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Blaise Pascal

W. J. Rayment / -- Pascal was born on 19 June 1623 in Clermont in Auvergne, France. His father was the president of the Court of Aids of Clermont, a position of some authority. Blaise, it turned out was a precocious young man who showed an early aptitude for mathematics. His training was mainly in the field of science. In his early years he founded the modern theory of probability, which is the study of the likelihood of one occurrence over another given certain restrictions (for example the odds of a die roll resulting in a "6" or the roll of two dice resulting in two sixes in a row, et cetera).

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At this time he discovered the properties of the cycloid. He also advanced the study of Calculus through his discoveries regarding Fluid Pressure. He developed what has been referred to as a "surprising" physical law (by Larson and Hostetler in their text on calculus). The law that became known as Pascal's Principle states the pressure exerted by a fluid at a depth h is equal in all directions. This law and other work by Pascal led to the foundation of the study of hydraulics with all of its practical applications.

Pascal was said to be a great influence on many of the other great thinkers of his day including Liebnitz, one of the founders (along with Sir Isaac Newton) of modern calculus. Yet, he did not stop at science and mathematics, he moved into the field of philosophy and Christianity after a conversion in 1654. He became involved with the Jansenist movement which was centered in a convent in Port-Royal. It was during this time that he wrote two famous works (one published posthumously) known as the Lettres Provinciales and the Pensees (Thoughts).

Pascal died in 1662, but not before leaving such important thoughts behind as his influential idea called "the necessity of the wager" which combined his interests in probability and logic with his profound religious belief. He posited that there are two possible states regarding the nature of God. Either He exists or He does not. We can only do two things regarding these possibilities, either believe and follow God's laws, or refuse to believe in God. Next he drew a chart to show the results of these possibilities:

-God ExistsGod does not Exist
BelieveHeavenOblivion
Don't BelieveHellOblivion

First, we note that if God does not exist, the result is the same no matter what we do. The result is oblivion upon death. However, the results become radically different once we begin to suppose the possibility of the existence of God. In this case, if we choose not to believe, the torments of Hell await us. Pascal showed that there could only be one good result and that was Heaven and that could only happen if one chose to believe. He said that this possibility might be remote or great, it did not matter. Though the chance that God might exist might seem infinitesimally small it was still large enough that an intelligent person must choose to follow it because it was the only possibility where the result is positive.

This "thought", along with other ideas embedded in his works is said to have limited the atheistic tendencies of the "Enlightenment". Ultimately, Pascal was a great thinker whose ideas proved practical on every level, from the mechanical to the spiritual.

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