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.

Previous Entries in this Series:

Why Mathematics Points Beyond Numbers to Design

I recently received the following from the Discovery Institute:

Why Mathematics Points Beyond Numbers to Design
September 14, 2011
With Dr. David Berlinski

Mathematician and author David Berlinski, in his new book, One, Two, Three, explores the exciting, satisfying story of numbers, their history in human culture and their implications for modern man. In an informal Discovery Institute luncheon in Seattle on September 14 (Wednesday), Dr. Berlinski – a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute – will describe how far one can go in saying that mathematics, as a body of thought derived from nature, points to design.

The event will be held at Discovery Institute, located at 208 Columbia Street in downtown Seattle on Wednesday, September 14, from 12:00 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Check here for more information.

Pascal vs. Paulos, The Final Round: All Bets Are Off

Previous Entries:

Pascal vs. Paulos, Setting the Stage

Pascal vs. Paulos, Round 1: Pascal’s Wager

Pascal vs. Paulos, Round 2: Paulos Ups the Ante

Here is a concise summary of the objections raised by Paulos that I plan on responding to (For a more thorough treatment of the objections Paulos raises against Pascal’s Wager, please see the previous post):

  1. The wager argument can be used to justify heinous acts by people who judge human penalties to be inconsequential in comparison to their heavenly rewards.
  2. The concept of “betting on God” is ambiguous and can be used by people of various faiths.
  3. The phrase “the probability of God’s existence” is nonsensical because the universe is a singularity.

I would also like to respond to Paulos’ comments on ethics. To be fair, Paulos notes that his discussion of ethics is being given as an aside and it is not the primary focus of the chapter. However, there is another chapter in the book in which his discussion does center around morality. So then, I will save the discussion of ethics, morality and mathematics for a future posting.

In regards to objection 1: I believe this comment ultimately stems from a misunderstanding of Pascal’s Wager. Pascal’s argument is given as a response to the question: “Supposing the evidence for God’s existence is inconclusive, then is it rational to remain in unbelief?” The premise of this question is crucial to understanding the argument. The Wager argument is only useful for a person who isn’t sure one way or the other that God exists. Pascal would openly say that if the evidence is indisputably in favor for God, then believe in God. If the evidence is indisputably in favor against God, then don’t believe in God (though Pascal himself would personally say that the evidence indeed favors God’s existence).

People who would use a line of reasoning similar to Pascal’s Wager in order to justify horrible acts of violence are certainly not people who are in doubt about God’s existence. They are people who are already 100% sold on his existence. They are also people who are 100% misinformed about the nature of God and the desires He has for His creation.

It is not my desire to go into great prose here in addressing the atrocities that evil people commit in the name of religion. Just because evil people perform evil acts in the name of some religion, it does not justify their actions nor does it make that religion inherently evil (since it seems to me that people in this category have largely warped the religion they claim). Similarly, it should be stated, just because evil people perform evil acts in the name of non-religion (atheists), it does not justify their actions nor do their actions alone make atheism inherently evil. All this line of argument does is show that people are evil. ALL people. All people, when left to their own devices, are at their core depraved. We are all in need of redemption and the grace of God.

In regards to objection 2: It is certainly true that with Pascal’s Wager alone you cannot arrive at an argument for the God of Christianity. But the fact remains, if the argument can succeed in persuading a person to simply theistic belief over atheism, then the leap to specific Christian belief is not nearly as great.

There also arises the question of what does it mean to “bet on God.” By betting on God, Pascal does not mean that you can make yourself believe. Salvation remains a work of the Spirit and not the will. Perhaps it is instructive to again quote here Pascal’s own understanding of any argument for God.

That is why those to whom God has given religious faith by moving their hearts are very fortunate, and feel quite legitimately convinced, but to those who do not have it we can only give such faith through reasoning, until God gives it by moving their heart, without which faith is only human and useless for salvation. (Pensees, 282)

What Pascal means by betting on God is that you can put yourself in situations that are more conducive to belief. For instance you can attend church, you can pray, and you can leave behind your present lifestyle. Putting yourself in those situations places you in a seemingly better position to be open to the working of the Spirit, though it is no guarantee of salvation.

And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him. (Hebrews 11:6, Italics mine)

We can be comforted in knowing that God rewards those who seek Him.

In regards to objection 3: While I certainly do not claim to have a complete understanding of statistics or the use of religious language claims, I see no reason why the phrase “the probability of God’s existence” should fail to make since simply because we cannot count the number of universes there are and how many of those universes have gods, or something along those lines (even if we could count the total number of universes in existences, the claim is still that there exists one God who is over all of them).

One of the more popular examples that statistics students bring to me is the infamous sock drawer. Questions read along the lines of: “You are getting ready for school and your sock drawer has four argyle socks, two polka-dotted socks, and one blue-striped sock (since you lost one). What is the probability that you select two socks that match?”

If there was only sock in the drawer, would it be nonsensical to ask “what is the probability of one sock existing in the drawer?” I hardly think so. The probability is either 1 (meaning there is absolutely one sock in the drawer), or it is 0 (meaning there is absolutely not one sock in the drawer).

To extend the metaphor, it would seem that Paulos believes “the probability of God” does not make sense because we cannot open the drawer (on his view) to see if God is really there. Either God exists or He doesn’t (but He does), so the probability is either 1 or 0 (but it’s 1). So then, the phrase “the probability of God’s existence” seems to me to make perfect sense.

In Summary: While this post has certainly not been exhaustive in the treatment of the topic at hand (though those of you are still reading at this point may disagree), my critique of Paulos essentially boils down to this: Paulos’ critiques of Pascal’s Wager stem from a restatement of the argument that Pascal never originally intended. Pascal simply intended to demonstrate through sound mathematical reasoning that if you aren’t sure whether God exists or He doesn’t, it makes more sense for you to believe in Him than to not so believe.

I don’t fault Paulos for this approach. I simply offer it up as evidence that the presuppositions we bring to a subject (in this case Paulos’ atheism) always affect the way we reason through an argument.