To Find Truth: Descartes and Pascal

TO FIND TRUTH
Humans are magnificent creatures. In the human nature there is within everyone a sense to know and a desire to find the answer to the question, “what is the purpose of my life?” Including other questions such as, “is the life that I am living having any significance?” Life is like a maze that everyone must navigate through. Along the way there are dead ends and paths that lead one back to where they started, and even ways that lead further out to non-where. There is something, however, inherently human about each person to find the correct path that makes the most sense of the uncertainties in life. Some uncertainties in life exist in the forms of financial problems, or problems that manifest themselves within a family. Consequently, it is vitally important that each person finds the object in their life that gives them an all-encompassing meaning that reaches into every facet of their lives. If there were a method to properly orient ones life in the direction to find that object which gives one the a comprehensive meaning for ones life then Descartes and Pascal are the closes to have ever produced that method.

René Descartes was a French philosopher and a mathematician in the 17th century who published in the middle of his life the work that he is most known for, “Discourse on Method.” Blaise Pascal was also French, a mathematician, and arguably a Jansenist. His work, “Pensées,” which literally means, “thoughts,” is most associated with his name. The work was never finished due to an untimely death, but the book is Pascal’s thoughts. In both of these works, René Descartes and Blaise Pascal provide an epistemological method to finding truth. Although there may not be a direct connection between the two works they do, uniquely compliment each other. Pascal would probably not consider his project as a method, but it is nonetheless, a systematical structure for finding truth.

René Descartes was first of all, revolutionary. His method, which was born out an early stage of indifference towards scholasticism, would change the landscape of modern thought during his day. It has also had reverberating affects throughout history, influencing the works of John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant down even into todays thought as well. Similar to Aristotle and Plato, Descartes was a thinker that could not be placed in the traditional mold of thinkers. Descartes refused to be brainwash, as he may have termed it by the schools of thought that taught the works of philosophers like Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. He sought to acquiesce knowledge of the world by his own personal experience (22). Fortunately, due to an inheritance that he received he was able to live independently, and travel the world. Along his travels he discovered much about the world he lived in, and drew from it his own conclusions about reality.

One night during a cold evening Descartes, desperately huddling around a camp stove for warmth had developed his Cartesian method.[1] By looking at the buildings around him, he inferred that the buildings that were better designed were those that were designed by one person. In contrast to the structures that had many designers, since each designer had different goals, and therefore a more complicated and less astatically sound structure. Applying this thought to education he came to the conclusion that it was better for his own personal development as a student, to build off his own foundation rather then the foundations of those who came before him.

Descartes method then is to doubt everything he knows. An act he was already doing by avoiding the dogmas being taught in the schools by going out to learn of the world from first hand experience. However, this left him only with skepticism and Descartes knew himself that if skepticism is the only rational worldview, then it begs the question, “why do people not live consistently with this worldview?” Therefore it cannot be a rational worldview because people live, as if they actually do know something to be a fact, and they are generally right when tested. For example, one does not generally hesitate to walk in a room they have never been in, in fear that there was no oxygen in that room. However, that was not sufficient for Descartes, he developed what is known as methodological skepticism, where he removed from the table of certainty everything that he knew.

While seeking to find knowledge that Descartes could have complete certainty of, he became frustrated because everything he pierced with his senses was potentially a manipulation of the senses. He even proposed that the world might be under the tricks of an evil demon that made one think the object in front of them was a tree, when if fact it was just a figment of imagination pressed on the mind. Yet, while positing the potentiality of an evil demon, he was able to conclude that he was at-least thinking. He could know for certain that he was thinking and an evil demon could not change that since all one would have to do is think that an evil demon is tricking the senses. Next, he purposed that there must be an object, a being, a thing that exist that is doing the thinking, and consequently determined that he himself exists. After awhile, famously he established cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am.[2]

He realized that at the foundation of his knowledge, he could know with certainty that he himself exist because he was thinking. Still though, the problem arises with the world around him. Descartes can know that he exist, but what about other people. Descartes further investigated his thoughts and beginning with a triangle, he knew by virtue that a triangle is a shape that has three sides. A triangle cannot have more then three sides otherwise it is not a virtuous triangle because it does not have three sides. Thus, the form of a triangle, the idea of triangle exists because he can think of triangle.[3] Additionally, Descartes thinks of a being, one that is true, and one that presents the external world to the senses in a manner that is truthful. Thereby, giving Descartes the ability to return everything he previously removed, metaphorically, from the table of certainty back in its place. He concluded that God existed, because he could think of a being like God.

Pascal is different from Descartes in that he seeks to prove God as a Christian himself. Descartes was at-least willing to surrender the concept of God if he thought he could not know God, but Pascal’s argument is similar to Descartes as well. In Pascal’s Penseés, his project is to show one the vanity of life without God. Pascal begins by focusing on death. Death he argues is the only time when people are the most honest with themselves, when people are the most truthful. This is vital to show people that everything eventually is going to die, it is inevitable even themselves, their works, and all their contributions, will all be gone. For Pascal this is a starting point to come to a fuller knowledge of the world that one lives in, not the end point of life.

Pascal then transitions by looking at other solutions to solve mans inevitable problem, death. He begins with humanity, is there hope in humanity to avoid death and Pascal’s answer no. Pascal’s reasons are that man deserves to die because of his sin, selfishness, and self-love. One of Pascal arguments follows accordingly, “each man is everything to himself, for with his death everything is dead for him. That is why each of us thinks he is everything to everyone.[4]” Man cannot solve the solution of death, man is a participant of death and all men must go through it.

Pascal appeals to the philosophers, can the philosophers cross the impassable bridge over death, and the answer Pascal argues is no. Human reason is insufficient to solve the vast mysterious of the world around them. Peter Kreeft adds in a short commentary to Pascal’s work that, “Man is utterly dwarfed by the universe materially; and the universe is utterly dwarfed by man mentally.[5]” Man is stuck between to infinities, two endless abysses, the universe, and the micro chasm that exists in cellular life, and atoms. Philosophers, and human thinkers are only dust in what they call home, their earth, a planet that they can only have an infinitely small amount of knowledge to. Humans are the aliens on earth because the human mind is only so large to comprehend its vastness. Therefore, humans cannot solve death.

Another way that people try to avoid death is through pseud-solutions, one constantly. One solution that people try to construct are diversions. Pascal writes that people never actually want what they think they want, which is free time. That is because free time is dangerous to people who are trying to avoid the concept of death since in the loneliness of free time one is forced to contemplate upon life as it truly presents itself. And life is always sharply contrasted with death. The reason why death is such a horrible thought is because it puts everything into a proper perspective. Nothing in this world is going to last and everything eventually is going to die, and many times one will see, upon deep contemplation, the insignificance of their success in the grand narrative of humanity. Moreover, Descartes presents another pseud-solution that people employ to avoid the thought of death, and that is indifference. To be careless of the reality of death, no matter how real it might present itself. Pascal writes, “man’s sensitivity to little things and insensitivity to the greatest things are marks of a strange disorder.[6]” People are more concerned with the menial then they are with the ultimate concern of life.

Pascal extensively shows that the only solution to overcome death is God. In his final argument, after presenting the hope man has on earth, in contrast to who God reveals himself as, God is humanities only hope. This argument is known as Pascal’s wager. The argument follows the logic that between choosing to obey God and not obeying God, it is far better to obey God. Since if God does exist, one has everything to gain and nothing to loose, however, if God does not exist then that same person has nothing to loose. As Pascal has demonstrated in his project, he has shown that it is not a fifty-fifty chance. Inasmuch as God is the only hope, yet, one does have to have an actual relationship with Christ to be saved. In addition, and similarly to Descartes, Pascal presents the ontological argument for God as well, “thus recognizing that, if his nature is today like that of the animals, he must have fallen from some better state which was once his own.[7]” This means, that since man is unhappy, or at-least he is able to perceive his own unhappiness it was because he was previously happy in the presence of a king before he fell in the garden.

Considering now how these two thinkers are similar and why their method avoids the most serious of uncertainties in life is by the fact that they both show the frailty of human life. Descartes does not make any assumptions about the material that he was learning in school as actually being creditable. Descartes refused to be placed into the mold forced upon him by his teachers and sought the truth for himself. As it was shown he doubted everything, starting with what in life are the fundamentals, the building blocks of knowledge. Pascal does this by emphasizing the unavoidable, metaphorical, elephant in the room that people do not want to talk about, which is death. When one seriously considers the reality of death, and the vastness of the world, one cannot escape that all work, and contributions to this world are insignificant. For both of these thinkers, they conclude therefore, that there must be a God. For Descartes God is the only being that rationally explains truths in the world, such as the world was not created five minutes ago, or that other minds exist. For Pascal God is the only one who can remove death, and give purpose to life.

Applicably, both of their methods lead to the one truth, the foundation of all truth, and the one who suspends all truth, and reality, who is God. Having a proper understanding, and perspective of the world as it truly presents itself to the senses one will avoid the pitfalls of life, and understand difficult situations. God explains cross culturally why there are wars instead of peace, he explains the creation of the universe and where it is going, and his purpose for all human beings. God also gives above all an encompassing worldview that affects every area of life. For example going to work, and even performing well at ones job, to be kind to one another as oppose to being rude. Furthermore God gives a foundation for objective moral values because he is transcendent.

It is, however, necessary for one to perform the similar, if not the same tests as Descartes and Pascal had done. Neither Descartes nor Pascal took knowledge without thoroughly testing it to see if it had any substantial claims. Both of them came to the resolution, living in two different time periods, having no intention to overlap each other others work to come to the same conclusions. Descartes did not remain a skeptic and Pascal did not stop seeking after the knowledge of God, and the truths of God. All knowledge must to be examined, and looked with scrutiny. One’s own investigation may not lead to God, but the method of both Descartes and Pascal deserves to be applied in today’s context. For to long humanity has remained in a passive state of thinking, without testing the claims, and as a result they have been led into a world full of convictions and dogmas that they are themselves are never certain to agree with entirely.

Bibliography

Descartes, René. Discourse on Methods and Related Writings. New York: The Penguin Group, 2003.

Blaise Pascal, Christianity for Modern Pagans, Peter Kreeft. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993.

[1]René Descartes, Discourse on Method and Related Writings (New York: Penguin Group, 2003, 11.

[2]Ibid., 25.

[3]Ibid., 27.

[4]Blaise Pascal, Christianity for Modern Pagans, Peter Kreeft (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 163.

[5]Ibid., 127.

[6]Ibid., 203.

[7]Ibid., 59.