In a major biography of Blaise Pascal, James Connor explores both the intellectual giant whose theory of probability paved the way for modernity and the devout religious mystic who dared apply probability to faith. A child prodigy, Pascal made essential additions to Descartes's work at age sixteen. By age nineteen, he had invented the world's first mechanical calculator. But despite his immense contributions to modern science and mathematical thinking, it is Pascal's wager with God that set him apart from his peers as a man fully engaged with both religious and scientific pursuits.
One night in 1654, Pascal had a visit from God, a mystical experience that changed his life. Struggling to explain God's existence to others, Pascal dared to apply his mathematical work to religious faith, playing dice with divinity: he argued for the existence of God, basing his position not on rigorous logical principles as did Aquinas or Anselm of Canterbury, but on outcomes - his famous wager. By applying to the existence of God the same rules that governed the existence and position of the universe itself, Pascal sounded the death knell for medieval "certainties" and paved the way for modern thinking.
Is there a God? Are you willing to bet your eternal soul on your answer? This essentially is what has become known as Pascal's Wager, a bare-bones approach to challenging the folly of unbelief. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) is widely regarded as a brilliant mathematician, but he is less well-known as a deep student of religion and the Bible. He and his father were devoted Jansenists, schismatic Roman Catholics seeking to revive Augustine's stern views of judgment, predestination and radical orthodoxy. Connor, professor of English at Kean University in New Jersey and author of Kepler's Witch and Silent Fire, believes that this passion, along with Pascal's insatiable curiosity and his father's deep love for learning, produced the prodigy who would change the way we view both God and the sciences. Driven by the tumultuous events of 17th-century France (vividly recreated by Connor), and meeting resistance not only from fellow mathematicians like Rene Descartes but from such powerhouses as the Jesuits, young Pascal repeatedly proved himself more than just a "spoiled son of a controlling father," rising above the challenges of his youth and diminutive stature. Written for a general audience, this biography is a compelling and readable study of one of the most influential thinkers in religious history. (Oct.)
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October 15, 2006
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