References

Blaise Pascal
Brief biography

Blaise Pascal
Outline of Pascal as a mathematician

Pascal's Wager
A good summary of the argument by Paul Saka

The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
Brief refutation of Pascal by Paul Tobin

Pascal's Wager
Superb Analysis of the
argument by Alan Hájek

Blaise Pascal
Biography from the Catholic Encyclopedia

The First Mechanical Calculator
Brief description of the calculator and its influence.



 

Blaise Pascal

An objective of these pages is to indicate how Pascal's most famous idea - The Wager - is a result of his ideas about knowledge, reason, science, and probability.

Pascal’s genius was apparent from his childhood. At age twelve he worked out the fundamental propositions of Euclidean geometry by himself. His father, who was also his teacher, recognized the mathematical genius in the young boy and gave him a copy of Euclid’s geometry. The result was that Pascal produced his first major work, Essai pour les coniques, which examined the geometry of the conic sections (i.e. planes through parts of cones). Three years later in 1642, young Pascal succeeded in making a mechanical calculator which he gave to his father to use in his work as a government accountant. The calculator was the first adding machine ever built. Pascal published papers on the design and mechanics of calculators. This achievement is an important moment in the history of computing (one of the early computer languages of the 1960's was named in honor of him). It was also an indicator of the growing practical applications of scientific technique that led to the industrial revolution.

In early life Pascal established himself as one of the great mathematical innovators of all time. He made fundamental contributions to geometry, number theory, and probability theory. He also made advances in early experimental science, especially in his experimental refutation of the common belief that nature abhors a vacuum. Pascal not only conducted empirical experiments that tested scientific claims, but formulated a reasoned method for doing so. This distinguished him as having given one of the first clear statements of scientific method, especially in practical application.

At age 31 Pascal had a profound mystical experience that deepened his faith in Jainist Christianity. He thus turned his attention to theological issues and wrote some of his most influential philosophical works with such matters in mind. One success was in showing how the philosophical skepticism which threatened doctrines of faith was itself dependent upon intuitive grounds, just as faith is. It is important to note that Pascal was a systematic thinker and did not simply throw off sound bites as refutations. Rather, he produced a careful analysis of rationality using geometrical method as the standard in order to show that no human thought could reach absolute truth. Consequently, the genuine insight of skepticism - that certain knowledge of ultimate truth is unattainable by humans - is turned by Pascal to a vindication of religious belief as a reasonable option. These ideas continue to be used in religious debates. Yet, Pascal’s thinking on the nature of belief and knowledge has implications in many areas of human thought, not religion alone.

Next - Learn about Pascal's approach to scientific problems Go to the next page


 

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