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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A. C. Ewing (1899-1973): The Argument From Design


The design argument is very old — it goes all the way back to Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). However, A. C. Ewing has a modern version of it in his book The Fundamental Questions of Philosophy(1951).

Another name for the design argument is the teleological (refers to ends or purposes) argument. The design argument is based on adaptation — the adaptation of animals in order to survive (that is, adaptation for an end or purpose). For example, a polar bear needs a thick coat of fur to survive in its icy climate, and it has a thick coat of fur.

William Paley

A modern person who used the design argument is William Paley (1743-1805), who believed that the design argument was based on an analogy. In Paley’s formulation of the design argument, he asks you to imagine that you have discovered a watch lying on the ground. Since the watch is a complex machine — too complex to have been created by accident — you, of course, realize that a watchmaker had to make the watch. According to Paley, the watch implies a watchmaker. Analogously, the World — which is too complex to have been created by accident — implies a Worldmaker.

A. C. Ewing

A modern philosopher who defends the design argument — and who denies that it is based on an analogy — is A. C. Ewing. According to Ewing, there is much design in nature, and the fact of this design must be explained. For example, a lower animal loses a leg or a tail, and then it grows a new leg or a new tail. And, of course, we need eyes to see, and we have eyes. Eyes are very complex organs. Ewing writes, “The force of the [design] argument lies not in the analogy, but in the extraordinary intricacy with which the details of a living body are adapted to serve its own interests, an intricacy far too great to be regarded as mere chance.”

According to the Principle of Sufficient Reason, there is an explanation or cause for this design that is abundantly found in Nature. According to Ewing, the best explanation for this design is God.

Of course, another explanation for design may have occurred to many of the people reading this essay. That explanation is evolution. Certainly, all well-educated, rational people must regard evolution as a fact. However, we can ask whether evolution rules out the existence of God.

According to Ewing, it does not. A theist can believe in both evolution and God, because God may be using evolution to accomplish His ends. Ewing writes, “Evolution [is] just the way God’s design works out.” After all, for evolution to get started, a one-celled organism had to exist, and even a one-celled organism is so complex that it is unreasonable to suppose that it came into existence by accident. In addition, according to the Principle of Sufficient Reason, there must be an explanation for why evolution exists; according to Ewing, God is the best explanation for the existence of evolution. A strength of Ewing’s argument is that it recognizes the existence of evolution — evolution is a fact.

Some people might suppose that an “unconscious purpose” of the universe brought design into existence; however, Ewing argues that “unconscious purpose” is an oxymoron. If something has a purpose, that purpose must be conscious.

An argument that could be raised against the design argument is the fact of much disorder in the universe; after all, the existence of evil is as much a fact as is the existence of evolution.

Ewing first replies that the Problem of Evil is an attack against theism in general, rather than against the design argument in particular, then he makes two further remarks:

1) He asks, Is there really much waste in Nature? For example, someone may point out that of the thousands of eggs that a herring lays, only a few will mature into adult herrings. However, Ewing replies that the other herring eggs are not wasted. Most of them serve as food for other living creatures.

2) Ewing also writes, “The occurrence of elaborate adaptations to ends is a very much stronger argument for the presence of an intelligence than its apparent absence in a good many instances is against it.” Ewing points out that our relationship to God is much like the relationship of a dog to its human master. The dog cannot understand such activities as Ewing’s writing a book; likewise, we humans cannot understand some of the reasons God has for acting as He does.

I don’t like this last comment very much, as I am convinced by the Principle of Sufficient Reason that an explanation exists for everything. As a rational human being, I want answers — I don’t want to sit back and say, “Evil is a mystery. We’ll never be able to understand the presence of evil in the world.” However, because we are limited, finite human beings, we may never arrive at the answers to our questions.

One thing to notice about Ewing’s essay is that the design argument still has much life in it. Some people may want to say that God does not exist; however, many arguments for the existence of God are worth considering.

Note: The quotations by A. C. Ewing that appear in this essay are from his The Fundamental Questions of Philosophy(London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951).


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“The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.” — William James


“The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.” — William James


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Dorothy Emmet (1904-2000): The Moral Prism


Dorothy Emmet was born in England in 1904; she published The Moral Prism in 1979.

I. Virtue Theory:

In recent ethical thought, virtue theory has become very popular. According to virtue theory, the basic question in morality is not: How should I act? or What are the rules? Instead, it is: What kind of a person should I be?

In other words, before doing an action, we should always ask these questions:

  • What sort of a person will doing this make me become?
  • Do I want to become that sort of a person?
  • Would any (rational) person want to become that sort of person?

For example, suppose you are considering whether to cheat on an upcoming test. You would ask yourself,

  • What sort of a person cheats on tests?
  • Do I want to become the sort of person who cheats on tests?
  • Would (any) rational person want to become the sort of person who cheats on tests?

I think that we have something valuable in virtue ethics. The rules are still important; however, virtue ethics recognizes that a person with a good character is more willing to obey rules that are just.

II. The Prism Metaphor

Ms. Emmet uses a metaphor of a prism in her work. If you pass a beam of light through a prism, what was white light (or light with no colors at all) is shown to consist of a rainbow of colors. Something that seemed simple is now known to be complex.

Moral growth is similar. A child may see things in black and white; however, growing up morally means being to able to see various shades of gray. The morally mature person becomes aware that moral issues are often complex and require careful reasoning.

III. Three Ways of Looking at Morality

There are at least three ways of looking at morality:

  1. Custom (Ethical Relativists). This emphasizes the way that we have always done things. This is something that is needed in complex societies. People need roots — even moral roots. Changing things too quickly can upset people.
  2. Reciprocity and the Use of Reason to See Where Reciprocity is Involved (Kantians). This way emphasizes reason. Immanuel Kant attempted to make morality completely rational; in fact, to make it scientific. All actions must be consistent with the Categorical Imperative if they are to be considered moral.
  3. Generosity. This means being humane in our ethics. If we are generous, we go beyond what we are obligated to do. People have no right to our generosity, yet we can give it if we feel like it.

One thing that we have to decide is when each of the above three ways of looking at morality fits a certain situation. At a job interview, you would do what is expected and wear nice clothes. When borrowing money, you would be sure to pay back your debt. And at certain times, you may decide to be generous and give more than is strictly required (for example, occasionally when buying a present or giving money to charity).

IV. Just Actions

According to Emmet, just actions have four qualities. As Donald Borchert, Alburey Castell, and Arthur Zucker, the authors of the textbook An Introduction to Modern Philosophy, put it, just actions

  1. Increase our abilities to see complexity.
  2. Allow us to see the importance of mutuality over self-interest.
  3. Make clear the need for mutual trust.
  4. Allow us to enlarge our imagination and thereby develop true sympathy for those in need.

In addition, they add, “Emmet’s morality tries to give us the ability to know when to shift back and forth between custom, reciprocity, and generosity.”

Virtue ethics actually began in ancient Greece, with the philosopher Aristotle, who wrote about moral virtue and intellectual virtue, and how to acquire them.


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