To Introduce Blaise Pascal to Stephen Hawking? Why Not!

To Introduce Blaise Pascal to Stephen Hawking? Why Not! May 18, 2011
Photograph courtesy of NASA.
Photograph courtesy of NASA.

All over the news we read (and hear) that Stephen Hawking says Heaven is “a fairy tale story for people that are afraid of the dark.” The darkness of death that is. By the way, this isn’t some new stance of his, in case you missed the interview he did with Charlie Rose back in 2008.

It’s ironic that in that clip he mentions there not being much room for miracles because the first time I mentioned Hawking in a post, it was the one I wrote about St. Joseph of Cupertino. I reckon he figures all the miracles documented by the Church are just fairy stories though. No matter.

You see, I have a soft spot in my heart for Stephen Hawking. My wife and I saw him shopping for groceries once in a Vons located near Cal Tech. She recognized him immediately. He was in Pasadena and teaching there for a semester or something. I walked right past him while looking for ground beef at the butcher’s counter. It was just him and an assistant, and you just can’t mistake Stephen Hawking.

Why the soft spot? You mean besides the fact that he’s confined to a wheelchair and suffers from ALS? Because he is one of the helpless and the weak whom I spent so much of my life safeguarding, that’s why. Western Civilization, with it’s Christian traditions, and the concept of  Rule of Law, is the only culture where the Stephen Hawking’s of the world are given the equality that they deserve. The chance to thrive, the dignity and right to live, and the opportunities to be fully contributing members of society.

That’s what I think at least, though I’m not going to bore you to death with reasoned arguments backing up those assertions. My buddy Blaise Pascal won’t let me, see? He wants me to get out of the way and let Stephen read some of his thoughts. Who am I to keep these two geniuses apart? Blaise asks and I know him well enough to know when to agree with him. No questions asked.

Interestingly enough, the thoughts that he wants me to share with Stephen are the very first ones he shared with me. They are the very first words from the first pages of his unfinished work, the Pensées.

Will Stephen even see this post? I have no idea. Maybe one of you know his e-mail address and will forward it to him or something. That’s not my department. I’m just supposed to share these few paragraphs and then hope they find their way to Dr. Hawking somehow.

(clearing throat sound)

Dr. Hawking? My friend and I are big fans of yours. My name is Frank and I am pleased to introduce to you my friend, the esteemed mathematician, Blaise Pascal. If you liked Charlie Rose, you’re really going to like my friend Blaise…

Thoughts On Mind And On Style

1. The difference between the mathematical and the intuitive mind.—In the one the principles are palpable, but removed from ordinary use; so that for want of habit it is difficult to turn one’s mind in that direction: but if one turns it thither ever so little, one sees the principles fully, and one must have a quite inaccurate mind who reasons wrongly from principles so plain that it is almost impossible they should escape notice.

But in the intuitive mind the principles are found in common use, and are before the eyes of everybody. One has only to look, and no effort is necessary; it is only a question of good eyesight, but it must be good, for the principles are so subtle and so numerous, that it is almost impossible but that some escape notice. Now the omission of one principle leads to error; thus one must have very clear sight to see all the principles, and in the next place an accurate mind not to draw false deductions from known principles.

Blaise’s best side

All mathematicians would then be intuitive if they had clear sight, for they do not reason incorrectly from principles known to them; and intuitive minds would be mathematical if they could turn their eyes to the principles of mathematics to which they are unused.

The reason, therefore, that some intuitive minds are not mathematical is that they cannot at all turn their attention to the principles of mathematics. But the reason that mathematicians are not intuitive is that they do not see what is before them, and that, accustomed to the exact and plain principles of mathematics, and not reasoning till they have well inspected and arranged their principles, they are lost in matters of intuition where the principles do not allow of such arrangement. They are scarcely seen; they are felt rather than seen; there is the greatest difficulty in making them felt by those who do not of themselves perceive them.

quarks, quantum physics,
scalar waves, superposition?

These principles are so fine and so numerous that a very delicate and very clear sense is needed to perceive them, and to judge rightly and justly when they are perceived, without for the most part being able to demonstrate them in order as in mathematics; because the principles are not known to us in the same way, and because it would be an endless matter to undertake it. We must see the matter at once, at one glance, and not by a process of reasoning, at least to a certain degree. And thus it is rare that mathematicians are intuitive, and that men of intuition are mathematicians, because mathematicians wish to treat matters of intuition mathematically, and make themselves ridiculous, wishing to begin with definitions and then with axioms, which is not the way to proceed in this kind of reasoning. Not that the mind does not do so, but it does it tacitly, naturally, and without technical rules; for the expression of it is beyond all men, and only a few can feel it.

Intuitive minds, on the contrary, being thus accustomed to judge at a single glance, are so astonished when they are presented with propositions of which they understand nothing, and the way to which is through definitions and axioms so sterile, and which they are not accustomed to see thus in detail, that they are repelled and disheartened.

But dull minds are never either intuitive or mathematical.

Mathematicians who are only mathematicians have exact minds, provided all things are explained to them by means of definitions and axioms; otherwise they are inaccurate and insufferable, for they are only right when the principles are quite clear.

Easy Blaise! Dr. Hawking, he’s just making an observation. Surely you’ve run into a few of these guys yourself, huh? (wink,wink)

And men of intuition who are only intuitive cannot have the patience to reach to first principles of things speculative and conceptual, which they have never seen in the world, and which are altogether out of the common.

2. There are different kinds of right understanding; some have right understanding in a certain order of things, and not in others, where they go astray. Some draw conclusions well from a few premises, and this displays an acute judgment.

A little light reading

Others draw conclusions well where there are many premises.

For example, the former easily learn hydrostatics, where the premises are few, but the conclusions are so fine that only the greatest acuteness can reach them.

And in spite of that these persons would perhaps not be great mathematicians, because mathematics contain a great number of premises, and there is perhaps a kind of intellect that can search with ease a few premises to the bottom: and cannot in the least penetrate those matters in which there are many premises.

There are then two kinds of intellect: the one able to penetrate acutely and deeply into the conclusions of given premises, and this is the precise intellect; the other able to comprehend a great number of premises without confusing them, and this is the mathematical intellect. The one has force and exactness, the other comprehension. Now the one quality can exist without the other; the intellect can be strong and narrow, and can also be comprehensive and weak.

And in spite of that these persons would perhaps not be great mathematicians, because mathematics contain a great number of premises, and there is perhaps a kind of intellect that can search with ease a few premises to the bottom: and cannot in the least penetrate those matters in which there are many premises.

3. Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling do not understand the process of reasoning, for they would understand at first sight, and are not used to seek for principles. And others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles, do not at all understand matters of feeling, seeking principles, and being unable to see at a glance.


4. Mathematics, Intuition.—True eloquence makes light of eloquence, true morality makes light of morality; that is to say, the morality of the judgment, which has no rules, makes light of the morality of the intellect.

For it is to judgment that perception belongs, as science belongs to intellect. Intuition is the part of judgment, mathematics of intellect.

To make light of philosophy is to be a true philosopher.

And skipping forward a few thoughts, Blaise notes that,

10. People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.

I’ll just leave you two alone so you can get to know one another better. Anyone want anything from the bar?


Stephen experiences weightlessness



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