For after all what is man in nature? … The ends of things and their beginnings are impregnably concealed from him in an impenetrable secret. He is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness out of which he was drawn and the infinite in which he is engulfed. Blaise Pascal, Pensées 72
This post is sparked in part by the Bill Nye-Ken Ham debates over creationism and evolution. It is unsatisfying to me that the argument was framed as it was – as to whether or not the validity of religion is based on the literal interpretation of the origins of the world as laid out in the Bible. But behind it all is something more disturbing for the creationists, something with finds its origins in the medieval mind.
We have always accepted the fact that goodness and ethical behavior are positive traits. But aren’t these merely conventions? The way that the medieval thinkers dealt with this was by making goodness and ethical behavior attributes of the Divine, of a beneficent God. I believe that the creationists as exemplified by Ken Ham draw the line where they do because they agree with this medieval point of view.
There is a man whose life embodied this split between science and religion. Blaise Pascal was a scientific and mathematical prodigy who was famous throughout Europe for his work. His work laid the scientific basis for the mathematical theory of probability. However, on 23 November 1654, at the age of 21, Pascal experienced a powerful religious vision. He immediately recorded a note to himself – “Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars…” and concluded by quoting Psalm 119:16: “I will not forget thy word. Amen.” He always kept this note stitched into a pocket in his coat. It is said that it was only discovered by a servant after his death.
As a scientist and mathematician, Pascal experienced a void in his heart that he felt could only be filled by God. Toward the end of his life he gave up scientific investigation and before his death at the age of 39 was working on a book entitled “Apologie de la religion Chrétienne.” Incomplete at the time of his death, it was published as “Pensées de M. Pascal” in 1669.
Blessed with one of the most penetrating scientific minds of all time, Pascal nevertheless came to believe that the greatest truths of existence were not susceptible to scientific investigation. He believed completely in a science that is the process of investigating the physical universe with the human mind, but knowledge of the physical world was not enough to satisfy the longings of the human heart. That longing heart is the source of faith, and while we can use reason to support religion, we must have faith to know God.
I don’t believe that the creationists, in their deepest hearts, reject the enormous evidence of evolution, but if the Bible is rejected, their very notion of morality would be called into question. They fear a casuistry that leads to the speculation that Nietzsche engaged in when he asked if “morality itself would be the danger of dangers”, and that morality and the distinctions between right and wrong would be destroyed.
But the answer to deep questions must involve both the mind and the heart, both science and religion. Pascals “nothingness” out of which we are drawn is nothing less than the origin of the cosmos. We should have as much faith in that as we have in the infinite in which we are engulfed.