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Beyond This Starry Vault
Louis Pasteur, 1882
Beyond this starry vault, what is there? New starry skies. And what beyond those? The human spirit, driven by an invincible force, will never cease to wonder: What is beyond? Does he want to stop either in time or in space? As the point at which he stops is only a finite magnitude, greater only than all those which preceded it, scarcely has he begun to consider it, than the implacable question returns and always, without being able to silence the cry of his curiosity. It is useless to answer: beyond are spaces, times or sizes without limits. No one understands these words. He who proclaims the existence of the infinite, and no one can escape it, accumulates in this affirmation more of the supernatural than there is in all the miracles of all the religions; for the notion of the infinite has this double character of imposing itself and of being incomprehensible. When this notion takes hold of the understanding, all you have to do is bow down before it. Again, at this moment of poignant anguish, one must ask pardon of one's reason: all the springs of intellectual life threaten to relax; one feels close to being seized by the sublime madness of Pascal.
The above is an excerpt from Louis Pasteur’s Académie Française reception speech in 1882. I couldn’t find a fully translated version, so I used Google Translate and took a bit of input from a translation in the book The Unknown God (1934).
While I love the entire passage, what stood out to me was one particular line: “He who proclaims the existence of the infinite, and no one can escape it, accumulates in this affirmation more of the supernatural than there is in all the miracles of all the religions.”
Religious miracles—we often scoff at the idea today, but they pale in comparison to the brute fact of existence.
The passage also got me curious about the “sublime madness” of Pascal, the 17th-century philosopher and mathmetician. Many have heard of Pascal’s wager: that you should live as if God exists because you have everything to gain and nothing to lose from doing so. However, I don’t think it is specifically the wager itself that is being referred to here, but rather the line of thought that led up to it.
At the risk of oversimplifying the immense thought that went into the wager, there is a particular section from Pascal’s Pensées, which is where he introduces it, that I think captures the “sublime madness” quite nicely:
Let man then contemplate the whole of nature in her full and grand majesty, and turn his vision from the low objects which surround him. Let him gaze on that brilliant light, set like an eternal lamp to illumine the universe; let the earth appear to him a point in comparison with the vast circle described by the sun; and let him wonder at the fact that this vast circle is itself but a very fine point in comparison with that described by the stars in their revolution round the firmament. But if our view be arrested there, let our imagination pass beyond; it will sooner exhaust the power of conception than nature that of supplying material for conception. The whole visible world is only an imperceptible atom in the ample bosom of nature. No idea approaches it. We may enlarge our conceptions beyond all imaginable space; we only produce atoms in comparison with the reality of things. It is an infinite sphere, the centre of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere. In short it is the greatest sensible mark of the almighty power of God, that imagination loses itself in that thought.
Returning to himself, let man consider what he is in comparison with all existence; let him regard himself as lost in this remote corner of nature; and from the little cell in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the universe, let him estimate at their true value the earth, kingdoms, cities, and himself. What is a man in the Infinite?
But to show him another prodigy equally astonishing, let him examine the most delicate things he knows. Let a mite be given him, with its minute body and parts incomparably more minute, limbs with their joints, veins in the limbs, blood in the veins, humours in the blood, drops in the humours, vapours in the drops. Dividing these last things again, let him exhaust his powers of conception, and let the last object at which he can arrive be now that of our discourse. Perhaps he will think that here is the smallest point in nature. I will let him see therein a new abyss. I will paint for him not only the visible universe, but all that he can conceive of nature's immensity in the womb of this abridged atom. Let him see therein an infinity of universes, each of which has its firmament, its planets, its earth, in the same proportion as in the visible world; in each earth animals, and in the last mites, in which he will find again all that the first had, finding still in these others the same thing without end and without cessation. Let him lose himself in wonders as amazing in their littleness as the others in their vastness. For who will not be astounded at the fact that our body, which a little while ago was imperceptible in the universe, itself imperceptible in the bosom of the whole, is now a colossus, a world, or rather a whole, in respect of the nothingness which we cannot reach? He who regards himself in this light will be afraid of himself, and observing himself sustained in the body given him by nature between those two abysses of the Infinite and Nothing, will tremble at the sight of these marvels; and I think that, as his curiosity changes into admiration, he will be more disposed to contemplate them in silence than to examine them with presumption.
A little food for thought!
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