I’ve been reading and reflecting on philosopher Blaise Pascal’s extraordinary book Pensées (pronounced in French “Pon-SAYZ” and roughly translated as “Thoughts”) for a long time. Yet Pensées is really more of an outline than a complete book. Pascal had been preparing a work on Christian apologetics for his skeptical friends when he died of an illness at age 39. So Pensées was published posthumously as an unfinished apologetic work consisting mainly of organized and unorganized notes, outlines, and fragments. But its content is so profound that it remains a popular text in philosophy and religion.
I like to say that Pascal is part of my “big three.” That is, outside of Scripture my three favorite Christian thinkers and writers are St. Augustine, Blaise Pascal, and C. S. Lewis. I write about all three of them (and others) in my book Classic Christian Thinkers.1 I’ve also discussed Pascal’s ideas on my podcast, Clear Thinking (formerly Straight Thinking). Here are two of those episodes: “Blaise Pascal on the Human Condition” and “Things Blaise Pascal Can Teach Us Today.”
In this brief article, I’ll mention three Pascalian points that stand out concerning science, human beings, and truth.
1. Science is a powerful way to gain knowledge about the natural world but it has limits and is provisional.
Pascal lived during the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century and worked as a physicist, mathematician, logician, and inventor. Intuitively, he knew the difference between the practice of science and the exaggerated claims of scientism (the view that only science reveals credible truth) and that scientific knowledge was always developing.2 With this background, he knew that science couldn’t answer humanity’s grand metaphysical, moral, and aesthetic questions. And while he was a fiercely independent thinker, he recognized that the process by which human beings form their basic beliefs is never purely rational or empirical.
In the face of great suffering, Pascal understood that humans needed more than what science could provide:
“Vanity of science. Knowledge of physical science will not console me for ignorance of morality in time of affliction, but knowledge of morality will always console me for ignorance of physical science.”3
Pascal scholar Peter Kreeft explains this citation in light of Pascal’s premature death:
“As you lie dying, you can no more take consolation in your knowledge of science than in your money.”4
2. Human beings are weak yet exceptional creatures in comparison to the insentient universe.
Pascal affirmed that humans were exceptional creatures capable of tracking the logical and mathematical nature of the cosmos. In comparison to the vast cosmos, they are most fragile and vulnerable beings, yet superior in another way. Again from the Pensées, he proposes:
“Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapour, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows none of this.”5
3. In a world of deception one must love truth to be able to find it.
Pascal’s seventeenth-century zeitgeist sounds similar to our own. For Pascal, human beings reflect an enigmatic nature of greatness and wretchedness.6 In the biblical worldview that Pascal affirmed, the greatness of human beings (in reason, technology, art, etc.) is tied to their exceptional identity as bearers of God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27). But that image has been significantly tarnished through humankind’s collective fall into sin (Romans 3:23) and accompanying moral wretchedness. Thus, human nature is puzzling and conflicting.
Pascal describes how this human predicament relates to the apprehension of truth: “Truth is so obscure nowadays and lies so well established that unless we love the truth we shall never recognize it.”7
For the Christian, truth is sacred. We must therefore pursue it with all of our being—heart, mind, soul, and strength.
Pascal was arguably historic Christianity’s unique Renaissance man. Yet he has also been called the first modern man. Kreeft notes: “He knew the power of science, but also its impotence to make us wise or happy or good.”8
Reflections: Your Turn
If you’ve read Pascal what significant insights have you learned from him?
See the following works from contemporary Christian scholars who have mined Pascal’s work for apologetics gold: Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined and Explained (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1993); Thomas V. Morris, Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992); and the soon to be published Douglas Groothuis, The Christian Brilliance of Blaise Pascal (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2023).
For a discussion of historic Christianity’s relationship to science, see chapters 1 and 2 in Kenneth Richard Samples, Christianity Cross-Examined: Is It Rational, Relevant, and Good?
1. See chapters 3, 8, and 9, respectively, in Kenneth Richard Samples, Classic Christian Thinkers (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2019). I also have introductory chapters on Irenaeus, Athanasius, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin.
2. Kenneth Samples, “How to Distinguish between Science and Scientism,” Reflections (blog), Reasons to Believe, March 7, 2020, https://reasons.org/explore/blogs/reflections/how-to-distinguish-between-science-and-scientism.
3. Blaise Pascal, Pensées (New York: Penguin, 1966), 23/67.
4. Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined and Explained (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1993), 227.
5. Pascal, Pensées, 200/347.
6. Pascal, 117/409.
7. Pascal, 739/864.8. Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans, 9.