by Blaise Pascal

Category: Science & Mathematics

  • Type: Paperback
  • Pages: 318 pages
  • ISBN: none
  • ASIN: 9788373896093
  • Edition Language: English half of this was basically wasted on me. As an atheist, books providing proofs for the existence of God are perhaps 40 years or so too late. The problem here isn’t so much that he is trying to prove the existence of an entity that he himself admits particularly likes to hide – presumably you can see the problem here – but also that some of his proofs seemed utterly bizarre to me.

One of my favourites was him saying that the Old Testament was the oldest book in the world. You see, it was written not terribly long after the world had been created. And, at that time there wasn’t a hell of a lot to talk about – science hadn’t really gotten going and that sort of thing – so people mostly sat around talking about their family tree. So, that is why you can pretty well rely on the fact that the first part of the Bible is – well – gospel.

I know, you think I’m making this sound dafter than it actually is as one of those standard ploys atheist engage in. You are right to be cynical. So, here it is, quoted in full:“625The longevity of the patriarchs, instead of causing the loss of past history, conduced, on the contrary, to its preservation. For the reason why we are sometimes insufficiently instructed in the history of our ancestors, is that we have never lived long with them, and that they are often dead before we have attained the age of reason.

Now, when men lived so long, children lived long with their parents. They conversed long with them. But what else could be the subject of their talk save the history of their ancestors, since to that all history was reduced, and men did not study science or art, which now form a large part of daily conversation? We see also that in these days tribes took particular care to preserve their genealogies.”Other parts of this require a much closer knowledge of the Bible than I have to be able to follow.

All the same, it didn’t exactly inspire me to go rushing off to look up Deut. xxx. So, my advice, unless you are interested in these more or less iffy proofs of the existence of God, is to stop about halfway though this.

You’ll know when – it will become quite clear.The only thing I would point to in the last half of this book is something I had always thought was said by an atheist.“894Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”The reason why I read this was because Bourdieu calls himself a Pascallian and so I thought I had better see why. And there are lots of reasons why this might be the case and I think they are all in the first half of the book.The first is the bit that almost completely reminds me of a couple of books on happiness I read a few years ago: both The Happiness Hypothesis and Stumbling on Happiness.

The main lesson to be drawn from both of these books is that we humans are pathetically bad at knowing what it is that will make us happy.

Pascal makes the point that we do things happily where the prize itself really isn’t what we are after. The example he gives is spending a day chasing a hare that you wouldn’t buy in the market or accept as a gift. The modern version of this is ‘it’s about the journey, rather than the destination’ – and I think this is really true. I think the worst thing that can happen to you is to have an achievable goal in life and to reach that goal.

He makes the point repeatedly that if you were given whatever you were likely to win at the beginning of the day and then told to enjoy your leisure for the rest of the day that nothing would be more likely to make you miserable. That activity with some form of reward provides us with the greatest source of happiness.The other thing he says is his most quoted line: The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.

This is one of the ideas that Bourdieu certainly borrows from Pascal, this whole notion of habit and embodied reasons that we justify afterwards with our mental reason. I kept thinking of Haidt’s elephant and elephant driver (reason and habit) and his saying that habit wins in the end (the elephant) because eventually reason needs to sleep. Pascal would have had no trouble accepting this idea.The first half of this book is just brimming over with lovely thoughts – the meaning of the title of the book, after all – and that is possibly also true of the second half of the book, but as I’ve said, a lot of that went over my head.

A large part of this is designed to convince non-believers of the benefits of belief. But anyone who says things like - we laugh and cry about the same things – honestly, they can’t be all bad.

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