Homage to Pascal

by Thomas Scheff (December 2012)


Blaise Pascal was a theologian and also one of the earliest scientists. In his book Pensees (Thoughts, 1660) some of his comments are relevant to our current dilemma: what should be the relationship between science and religion?

As it stands, religion and science are not friends, to put it mildly. Pascal pointed out, however, that in a subtle way, they need each other badly. He proposed that science was based on what he called the spirit of geometrie, which translates as system. On the other hand, non-science, including religion, is based on the spirit of finesse, which translates as intuition.

Pascal went on to say that you can be a good journeyman scientist using only system, and a good everyday artist using only intuition. But to ADVANCE knowledge or art, to progress to something new, you need both. Being systematic seldom, if ever, results in new knowledge, unless it is testing a good idea. And good ideas come from intuition. However, intuitions need be tested; most may be either irrelevant or erroneous.

To appreciate Pascal’s point, one need only to look at brilliant creators. One example would surely be the mathematician John von Neumann, whose work led to many advances, such as those that helped form the basis for computers. According to his family, he worked almost entirely on the basis of intuition. His colleagues have written that if he couldn’t see the answer to a problem by just looking at it, he would go on to the next problem. If he got stuck midway, he would sleep on it, often waking up with the answer. Similarly, as far as I know, almost all of Mozart’s music was first draft: he seldom needed to revise. (I need to read more bios to be sure).

Pascal’s insight is still relevant to the modern world: some of the discord between the two camps is because both have become, for the most part, dogmas. In the current world of science, if it’s systematic its right, and if it’s not systematic, it’s wrong. Billions of dollars have been spent in medicine and the social/ behavioral sciences repeating systematic studies that have never produced any results (for the case of more than  twenty thousand studies using self-esteem scales, see my article 2011). The dogmatism of most current religions hardly needs to be mentioned.

There is a subtle way in which science needs religion. Most religions believe that not only is there a god, but that this god is inside of all humans. Even atheists can read the idea of god in this case as a metaphor for the deep self that seldom comes to light in most people. In this sense, religion is a revolutionary idea: not only does every human being have intrinsic worth, under the right circumstances, they can all be geniuses, or at least much more creative than we are. Certainly this idea points toward an entirely different educational system, one that doesn’t teach only facts, but also helps bring out the creative potential in every student.

In summary: science and religion need to make peace, because our society badly needs a wedding between system and intuition.

These thoughts were a result of reading Robert W. Fuller’s book, Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship?  (2012)

References:

Pascal, Blaise. 1660.  Pensees. (Thoughts). Paris: Editions du Cerf. (1982)

Scheff, Thomas. 2011. The Catastrophe of Scientism in Social/Behavioral Science. Contemporary Sociology.  V. 40, 3, 264-268.

Thomas J. Scheff is Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Sociology, at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His latest book is What's Love Got to Do with It?: The Emotional World of Popular Songs (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers) 2011


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