Blaise Pascal: Wisdom beyond his years to an advanced and generous mathematician

This article is taken from the monthly journal Sciences et Avenir – La Recherche #911 of January 2023.

To get the year off to a good start, here is a cautionary tale of a charitable man who, at just 19 years old, designed and built an arithmetic machine to save his father, a high-ranking civil servant, from the tedious calculations he had to perform within the bounds of his office. loads. At the same time, he understood that the construction of such a machine required interdisciplinary work before the letter, both theoretical and practical, as he wrote later: “The lights of geometry, physics and mechanics gave me a project and assured me that the use would be error-free if any Someday a worker could make a tool, the model of which I imagined.

Blaise Pascal took it upon himself to explore the possibilities of his invention.

And so that these workers do not produce “useless abortions”, it was absolutely necessary “that theory should help art.” In addition to his generosity, his ingenuity, and his intuition for the difficulties that any engineering faces, he took it upon himself to explore the possibilities of his invention. He then realized that “the arithmetic machine produces effects that are closer to thinking than anything animals do, but it does nothing to make people say that it has a will, like animals.”

In other words, even if computers model complex cognitive tasks such as multiplication, reasoning, or mathematical demonstrations, and this is much better than animals, they do not necessarily have consciousness, the ability to initiate, namely, in philosophical terms, agency.

A young man full of philosophy

Let’s remember today the lesson of this young man, full of philosophy, at a time when some transhumanists explain that super-powerful computers will soon gain access to the form of consciousness, take power and overtake us! This talented and wise mathematician was born in 1623, exactly four centuries ago on this new year. His name was Blaise Pascal. Let’s pay tribute to his clairvoyance!

Jean-Gabriel Ganacha, professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris, artificial intelligence researcher at LIP6 (Sorbonne University, CNRS), former president of the CNRS ethics committee. Latest published book: “Virtual Easements”, Seuil, 2022

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