• Paul D. Wilke

Pascal's Terror: Should We Fear the Eternal Silence of the Infinite Spaces?

After my illness, people sometimes asked if it changed my perspective on religion at all. The short answer is, ‘No, not really,’ but the longer answer is, ‘It’s complicated.’

The ultimate meaning of life, or lack thereof, will forever remain beyond my reach, even if I spend every waking minute of my life learning and experiencing as much as I can. I’m one person of average intellect who will live a short life on but a tiny fraction of a small planet orbiting an average star in a vast universe of unimaginable size. If I ever lose sight of this perspective, I need only go out into the country, away from the city lights, and gaze up at the night sky. It’s about as close as I can get to experiencing the dizzying majesty of deep space and time. Whenever I do this, my problems and petty anxieties seem to shrink in size.

This gaze into the infinite provokes many reactions, including anxiety. Blaise Pascal (AD 1623-1662), anticipating Tolstoy's own existential angst by two centuries, gives us an example of a brilliant mind trying to grapple with the apparent contradictions between religious faith and human reason. Consider a few reflections from Pascal, and you’ll have an idea of what kept him up at night:

"When I consider the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which comes before and after – as the remembrance of a guest that tarrieth but a day – the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then. Who put me here? By whose command and act were this time and place allotted to me?" [1]

There's a great deal of humility and honesty in that statement. Pascal continues:

"For, after all, what is man in nature? A nothing compared to the infinite, a whole compared to the nothing, a middle point between all and nothing, infinitely remote from an understanding of the extremes; the end of things and their principles are unattainably hidden from him in impenetrable secrecy." [2]

But consider this next quote by Pascal and note the existential anxiety starting to creep in. Here Pascal and I begin to part ways on how to confront the mystery of existence. For me, the mystery of existence is something to be embraced; for Pascal, it's terrifying.

"When I see the blind and wretched state of man, when I survey the whole universe in its dumbness and man left to himself with no light, as though lost in this corner of the universe, without knowing who put him there, what he has come to do, what will become of him when he dies, incapable of knowing anything, I am moved to terror, like a man transported in his sleep to some terrifying desert island, who wakes up quite lost and with no means of escape." [3]

And, finally, I finish this series of quotes with one of Pascal’s most famous statements that best sums it all up:

“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.” [4]

In the end, this dread was too much for Pascal to endure. His way of dealing with the “eternal silence of infinite spaces” was to stay in the safe place offered by Catholic doctrine. In other words, like so many of us, God stepped in to fill the void. One senses that Pascal desperately needed to believe this to quell his inner doubts.

For a man of reason and an accomplished mathematician, Pascal was bothered that reason and logic alone could not prove God’s existence. Fortunately for him, he had at his disposal a sophisticated Christian theology refined over fifteen centuries. Christianity gave him the theological tools and arguments needed to construct a cogent worldview that rescued him from the despair of a meaningless existence. In the struggle between faith and reason, Pascal enslaved reason to serve faith.

Albert Camus (1913-1960) called this kind of leap of faith ‘philosophical suicide,’ or what happens when the absurdity (pointlessness) of existence is overwhelming, compelling one to resort to the pre-fabricated structure of a religion or ideology to provide purpose and meaning.

Once this is done, once a particular belief is locked in, the mind closes like a steel trap, and all further philosophical and theological inquiry is over. That leap of faith is philosophical suicide. Doing this offers an escape from the nagging doubts that everything we do is ultimately meaningless and the universe without purpose.

For a person like Pascal, however, one wonders. The fact that he expressed his dread and terror hints at a profound doubt about life's ultimate meaning, that he sensed a dissonance between what his reason told him and what doctrine dictated.

He couldn't handle the thought that maybe there was no God, no purpose, no overarching plan. Blunt atheism like this was still too extreme for most thinkers of Pascal's era to contemplate too seriously. Nevertheless, I do think Pascal had real doubts, and these doubts nagged at the back of his mind.

Camus wrote of what such thinking ultimately means to the individual.

“There exists an obvious fact that seems utterly moral: namely, that a man is always prey to his truths. Once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them. One has to pay something. A man who has become conscious of the absurd is forever bound up in it.” [5]

For all his eloquent devotion to Catholicism, I wonder if Pascal occasionally wasn't prey to his own truths, making him tremble at the idea that we lived in a godless infinity, a meaningless void that goes on forever, endlessly, without purpose, rhyme, or reason. We come, we go, we live, we love, we hate, we die, and that's that, and nothing matters beyond our few wonderful moments in the sun.

Reading Pascal’s comments above, he seems bothered, not only by the pointlessness and apparent randomness of existence but by man’s total insignificance in such a scheme. If there is no God, if there is little more than raw nature, then for the believer that awe-inspired gaze into the night sky becomes a dizzying glance into an abyss of time and space where everything but our consciousness is non-being.

God, or at least a belief in a God, gives us back our place of honor in the universe. We matter again. Even our insignificance has a point. The universe may still be terrifying in its size and scope, but we can at least comfort ourselves by knowing that an all-loving, just, and good Sentience is in charge of it all and has a plan with us included.

We matter in this scheme and there’s a reason for all of our struggles and suffering. Our lives are not just meaningless blips on the cosmic radar. The deaths of our loved ones mean more than permanent annihilation. There’s eternal life after this life. Belief like Pascal’s serves to shrink existence back down to a more manageable level, with predictable rules governing the way the universe works and, most importantly, with hope. This is, in other words, an existence made understandable in human terms.

I don’t agree with Pascal’s solution. I take solace from the fact that there is so much that will always remain beyond me. Pascal is forever pointing out the arrogance of the atheists and skeptics of his age, of those who questioned the integrity of the Christian faith.

However, there’s no arrogance in confessing ignorance and questioning the flimsy certainties of those who claim an inside track to the truth. On the contrary, Pascal and others like him offer bold claims about the truth of the Christian faith by sole virtue of their faith, and as a result come across as a little too sure of themselves, of themselves being guilty of assuming they know more than is possible to know.

Admitting that we can never fully explain existence doesn’t mean we must dwell in ignorance. That said, such an admission is humbling in a way that is often missing from those who claim to have all the answers. When you come across someone who is entirely convinced that what they believe is correct, you can rest assured they are deluding themselves.

The mystic in me relishes the mystery and sees wondrous beauty in it all, not occasion for dread. The atheist in me finds no comfort in religious doctrines that seem to offer answers to questions without answers. Ignorance here is possibility.

Just embrace the grandeur of it all because we can, while we can, even if it is only for a short while. Leave the rest aside. That's enough. It has to be.

Works Cited

[1] Pascal, Blaise. Pensees. New York: Penguin Books, 1995. 19.

[2] Ibid., 61.

[3] Ibid., 59.

[4] Ibid., 66.

[5] Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. Norwalk: Easton Press, 2007. 31.

#Pascal #Camus #existential #atheism #philosophy