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July 27, 2008

Just Blaise! (Pascal) + Some Gambling Thoughts

Filed under: Book Reviews, Philosophy — Robert John Ed @ 8:14 pm

Just completed Pascal’s Wager, a story about the prodigal Blaise Pascal and his many doings.

First off, the book is a well written piece that navigates relatively easy in context to the historical information being described.  Historical information is often not that intriguing to many of us; there are certainly those amongst us who do enjoy historical writings, but I’m not one of them.  And chances are either are you.  So finding books that can explain important people, events or ideas in compelling manner is a fresh breath of air  (Matthew Pearl also did this for me, although the veracity of his tales is lesser).

Blaise Pascal was a child prodigy.  He added some essential pieces to the work of Descartes at 16 (on conic sections, geometric understanding was in adolescence) after recreating much of the initial work of Euclid without ANY outside help, IE from scratch!  He also created the first arithmetic calculator, named for its creator the Pascaline.  He advocated the idea of a vacuum and did many demonstrations to prove it, though we now believe no perfect vacuums exist, he was a large part of the learning process.

Blaise was a frail young man, assailed always by insomnia, body ravaged from sickness, cold sweats, and an overall weakness.  His health was a constant cause of pain for him and most of his life was spent fighting it.

Perhaps his largest contribution to the modern day is the science of probability.  Observing gamblers, Blaise constructed rules for takeaways and established the odds.  Previous to this age no one had done such work and it significantly altered the way we looked at all kinds of phenomena.  The book was set more as a biography than anything, but this was the essential hook used to rope the readers in.  Pascal applied this idea of probability to theology.  Pascal’s Wager is the idea that given the choice of believing in God or not, it is only reasonable to believe, because there is everything to gain and extremely little to lose.  That’s a simple premise, deceptively so.  The argument rests with a two by two matrix of options in belief/nonbelief crossed with God existing and not existing.  People have been poking at the idea for a long time, many philosophers think it childish and laughable, but Pascal couldn’t be concerned with such.

There is something about life that is indescribeable.  Some of us know we are here for a reason and although we can’t always put a name to it, there is a certain mysticism surrounding us.  A life force.  But it is beyond our capability, and beyond our description.  It’s impossible to know how others feel and the way they see things, but the idea of efficacious grace sprouts up in the book and is worth thinking about.  In that, there are no proven answers.  And I have my doubts.  But I’m not an agnostic and certainly not an atheist.  But I’m still searching for understanding, which isn’t supplemented by big words and logical reason.

I’m going to investigate this idea more thoroughly by reading Pensees and a few other works of his, that provide a description in his own voice.  This book opened a floodgate and will probably have me looking a lot heavier at aspects of Christianity, starting with St. Augustine.

One last thing I thought was of note.  People think in terms of big numbers with averages.  For a coin flip, if you flip it a number of times, most people assume that the average will catch up.  The likelihood of this happening over an infinite amount of flips is true, but it is based on collosal numbers, which most gamblers can’t afford to sustain.

More important here is the realization that probability doesn’t change.  For a coin flip it’s always going to be 50/50, and to make recurring bets hoping that the long term will avenge your previous losses is a very fast road to going broke.  But it’s an easy mistake to make.

Gamblers chase the unknown much like a dog chases its own tail.  Even amongst material possessions, money and any other stake, their real loss is time.

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