Pascal and Descartes

In the past few days I have read the works of two important philosophers: Blaise Pascal and Rene Descartes. Both lived in France during the 1600s; in fact, they knew each other. Both excelled in science and mathematics as well as philosophy. But Pascal is probably the last writer of the Reformation, while Descartes is definitely the first of the modern philosophers.

Blaise Pascal was part of a movement in France which was called Jansenism. Remaining within the Roman Catholic Church, Jansenists drew their teachings from the Bible and from the writings of Augustine of Hippo. Their enemies (which included the Jesuits) accused them of being Calvinists rather than faithful Catholics. Pascal never completed his most important book, the Pensees (Thoughts or Meditations). It remained in outline form, with many sections fleshed out; because it was written on scraps of paper, even the order of the material is questionable. But it is clear that Pascal was seeking to convince a skeptical reader of the existence and importance of God. In one section, often called “Pascal’s wager,” the philosopher suggests that it is better to believe in God and be wrong—in which case there are no dire consequences—than to refuse to believe in God and be wrong—in which case the consequences are enormous and catastrophic. I suspect the wager, as such, is intended as a joke, since Pascal knew that Christian faith is far more serious than a gamble. Throughout his work, Pascal demonstrates a deep, sincere faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whom he distinguishes from the God of the philosophers.

Rene Descartes also wrote Meditations, although his works were finished and published in the form he intended. Descartes begins by suggesting that everything he had learned might be wrong. What he had been taught and what he had perceived with his senses might both be faulty. He resolved to doubt everything; then he would see what truth he could deduce in the midst of his doubt. He pointed out that he must exist, since he was thinking. (“Cogito ergo sum,” or, “I think, therefore I am”). But something other than Pascal must exist, since he received input or stimulus from outside of his mind. Both he and those other existing things must have a cause, and Descartes reasoned that the First Cause is God. He then pondered the nature of a God who creates, determining that such a God must be benevolent rather than devious or malicious. From that Descartes concluded that he could trust his senses as well as his reasoning and could use science to study the world around him.

(It should be noted that the movie Matrix pictures the alternate possibility—that people think, but that no benevolent God is responsible for creating the world in which they exist. Therefore, it is possible, even likely, that the world in which they truly exist is entirely unlike the world they perceive.)

Pascal, like most Christians before him, began with God and with revealed knowledge, using philosophy and reason to build a system of thought that included science but left all things in God’s hands. Descartes, like most modern philosophers since his time, began with himself and worked his way to knowledge of God and of the world.

I found no mention of Pascal in Descartes’ book, but Pascal mentions Descartes. He was unimpressed by Descartes’ approach, concerned that the God Descartes would find by starting with himself would not be the true God. This has remained a problem for modern philosophy ever since. In the 1600s, Descartes said, “Question everything.” In the 1800s, Soren Kierkegaard responded, “Why?” J.

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