Blaise Pascal Biography

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Blaise Pascal was a French philosopher, mathematician, scientist, inventor, and theologian. In mathematics, he was an early pioneer in the fields of game theory and probability theory. In philosophy he was an early pioneer in existentialism. As a writer on theology and religion he was a defender of Christianity.

Despite chronic ill health, Pascal made historic contributions to mathematics and to physical science, including both experimental and theoretical work on hydraulics, atmospheric pressure, and the existence and nature of the vacuum. As a scientist and philosopher of science, Pascal championed strict empirical observation and the use of controlled experiments; he opposed the rationalism and logico-deductive method of the Cartesians; and he opposed the metaphysical speculations and reverence for authority of the theologians of the Middle Ages.

Although he never fully abandoned his scientific and mathematical interests, after his uncanny “Night of Fire” (the intense mystical illumination and midnight conversion that he experienced on the evening of November 23, 1654), Pascal turned his talents almost exclusively to religious writing. It was during the period from 1656 until his death in 1662 that he wrote the Lettres Provinciales and the Pensées. The Lettres Provinciales is a satirical attack on Jesuit casuistry and a polemical defense of Jansenism. The Pensées is a posthumously published collection of unfinished notes for what was intended to be a systematic apologia for the Christian religion. Along with his scientific writings, these two great literary works have attracted the admiration and critical interest of philosophers and serious readers of every generation.

Worldly Period

As Pascal grew, he tested the theories of both ancient and modern scientists. For example, following up on the theories of men like Evangelista Torricelli and Galileo, Pascal put together mercury barometers and was able to determine differences in air pressure at different levels of elevation. This helped Pascal develop a functioning theory of atmospheric pressure.

During this time – also known as Pascal’s “worldly period” – Pascal worked extensively on issues like math, geometry, and air pressure. Pascal also came up with numerous inventions during this time. Some of his inventions include an early form of the syringe and the hydraulic press.

Religious Philosopher

After his conversion to Jansenism, Pascal would go on to make numerous writings and give many quotes on the subject of religion, religious conversion, and religious values. Indeed, some of Pascal’s most famous quotes pertain to his experience with religion and his battles with the Catholic Church in defense of Jansenism.

Blaise Pascal was born on June 19, 1623, in Clermont-Ferrand, France. Pascal’s father had a strong interest in science and mathematics and this may have had a great deal of influence on him. Even at a very young age, Pascal was showing quite a bit of talent for math and the sciences.

When he was just 16 years of age, he crafted a geometric proof on conic sections. He sent his proof to the theologians and mathematician Marin Mersenne. Mersenne was quite amazed at the revolutionary work the young man produced. In fact, to this very day, the proof is known as Pascal’s Theorem.

The Pascal Family

The Pascal family was heavily invested in bonds. They defaulted on the bonds in order to help fund the 30 Year War, leaving the family almost destitute. This would not break the spirit of young Pascal because he was still destined for greatness.

Eventually, after falling in and out of favor with one of the church’s cardinals in 1642, Pascal’s father was appointed a position where he was in charge of straightening out the tax records in the city of Rouen. The records were in utter chaos. To help his father, Pascal invented the prototype mechanical calculator. Before long, this device set the wheel in motion for the creation of the computer in the years ahead.

Pascal’s Philosophy of Mathematics

Pascal was not the only person to write and muse on the subject of the philosophy of mathematics, but his innovative insights into the subject were among the most profound. His seminal work, Of the Geometrical Spirit, was originally conceived as a mere introduction to a textbook.

Pascal built upon the introduction and turned it into a tome that spelled out the philosophical underpinnings of geometric theory. However, this treatise was not even published until 100 years after his death.

In the work, Pascal raised questions about being able to arrive at truths in geometry. He mentioned that all truths required other established truths to back up assertions which, in some cases, was not always easy to do. Hence, it could be said Pascal admitted some facets of geometry were based on theories that might be disproved at some point in time.

Within this work, Pascal also examined a unique theory of the subject of definitions. He pointed out some definitions are created by writers (formalism) and others are ones that have been crafted so that they can be better understood by larger audiences. While Pascal does not condemn the latter, he does note that the former is the more important because they are more rooted in the formalism of Descartes. The other definition is based more on creating identifiable traits.

On the Art of Persuasion

Blaise_pascalOn the Art of Persuasion was another philosophical text Pascal wrote. This one dealt with axioms in geometry. More specifically, it dealt with how someone can become convinced of a particular axiom. To a degree, this work was one that not only looked at geometric theory, but how the human mind and belief system worked, at least from a microcosmic perspective.

Pascal pointed out in this work that trying to arrive at conclusions through mere human methods was not likely going to occur. Rather, the proofs had to be arrived at through intuition that was connected to a profound belief and faith in God.

Pascal’s Later Years

Pascal had become very interested in the subject of religion later in life, and his interest was more than a passing one. In fact, he started to grow ill in 1659 and rejected medical help, opting instead for faith-based treatment. However, this led to his condition only becoming worse in time.

Pascal had written a great deal on the subject of religion and was involved with the Jansenist Christianity movement. His forays into theology did cause him some personal upheaval since such writing was automatically going to invite controversy. When Louis XIV sought to suppress the movement, Pascal wrote a response. His sister’s death did convince him to cease his involvement with the movement for his own good.

Pascal passed away on August 19, 1662. He left a great legacy as a mathematician and thinker who still influences people to this day.

Philosophical and religious period

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At that time the second stage of Pascal’s life began, leaving mathematics and science aside, and devoting more energy to philosophy. He abandoned his ongoing research, became more interested in theology, and wrote many introspective works. Pascal is obsessed with using religion and belief as the primary tools for discovering ideas from the depths of the soul.

It was at this time that he began to collect documents that he reflected in his theory. The work was never finished or published, it would be printed with the title “Thoughts” at the time of his death, and it is the most important philosophical work he has.

Around 1656 the Jansenist Antonie Arnaud, who had been accused of being a Calvinist, came to the aid of his friend. I would write for him what are known as Provincial letters, which would end up being one of the top works of French literature. The Letters created a great sensation in France because it was the first time that religion and philosophy had been taken out of libraries and classrooms and offered to people in their own simple language. Pascal draws the public’s attention to questions of intellectual importance.

Lesson Summary

Considering the number and scope of Pascal’s achievements, it is truly unfortunate the Frenchman never saw his 40th birthday. In his short time, Pascal achieved much, becoming an accomplished and published mathematician before the age of 16. He went on to prove that vacuums existed in the universe after becoming interested in physics. After having a significant religious experience, Pascal became a Jansenist and spent the remaining decade of his life defending Jansenist beliefs. He also pioneered probability theory in this decade and used it to argue that it is reasonable to believe in God.

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