughts of M. Pascal on religion, and on other subjects") and soon thereafter became a classic. Because his friends and the scholars at Port-Royal were concerned that these fragmentary "thoughts" might lead to skepticism rather than to piety, they concealed the skeptical pieces and modified some of the rest, lest King or Church should take offense for at that time the persecution of Port-Royal had ceased, and the editors were not interested in a renewal of controversy. Not until the nineteenth century were the Pensées published in their full and authentic text.

Pascal's Pensées sits among the most profound and beautifully written masterpieces in the history of the world. When commenting on one particular section, Sainte-Beuve praised it as the finest pages in the French language. Will Durant, in his 11-volume, comprehensive The Story of Civilization series, hailed it as "the most eloquent book in French prose." In Pensées, Pascal surveys several philosophical paradoxes: infinity and nothing, faith and reason, soul and matter, death and life, meaning and vanity—seemingly arriving at no definitive conclusions besides humility, ignorance, and grace. Rolling these into one he develops Pascal's Wager.

Pascal's Wager

Pascal's Wager (also known as Pascal's Gambit) is Blaise Pascal's application of decision theory to the belief in God. It is one of three 'wagers' which appear in his Pensées, a collection of notes for an unfinished treatise on Christian apologetics. Pascal argues that it is always a better "bet" to believe in God, because the expected value to be gained from believing in God is always greater than the expected value resulting from non-belief. Note that this is not an argument for the existence of God, but rather one for the belief in God. Pascal specifically aimed the argument at such persons who were not convinced by traditional arguments for the existence of God. With his wager he sought to demonstrate that believing in God is advantageous to not believing, and hoped that this would convert those who rejected previous theological arguments.

Explanation

It states that if you were to analyse your options in regard to belief in Pascal's God carefully (or belief in any other religious system with a similar reward and punishment scheme), you would come out with the following possibilities:

  • You may believe in God, and God exists, in which case you go to heaven: your gain is infinite.
  • You may believe in God, and God doesn't exist, in which case your loss is finite and therefore negligible.
  • You may not believe in God, and God doesn't exist, in which case your gain is finite and therefore negligible.
  • You may not believe in God, and God exists, in which case you will go to hell: your loss is infinite.

From these possibilities, and the principles of statistics, Pascal deduced that it would be better to believe in God unconditionally. It is a classic application of "game theory" to itemize options and payoffs and is valid within its assumptions.

Mystical Experience

When Pascal was 31 years old he had a mystical experience which apparently he never mentioned to anyone. He did however write down a brief and very moving summary of it, apparently (from the title) so that he would never forget it. He sewed this into the lining of his coat, and after his early death from stomach cancer his servant found the parchment. This translation is by Emile Caillet and John C. Blankenagel, Great Shorter Works of Pascal, Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1948.

Memorial

In the year of grace, 1654, on Monday, 23rd of November, Feast of St Clement, Pope and Martyr, and others in the Martyrology. Vigil of St Chrysogonus, Martyr, and others.

From about half past ten in the evening until about half past twelve.

Fire!

God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,
Not of the philosophers and scholars.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
God of Jesus Christ.
"Thy God and my God."
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except God.
He is to be found only in the ways taught in the Gospel.
Greatness of the Human Soul.

"Righteous Father, the world hath not known Thee,
But I have known Thee."

Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have separated myself from Him.
"They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters."
"My God, wilt Thou leave me?"
Let me not be separated from Him eternally.

"This is eternal life, That they might know Thee, the only true God,
And Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent."

Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.

I have separated myself from Him:
I have fled from Him,
denied Him,
crucified Him.
Let me never be separated from Him.
We keep hold of Him only by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Renunciation, total and sweet.
Total submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.
Eternally in joy for a day's training on earth.
"I will not forget thy words."

Amen.

Online works

  • Pensees (translated by W. F. Trotter)