Monday, 19 March 2012 07:31

Blaise Pascal : Men of Ideas

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Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a French mathematician, physicist and theologian (religious philosopher). He made several contributions to mathematics (statistics and probability theory) and physics (he invented the first known calculator, a prelude to modern computers), but in as much as we are reviewing philosophers we shall concentrate on his philosophy rather than his mathematics and physics.

Pascal wrote several books but his philosophical musing was contained in his Pensees (thoughts). Pascal apparently had an experience (in 1654), which he described as ‘fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosopher and the scholars.”

This experience led him to give up his interest in mathematics and physics and, instead, concentrate on metaphysics, religion and God.

Some claim that the experience was a mystical experience. In mystical experience it is said that the individual’s individuality merges with one unified self called God and that that God is everywhere and is like one continuous luminous light, and each of us is a point in that light, though a point that cannot be separated from other points of that light, a self that cannot be differentiated from the other selves that constitute the self of God.

God and his children are said to be one continuous self, light, with no space between them and where there is no space there is no time. There is no space and time and matter in God.

God is one self with infinite selves, all of whom are one. God is in his sons and his sons are in him; there is no gap between God and his sons and no gap between one son of God and another.

This unified whole is the formless picture of eternity given to us by those who have experienced mystical union with God, and Pascal is supposed to have had such an experience.

After that experience, folk see that our world as nothing (as Pascal said that it is) and that what matters is spirit. After mystical experience folk give up their hitherto attachment to things material and focus on things spiritual and that was what Thomas Aquinas is said to have done upon completing his Magnus opus, Summa Theologica and experiencing God, and that was what Pascal is said to have experienced and turned his gaze towards heaven.

Is mystical experience true or false? I do not know. What is empirical is that Pascal left the world as we know it and contented himself with thoughts about God. His final book, published posthumously, Pensees, talked about God. It is a theology of sorts, that is, an attempt to provide rational reasons why folk should believe in God.

It is said that those who have experienced God, in mystical union (see Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism), cannot explain what they have experienced, for God is ineffable. God is the abode of oneness and that does not require speech to communicate. In God there is no you and I, no seer and seen, no subject and object; all share one self and one mind and know each other and do not need language to communicate to each other.

Language was designed to enable folk adjust to the world of separation, a world of multiplicity.

God and his heaven cannot be explained in human language. Yet folk try. Thus, Pascal tried to explain God. He did not succeed; it would have been better if he kept quite, for he did not persuade any one with his theology.

In that book, Pensees,  Pascal broached on the conundrums that philosophy grapples with: the contradictions and paradoxes of being. We live and we die, hence life and death; we live and we do not see any meaning to our lives (existentialists say that there is no meaning and purpose to our lives, yet we are teleological creatures who seek purpose and meaning to our lives), we are rational creatures yet we are the most irrational creatures.

All said man is a bundle of contradictions. Something in us would like to believe that the complex body we live in and the complicated world we live in is not the product of accidents, that pure chance could not have produced Shakespeare’s plays.

But if a rational god created this world, why did he create a meaningless world, a world where children are born to suffer diseases and live in pain and eventually die. Life is pain and then you die; a bummer.

It seems to take a mad god, if god exists, to create this insane world. At any rate, we are speculating for the fact is that we do not know that God exists or does not exist.

Pascal did not prove the existence of God but would like us to make a wager that God exists. As it were, what have we got to lose? Bet on the side that perhaps God exists and live as if that is true, morally. This is the famous Pascal’s wager.

Alas, Pascal is not persuasive. If God exists how come there is suffering in this world? Atheism would seem the most honest approach to existence. But then again if you think about it you recognize that atheism is arrogance. The fact is that we have not even known one percent of what is knowable therefore to conclude that God does not exist is based on incomplete evidence, is a spurious conclusion.

One does not know that God exists or does not exist; this is the agnostic’s position. But agnosticism often leads to not taking action. Agnosticism often leads to vacillation, to sitting on the fence and being wishy-washy, uncommitted to any thing.

Pascal asks folks to commit to God even if there is incomplete evidence for doing so.

Pascal made many contributions to mathematics and physics. Indeed, many mathematical and physics procedures are named after him. He is a great figure in Western science and mathematics. In religious philosophy, Christian theology, he also made some useful contributions. He is worthy of our knowledge.

REFERENCE

Blaise Pascal.  Pensees. (Published after his death in 1662.)

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: ozodiosuji@gmail.com (907) 310-8176