Understanding Pascal’s Wager


Vasily Kandinsky: Several Circles (1926)

For at least three thousand years, humanity’s greatest thinkers argued for (and against) the existence of God by immediate entailment. These arguments still exist, and some of them are quite compelling. Probably the most familiar modern argument was given in Descartes’ Meditations. Uncle René wanted to ask a fundamental epistemological question: “What kinds of things do I know?” One of his counterexamples included a theoretical devil, who was bored and powerful enough to convince him of falsehoods. What he concluded was that even if this were the case, the devil didn’t create him. And someone must have created him, because he was the “thinking thing” that was coming up with all these thought experiments. Given that it was indubitable that he was thinking, it followed that there was a “he” that thought. And given that “he” existed, there must be He who created. Such is the origin of the saying:

cogito ergo svm

which means “I think, therefore, I exist…” Simply by doubting, the skeptic has immediate knowledge of his existence, and therefore, he has knowledge of the possibility of a creator.

Aside from being a Christian theologian and Epistemologist, Descartes was a country doctor. When Descartes was about fifty, he met a brilliant young thinker on his rounds who was terribly ill. Descartes had a sort of unique bedside manner, and the story I heard includes the idea that he saved his young patient’s life by arguing with him. The boy, about 20, was named Blaise Pascal. Pascal went on to embrace the mystery of the faith, partly thanks to the pointed arguments of his clinician.

Pascal gave his own reasons to take the leap of faith that made him a skeptical Christian. In doing so, he humanized the pursuit of faith, and made an authentic relationship with God available to millions of people today.

We take calculated risks every time we make a choice. We may take the freeway home or the backstreets, based upon our experience with traffic patterns. We may decide to skip a certain restaurant, because the health department published a roach problem in the paper, a month prior. We might hold on 13 in a card game. We might eject early when we meet a new girl, simply based on some slight errata in her behavior. Of course, we might waste our time, lose our money, miss out on really good tacos, or fail to meet a really good piece of ass. This is the way life goes.

Pascal tells us that theology is really no different. The average intelligent person, then and now, was more-or-less agnostic. Sure, I exist, and if I exist, as Descartes suggests, there must be some state-of-affairs that brought me into existence. But I really don’t have enough information to make a rational judgment as to what sort of creature He is, or what He wants me to do.

Thus every thoughtful man is at the card table. He is compelled to bet (and, remember, if you choose not to bet, at this particular game, you still have placed a bet). Any clever gambler wants to risk as little as possible, while maximizing the payout potential.

Let’s say Gambler No. 1 bets on the existence of God. By placing this bet he will have to spend some time and energy doing what God says. What does God say? Well, his book gives us a lot of rules, but most thoughtful people would agree that most of the rules are beneficial. For example: Don’t kill anyone without justification. Don’t fuck married wimminz. Don’t rob people. Breaking any of these rules puts a brother at risk of immediate consequences, and really, most of us don’t violate them anyway.

Let’s now posit the existence of Gambler No. 2, who bets on the non-existence of God. All the rules above still apply to him, if he lives in any sort of functional society. So, he really doesn’t gain anything by betting this way.

Now, let’s say God exists. By choosing to have faith in God, Gambler No. 1 is afforded the possibility of a pleasant afterlife. Gambler No. 2 runs the risk of not being able to enjoy all the fruits of paradise, and he might risk eternal punishment, if he’s been especially blasphemous or disrespectful.

But what if God doesn’t exist? In that case, the afterlife payoff is zero either way.

With this sort of payoff matrix, Pascal gives us a practical reason to take the leap of faith, even if we can’t force ourselves into some sort of false state-of-consciousness, where we pretend that we “know” God exists.

Should we really take people who claim to “know” God seriously? There are some serious reasons not to. As Kierkegaard suggested, if God wanted us to be sure of his existence, He’d probably just knock on our doors and introduce himself. The beauty in bible stories is illustrated by the faith of men who didn’t know, but acted out of conviction anyway. Abraham sacrificing his son is the prime example.

It stands to reason that God doesn’t expect us to have any sort of belief in Him. Even so, He wants us to take the leap of faith, and promises us a reward for doing so.

Read More:

Blaise Pascal: Pensées

Søren Kierkegaard: Fear and Trembling

Author: Boxer

Sinister All-Male Dancer. Secret King of all Gamma Males. Member of Frankfurt School. Your Fave Contrarian!

3 thoughts on “Understanding Pascal’s Wager”

  1. My comment didn’t show up so this is a belated repeat.

    Pascal’s wager fails on two counts with respect to Christianity. (1) Works don’t achieve salvation, belief does. Keeping the various rules isn’t sufficient. (2) Suffering is inevitable. It’s one thing to take a small loss in return for a potentially great reward, especially when the loss is in many ways healthy, but it’s another to be actively persecuted for actions one doesn’t actually believe in. These aren’t good days to be Christian.

    A wager-style path to Christianity might be possible if one recognizes that whoever God is, he’s obviously lived in rebellion against God just by doubting God’s existence and having already broken whatever moral code God might have. That leads to Christ’s salvation being the only possible payment for crimes committed. “Either Christ saves me or nobody does” sort of thing.

    But at some point, one must still recognize Christ as God.

  2. If you have any future problems with comments, please feel free to e-mail. A couple of people have complained recently, and it’s not beyond wordpress to have some bug that’s eating feedback.

    In any case, I started a new post in your honor. Thanks for reading.

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