Articles, Philosophy

Blaise Pascal: The Infinite Spaces, Alienation, and The Wager

“When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in an eternity before and after, the little space I fill engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me, I am terrified. The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” (Pensees, Blaise Pascal)

The experience of alienation in the modern day is all-too common. Few individuals feel connected to themselves, let alone the universe. A widespread sense of separation pervades the times, and is responsible for much of the individual and social suffering and destruction we are witnessing around us.

It would be foolish to say there is a single or central cause to this widespread alienation. There are many factors, and to grasp and elucidate all of them would be a Herculean effort. That being said, one of the formative causes of this pervasive sense modern alienation is metaphysical – many people feel a sense of being forsaken, cast away, or alone in the universe.

Blaise Pascal, a 17th century philosopher, felt this modern malaise of being a stranger in the universe in an extremely prescient manner. Yearning for knowledge of absolutes and the experience of infinity, Pascal understood that human beings are condemned, like Tantalus, to never acquire that which they desire.

“We burn with desire to find solid ground and ultimate sure foundation whereon to build a tower reaching to the infinite.”, Pascal writes. “but our whole ground work cracks, and the earth opens to abysses.” (Pensees, Blaise Pascal)

For thousands of years human beings lived with the conviction that the earth was central stage in the universal drama, and on the earth human beings were supreme. Although there are many fundamental differences between the ideas of the Ancient Greeks and Christianity, they both shared these two fundamental sentiments.

With the Copernican revolution this age old conviction of earthly and human superiority commenced its collapse. This collapse, greatly aided by the idea of evolution and still in process today, was recognized in its infant stages by Pascal. Martin Buber wrote of him that he:

“experienced beneath the starry heavens…their uncanniness…and so comes to know man’s limitation, his inadequacy, the casualness of his existence.” (Martin Buber)

The casualness – unimportance, randomness, absurdity –  of his existence is what Pascal intensely felt. This is the experience that more and more individuals are confronting today.

Gazing into the infinite spaces and experiencing a sense of being engulfed by the enormity of it all and the “nothingness” of one’s self in comparison can stimulate wonder and appreciate, but it can also stimulate fear and alienation. Pascal understood that contemplating the “casualness” of one’s existence can be a distressing, and sometimes deeply disturbing experience. Pascal, like Alan Watts, observed that individuals protect themselves from such contemplations by diverting their attention through various distraction tactics:

“The king is surrounded by persons whose only thought is to divert the king, and to prevent his thinking of self. For he is unhappy, king though he be, if he think of himself.

This is all that men have been able to make themselves happy. And those who philosophize on the matter, and who think men unreasonable for spending a whole day in chasing a hare which they would not have bought, scarce know our nature. The hare in itself would not screen us from the sight of death and calamities; but the chase which turns away our attention from these, does screen us.” (Pensees, Blaise Pascal)

Although Pascal struggled with an experience that is becoming more and more common today, he was still a child of his times and thus found solace in faith. Although he believed that it is impossible to attain knowledge of the universe, he thought it was profitable to “bet” on the existence of God. The reasoning behind Pascal’s famous “wager” goes like this: if we bet on the existence of God and he doesn’t exist, no harm is done. If God does exist however and we bet on his existence, we will incur infinite gains. Therefore, we might as well have faith in God; or so Pascal concluded.

For most today Pascal’s wager will seem to be a frivolous attempt to gain faith in some sort of transcendence in order appease the existential angst that can arise from becoming aware of the strangeness of reality and our forlornness in the universe. However, what makes Pascal so intriguing is not his conclusion to bet on the existence of God, but his analysis and elucidation of an experience that many of us share today, and which we need to wrestle with and come to terms with in order to live a more genuine and lively existence:

“For in fact what is man in nature? A nothing in comparison with the infinite, an all in comparison with the nothing, a meeting between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the nothing from which she was made, and of the infinite in which she is swallowed up.” (Pensees, Blaise Pascal)