Fun facts about the life and work of Blaise Pascal, mathematician, philosopher, and writer
1. Pascal’s wager is often proffered as a good rational argument for believing in God – but it has a few major problems. ‘Pascal’s Wager’ stems from Pascal’s interest in probability as well as his philosophical writings on the nature of religion. Acknowledging that there is no proof of God in the real sense, Pascal then weighs up the best course of action. Should one accept the premise of Roman Catholicism? (Pascal’s own religion – all others, including other Christian sects, are rejected at the start!) Pascal reasons that if there is a God, it’s better to believe in him because then you will get to heaven. If there isn’t, what have you lost? Nothing. Conversely, if there is a God and you choose not to believe, then the consequences are everlasting hellfire. (The problem with this reasoning, as many philosophers and logicians have since pointed out, is that it presupposes either a gullible God who will be convinced by your display of belief, or a corrupt deity who is prepared to overlook the fact that you’re believing, with your fingers crossed behind your back.) In Pascal’s defence, it should be pointed out that he acknowledged that it was impossible for people to choose to have belief; but he believed that people might develop a sincere belief over time.
2. In fact, Pascal didn’t actually invent the wager named after him. A remarkably similar argument had been put forward in Islam by eleventh-century Islamic scholar Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni, but even before this, in ancient Greece, the tragedian Euripides had included a similar argument in one of his plays, Bacchae.
3. Pascal is also famous for several celebrated pronouncements – including one about Cleopatra’s nose. Perhaps Pascal’s most celebrated statement about reason and its limitations is the pithy saying, ‘the heart has its reasons which reason cannot know.’ However, Pascal also said the following about a certain Queen of Egypt: ‘If Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter, the whole face of the world would have changed.’ Pascal is arguing that Cleopatra’s distinctive beauty (she was by no means conventionally attractive, according to contemporary accounts) was responsible for her relationships with Marc Antony and Julius Caesar, which affected the course of history. (There’s also a dash of seventeenth-century physiognomy in Pascal’s pronouncement: long noses were associated with strength of will and powerful character, perhaps because they suggested the beaks of birds of prey.)
4. He was a tireless inventor. Pascal is credited with inventing what was only the second ever calculating machine, and he was indirectly responsible for the later invention of the barometer. It was Pascal, along with Pierre de Fermat (1601-1665), who established the branch of mathematics known as probability. The SI unit of pressure is named the Pascal in honour of him.
5. His sister was a poet. Blaise’s sister Jacqueline Pascal (1625-1661) began writing poetry at the age of eight and had written a five-act play by the age of eleven; she later became a nun, having converted to Jansenism (commonly known as ‘Calvinist Catholicism’, for its adherents’ belief that some are predestined for salvation and the rest are doomed to damnation) under her brother’s influence. Pascal was no poet, but his prose style is often praised. It is for his Pensées (French for ‘thoughts’) that Pascal is now chiefly remembered. This work was compiled from his notebooks and published after his death in 1662. It contains the famous wager along with many of his other important contributions to mathematics and philosophy.
Image: Blaise Pascal, anonymous portrait, 17th century; Wikimedia Commons.