Who Is Blaise Pascal?

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 vapour, 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.

- Blaise Pascal, Pensées, VI, 347

Podcast of the Day

Melvyn Bragg and his guests begin a new series of the programme with a discussion of the French polymath Blaise Pascal. Born in 1623, Pascal was a brilliant mathematician and scientist, inventing one of the first mechanical calculators and making important discoveries about fluids and vacuums while still a young man. In his thirties he experienced a religious conversion, after which he devoted most of his attention to philosophy and theology. Although he died in his late thirties, Pascal left a formidable legacy as a scientist and pioneer of probability theory, and as one of seventeenth century Europe's greatest writers.

Listen to Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Pascal on the In Our Time podcast

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

...This semester, preparing for a philosophy seminar with first-year honors students at Notre Dame, I reread with fresh eyes one of philosophy’s best-known arguments for belief in God — Pascal’s wager.

The argument, made by the 17th -century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, holds that believing in God is a good bet at any odds, since the possible payoff — eternal happiness — far outweighs any costs of believing — even of believing in a God who does not exist.

Most discussions of Pascal’s wager take it as a peculiar if not perverse calculation of self-interest. As Pascal puts it: “If you win, you win everything; if you lose, you lose nothing.” Taken this way, the argument seems morally suspect; William James noted that those who engaged in such egotistic reasoning might be among the first that God would exclude from heaven. In considering it again, I found what I think may be a more fruitful way of developing the wager argument....

Continue reading Gary Gutting's short article: Pascal's Wager 2.0

Further Reading

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....

Continue reading the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Blaise Pascal by David Simpson

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Each day I post short quotes by great thinkers on a particular philosophical, scientific or historical topic, along with videos, interviews and articles by contemporary thinkers that explore each topic in more detail. Find me on Facebook or Twitter or enter your email below to learn about the ideas that helped shape our world.