Happy Birthday, Blaise Pascal!

Blaise Pascal, crayon drawing by Jean Domat, c. 1649, in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Blaise Pascal, born on June 19th, 1623 in Auvergne, France, was a mathematician, philosopher, physicist, scientist, theologian, inventor, and writer.

This polymath was so talented in so many areas that any one of them could have kept his memory and influence alive to this day. Steven West writes in Philosophize This that we could ‘feel completely inadequate when we learn that he invented the calculator (yes, the calculator) at age 18.’ David Simpson writes in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘In mathematics, he was an early pioneer in the fields of game theory and probability theory. In philosophy, he was an early pioneer in existentialism. As a writer on theology and religion, he was a defender of Christianity.’ Jean Orcibal and Lucien Jerphagnon write for Encyclopædia Britannica, ‘He laid the foundation for the modern theory of probabilities, formulated what came to be known as Pascal’s principle of pressure, and propagated a religious doctrine that taught the experience of God through the heart rather than through reason.’

Pascal’s Wager is probably his best-known idea, keeping his name alive in popular culture as well as among scholars. The argument can be summarized thusly: You can believe in God, or not believe in God. When it comes to the effect of the state of your belief on your possible eternal afterlife, if you don’t believe in God, you may very well be damned for all eternity. But if you do believe in God, you may achieve salvation. When it comes to the effect of your state of belief on your life here on Earth, whether or not you believe in God, your life will not be affected hugely. We’re all constrained as a matter of course by cultural expectations and codes of behavior, after all. The religious constraints we might find inconvenient and even tedious sometimes don’t, generally, significantly burden your life more than any others, while the practice of religion can add a great deal of meaning and satisfaction to life. Since we stand to gain much more than we might lose, all in all, it’s the most logical and therefore best bet to believe in God.

Now Pascal is an extremely intelligent man, and he knows belief is something you can’t just flip on like a light switch. That’s why he advises that the prudent person will choose to believe in God for the reasons described above and then behave as if they believed it. With enough acts of piety, religious study, and time among other virtuous and true believers, they are bound to end up believers themselves. This is very insightful psychologically: it accords well with what we now know about how the brain works, and his ‘fake it till you make it’ belief formation process is very like modern cognitive behavior therapy. Enact the change you wish to see in your mind, and your mind will follow, or to use modern terminology in common use, your brain will be ‘rewired’.

I’ve heard many people object to Pascal’s Wager on the grounds that they think religion does have too many negative effects to accept that the wager in favor of God-belief is a good bet. To ignore what your reason tells you about how unlikely it is that anything exists outside of the natural world, and that contradictions within and among the scriptures of the world indicate that none of them are divinely inspired, and so on, makes you a traitor to reason and critical thinking and science. It undermines your ability to perceive and understand the real world on its own terms. And betraying your own powers of reason, so that you can feel safe about an afterlife that no-one can demonstrate happens anyway, infantilizes you by subjugating your critical thinking to your superstitious fears.

I don’t buy the first objection anymore, though I once found it convincing. After all, few are better at reasoning and critical thinking than Pascal. His formidable powers of reason don’t appear undermined in any serious way overall considering his incredible lifetime achievements in mathematics, physics, logic, practical invention, and science. Choosing to believe in God clearly doesn’t seem to hamper his intellect one bit.

I still object to the Wager, but on these grounds: I think Pascal, unjustifiably, assumes too much when constructing his argument in the first place. Why, for example, bet on the idea that God would even be pleased by and liable to reward belief in him, even if eventually sincere, when it originates in this sort of self-serving calculation? Why not assume instead that God, if he exists, would reward honesty itself, whether in believers or nonbelievers, so long as their state of belief results from good faith efforts to seek truth? This seems, to me, more in line with the inclinations of the creator of a rational, ordered universe, the ultimate expression of reason, which in turn requires fearless, honest inquiry if it’s to be known, understood, and appreciated in the fullest way possible.

But this wager is just one relatively minor result of Pascal’s exploration of this fascinating world, and given his pioneering inquiries in the areas that would later be known as probability theory and game theory, it’s not surprising that, in brainstorming, he came up with this possible solution to the problems of belief vs. reason. And whether or not he got it right, it’s long captured the public imagination and really does make us think, as he’s done exquisitely during, and throughout the centuries after, his all-too-short life.

Learn more about the great Blaise Pascal:

Blaise Pascal – by Desmond Clarke for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) – by David Simpson for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 

Blaise Pascal: French Philosopher and Scientist – by Jean Orcibal and Lucien Jerphagnon for Encyclopædia Britannica

Pascal’s Wager and – +EV your way to success!! – by Steven West, Philosophize This!

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