Doubt in the life and thought of Pascal
Colburn, Donald Luverne
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The purpose of this dissertation is to examine the place of doubt in the life and thought of Blaise Pascal. In this study doubt has been defined as the absence of a definite conclusion in support of or in opposition to an idea -- an attitude of suspended judgment emerging from a questioning, critical perspective. This attitude has been examined in the context of two foci: life and thought. Life has referred to those events, responses and reflections which have influenced or emerged from doubt. Thought as it has been used in this study has emphasized Pascal's formal statements about doubt, particularly in his discussion of the doubt of others in the Pensées. The procedure has been to present and evaluate those experiences in the life of Pascal which encouraged an attitude of doubt. The following influences were found to be significant: the age in which he lived; family influences; scientific interests; education; physical illnesses; experiences of the world; philosophical interests; and religion and the church. Similarities and differences in the doubt expressed in science, philosophy, and religion have been discussed, and an attempt has been made to relate Pascal's experiences of doubt in these areas to any formal thoughts he recorded about them. This examination has revealed a continuity in Pascal's doubt as it has been expressed in science, philosophy and religion. The attitude of doubt has played a significant role as Pascal progressed through these areas of thought and experience, and resolved itself finally in his submission to Christ. Pascal's discussion of doubt in the lives of others in the Pensées was influenced by his own experience of doubt. The solution to doubt which he proposed in this writing was the one which he had experienced in his own life. Summarized, the conclusions of this study are as follows: 1. Pascal was greatly influenced by the age of doubt in which he lived. 2. Pascal's physical frailty and his unusual intellectual ability pre-dispoped him to a life of reflective, critical thinking and doubt. This predisposition was fostered by an isolated education and an intellectually competitive home atmosphere. 3. As a youth, Pascal was trained in science. The rigid discipline of this method encouraged an attitude of doubt in science as well as in other areas of thought. 4. The worldly period in Pascal's life made an important contribution to his understanding of the problem of doubt. Though this was the period in which he expressed the greatest indifference to religious matters, he did not seriously question at any time the existence of God. 5. As the result of his second conversion, Pascal found the certainty which he had been seeking in his life and which he had not found previously in science or in philosophy. His projected Apology for the Christian Religion, which in its unfinished state exists today as the Pensées, was an out-growth of this conversion experience. In this work he severely criticized the libertines or free thinkers of his day. His discussion of the problem of doubt in the religious life -- its motivations and its solutions -- represents a significant contribution to our heritage of apologetic literature in the Christian tradition.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Boston University
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