California Literary Review

An Interview With Biographer James Connor

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March 30th, 2007 at 3:05 am

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James Connor

James Connor discusses Pascal’s Wager: The Man Who Played Dice with God, his new biography of mathematician and mystic Blaise Pascal.

Tell us about Blaise Pascal’s early life. Where and when did he grow up? What was his family like?
Pascal was born in Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne region of France, which is in the south central part of the country. His father was a tax judge, which was a combination of accountant and barrister. After his mother died when Pascal was only two, his father dropped his entire career and took the children to Paris so that he could concentrate on their education. The Pascals were a loving family, typical of the rising bourgeoisie, rich enough so that Blaise never had to work, and yet not so rich that the family could live ostentatiously. Blaise had two sisters, one older and one younger. The older, Gilberte, was pretty, born for marriage and children. The younger sister, Jacqueline, was as talented as Blaise, and became a noteworthy poet. She is the one who later joined Port Royal and became a hot Jansenist. By all accounts, the three children cared deeply for each other and for their father. In fact, some scholars have said that the loss of their mother early in their life caused the children to become too attached to one another. This attachment would later cause Blaise a great deal of suffering.

Blaise Pascal, 1623-1662

What were Pascal’s major contributions to science and mathematics?
Where to begin? Blaise had so many contributions. The first one was his invention of the Pascaline, one of the earliest calculating machines, designed specifically to help his father with all the calculations he had to do as a collector of taxes. The second one, and by far the most important one, was his collaboration with Pierre Fermat on the invention of probability theory. Blaise made it possible for people to calculate what one could expect in certain situations given the rules of the game. In so doing, his ideas about probability lead the way for the invention of Decision Theory and of Game Theory. After that, about a year before his death, he invented the first public transportation system. He was a very smart guy — inflexible, judgmental, strange, but smart.
Your book gives the impression that religion and Catholic Church politics played a much more dominant and time consuming role in Pascal’s life than his science and math efforts. Is that an accurate statement? What were the religious pressures that he was dealing with?
Oh, that’s absolutely accurate. At one point in his life, Pascal decided that his interest in mathematics would damn his soul, and he gave it all up for years. His long journey with the Jansenists, a very conservative Catholic movement similar to Opus Dei in our own time, turned him into quite a religious fanatic. Of course, this can be both good and bad. He was not a secular man, for secularity had not been invented. He was deeply concerned for his own salvation and for the salvation of his friends and even his enemies. After his mystical experience, nothing but the spiritual life held any spice for him. What was at war for him was a desire to be one with God that was fighting against the desire to be a great man. He certainly achieved one of them, because people like me are still writing books about him. Maybe he achieved the other as well. Who can say?
The role the Jesuits played as Pascal’s antagonist is fascinating. You state that “Blaise Pascal single-handedly invented the myth of the crafty Jesuit.” Can you tell us a little about the Jesuits and their role in society at that time?
There have been four great religious orders in the history of the Catholic Church — the Benedictines, who set the stage for the entire Middle Ages, the Franciscans and Dominicans, who created a new kind of religious life, and one that was not vowed to a particular place, and the Jesuits, who have set the spiritual tone for the modern world. The Jesuits were the most powerful order in the Catholic Church in the 17th century. They had led the fight against Protestantism, had built a system of universities and colleges all across Europe and even into the New World. They were the most ardent intellectuals and the most ardent missionaries in the church at that time. They were the teachers of René Descartes, Pascal’s great opponent over the question of the existence of the vacuum, and they were also the great defenders of Thomistic theology. Well, their own version of Thomistic theology. In terms of liberal and conservative, the Jesuits would have been the Liberals of that day. Pascal and his friends the Jansenists were strict interpreters of the writings of St. Augustine. Augustine was a real hard case, and he believed that the vast majority of human beings were destined for hell. John Calvin’s idea about predestination was simply an extension of Augustine’s teaching about original sin. The Jesuits, like Thomas Aquinas, found this to be very difficult to accept. They believed that the human race was not utterly perverse, but wounded in the heart and in the will, that the saving power of Jesus Christ was meant for everyone and not just the exceedingly pious. The Jansenists hated that idea, and while the Jesuits were one of the leading opponents of the Jansenists, they were not the only opponent. The strongest opponent of the Jansenists was Louis XIV himself. What King could have mistresses one day and yet believe that only the truly pious can achieve heaven the next? Nevertheless, most scholars think that Pascal was quite unfair to the Jesuits. He invented the word “Jesuitical”, in his Provincial Letters, and in those letters single-handedly created the myth of the crafty Jesuit. To be sure, the Jesuits at that time were great politicians. They understood power and knew how to wield it. Even so, Pascal’s ideas stuck in the imagination of Europe. Voltaire and his friends had a great deal of fun with it, though many of them were educated by the Jesuits as well.
You have some interesting thoughts on how Pascal’s theories of probability fundamentally changed the way humans view the world.
The odd thing that Pascal’s theory of probability was to create a way to calculate things that don’t exist. Most of us count what we have. We keep our bank records so that we can tell how much money we actually have in the bank. Pascal invented a way to calculate desire and expectation. He showed us how we can calculate what is likely and in some ways replace that for what exists. Most of modern economics is based on calculations of what is likely to happen under certain circumstances, and what we can expect from the economic rules at hand. Whole industries, like the insurance industry, are built on calculations of what they can expect to be the number of sick people, or people who will die, or people who will be in an auto accident. What really changed for us, what made us the people we are today, is that we can think in terms of what could exist rather than what does exist. This means that we are a people who now live in that shadow world of quasi-existence. What matters to us is not necessarily what is real, but what is possible given the state of things. This is a big change, and constitutes a fundamental shift in the way we understand the world. The simple fact of human existence is that we are all gamblers. Every day, we get up and go to work with the expectation that we will be alive by the end of the day. Moreover, we live with the expectation that things will generally go well for us. We live in a strange world that asks what the odds are of getting cancer, and what the odds are of surviving cancer if you do get it. We ask what the odds are of catching HIV if we have so many partners. One partner? Two partners? Three partners? If I wear a condom, will it lower my odds? But all of this is not a calculation of reality but a calculation of possibility. This is an odd place to be.
What exactly is “Pascal’s Wager,” and how has it held up as a valid way for an individual to approach the question of God’s existence?
Well, anyone who believes in God will take comfort from the argument and anyone who does not believe in God will try to pick the argument apart. Pascal’s Wager is an application of his thinking about probability to the theological question of whether God exists. It doesn’t pretend to be a proof of the existence of God, but only an argument about the rationality of believing in God. Thomas Aquinas and Richard Dawkins actually share something in common. Both claim that they have either definitively proven or definitively disproven the existence of God. Pascal never claims this, and so his “proof” is actually an existential argument. It’s one based upon outcomes. This is how it works: God either exists or doesn’t exist; no one can prove either way. Now, if God exists (and if all the teachings of the Catholic Church are correct), then it is possible to go to heaven. Of course, it is also possible to go to hell. One prerequisite for going to heaven is that you believe in God. The best that the nonbeliever could expect from his lack of belief is that that death we simply disappear, but there is no suffering, no pain, for there is no existence, and we all just take the long dirt nap. The worst that the nonbeliever could expect is if there is a God and he would have no possibility of going to heaven because he didn’t believe, but he would have a possibility of going to hell.On the other hand, the best that a believer could expect is heaven, the state of perfect joy, and the worst that a believer could expect is the long dirt nap. Therefore, based upon a comparison of outcomes it behooves a betting man (please excuse the sexist language. We are talking about the 17th century after all) to bet on God, because to do so has better outcomes. A lot of people call this a prudential argument rather than a metaphysical argument. It is really an argument for our time, when we perhaps wisely have come to the realization that for all our science and philosophy, we don’t know a whole lot after all.

  • http://yahoo.com kenysha

    although this is more of a question than a comment, did Blaise Pascal create the Pascal triangle, or not???????

  • Axel

    Yes, he did.

  • Axel

    a little too late i guess >.<“

  • miriam

    hi

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