My name is Blaise Pascal. I lived from 1623 to 1662. I died before the age of 40. I was born three years before Francis Bacon died and I lived when Galileo and Bacon were having their tremendous conflicts with the Catholic church. In my youth, I was obsessed with mathematics. At age 16 I wrote a book on conic sections. I invented a computers, which I think might surprise you. You thought computers were invented in the 20th century. Sorry. In other words, I was an intellectual version of Bill Gates. I never made any money off of my way of thinking. People who knew me as a youth and knew I was smart assumed I would side with the scientists and intellectuals against the Church. But they were wrong. At age 23, I had a religious conversion experience, more like Augustine than anything Galileo or Bacon experienced. I joined a sect of the Catholic church called Jansenism. I quite doing math and science and joined a religious community. Even though I embraced Catholicism, I spent my entire adult life trying to reconcile my intellectual training in math and science, using the scientific methods of Newton and Bacon, with my religious faith. This was the question everyone with any intellectual training wrestled with: how do these ways of thinking fit together? How can we understand the nature of reality and the meaning of human existence in a way which fits together? I am coming to you today because I do not think any of the people you have read so far in your Common Core course, ancient or modern, has provided a good enough answer to this very serious question. Whitehead understood how important our answers to these questions are for the kind of civilization we create. I would like to explain and persuade you of my view. First, I disagreed with those who clung to the past and to Aristotle’s view of final causes and of the Chain of Being. I agreed with Galileo, Bacon and Newton’s use of scientific method to investigate nature by observing the physical universe and never to claim to know more than what you can prove with sufficient empirical evidence. I also agreed that mathematical formulas can be, and should be, used to understand the patterns underlying empirical data. Copernicus was correct when he posited the earth as revolving around the sun. Galileo was right when he came up with conclusions about the relation between the moon’s orbit around the earth and the tides. Bacon’s “beehive” method for creating new knowledge was better than the old view. Those who clung to the Catholic version of Aristotle were too dogmatic. They claimed to know more than human Reason can know. They claimed that human Reason can know eternal, unchanging Truth and eternal Law. This is too dogmatic. There is no evidence for this. The particular laws they posited as eternal cannot be defended through scientific method. For example, the claim that everything that exists has a purpose and would not exist unless it did, cannot be proven. How much data does one need to support this? How can one prove that a tree needs to produce millions and millions of seeds in order to produce a few more trees? What is the purpose of a certain species of tree? Why do there need to be so many species, does each species have some specific purpose, without which Nature would collapse? There is certainly no evidence for this. I decided that the claim that everything exists for a purpose was too dogmatic, because it claims to know more than a human being can know. More importantly to me, however, than whether the natural world is ordered was the claim made by the Thomists that human nature and human history are ordered in a way which human Reason can understand. The Thomists believed in Eternal Law, or Natural Law as one aspect of human life and the way human beings relate to each other. Thomists believed, for example, that the killing of innocent human beings is unjust by nature. This means that it is an Eternal Law. Further, they argued that a just society is one which is ordered to the highest degree. One part of a well-ordered society is that the middle class is the largest it can be; further, in a just society the punishments fit the crimes, etc. But believing that such claims are “eternal laws” has absolutely no empirical, scientific proof. As a matter of fact, if one wants to use the method of collecting data in order to prove anything about human affairs, one would likely conclude that there are no “eternal laws” in respect to human affairs at all. Human beings behave in radically different ways. Plenty of human beings kill other innocent human beings. Human beings torture each other and even take pleasure in torturing each other. Human beings rape small children, cut out people’s tongues, engage in cannibalism and all sorts of what I think of as perverse behaviors. Where is the “Natural Law” in that? So, I disagreed with the dogmatists. But there were other intellectuals around who became complete skeptics. A “skeptic” is someone who does not think human beings can know anything at all with certainty. For example, since scientific knowledge is based on facts and we do not know if the facts we observe today, or facts gathered from the past, will be the same as the facts we gather in the future, we really have no absolute, certain, unchanging knowledge of anything. If knowledge is based on facts and facts are changing or changeable, then all of our knowledge is changing or changeable, hence not “knowledge” in any absolute sense. So, to speak technically, we never know anything for sure, or permanently. Every piece of “knowledge” is only based on the hypothesis that the future will be the same as the past, hence it is open for revision and question. But skepticism as a view of all of reality is even more serious, dangerous and cynical when turned toward human nature and human affairs. If there is no “human nature” as such, and no “Eternal Law” in respect to human actions, then no one can even say it is a violation of “Eternal Law,” or any absolute law, to kill innocent people, or torture, rape and pillage. Who says it is wrong? A skeptic who applies his view of reality to human affairs will end up concluding that morality is only whatever a group of people decide to call good or evil, based primarily on their desire to survive. Skeptics became skeptical about any absolute notion of morality or justice as well as any absolute truth. But this, in turn, can lead to cynicism, to the belief that human beings are naturally hopelessly wicked because people tend to behave worse if they do not believe in God or any absolute morality. Another issue that was very controversial at my time was the nature of the mind or spirit, the nature of the body and the relation between them. The Catholic church defined human beings as partly supernatural and partly natural. All human behavior had to follow supernatural law, based on faith, and natural law, based on reason. Bacon rejected the Catholic notion of the union of these two opposites. He thought it was absurd and made scientific discoveries of cause-effect relationships impossible. took a third position. I rejected the view that we are corporeal only, “if any one maintain that we are simply corporeal, this would far more exclude us from the knowledge of things, there being nothing so inconceivable as to say that matter knows itself” (48). On the other hand, On the other hand, if we are only spiritual, we cannot gain complete knowledge of ourselves, or of anything else, “if we are composed of mind and matter, we cannot know perfectly things that are simple, whether spiritual or corporeal” (48). I concluded that our reason allows us to know material things, but it also enables us and even forces us to believe we are also spiritual and have a spiritual destiny, although we cannot know that. Ultimately, I returned to the Catholic faith because I thought it explained the human condition best. I knew about human evil, sin, about human vanity and wickedness and pettiness and injustice and self-deception and ways people distort the truth about themselves and others. But if all we have is scientific method to tell us anything about human nature or how to live, we have no way to be critical of such behavior. We have no way to tell anyone that their way of life is morally wrong. And, it is empirically verifiable that people tend to accept the ways they live; most people will defend their lives without even considering anything better. On the scientific worldview, why should they consider any “better” way of life to which to aspire? “Better” according to whom? So, the main point I want to make is that Bacon and Galileo got it wrong. They were ignorant and naive about what it means to take scientific method and use it as a model for unifying religion and science. Kepler, Copernicus and Galileo, at any rate, were extremely bright, obsessed with their scientific research and isolated from human affairs. They believed in all honesty that learning about the order of the physical universe strengthened their faith. There mistake was to think everyone would have the same reaction. This is were they made a big mistake. The truth is, when Copernicus discovered that the earth is not at the center of the universe most people felt emotionally that this was a threat to their religion. They thought this might mean that there is no God, since in the Judeo-Christian tradition not only is there one God, but God had a chosen people, the Jews, and he led them to the promised land, and brought a Messiah and now everyone who believes can be saved. But if that is God’s main purpose, to save sinners, then the earth should be at the center of the universe and human beings should be the point of the entire Creation. So, it shouldn’t have been existed before human beings were created, because there was no point to the universe before humankind, and the sun should not be at the center because the sun exists to give heat and make it possible for human beings to live on earth. Galileo and Kepler and Copernicus just did not understand why their discoveries about the solar system would be a threat to the masses. But the far worse effect was the effect of those discoveries on human behavior and interpersonal relationships. Those isolated intellectuals simply did not understand that any discoveries which cast any doubt on whether the purpose of the universe is to enable human beings to either save themselves for eternity or damn themselves for eternity was going to give human beings the license to do what they want. Galileo, Kepler and Copernicus did not have much understanding about what most human beings want. Most people are given over to lust, greed, sloth, gluttony, drunkenness, envy, anger, jealousy, competitiveness, power, pride and all sorts of human wickedness. Most people have completely distorted notions of their own worth and character, in relation to the rest of the universe and in relation to each other. “The nature of self-love and of this human Ego is to love self only and consider self only. But what will man do? He cannot prevent this object that he loves from being full of faults and wants...he devotes all his attention to hiding his faults both from others and from himself, and he cannot endure either that others should point them out to him, or that they should see them. Truly it is an evil to be full of faults; but it is a still greater evil to be full of them and to be unwilling to recognize them, since that is to add the further fault of a voluntary illusion” (49) Man is, then, only disguise, falsehood, and hypocrisy, both in himself and in regard to others (50). Francis Bacon was the one who demonstrated that the new scientific method could lead, and even inevitably would lead, to a loosening of morality. Bacon himself took bribes, he gave into temptations those before him did not give into. I believe this is because his rejection of the old order in favor of a new order, even though he claimed it should not undermine faith, did undermine faith and, with that, led to immoral behavior. I pondered these questions long and hard. I wanted to take sides with the “intellectuals” with those who were trendy and “cutting edge.” But I knew that my training in math and science was not a training which would make people morally better. Very few people connect a study of the natural world with belief in God and fewer yet connect understanding of an order in nature with a desire to rid oneself of greed, pride, lust, envy and all other human vice. Plenty of scientists had personal vices. I agonized about what the new scientific discoveries meant for the nature of God and the human place in the history of the universe. I felt the universe was too vast for us to understand it; it was an impossible task. All we could ever really know through scientific method was a tiny fraction of what is actually out there, so what difference does it make if one spends one’s life trying to prove some tiny, meaningless claim about the natural world? I agonized about the human wickedness around me and the negative effect the new science was having on people’s moral character, their faith, their desire to treat each other well, their pride and vanity. Science was only making things worse. I did not agree with the Thomists in so far as they were dogmatic, that is, they claimed to know more about nature than they did know. So, I did not become a Catholic priest and I did not go through the training for the priesthood which required reading St. Thomas in Latin. Rather, I joined a mystical sect of Catholicism because I decided I believed in God, but God is a mystery one cannot know with one’s reason. I agreed with the view of knowledge and reason in Galileo and Bacon, but I did not think reason should be the basis for anyone’s view of the purpose of human life. Pascal on scientific investigation: ...men have rashly rushed into the examination of nature, as though they bore some proportion to her (46)...We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end...we burn with desire to find solid ground and an ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching to the Infinite. But our groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses...what matters it that man should have a little more knowledge of the universe?...is not the duration of our life equally removed from eternity (47). Pascal on man without God: “How hollow and full of ribaldry is the heart of man!” (50) our pleasures are only vanity; our evils are infinite... Pascal on faith: there is no good in this life but in the hope of another...we are happy only in proportion as we draw near to it” (51) The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. I say that the heart naturally loves the Universal Being, and also itself naturally, according as it gives itself to them; and it hardens itself against one or the other at its will. It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason. Thought constitutes the greatness of man. Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All the dignity of man consists in thought...How great it is in its nature! How vile it is in its defects! PASCAL’S CONCLUSIONS AND YOUR RESPONSE I reaffirmed the belief that the purpose of human life is eternal salvation, but one has to believe in God through faith, not reason. I did not convert to a Protestant religion because I wanted to affirm tradition as a way to keep people in line. Trust in authority, custom and traditional rituals is the best way to preserve social order. I did not become a priest because I did not accept St. Thomas’s view of Natural Law and of human Reason and the human capacity to understand Eternal Laws. I accepted the modern view of reason as the human faculty which combines mathematical formulas with scientific investigations. Reason can generate new knowledge, but it cannot control human behavior in any other aspect of life. Reason controls only the creation of new knowledge, nothing else. I belonged to a mystical sect because I believed in God, but only through faith and revelation, not reason. I decided that if one examines the human condition and the actual wickedness of human beings even when they believe in God, much less when they have any doubts, I decided that the only way human beings come even close to behaving like human beings is when they have a deep faith. So, I decided God created us to believe in Him and it is only through faith that we can actually become truly human and humane beings. Do you agree with my decision to return to the Catholic faith? Why or why not? (Address each point above.) How would Bacon respond to Pascal? Which do you agree with and why?
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