Blaise Pascal (1623-1662): Belief Without Proofs


Blaise Pascal was a Frenchman who lived from 1623-1662. As a fifteen-year-old, he published monographs on conic sections. According to the Concise Columbia Encyclopedia, Pascal also “founded the modern theory of probability, discovered the properties of the cycloid, and contributed to the advance of differential calculus.” After having a mystical experience on November 23, 1654, he began collecting notes for a book in which he would attempt to convince non-believers to believe in God. He died before his book was completed; however, his notes were published under the title of Pensées(Thoughts) in 1670. This essay is based on some of Pascal’s notes.

To begin, Pascal divided men into three groups: “There are but three classes of persons: those who have found God and serve Him; those who have not found God but do diligently seek Him; and those who have not found God, and live without seeking Him. The first are happy and wise. The second are unhappy, but wise. The third are unhappy and fools.”

For Pascal, only the believers are happy; everyone else is unhappy. Of the three groups, Pascal had respect for those who are searching for God; however, he had no respect for those who have not found God and are not searching for God.

Indeed, Pascal makes fun of those who say they have searched for God but have not found him. He says that these people spend a few hours reading Scripture and ask a few questions of an ecclesiastic, then they boast that they “in vain consulted books and men.”

According to Pascal, “It is a sorry evil to be in doubt. It is an indispensable duty to seek when we are in doubt. Therefore he who doubts and neglects to seek to dispel these doubts, is at once in a sorry plight and guilty of great perversity. If he is calm and contented in his doubt, if he frankly avows it, if he boasts of it, if he makes it the subject of vanity and delight, I can find no terms with which to describe him.”

In attempting to move people from the third group (unhappy and fools) to the second (unhappy, but wise because they are seeking God), Pascal first admits that arguments based on natural theology will not be convincing to these groups. After one has found God, then one will find proof of God’s existence in everything that exists; unfortunately, if one has not yet found God, one will find that evidence inconclusive.

Pascal places Man in perspective: Man is in between the infinitely large and the infinitely small. Compared to an atom, Man is very large; compared to the universe, Man is very small. Yet there is something special about Man, for he has intelligence. In a famous passage, Pascal writes:

Man is but a reed, weakest in nature, but a reed which thinks. A thinking reed. It needs not that the whole universe should arm to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But were the universe to kill him, man would still be more noble than that which has slain him, because he knows that he dies, and that the universe has the better of him. The universe knows nothing of this.

Pascal states that all men desire happiness. In this, he is in agreement with Aristotle. But whereas Aristotle believed that a man could become happy by fulfilling his potential, Pascal believes that men find happiness only in God.

Now that he has set the scene, Pascal is ready to make his famous wager, in which he proposes to move people from group three to group two. He asks the unbeliever to consider the stakes of believing in God versus not believing in God. If one believes in God and God exists, then one wins eternal happiness; if one believes in God and God does not exist, then one loses a finite amount of time — time spent searching for God. On the other hand, if one does not believe in God and God does exist, then one loses infinite happiness; if one does not believe in God and God does not exist, then one wins only a finite amount of time.

To put this wager in perspective, imagine that someone offers to make a wager with you. You will bet on the flip of a coin — if you win, you will win a million dollars, and if you lose, you will lose only a dollar. Who would not make this wager?

Of course, this wager seems crudely materialistic, based as it is on what you will win or lose. However, remember that Pascal directs this wager to the third group: the unhappy fools. Pascal feels certain that if he can move these people into the second group, he can then help them move into the first group of the happy wise who have found God and are presumably interested in more than they can win by finding God.

How does Pascal propose to move people in the second group into the first group? Here his advice appears to me sound. You will find faith by imitating those who already have faith in God. (Here again we see the influence of Aristotle, who says that one can acquire moral virtue by imitating those who already have moral virtue.)

Pascal writes,

Now what will happen to you if you take this side in the religious wager? You will be trustworthy, honorable, humble, grateful, generous, friendly, sincere, and true. You will no longer have those poisoned pleasures, glory and luxury; but you will have other pleasures. I tell you that you will gain this life; at each step you will see so much certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you stake, that you will know at last you have wagered on a certainty, an infinity, for which you have risked nothing.

This is sound advice. If you want to be a certain kind of person, act as if you are already that kind of person. If you want to be courageous, act as if you are already courageous, and eventually you will become courageous. If you want to be a certain weight, act as if you are already that weight; for example, if you want to lose weight, act the way a slim person acts — don’t overeat, and do exercise. Eventually, you will achieve your desired weight.

In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis briefly tells a story about a person who had to wear a mask that made him look much nicer than he really was. When he finally took the mask off, he discovered that his face had grown to fit the mask, and so he really had become nice-looking.

Note: The material this essay is based on comes from An Introduction to Modern Philosophy, by Alburey Castell, Donald Borchert and Arthur Zucker. Their material came from Pascal’s Thoughts, but the selection of thoughts and the order in which they are discussed involves interpretation by Castell, Borchert, and Zucker.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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