Pascal’s wager refers to the argument put forward by the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (June 19, 1623–August 19, 1662). In his book, Les Pensées, Pascal reveals an interesting twist to the rationality of believing in God. The book was also very influential in the development of apologetics, decision theory, probability theory and philosophy in general. Hacking (1975) adds that the wager was the “the first well-understood “the first well-understood contribution to decision theory.”
This treatise is brought about by Pascal dissatisfaction with the prevailing arguments for the justification of the existence of God. Pascal’s Pensées, then, is totally different from conventional reasoning since it endeavors to provide practical reasons for belief in God. Taking the gambler’s parlance, Pascal is saying that one should “wager that God exists because it is our best bet (Hajek). According to Ryan (1994), this line of reasoning has roots in the writings of Plato, Arnobius, Lactantius.
Pascal’s wager, in a nutshell, is: if you believe in God and he does not exist, you share the same fate as those who do not believe in God – death. However, if He does exist, you stand to gain salvation, while the unbeliever still faces a static destiny – death. So the believer, technically, has nothing to lose and all to gain, while the unbeliever whether right or not about his or her wager will only face death in the end. Therefore it is only logical to wager on the choice that makes the most sense – belief in God. It, in a sense is a philosophical win-win situation.
Pascal maintains that we are incapable of knowing whether God exists or not, yet we must “wager” one way or the other. Reason cannot settle which way we should incline, but a consideration of the relevant outcomes supposedly can.
Pascal’s line of reasoning is intriguing. He states that aside from arguing extensively whether God exists or not, one might rather look at the benefits of believing over not believing. Putting it into a conversational tone, one might say that most people argue in with this line, “God exists because…” Pascal puts a spin on this logic by asking the question, “It is better to believe in God because….”
Pascal argues that our reason may not be enough to argue God into existence or non-existence. And yet we are required to make a decision regarding Him. Should you choose to believe, or should you choose to not believe? One may come to conclude that the wager shies away from trying to prove God through proof and logic and focus rather on the rationality of choosing to believe instead.
Pascal echoes a few strains of agnosticism but makes the wager for God anyway. This in contrast to the beliefs of some agnostics who maintain that since knowledge about God is incomprehensible and inherently unknowable, they are irrelevant to life (“Agnosticism”). He believes that our reason may not be enough to logically deduce whether or not God exists but we must make a choice according to what we know, and the probability of gain from choosing from either choice.
Pascal also concludes that if God did not exist, the believer would still have had been able to live a satisfying life owing to the purported joys of a Christian life.
- “Agnosticism”. Wikipedia.org. 24 Oct. 2005 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnosticism>.
- Hacking, Ian. 1975. The Emergence of Probability, Cambridge University Press.
- Hájek, Alan. “Pascal’s Wager”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2004 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2004/entries/pascal-wager/>.
- Ryan, John. 1945. “The Wager in Pascal and Others”, New Scholasticism 19/3, 233-50. Reprinted in Jordan 1994 b.