Religious Thoughts of a Mathematician

Pensées - Blaise Pascal, A.J. Krailsheimer


When I was learning French I was rather thrown by the way their numbers work after about 60, as is demonstrated by this picture, which shows how English, German, and French construct the number 98:


French Numbers



My first thought was 'this is absolutely ridiculous, how on Earth could the French have produced any mathematicians?” Well, it turns out that they produced at least two – Rene Descartes (notable for Cartesian Geometry) and Blaise Pascal (who built his own calculator, most likely to assist him in deciphering the French numerical system). At least the Germans only switch their numbers around, it just seems like the French reached the number 60 and simply became too lazy to work out any beyond that (and if you look at the numbers 17, 18, and 19, you will see a similar pattern there). Anyway, I'm not writing this to bag the French (only the way they count), but to have another look at Pascal's Pensees.


This is the second time I have read this book, and I thought it was an appropriate book to read while travelling through France, and I have just managed to finish it off on my first day in Paris (while sitting out the front of a cafe drinking what was effectively an overpriced beer and an over priced bottle of Pine-apple juice, which is another oddity – the English refer to them and Pineapples while those on the continent refer to them as Annanas – but that is another story). As I was about to read this book I discovered that I had already read, and reviewed it, though that review was written back when I was studying Church History at a Bible college and having realised that I had already written a review on it I was about to move on to another book when I felt that I should read him again, just to see if I end up viewing him differently.



Well, I'm going to have to agree with what another reviewed said in his review in that the first part of the book, namely the section where Pascal managed to order his Pensees, is actually pretty good, but when you get to the section where the editor has then tried to put them into some sort of order, and failing that just thrown the rest of them into a miscellaneous chapter, it does sort of start to go down hill. For instance you will find some that are simply huge chucks of the Bible, and not really ethical thoughts, but rather ideas on prophecies and their fulfilments. Like a lot of fundamentalist preachers these days he does seem to spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on the book of Daniel.


The other thing is that Pascal spends a lot of time arguing that Christianity cannot be proved through reason, however the proceeds to use reason to try to prove Christianity. I remember my father telling me once that it is impossible to prove Christianity by using science namely because non-scientists generally don't understand the detailed scientific explanations, and non-Christian scientists have their own explanations as to why things happen. For instance, I asked my Dad why is it that the events at the Big Bang seems to go against the Law of Therodynamics, that is the scientific law that says that everything moves from a state of order to a state of disorder. Well, just like gravity (what goes up, must come down), there are exceptions (unless you have a really big rocket underneath you). The other thing with the Big Bang is that nobody was around to measure it so we don't actually know what went on. Also the universe is also constantly expanding, which once again seems to go against the law of entropy, though I think I'll leave it at that is it is starting to make my brain hurt.


Anyway, reading through the Pensees it seems as if Pascal was one of those guys who started off as a scientist (or rather a mathematician), discovered God, and then started to try to use science to prove God. It reminded me a lot of those Creation Scientists, the ones who go around claiming that if you don't believe in a six-day creation you are denying Christ, and if you deny Christ then you are going to hell. Well, I guess that is it for me then, but that is beside the point. The thing is that while I believe that they have some valid ideas, I do try to leave my mind open for other possibilities. However, as I was reading Pascal this time I simply found how his arguments simply didn't seem to work all that well, and while it might have worked with the people of his time period, these days it simply seems that his writings would probably only appeal to the fundamentalist sects (and even then they would probably end up rejecting him as a heretic namely because he is a Catholic).


Despite all that, I do feel that he does have a lot to say and I will touch on a couple of things here, the first being distractions. There is a lot of criticism of distractions in the modern world – such as sport, movies, Keeping up with the Kardasians, et al – and that these distractions serve to keep the actions of the power elite from being known by the common people. Well, Pascal suggests that this is not necessarily the case, and I sort of agree with him. The thing is that the common people generally don't care what the power elite are doing, and as long as they have their goodies they will be happy. It is not a question of human rights, nor is it a question of freedom of speech – people will do what they are prone to do – no it is a question of boredom. It is not as if the common person, if the truth is revealed to them, are suddenly going to take to the streets with pitchforks – the Peasants in France knew what the Aristocracy and the Church was all about, they only revolted when their own situation became so dire that they had nothing left to lose (and were also prodded on by a pretty powerful bourgeoisie). Rather, it is to prevent boredom. The thing is that if a person is bored they get up to mischief, and if a lot of people get up to mischief together then anarchy reigns.


The other thing about distraction is how it is used in relation to the monarch. Pascal suggests that the monarch is fed distractions by his advisors to prevent the monarch from establishing his (or her) own agenda. Mind you, that depends on how strong the monarch actually is – a strong monarch is going to do their own thing no matter what. However, in most cases, as is suggested by Pascal, it is the advisors and the inner circle that actually dictates how the country is administered. The king is fed distractions so that he will in effect relinquish his (or her) power to them. It could be said that it is the same with politicians today, especially career politicians who probably have no skill set outside of doing what politicians actually do (which is a question to which I an struggling to find an answer). The reality is that most politicians (and cabinet ministers) have no idea how to actually do their job and thus rely on advisors to help them make the decision. In the end the politician, seeing that it is all too hard, arranges for another overseas junket and gets the advisors to make the final decisions and simply signs on the dotted line.


One of the things that seems to get up Pascal's nose are vain people – namely those who think of themselves over others. Mind you, he is probably right because it is our vanity that seems to be the cause of a lot of problems that we face in the world, and it is not just the question of the rich not paying their taxes because many of us in the Western World (me included) generally think of our own happiness above the welfare and security of others. In fact it is coming to the point where many of our countries are doing everything that we can to close our borders to refugees and immigrants and blaming in influx of foreigners for all of our woahs. In a way one of the main reasons that the leave vote won out in Britain was because people believed that by voting leave they would get rid of all of the immigrants and return Britain to that of the Anglo-Saxons. In many cases we in the west are hoarders – sure, we might be generous to an extent, even the absurdly rich are pretty generous with their money – they give to charities and to cultural institutions – in fact on a proportionate basis they are probably more generous than many of us who can actually afford to be charitable (though I am not taking into account the reasons for their giving since many of us give for ulterior motives such as a tax deduction). However, when Pascal looked around he we would see an awful lot of vanity in the world, and even when people appeared to be kind and generous he tended to see something beyond that. As Jesus pointed out at the temple one day it was the poor widow who gave the single coin who was the more generous because while the rich gave out of their wealth she gave out of her poverty.


Which leads me to the concept of the inversion – people who consider themselves good and righteous end up being anything but. Mind you, this isn't something that Pascal comes up with himself but rather something that is a constant theme throughout the Bible and can best be seen in the Sermon on the Mount, in particular the beatitudes – the poor become rich, the weak become strong, the sorrowful become joyful. In a way it is not a question of outward appearances but inward appearances. Isn't it interesting that when somebody gives out of their wealth an organisation will reward them for that, which means that such people continue to give knowing that their generosity will be rewarded and they will be viewed as a generous person. As Jesus suggests these people have received their reward in full, especially if that is the reason for them giving generously. However those who give a small amount tend to never to be recognised. Well, they might get a thankyou (or a Merci Beaucoup) but a lot of organisations will tend to ignore them when they give and only say thankyou when tapping them for more money. This is another thing that I have noticed – when you start giving to these organisations they will continue to ask for money, and normally will ask for more and more – if I give them $500.00 within a month I will receive a letter asking for $750, $1000, or even $2000. In fact the only letters that I seem to get from them is 'can you make another donation and can you make it more this time'.


I should finish off with the idea of the wager, that is that life is a wager and the stakes are eternity, so you either have the choice to live a moral life or an immoral one. The results are that if you live a moral life but it turns out that God doesn't exist then you lose nothing because the moral life is always the better life, but if you live an immoral life and it turns out that God does exist then you lose out big time. Mind you, I have simplified it somewhat, especially since it should actually be 'Christian life' instead of 'moral life' but I'm sure you understand what I mean. The thing is that people outwardly parade their goodness to receive praise from those around them tend not to actually be moral people – sure, they may life immaculate lives in front of everybody but their private life may hold a huge number of dirty secrets. As far as I am concerned it is always going to be a heart things, you don't do things because you want people to say 'gee, what a good person' you do things because it is always better to live a moral life than an immoral life, especially since the immoral life always comes back and bites you.


29 August 2016 - Paris, France