Science in Christian Perspective



Pascal, Passionate Pilgrim
Raymond J. Seeger
National Science Foundation (retired) 
Washington, D.C.

From: JASA 34 December 1982): 96-97.

Thomas Stearns Eliot, poet and critic, remarked, "Pascal is one of those writers who must be studied anew by each generation." Blaise Pascal, physicist and layman, was an intellectual pilgrim passionately concerned with the relation of religion and science in his search for truth.

His father Etienne, a Paris-trained lawyer, lived in the cathedral town of Clermont (now Clermont-Ferrand) in the historical French region of Auvergne with its mountains of volcanic origin. A devotee of ancient languages and mathematics he personally undertook the whole education of the motherless Blaise, who turned out to be a child prodigy.

In later life Blaise analyzed the world in three orders: bodies (matter), reason (mind), spirit (heart)-i.e., the unconscious, conscious, and self-conscious. We review his own life in terms of these three orders-called his greatest insight by the Quaker philosopher Elton Trueblood. To be sure, Pascal regarded the orders in ascending importance as distinctly separated, whereas we today would consider them as interrelated.

With respect to the world of bodies, Pascal's father had taught him to observe carefully, to keep in mind that words are poor representatives of things, and to reason step by step. It was not until he was 23 years old that Pascal used this method as a means to discover scientific truth. In Rouen, where there was an excellent glass works, he repeated Torricelli's barometric experiment to solve Galileo's problem of the failure of a pump to lift water higher than 34 feet. Employing glass tubes 46 feet high, he varied their size and shape, as well as the liquid; he confirmed Torricelli's hypothesis about the existence of a vacuum on top of the liquid. Moreover, he had his brother-in-law Pirier take a barometer to the top of POy de Dome (4000 feet) and he himself took one up the Tour de St. Jacques de Boucherie in Paris; in each case the mercury rose to a lower height. He suggested its use as an altimeter. His published paper is an excellent report utilizing the scientific method based upon accurate observations. Upon his death two unpublished monographs were found involving a new concept, pressure, and its application in Pascal's Law for the transmission of pressure in a confined liquid. Pascal had followed his father's teaching, beginning with observed facts and ending with experiment tempered with imagination (intuition)-what he called esprit definesse in contrast with esprit de geometrie (based upon reason per se). Apparently he had abandoned science owing to the vanity of the world of bodies.

His attitude to the world of reason is expressed in his mathema tical genius and in his theological concerns. At the age of 16 he wrote a one-page paper on the "mystic hexagram" along the lines of the projective geometry initiated earlier by Girard Desargues not appreciated until its revival in 1822 by Jean Poncelet; it deals with relations only, no magnitudes. An unpublished paper on in variants of conics was found among Pascal's papers upon his death. His only other known geometrical work was on the cycloid, which he did during a toothache in 1658-under the anagram Amos Dettonville. At 19, to facilitate his father's tax accounts, he invented the first calculating machine; but despite three years spent upon improving it, he found no market for his 50 products (10 are extant, one in the Conservatoire des Arts et Wtiers). Toward the end of his life he became involved in one other enterprise, a pro posal for a bus (omnibus, for all) in lieu of the carriages for only a few. Three months prior to his death a bus ran every 7 1/2 minutes on a Paris street.

Pascal's friend Chevalier de Miri asked him how the stakes for a wager should be divided if a game was not completed. This question stimulated his interest in mathematical probability; together with his friend the lawyer Pierre Fermat he explored this new world. The historically minded mathematician Eric Temple Bell characterizes Pascal, who abandoned science and mathematics for his religious concerns, as "the greatest might have been in history;- nevertheless, he includes him in Men of Mathematics.

Pascal's theological interests were aroused in 1646 by two bonesetters in Rouen, who were required for an accident to his father. They introduced him to a Protestant-oriented Catholic sect known as Jansenism; it was based upon a strict interpretation of the Bible and upon rigorous practice of its preaching. This socalled "first conversion" of Pascal was essentially intellectual.

Following his father's death Pascal had a strange interlude characterized by his procurement of women servants, a carriage, et al. He became fascinated by the theater and gambling. After a couple of years, however, he developed a scorn for these worldly activities and resorted to reading the Bible (he knew much of it by heart), the Stoic Epictetus, and the sceptic Montaigne. He concluded that the study of man was more important than the study of science.

His experience of the world of the spirit began with a mystical illumination which he had late on the night of Nov. 23, 1654 after agonizing over the plight of man. This "second conversion" was truly of the heart. He wrote a memorial of his certitutude encountered in a vision of fire (cf. the burning bush of Moses); the Word of God is the Living Word revealed in the mystic grace of Jesus Christ-heart felt rather than mind-full. He rejoiced with tears and renunciated his past. He became an ascetic, wearing a concealed iron belt with points. (Upon his death a parchment recounting his experience was found sewed under the lining of his doublet.) Pascal went to live with the solitaires of the Jansenist Port- Royal-des-Champs, where he was known as M. de Mont.

In 1656 he was requested to defend Jansenism against attacks of the Jesuits. His scheme was to write letters telling the actual facts to a provincial friend-Les lettres provinciales by M. Louis de Montalte. With great humor his first letter tells of an interview with an anti-Jansenist about the controversial doctrine of grace. in the second he interviews a Dominican (Thomist). The next seven letters deal directly with the Jesuits through various interviews. Letters 10-16 analyze crittically the Jesuit ethics, particularly casuistry. The last two defend Jansenism in view of it's condemnation by Pope Alexander VIL He was encourage by the miraculous healing of a supposedly incurable lacrima fistula in the corner of the left eye of his niece Marguerite when she touched a Holy Thorn from a relic said to be Jesus' crown of thorns. Pascal had a new seal made with the inscription, "Scio cui credidi" (I know whom I have believed - 11 Tim. 1: 12).

In 1657 Pascal conceived the idea of an apology based upon reason to counter atheism; he had become convinced of the errors of Stoicism and Pyrrhonism. He started making notes on scraps of papers, backs of bills, etc.; to be sure, he had a prodigious memory, but it began to cloud shortly thereafter and his illness prevented the completion of this project. The executors of his will, his sister Gelberte and the Duc de Roannez, published these fragments as his Pensies in 1670 (their Jansenist editing omitted the Myst&e (# 552)). Trueblood in his A Place to Stand (1963 ) cites it twelve times; he notes, "Ever since I first encountered Blaise Pascal, I have been intrigued by his ambitious purpose." No one ever reconstructed the apology according to Pascal's plan. Introspective like Dante's Divine Comedy, it represents Pascal's spiritual growth.

The Pensies begin with an explanation that religion is not contrary to reason. Pascal himself was opposed to scholasticism with its metaphysical proofs of God's existence. He was opposed to philosophy, particularly that of Rene' Descartes, the so-called father of modern philosophy. For him religion had become primarily a matter of the heart, of grace-full faith, which transcends reason. "The heart has its reason which reason does not know" (# 277). His approach, however, is similar to his scientific method, i.e., facts leading to theory via induction-called the immanental method. There is, of course, no experimental check, so that one is advised to wager on God's existence; the odds favor the great reward if successful and little loss if not. Indecision is itself a decision.

The Pensr'es exhibit two major emphases-not to mention many pithy remarks such as the dependence of the history of the world upon the length of Cleopatra's nose. In the first place, he is concerned with man, "a thinking reid," torn between misery without God and grandeur with God, suspended between nothing and infinity (nowadays we are distraught by our ignorance of the very small and of the very large). Secondly, he is intrigued by man's search for the hidden God, attained only by God's quest for man through Jesus Christ. He sees in the Bible the evidence of its truth, i.e., the fulfillment of its prophecies and the testimony of its miracles. Emile Cailliet, professor of French literature and culture, Protestant convert from Roman Catholicism, emphasizes that "The Clue to Pascal" is the Scriptures.

The thoughtful Pascal, however, cannot be regarded as a great thinker, but he reveals in his Pensies the emotional faith of a great Christian. He lived and died a Roman Catholic; he practised love (charity). He was wont to borrow funds to give alms ananymously; he turned his own home over to a family with smallpox. Toward the end of his protracted illness he was reluctant to have communion with its associated confession, which might distress his family with its suggestion of last rites. He did receive it on August 19, 1662, after which he died with the words, "May God not abandon me!" He was buried in his parish church, St. 9tienne du Mont. The attending pastor, P&e Beurrier, attested to the orthodoxy of this humble and sincere man, whose outstanding sin was his intellectual pride. Later he retracted his opinion so that Archbishop P&~fix insisted that this revision be inserted as a preface to the pending publication of the Pensies. (The priest later retracted his retraction.) The publisher, however, merely failed to publish the first edition, but began with a second edition-without the preface.

Pascal showed some imprest in the teaching at the famous Little Schools of Port-Royal. He prepared a geometry book, which he scrapped when a better one by Arnauld appeared. He did, however, contribute to the teaching of reading by advocating sounding the vowels first, then using consonant prefixes. The Little Schools of Port-Royal were noted for their emphasis upon French and then Latin in lieu of the Jesuit stress upon Greek. The Logic of Port-Royal is still used.

Pascal's enduring fame is his writings. He is said to have "determined the shape and character of French literary language"-his influence upon its prose was similar to that of Corneille's Le Cid upon poetry. (The Les lettres Provinciales are required reading in French schools). His style was not heavy like the Latin prose of the schools (probably because of his home teaching). He wrote colloquially; he used everyday words. His phraseology was simple and lucid. He was objective and hence realistic, but also imaginative and therefore poetic. (The very abruptness of the fragments lends a poetic quality). He liked Hebraic parallism, particularly antithesis; he used prosopheia. His writings showed polite irony and broad humor-probably the sharpest wit prior to Moliere. He carefully revised his work (the 18th letter was done 18 times). He noted (# 319); "The last thing one settles in writing a book is what to put first." His works attracted Voltaire and Condorcet, they influenced Renan and Mauriac.

In early life Pascal sought social fame and personal love, but his spirit gradually darkened upon becoming aware of the vanity of the world's rewards. He sank into despair, which became alleviated only by his realization of the saving grace of Jesus Christ." He hastened to warn others, but only aggravated his continual illness; he died at 39-comparatively young.