Blaise Pascal

Ideas

– The weakness of human reason leads to ultimate, complete skepticism.

– The misery of man without God is the ordinary human condition.

– Scientific knowledge cannot provide haappiness.

– There is the need for grace to be moral and happy.

– It is the nature of science that it is at best only hypothetical.

– Mathematics is true only as an axiom system.

– Ultimate knowledge is based on faith.

– Man has no choice but to seek God or reject him.

– With faith, one can provide ‘proofs’ of the Christian religion.

Biography

Blaise Pascal, mathematician, physicist, religious philosopher, inventor of the first digital calculator, was born at Clermont on June 19, 1623, and died at Paris on August 19, 1662.

His father, a local judge at Clermont, and himself of some scientific reputation, moved to Paris in 1631, partly to prosecute his own scientific studies, partly to carry on the education of his only son, who had already displayed exceptional ability. Pascal was kept at home in order to ensure his not being overworked, and with the same object it was directed that his education should be at first confined to the study of languages, and should not include any mathematics.

This naturally excited the boy’s curiosity, and one day, being then twelve years old, he asked in what geometry consisted. His tutor replied that it was the science of constructing exact figures and of determining the proportions between their different parts. Pascal, stimulated no doubt by the injunction against reading it, gave up his play-time to this new study, and in a few weeks had discovered for himself many properties of figures, and in particular the proposition that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles. His father, struck by this display of ability, gave him a copy of Euclid’s Elements, a book which Pascal read with avidity and soon mastered.

At the age of fourteen he was admitted to the weekly meetings of Roberval, Mersenne, Mydorge, and other French geometricians; from which, ultimately, the French Academy sprung. At sixteen Pascal wrote an essay on conic sections; and in 1641, at the age of eighteen, he constructed the first arithmetical machine, an instrument which, eight years later, he further improved. His correspondence with Fermat about this time shews that he was then turning his attention to analytical geometry and physics. He repeated Torricelli’s experiments, by which the pressure of the atmosphere could be estimated as a weight, and he confirmed his theory of the cause of barometrical variations by obtaining at the same instant readings at different altitudes on the hill of Puy-de-Dôme.

In 1650, when in the midst of these researches, Pascal suddenly abandoned his favorite pursuits to study religion, or, as he says in his Pensées, “contemplate the greatness and the misery of man”; and about the same time he persuaded the younger of his two sisters to enter the Port Royal society.

In 1653 he had to administer his father’s estate. He now took up his old life again, and made several experiments on the pressure exerted by gases and liquids; it was also about this period that he invented the arithmetical triangle, and together with Fermat created the calculus of probabilities. He was meditating marriage when an accident again turned the current of his thoughts to a religious life. He was driving a four-in-hand on November 23, 1654, when the horses ran away; the two leaders dashed over the parapet of the bridge at Neuilly, and Pascal was saved only by the traces breaking. He considered this a special summons to abandon the world. He wrote an account of the accident on a small piece of parchment, which for the rest of his life he wore next to his heart, to perpetually remind him of his covenant; and shortly moved to Port Royal, where he continued to live until his death in 1662. Constitutionally delicate, he had injured his health by his incessant study; from the age of seventeen or eighteen he suffered from insomnia and acute dyspepsia, and at the time of his death was physically worn out.

His famous Provincial Letters directed against the Jesuits, and his Pensées, were written towards the close of his life, and are the first example of that finished form which is characteristic of the best French literature. The only mathematical work that he produced after retiring to Port Royal was the essay on the cycloid in 1658. He was suffering from sleeplessness and toothache when the idea occurred to him, and to his surprise his teeth immediately ceased to ache. Regarding this as a divine intimation to proceed with the problem, he worked incessantly for eight days at it, and completed a tolerably full account of the geometry of the cycloid.

In ‘Pensées’ Pascal wrote: “Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is.”

Pascal’s studies deeply influenced the development of modern essay writing. The idea of intuition as presented in Pensées had an impact on the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), and Henri Bergson(1859-1941). Also the popularity of Provincial Letters has remained undiminished.

Pascal was among the first noteworthy philosophers who seriously questioned the existence of God. When he imagined himself arguing with somebody who was constitutionally unable to believe, Pascal could find no arguments to convince him. He concluded that belief in God could only be a matter of personal choice. This basically revolutionary approach to the problem of God’s existence has never been officially accepted by any church.

Pascal died at the age of 39 in the house of one of his sisters in intense pain after a malignant growth in his stomach spread to the brain.

Major Works of Blaise Pascal

– Conversations with M. de Saci (1655)
– The Provincial Letters (1656-1657)
– On the Geometrical Mind and on the Art of Persuasion (1657-1658)
– Pensees (1662)

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