Christian Mathematicians – Pascal

By Steve Bishop

(Disclaimer: The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect those of GodandMath.com. Guest articles are sought after for the purpose of bringing more diverse viewpoints to the topics of mathematics and theology. The point is to foster discussion. To this end respectful and constructive comments are highly encouraged.)

 

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)

 

The French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662) was born in Claremont and died in Paris. He and his two sisters were raised by his father, his mother died when he was three. His father, a keen mathematician, taught Blaise at home. By all accounts Blaise at an early age was a mathematical genius.

Mathematical achievements

Pascal gave his name to the SI unit for pressure (Pa = 1 N/m2), a rule, a law, a triangle, a wager and a theorem.

He developed one of the first calculating machine, at age 19, to help his tax-collector father with lots of tedious calculations.

He is perhaps best known by school children through Pascal’s Triangle – although he did not ‘invent’ this but did give his name to it as he did so much work with it.

He did pioneering work on conic sections, cycloid curves and number theory. He also worked with Fermat on what became the foundations of probability theory  (Shafer, 1993). As well as work in physics, including work hydrostatics and vacuum, he invented the syringe and a hydraulic press.

Conversion experience

November 23, 1654, Pascal underwent a conversion experience. He had a vision of Jesus on the cross, he wrote:

 “From about half-past ten in the evening until about half-past twelve … FIRE … God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, and not of the philosophers and savants. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.”

He kept this on a small piece of paper which he kept with him sewn into the lining of his coat.

Pascal and reason

Pascal was highly dubious about the role of natural theology. In his Pensées , published posthumously, he wrote:

“It is an astounding fact that no canonical writer has ever made use of nature to prove God. They all strive to make us believe in Him. David, Solomon, etc., have never said, “There is no void, therefore there is a God.” They must have had more knowledge than the most learned people who came after them, and who have all made use of this argument. This is worthy of attention.” (Pensées 243)

Natural theology for Pascal leads to the god of the philosophers, not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Bible.

He could perhaps be thought of as an early reformed epistemologist, for him belief in God was properly basic. He asserted that:

 “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” (Pensées  277)

“It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason.” (Pensées 278)

Nevertheless, he did provide one argument for belief in God: Pascal’s Wager (Pensées  233). Simply put, if God exists we will be rewarded. If he doesn’t exist we won’t be. If we believe in God and he doesn’t exist we might have lost out on a few ‘sinful pleasures’, however, if we don’t believe in God but he does exist, then we may face eternal damnation. It’s not worth the risk of not believing in God.

References

Schaeffer, Glen, 1993. “The early development of mathematical probability.” Companion Encyclopedia of the History and Philosophy of the Mathematical Sciences, edited by I. Grattan-Guinness. Routledge: London, 1293-1302.

Pascal, Blaise, 1958.Pensées  <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18269/18269-h/18269-h.htm>

Donald Adamson, David “Pascal’s views on mathematics and the divine.” In Mathematics and the Divine: A Historical Study edited by Teun Koetsier Luc Bergmans. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2005, ch. 21.

Steve Bishop is the compiler of A Bibliography for a Christian Approach to Mathematics and the author of several articles on the relationship between faith and math. Look for future posts from him in this series on Christian Mathematicians.

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13 thoughts on “Christian Mathematicians – Pascal

  1. Tim Rogers July 18, 2012 / 4:56 AM

    Pascal was such an innovator and man of courage. He taught us that humans pursue “diversions” so that we don’t have to face the big questions of life

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