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Descarte vs Pascal

Pascal vs Descartes Paper Pascal’s argument is fallible because he reaches the conclusion that we should “wager” God’s existence, rather than coming up with “proof” by using deductive reasoning like Descartes provides in his argument. These early 17th century philosophers both provided writings defending the validity of the Christian religion and of God’s existence. After the Protestant Reformation of 1517, the Catholic Church’s sanctity was questioned. Different religions sprouted across Europe and citizens of Western Europe began questioning religion itself and the existence of God.

Blaise Pascal and Rene Descartes each claimed to have a strong belief in Catholicism (or a denomination of), and because of this strong belief, they sought to defend the validity of the existence of God. Pascal wrote a collection of aphorisms which he started to revise into a writing he would call the “Apology of Christian Religion”. However, Pascal died before he was able to complete it. In Pascal’s Pensees (his writings were collected and organized in the 19th century and 20th century), Pascal systematically dismantles the notion that we, the people, can trust reason to validate God’s Existence.

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Pascal rambles on about what “we” can’t do to prove God, instead of finding his own proof of God’s existence. His approach to persuade us into believing God is to use mathematical equations and odds to reach the conclusion that it is worth it to a person to wager on God’s existence. Descartes on the other hand, uses deductive reasoning and a systematic approach in a philosophical treatise he called “Meditations on First Philosophy”.

In “Meditations”, Descartes provides six meditations each provided a separate argument proving God’s existence and reaches the conclusion that God’s existence in undeniable (I will only use two and sum up the other three in my argument). Obviously neither was able to accomplish their goal, however I will show how and why Descartes’ argument is more persuasive than Pascal’s. In Descartes’ “Meditations on First Philosophy”, Descartes tries to undermine his own beliefs on religion, thus forming a skeptical hypothesis, or a “methodic doubt”.

He tries to connect with the reader by understanding their skepticism and suspending his own beliefs and judgment about religion in order to be objective. It is in Descartes’ “Meditation II: Concerning the Nature of the Human Mind: That is Better Known Than the Body” that he provides his thought process in response to his own doubts he forwarded in Meditation I. Descartes allows the reader to follow exactly how he comes to the conclusion he reaches at the end of the meditation by identifying five steps he uses. The first point he makes is that all people doubt certain things that exist in the world.

Descartes states this by saying that: “I [he] believe that none of what my deceitful memory represents ever existed. I have no senses whatever (Meditations 17)”. He then continues with the statement: “Perhaps [there is] just the single fact that nothing is certain (Meditations 17)”. Secondly, he explains how this idea includes all contents of the mind including images, memories, concepts, beliefs, intentions and even decisions. Descartes is trying to explain how our senses can be deceiving. Well, if our senses can deceive us, then how do we know what is real?

How do we know if we are being deceived? Descartes sets us (the reader) up by putting out these points so he can show that he is being objective, and that he has doubts of his own. Thirdly, Descartes continues to ask a series of questions on how he/we can be sure when/what we are being deceived of. Descartes eventually reaches a conclusion: “Here I make my discovery: thought exists; it alone cannot be separated from me. I am; I exist (Meditations 19)”. Descartes states that ideas and the things they represent are separate from each other.

However, the thoughts we all have are the only things that we can be certain of which we know exists. The fourth point he makes, is that these ideas and the things they represent are many times external to the mind. Meaning, that the ideas we have and the things we think they represent may be put into our minds by something/someone else. Descartes then concludes that since we doubt the existence of specific things, those things must exist. In order for someone to doubt something, that something must exist in the world. Thus concluding that since people doubt the existence of a God, then God could surely exist.

Other philosophers, including Pascal, have heavily criticized this argument, stating that this type of reasoning is preposterous. Pascal even attacks Descartes directly in his writings. Pascal asks the questions if Descartes even proved anything after such “long and arduous toil (Pensees 20)”. He continues to state: “So we must see whether this fine philosophy has come to any certain conclusions…Let us see if it knows what its own body, to which it gives life, is made of, and the others it observers and moves at will (Pensees 20)”.

Pascal doesn’t criticize Descartes actual reasoning; Pascal only mocks Descartes as if Descartes’ reasoning has no meaning to the “regent masters of the world”. This clearly shows that instead of Pascal pointing out specific examples in Descartes second Meditation, he simply laughs at the “ridiculousness” of Descartes’ statements. Meditation III ties together the previous meditations to provide the persuasive argument that all ideas must come from somewhere. Descartes states that he is certain that he is a thinking think. All thinking beings have ideas.

These ideas must have a starting point, a place that these ideas were formed, that these ideas came from. Descartes then continues to explain that although people can be deceived by their senses and their ideas, why would God allow us to be deceived by our senses? For it is this God that has given us these senses and has given us this Earth. If the existence of God is false, then how do we know if we are truly being deceived? This matter of deception is something that Descartes constantly relates back too. He does this in order to provide a starting point so that he can then use deductive reasoning to reach a conclusion.

Descartes claims that the cause of an idea must have at least as much formal reality as the idea has objective reality (formal reality meaning what something actually is and objective reality meaning how that something appears to us using our sense). Descartes explains how he, and us, all have an idea of God in our minds. This idea must have come from somewhere. This he explains using deductive reasoning. We have an idea of God, let A represent this idea, and we can say that the actual God can be represented using B. The idea of God (A) must be caused by something, which is at least as perfect or real as the actual God (B).

The actual God (B) is not transferred to the idea of God (A), but that doesn’t mean that the actual God (B) is less real than the idea of God (A). However, for (A) to have objective reality, it must come from something with at least as much or more formal reality (B). Even if B doesn’t cause A, whatever causes A must have as much or have more reality than A. If this is true, then my mind must be more real/perfect than the idea it creates. So where would this idea come from otherwise? Although difficult to comprehend, Descartes provides an argument (amongst the small ramblings) as to how this dea of God came to be. Descartes claims that since we are not perfect beings, then we cannot come up with this idea of a perfect being, a benevolent overseer, a God. The idea of a God must have been placed into our minds by God him/her/itself. Now, at this time, I think it should be noted that Pascal states more than several times in his “Pensees” that reason alone cannot be trusted. That reasoning is a flawed method of reaching a conclusion especially in the area of religion. If Pascal were alive today, I would ask him how he could think reasoning is a poor method for reaching a conclusion.

As a mathematician, isn’t reasoning the main technique used to reach an answer? Logic and arithmetic are completely based on reasoning. Pascal even uses math in combination amongst other techniques to reach “Pascal’s Wager”. So how is it that a mathematician like Pascal can call into doubt, something as certain, something as logical as reasoning? I must regress to a certain point and give Pascal the benefit of the doubt that he would have completed a better argument for the existence of god in the treatise he meant to write if he were able to complete it before his death.

However, seeing the writings of both Descartes and Pascal, I find it difficult that a person can relate more to Pascal’s reasoning than to Descartes. Although it is obvious Descartes did not prove God’s existence, he put forth an effort that has yet to be matched. His argument asked the reader to delve into his or her own mind and ask themselves questions they wouldn’t normally ask. Descartes forces us, the reader, to precisely follow his method on how he reaches his conclusions to each meditation. He provides an opening statement or question, and then provides us with the logic and reasoning he used to reach his conclusion.

Pascal uses probability theory and decision theory to get us to believe in the existence of God. Mathematical theories he uses to explain his belief. Descartes final conclusion is that based on the evidence he finds using deductive reasoning, that there is in fact, a God. Pascal’s final conclusion, is that a person should “wager”, or bet, on the existence of God because there is much to gain by doing so. By wagering on God, people can find eternal happiness and have a purpose in life. Well, I say, even if this may be true, I don’t find myself too eager to “risk” my beliefs on a bet/wager instead of finding true proof, like Descartes provides.


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