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"The Stuff of Earth"

Tony Pellum

How much do we really know about the world? After many years of the humanistic approach, which sees man as the measure of all things, Blaise Pascal began to question our relationship to the world. He observed man as an ineffective body placed between an infinitely large and an infinitely small universe. While people give the world categories to help them better understand it; these categories by no means illustrate the true state of the universe. Pascal is correct in stating that people give the universe qualities and categories that are all essentially the same because, while humans can only perceive a small amount of information about the world, there is no hierarchy of knowledge. Since there is no understanding within the world, we must have faith that there are answers that we cannot understand.

Placed between these two infinites, man simply doesn't have the resources to comprehend the universe. All we have is our senses that allow us to perceive a very limited portion of the world and reason and science that try to formulate answers based on the information our senses gathered. Pascal argues that our mind is so limited that there is no way for us to understand the inner-workings of the universe. He says our imaginations "will sooner exhaust the power of conception than nature that of supplying material for conception" (44). As much as we try to imagine the world, our findings are inperceivable next to reality. We are stuck in between extremities that we can never understand. In nature we are, "A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything" (45). Since we are simply the mean within nature, we have no way to make sense of what's greater than us, and, limited as our senses are, we can never understand what's infinitely smaller than us. Because man is "infinitely removed" from understanding these extremes, "the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up" (45). If man were to look at the vastness of his surroundings, he would realize that there is no comprehension of nature. He is simply a body placed between infinite measures, without adequate tools to understand them. Since we have no understanding, our truths gained through senses and reason must be equal, seeing how narrow our perception is.

Man cannot even understand himself, let alone the whole universe. Pascal believes, "it is impossible that our rational part should be other than spiritual; and if anyone maintain that we are simply corporeal, this would far more exclude us from the knowledge of things, there being nothing so inconceivable as to say that matter knows itself" (48). Therefore, the nature of man must consist of both body and mind, yet we do not know how to separate them. And since we do consist of both, "we cannot know perfectly things which are simple, whether spiritual or corporeal" (48). Since we cannot understand even the simple things, how can we try to understand complex ideas? Our rational understandings must then be as insignificant as our perceptual understandings, since we have no understanding of complex truths. If we cannot even comprehend ourselves, we can never understand the whole.

Since we are the mean between natural extremes, and incapable of understanding due to the nature of body and mind, we must reject the tools that we have as correct ways to understand the universe. Yet "through failure to contemplate these Infinites, men have rashly rushed into the examination of nature, as though they bore some proportion to her" (46). The only way humans are able to experience the world is through their senses however, our senses can not comprehend everything. You can only hear the part that your ears can perceive. The only thing that even allows you to see is that fact that your vision is limited. Pascal addresses these issues when he states:

Limited as we are in every way, this state which holds the mean between two extremes is present in all our impotence. Our senses perceive no extreme. Too much sound deafens us; too much light dazzles us; too great distance or proximity hinders our view. Too great length and too great brevity of discourse tend to obscurity; too much truth is paralyzing (46).

Simply because our senses allow us to experience the world doesn't mean that there are other ways to experience the world that we can never know. We create the categories such as loudness and brightness and relate them to human terms. Pascal states, "excessive qualities are prejudicial to us and not perceptible by the senses; we do not feel but suffer them" (47). These extremities aren't extreme to the world, they are simply the limitations that our bodies can handle. This relation between extremities that we create doesn't express nature, it is simply a category that we create in order to help us understand it.

Reason and science build upon sensatory observation to formulate more complex ideas about how the world operates. The mind, unable to comprehend even the simplest of ideas, is not able to understand the world through use of reason. Man constantly tries to grasp onto truths in order to create a better understanding of the Infinites. However, he fails to realize that everything is constantly changing and there is nothing finite which offers him constancy. Therefore, Pascal argues that we should "not look for certainty and stability. Our reason is always deceived by fickle shadows; nothing can fix the finite between the two Infinites, which both enclose and fly from it" (47). While we try to use our reason to make sense of the world, and search for finite measurements and truths, we are oblivious to the fact that the finite things of the world are of the least importance. Man's categories for understanding the world are of no more value than the limited images that we can perceive with our senses. Neither reason nor senses can offer us true reality. Pascal writes, "In comparison with these Infinites, all finites are equal, and I see no reason for fixing our imagination on one more than on another. The only comparison which we make of ourselves to the finite is painful to us" (47). No hierarchy exists between the stuff of earth. All we can perceive and know are merely "fickle shadows" that we try to formulate truths from. We always fall in trying to bare proportion to the Infinites. Reason is a tool that is abused by men. We often use it to formulate complex ideas, when we don't realize that the simple ideas that brought us to them were not understood.

The use of science is an example of this misuse of reason. Men fly to theories about how the world works and accept them for truths, while they are mere theories. Theories that are often times based on false observations of our finite senses. Pascal argues about the uselessness of science and says, "If man made himself the first object of study, he would see how incapable he is of going any further. How can the part know the whole?" (47). We cannot understand how our mind and body works, we cannot perceive the infinite smallness that makes up ourselves, yet why do we try to understand the makings of the universe? The theories that men formulate are useless finites in comparison to the whole. The universe is made up of a series of interconnected ideas we can't understand. Pascal addresses this issue, stating:

Since everything, then, is cause and effect, dependent and supporting, mediate and immediate, and all is held together by a natural though imperceptible chain which binds together things most distant and most different, I hold it equally impossible to know the parts without knowing the whole and to know the whole without knowing the parts in detail (48).

Pascal is stating that science is useless in order to understand the world. Since everything is connected in a complex web of complex ideas, and since we cannot comprehend the simplest of objects, we will never come to any conclusions about reality through science.

After rejecting observation, reason, and science, we have no other ways to understand the world by ourselves. We take ideas such as spirituality and, "instead of receiving the ideas of these things in their purity, we color them with our own qualities, and stamp with our composite being all the simple things which we contemplate" (48). Human perception is all equal and all useless. We can not understand the world through human perception and must have faith that there are answers beyond that which we can understand. Through human ways of understanding the world:

It is incomprehensible that God should exist, and it is incomprehensible that he should not exist, that the soul should be joined to the body, and that we should have no soul; that the world should be created, and that it should not be created, and so on; that original sin should be, and that it should not be (53).

The only way to understand the universe is to understand that we can never know all of the answers through our human minds and bodies. Pascal argues that faith in God is necessary to come to a resolution that life isn't meaningless and that there is a higher knowledge, even if we can't know it now. Faith is what makes humans great, according to Pascal. We must surrender our senses, reason, and science as ways to understand and turn to faith. He believes, "Reason would never submit, if it did not judge that there are some occasions on which it ought not submit. It is then right for it to submit, when it judges that it ought to submit" (53). In order for reason to exist, there has to be occasions when it shouldn't be used. These occasions are necessary for man to have hope. Pascal writes, "The heart has it's reasons, which reason does not know" (53). Here, he stresses the importance of faith in God in order to achieve true wisdom. We must understand that we can't know the workings of the universe, but have faith that God is in control of those workings.

Placed between two Infinites with only limited sense and reason, it is impossible to understand the universe with our resources. Due to the infinite smallness in the universe, we can not even understand of what we are made. Due to the infinite largeness of the universe, our hopelessness and powerlessness intimidate us. As limited as they are, our senses and reason are the only way for us to experience the world. Seeing how they are inadequate, we must reject all common ideas of observation, reason, and science as ways to understand the world. All finite ideas are equal, our ideas are meaningless. Whether or not yellow is good is trivial. The idea of north is a matter of personal category, not a universal truth. We must have faith that God is what makes our lives meaningful. We will never be able to know the answers amongst the Infinites, but while our categories are meaningless and equal, we must have faith that there are answers which we can not understand.