The Infinite in which we are engulfed (Dennis Aubrey)


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.

Arp 273 galaxy cluster, Image courtesy of ESA/Hubble, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

Arp 273 galaxy cluster, Image courtesy of ESA/Hubble, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

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.

Antennae Galaxies, Image courtesy of ESA/Hubble, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

Antennae Galaxies, Image courtesy of ESA/Hubble, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

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.

Fractal image created by Pascal Agneray

Fractal image created by Pascal Agneray (Used with permission)

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.

22 responses to “The Infinite in which we are engulfed (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Very deep discussion. I’ll need some time on this one. It takes me back to one of Darwin’s observations. When referring to creation itself, he said, “…I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect.” He believed that to pretend that one had the answers was to insult the intelligence of the creator. He believed that any excersize trying to do so might be compared to a dog trying to understand the mind of Isaac Newton. I agree wholeheartedly!

    • Dave, thanks for the kind words and the article. Vann just posted a reference to this earlier. Darwin, Einstein, and so many others all came to the limit of their knowledge and the sense that something else existed.

  2. Bless you for quoting Pascal; he has always been a favourite of mine.

    Kierkegaard had something v interesting to say about the apparent irrationalities in (Christian, and where-ever it applies) religion. I am probably wildly distorting a badly understood argument, but it goes something like this: the ‘mysteries’ are the dynamic behind religion. Our reason, and some scientists have also claimed this, can only know what is reasonable. What is not so in the universe, has to apprehended by other means. The ‘mysteries’ remind us of the limits of our means.

    • Michael, Pascal’s Pensees, in particular, have always moved me. Years ago I worked a construction job in Colorado Springs and needed to take a 20 minute funicular ride to the site. My morning reading was that book and it always seemed that I was in a different world when I arrived than when I left, and it wasn’t just the ascent up the mountain.

      • Michael, I worked construction for only a single summer after my first year in college – my father got me the job. I’m afraid that I was a terrible disappointment to him and to every foreman who was unfortunate enough to get me on his crew. I remember spending several hours one evening chipping away concrete that I had improperly poured on a wall form.

      • Dennis et al: talking about summer jobs as related to this post and subsequent comments: I too had a “summer job in construction in college” (amongst many) which was after training in the Spring for a job as a Forest Firefighter in Santa Cruz, CA at the end of my sophomore year at UCSC. Guess what? no forest fires that summer! (1979) which compelled me to head back east toward home territory in DC and ended up on a condo construction site primarily clearing poured concrete from deep piling holes, not far from where we ended up living decades later… hot, excerting and wholly redeeming…

        So now to my “intellectual” comment on this post and comment stream — seems to me there is a basic logic argument in here somewhere:

        God is a concept of (hu)man.
        (Hu)man is flawed.
        Ergo, God is a flawed concept of (hu)man..

        This does not detract from the inspired and inspirational nature of our human quest, or the universe we inhabit, but calls into question the ideologies and dogmas that have held us back.

        It also inspires me to cite the best bumper sticker I can recall off the top, on a Karman Ghia in Santa Cruz a couple of decades back, no less: “My Karma ran over my Dogma!”

        My two cents, and keep the change…

        –David

  3. Science in the seventeenth century leaves space for the divine…the human intellect can discover all it will but what is examined is the working of systems whose origins, whose purpose, lie outside scientific enquiry.

    Lovely to see mention of Pascal – it will send me off to read about Jansenism and Port Royal again.

  4. For all the scientific investigation, things still occur that there is no rational explanation for. I, too, have a problem with organized religion. For me, the simple observation of the things, people and nature around me tell me that there is something more, something in its essence indefinable that does indeed engulf everything. It does not need a name, just the recognition of its existence. We need a concept of that which is “right” and that which is “wrong” to survive with each other, those things which allow us to interact with respect and love. Thank you for the thought provoking post.

  5. In the troubled and hopeful times of 1968 on the left bank in Paris someone wrote a graffiti on a wall “God is dead. Signed: Nietzsche” it was a wonderfully shocking statement that defined the times (chaotic but intellectual)…

    A few days later another graffiti appeared underneath… ” Nietzsche is dead. Signed: God”…

    Pascal was never very far…

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