Science in Christian Perspective






From: JASA 16 (December 1964): 107-110.

This paper surveys the achievements and thoughts of the seventeenth century scientist and Christian, Blaise Pascal. Pascal possessed a strikingly modem scientific outlook and a positive Christian faith. He recognized that Christian insight can lead not only to a new relationship to God and one's fellow men. but also to a fuller comprehension of the natural world and mans place in it. The increase today of scientific knowledge has forced modem man to find his place in an infinite universe and to learn to regulate awesome power. He must further solve scientific problem which severely challenge routine approaches. Pascal foresaw these dilemmas and his approach to their solution has relevance today.

The world in 1962 was on the verge of nuclear destruction as two great nations threatened to use the negative fruits of modern scientific insight. This same year also marked the 300th anniversary of the death of Blaise Pascal, one of the earliest scientists to comprehend the place of man in the vast and awesome realm of nature as revealed by science.

For in fact what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up. (1, P. 23)

Modern man indeed accepts such a world view and it has driven some to give up meeting personal responsibilities. Pascal found hope with which he could meet life without despair.

... I try to be just, true, sincere, and faithful to all men; I have a tender heart for those to whom God has more closely united me; and whether I am alone, or seen of men, I do all my actions in the sight of God, who must judge of them, and to whom I have consecrated them all.

These are my sentiments; and every day of my life I bless my Redeemer, who has implanted them in me, and who, of a man full of weakness, of miseries, of lust, of pride, and of ambition, has made a man free from all these evils by the power of His grace, to which all the glory of it is due, as of myself I have only misery and error. (1, p. 174)

* Walter Neidhardt is Assistant Professor of Physics, Newark College of Engineering, Newark, New Jersey.

It is therefore appropriate that we examine the work and thought of the scientist, philosopher, but above all Christian, Blaise Pascal.

It is surprising to realize that the barometer we use to observe weather, the probability tables that regulate our life insurance, the computing machine used in business today, and the bus that takes us to work have all been originated or influenced greatly by the mind of one who lived a brief thirty-nine years. Pascal's contributions to science and pure mathematics are recognized as a sign of great intelligence and genius; but his contribution to public transportation reveals the full character of the man.

Pascal made a two-fold contribution to mass transportation. His scientific insight into the nature of fluid
pressure enabled him to formulate the principle of the hydraulic brake used in cars today. On a broader
level, he was one of the first Europeans to conceive of a company formed with the sole purpos e of provid ing inexpensive mass transportation by having vehicles travel regular routes on a fixed time schedule. Pas cal's motivation in forming this company reveals much, as he was looking for a way to raise money to provide
for care of the less fortunate. Pascal saw himself as a servant of Jesus Christ and this relationship led
him to apply his abilities to the service of those in need.

This concern for others led Pascal to help his fellow countrymen meet Jesus Christ who offered the one answer to man's basic problems:

The Christian religion, then, teaches men these two truths: that there is a God whom men can know, and that there is a corruption in their nature which renders them unworthy of Him. It Is equally important to men to know both these points; and It Is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his own wretchedness, and to know wretchedness without knowing the Redeemer who can free him from It ... Jesus Christ is a God whom we approach without pride, and before whom we humble ourselves without despair ... the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of Christians, Is a God of love and of comfort, a God who fins the soul and heart of those whom He possesses, a God who makes them conscious of their Inward wretchedness, and His infinite mercy, who unites Himself to their Inmost soul, who fills it with humility and joy, with confidence and love, who renders them incapable of knowing any other end than Him. self. (1, p. 181, p. 169, p. 182).

Pascal in his last brief years, spent most of his energies writing his "Pensees`~-his thoughts on God, man, and their relationship. The task of making Christianity relevant to indifferent Frenchmen and of providing for the less fortunate were to occupy fully his last days; he quite willingly sacrificed his love of ex ploration of natural science in order to best serve his Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ.


What unique contributions did Blaise Pascal make to an understanding of man and the natural world in the light of Biblical revelation?

Blaise Pascal was a very practical man. His view of the natural world shows a strong disdain of metaphysics to justify the world's existence. He was very much aware of the capacity of the human mind to delude itself. "Self is hateful . . . In a word, the Self has two qualities: it is unjust in itself since it makes itself the center of everything; it is inconvenient to others since it would enslave them." (1, p. 151)

Pascal viewed the world as existing and directly observable; the world and observations of it were not things to be inferred from his existence. This contrasted with his rival in scientific achievement, Descarte. The world existed independent of the observer; the Self, a given human personality, need not exist before the world could be studied: "I feel that I might not have been; for the Ego consists in my thoughts. Therefore L who think, would not have been, if my mother had been killed before I had life. I am not then a necessary being. In the same way I am not eternal or infinite. But I see plainly that there exists in nature a necessary Being, eternal and infinite." (1, P. 155)

As Pascal studied the natural world he saw that the observer was intimately related to what he was observing: "But the parts of the world are all so related and linked to one another, that I believe it is impossible to know one without the other and without the whole." (1, p. 26)

One cannot fully understand a given phenomena without understanding its environment and the very observer is part of the environment. Modern psychology and physics have testified to the dangers of assuming the scientist to be completely isolated from the conditions of the experiment. His very presence may markedly affect its results. (This is one way of viewing the uncertainty principle of modern physics.)


Pascal saw arrangements, or hierarchies existing in the universe. Things were arranged in ascending ord ers, and the distinction between the orders was not merely quantitative, but qualitative. The study of mathematics led him to think in such a way.

If you have a magnitude of a certain order, you cannot increase it by adding any number whatever of magnitudes of a lesser order. Thus a line cannot be prolonged by adding points to it at either end however many points you add. A plane surface is not Increased by laying lines along one edge, neither does a solid get any larger by surrounding it with a number of surfaces. (2, p. 203)

His observations on the relationship between the material universe and man, between man and man, and between man and God led him to develop the doctrine of the three orders.

The Infinite distance between bodies and minds is an emblem of the infinitely more Infinite, the supernatural distance be. tween minds and charity ...

The greatness of wisdom, which Is nothing if not from God, Is invisible to the world and to men of intellect. These are three orders, different in kind.

Great geniuses have their empire, their glory, their greatness, their victory, their splendour, and have no need of worldly witnesses with which they have nothing In common. They are seen not by the eyes but by the mind; it suffices.

The saints have their empire, their glory, their victory, their splendour, and have no need of worldly or Intellectual distinctions, with which they have nothing in common, and which can neither increase nor diminish them. They are seen by God and the angels, not by bodies or by curious minds; God suffices them ...

Jesus Christ, without wealth and without any external display of knowledge, is In His own order, that of sanctity. He gave the world no invention; He did not reign; but He has been humble, patient, holy, holy towards God, terrible to demons, without any sin. Oh! the pomp, the prodigal magnificance of His appearance to the eyes of the heart, which see wisdom! . .

All bodies, the firmaments, the stars, the earth and its kingdoms are not equal to the smallest gleam of intelligence: for it knows them and itself and they know nothing.

All bodies together, and all minds together; and all their products, are not equal to the slightest stirring of charity. That Is of an order infinitely more exalted.

From all bodies together we cannot obtain one little thought; that is impossible and of another order. From all bodies to. gether, and from all minds together we cannot devise one movement of true charity. That is impossible, of another order, supernatural. (2, p. 205-206)

It should be noted that Pascal developed his theory of orders in such a way that the various orders were clearly separate, and yet, by another quality, linked together. As we have stated before, no amount of magnitude in a lower order could amplify a higher order, yet he found one law prevailing throughout all experience: "Nature imitates herself, A seed thrown in good ground brings forth fruit. A principle, instilled into a good mind, brings forth fruit. Numbers imitate space, which is of a different nature. All is made by the same master, root, branches, and fruits; principles and consequences.

"Nature diversifies and imitates . . .

"Nature always begins the same things again, the years, the days, the hours, in like manner space and numbers follow each other from beginning to end. Thus is made a kind of infinity and eternity. Not that anything in all this is infinite and eternal, but these finite realities are infinitely multiplied. Thus it seems to me to be only the number which multiplies them that is infinite." (1, p. 45)


Pascal saw clearly that the Order of Charity may reveal itself in quite different ways from that of the realm of physical phenomena. Such views were in conflict with the church's position of the day yet were necessary for science to make progress. Pascal had been long interested in the nature of a vacuum. His famous series of experiments on fluid pressure led to an understanding of barometric pressure and more specifically hydrostatics which was contrary to the prevalent views of Aristotle's philosophy. The church believed that authority and tradition were as applicable in the newly expanding science as in theology. Pascal, who firmly accepted Biblical authority as the key to religious understanding, felt just as strongly that experimentation was essential to the development of science. His letter to P6re Noel, a Jesuit scientist, concerning the vacuum controversy clearly states Pascal's understanding of scientific method.

One should never form a decisive judgment for or against a proposition unless one can affirm or deny that it satisfies one of two conditions, namely:

Either, that it presents Itself so clearly and distinctly to the sense or to the reason (according as it is the subject of one or the other) that the mind has no means of doubting its certainty-and we should then call it a principle or an axiom.

Or, that it is deducible as an infallible and necessary consequence from such principles or axioms.

Whatever satisfies one of these two conditions is certain and true. Whatever satisfies neither of them should be regarded as doubtful and uncertain. (2, p. 80)

Significantly we see that Pascal appealed both to inductive examination of the real world as later advocated by Bacon, and to Descarte's use of deductive reasoning from known premises.


What weaknesses may exist in Pascal's view of the world? To say that an idea is a different sort of entity than say, a loaf of bread may not lead to productive achievement. Indeed, there are religious cults which worship abstract principles to the extent that the needs of the body for bread are ignored. To recognize differences in life does not mean that areas of life can be forgotten. It is also possible to recognize differences, not ignore them, and yet very neatly compartmentalize them. There are too many people (including ourselves sometimes) whose experience with the kingdom of God is confined to church activity; it ends the minute we enter the laboratory or have lunch with our business associates. The history of shortsightedness on the part of both Christians and scientists toward evolution and Biblical revelation has led to much bitterness. Sincere Christians, recognizing that love was desperately needed to replace controversy, have treated Genesis one and two as an allegory depicting God's creation process, whereas science tells us the details of the actual historical process. Such an approach represents compartmentalization. A very real difficulty evolves when the question is asked, "Where does allegory in Genesis end and real history begin? Pascal, himself, isolated the methods and world of the laboratory from Biblical records and authority. The one issue of Pascal's time which would have tested his separation of scientific and Biblical authority was the new astronomy of Copernicus and Galileo. (The earth revolves around the sun.) No appreciable record has been left of Pascal's thoughts on this matter.


What strength and truth does Pascal's view of the world possess? He said that one law prevails in all order of endeavor: "Nature imitates herself." Science has found such a view of nature to be particularly fruitful in predicting new physical phenomena and explaining known observations. As an example, the phenomena of resonance, a large motion occuring at a certain rate of vibration, has been found not only to occur in the large oscillations of bridges due to winds, but also in the oscillations of electrical circuits, and even in the oscillatory motion of sub-atomic particles. Scientists have found that resonance explains the rather startling behavior of quite different physical systems.

Pascal secondly states that the hierarchy of orders is ascending and finally transcending. The realm of intellect is above that of matter; the possibilities of arrangement and subtilty of thought are infinitely more varied than that of matter. Further, the realm of intellect can comprehend and regulate the world of matter. But the order of charity transcends all-it is above nature. Man can state as a principle that he will love his enemy, yet to maintain such an ideal a greater strength is needed. True self-giving human love, weak as it may be, is infiltrated with the presence of a realm beyond nature. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has revealed that the character of God, the Father and Creator of men, is love and He suffered the torment of sharing human sin in order to restore our fellowship with Godly love. The order of charity is Pascal's unique way of restating the Biblical themes of God's love and righteousness, the kingdom of God, the seeking of that which is eternal.


Today, modem science says that human reason is all sufficient, whereas modern existentialism finds such rationalism cold and unfeeling. However, many existentialists have created a world just as cold, a world empty of all meaning. One could further view the history of the confrontation of Christianity and science as a conflict between reason and subjective authority with the balance of power swinging violently to and fro. Pascal's views on the relationship between reason and Christian understanding may be helpful in approaching a problem of very long standing, yet ever present concern.

Pascal had a very high view of human thought.

I can well conceive a man without hands, feet, head (for It Is only experience which teaches us that the head is more necessary than feet). But I cannot conceive man without thought; he would be a stone or brute.

A thinking reed. It Is not from space that I must seek my dignity but from the government of my thought. I shall have no more if I possess worlds. By space the universe encompasses and swallows me up like an atom; by thought I comprehend the world. (1, p. 115, 116)

Yet as Pascal's great Pensee on natural and supernatural Orders indicates I there is a realm of existence which human reason cannot first penetrate but which must be made known by God. In this Pensee Pascal thought of the material world as a basis for studying the whole of existence, yet by itself completely removed from the realm of thought. But there is a further realm of truth which a reasoning intellect, by itself, cannot comprehend. Such truths are not grasped by analytic reasoning, for this realm of charity is as removed from pure intellect as intellect is removed from material things. Pascal uses the term heart to describe the faculty by which man comprehends this order of charity.

The heart has It reasons, which reason does not know. We feel It in a thousand things. I say that the heart naturally loves the universal Being, and also Itself naturally, accordingly as it gives itself to them; and It hardens itself against one or the other at its will. You have rejected the one and kept the other. Is It by reason that you love yourself?

It is the heart which experiences God and not the reason. This, then, is faith; God felt by the heart, not by reason.

Faith is a gift of God; do not believe that we said it was a gift of reasoning. Other religions do not say this of their faith. They only give reasoning in order to arrive at It, and yet it does not bring them to It.

The heart has Its own order; the intellect has its own, which Is by principle and demonstration. The heart has another. We do not prove that we ought to be loved by enumerating In order the courses of love; that would be ridiculous. Jesus Christ and Saint Paul employ the rule of love, not of intellect; for they would warm, not Instruct. (1, p. 95-97)

We thus see that Pascal believed that God gave the faculty of knowing Him to all men and man can freely reject this faculty. If man is to use this faculty he must realize it means commitment to God as one commits oneself to a loved one. Mere intellectual knowledge of God is sterile. God's order requires of man and gives to man much more than knowledge. God's order deals with redemption, love, and friendship which are personal, not abstract qualities.

"The knowledge of God is very far from the love of Him." (1, p. 95) In a very real sense purely intellectual inquiry gives an incomplete picture of God, for to know God you must experience a person not a thing.

Pascal further states that this faculty of recognizing God's action, the heart, can even be used in examining the natural world.

We know truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart, and it Is this last way we know first principles; and reason which has no part in it, tries In vain to Impugn them ... For the knowledge of first principles as space, time, motion, number is as sure as any of those which we get from reasonIng. And reason must trust these Institutions of the heart, and must base them on every argument. (We have Intuitive knowledge of the tridimensional nature of space, and of the infinity of number, and reason then shows that there are not two square numbers one of which is double of the other. Principles are Intuited, propositions are inferred, all with certainty, though in different ways.) (1, p. 95-96)


For Pascal to comprehend the natural world, more than analysis is needed-we must start from first principles, and to perceive such principles, man's creative intuition must be utilized. But what is this creative intuition? If we are Christians we believe that God is creator and governs all that exists. Is it not natural then to observe as Pascal, that the very faculty of man which enables him to know and to respond to God can also perceive and comprehend God's structuring of the universe?

Facts by themselves are humdrum. To state that carbon has four electrons which can share in covalent bonding by itself is a sterile statement. But if one recognizes that the compounds which thus can be formed make organic life possible, then the fact of carbon's covalent bonding becomes alive. To fully have truth one must have facts and yet more; true perception requires more than abstract analysis, it requires our personality. Pascal has said, "The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know." (1. p. 95) Abstract analysis by itself is incomplete-we know far more than reason by itself conveys. Science itself has made real progress when scientists have allowed their entire creative personality to interpret and predict the behavior of the natural world. P.A.M. Dirac makes the following observations concerning Schrodinger's development of the wave equation which has altered modern physics. "I think that there is a moral to this story, namely that it is more important to have beauty in one's equations than to have them fit existing experiment . . . It seems that if one is working from the point of view of getting beauty in one's equations, and if one has a sound insight, one is on a sure line of progress. If there is not complete agreement between the results of one's work and experiment, one should not allow oneself to be too discouraged, because the discrepancy may well be due to minor features that are not properly taken into account and that will get cleared up with further developments of the theory." (3, p. 47) Pascal could well agree that one's esthetic sense may play a real role in understanding the physical universe.


1962, the 300th memorial of Blaise Pascal, marked a year of domestic and international turbulence capped by the threat of nuclear holocaust. People of all races, faiths and political commitments were and are working to end the threat of armed conflict with motivations ranging from compassion to self survival. Scientists as a working premise attempt impartially to seek truth; the democratic way in which their scientific societies function indicates it is possible to work together peacefully. New scientific discoveries show promise of conquering poverty, hunger, and over-population-all important causes of political tensions. But the portrait modem science presents of man standing between microcosm and macrocosm must also be faced ' for its reality humbles the intellect. Intelligent modem man, even in environments where material prosperity and absence of external pressure exist, still shows antagonism to others. To truly seek peace on all levels of experience more than intellect is required; contact must be made with a realm where charity toward all exists, a realm ruled by the supernatural love of God. Modem man longs for contact with this "order of charity." As Pascal observed concerning all men, "There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ." (4, p. 8)

As Christians and scientists we must face the responsibility that comes with increased insight into the nature of God, man, and the world. We must work for domestic and world peace in the predominently scientific culture of today. We must further recognize the need of eliminating the apparent negating effect of scientific humanism upon Biblical revelation which points toward the only source of true peace.

Pascal has become today a controversial figure. While some appreciate his scientific mind and Christian contributions, others criticize him for, among other things, devoting his last years to theology rather than to scientific pursuits. Nevertheless, all who are united in the true fellowship of Jesus Christ can well profit from study of the life and thought of this seventeenth century Christian layman. Pascal contributed uniquely to the development of scientific thought while maintaining a reverence, respect, and love for Biblical authority and above all, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Christians, called to be lights to the world, have a God-given responsibility to care for the world's ills. In this task we can well pray as Pascal once did: "Let us do little things as though they were great, because of the majesty of Jesus Christ who does them in us, and who lives our life; and do the greatest things as though they were little and easy, because of His omnipotence." (1, p. 178)


1. Pascal, Blaise, Pensees, and The Provincial Letters, Random House, 1941.

2. Mortimer, Ernest, Blaise Pascal--The Life and Work of a Realist, Harper & Brothers, 1959.

3. Dirac, P.A.M., "The Evolution of the Physicist's Picture of Matter," Scientific American, Vol. 208, No. 5. May, 1963, p. 45-53.

4. Sermons From Science, Counselor Training Course for the New York World's Fair, 1964-65.

5. Cailliet, Emile, Pascal, The Emergence of Genius, Harper Bros., 1961.