Philosophy has dealt with many arguments for and against the existence of God. However, what does one do when they are convinced that neither side can win? Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) argues that rather than focusing on whether God does or does not exist, we should ask ourselves if there are good enough reasons to believe in God even if no evidence can be found either way. This article will explain Pascal’s Wager, possible objections to it, and the implications that it might have for religious belief in general.
Who Is Blaise Pascal?
Blaise Pascal was born in Clermont-Ferrand, France in 1623 and suffered from health issues his entire life, leading to an early death at the age of 39. Like many of his peers, including René Descartes and Gottfried Leibniz, his interests were not limited to philosophy; he wrote on matters of science, math, and theology as well. In fact, the argument that is now known as Pascal’s Wager cleverly combines elements of philosophy, theology, and mathematics to try and show why people should believe in God.
The use of the term “Wager” in “Pascal’s Wager” comes from the fact that this approach is a bit of a gamble since one can never truly know if God does or does not exist. Interestingly, Pascal accidentally invented the roulette wheel that is now a common sight in most casinos.
Why Do We Need Pascal’s Wager?
There have been many attempts to prove that God exists. The ontological argument from Anselm of Canterbury, the five proofs from Thomas Aquinas, and the teleological argument (which can also be attributed to Aquinas but was made most famous by William Paley in 1802), are attempts to prove that God exists using different logical methods.
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The ontological argument is strictly a deductive argument that relies solely on definitions to try and prove its conclusion. On the other hand, both the cosmological and teleological arguments focus on empirical observations in their attempts to prove God exists, thus making them inductive arguments. While their approaches differ, they all assume that God’s existence can be demonstrated through logical and/or empirical means.
While each of these arguments has its adherents and opponents, none of them has conclusively proven that God exists (you probably would have heard about it if they had). Thus, while they can give one person good reasons to believe, they are subject to criticisms that another person can find just as compelling. Pascal’s Wager differs from this approach in that it does not try to prove God exists. Instead, it attempts to convince us that even when we cannot know that God exists, it is in our best interest to believe that He does.
What is Pascal’s Wager?
Blaise Pascal starts his argument by acknowledging that humans have a limited understanding of the universe and are thus unable to ever truly know if God exists. In the Pensées he says:
“If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is. This being so, who will dare to undertake the decision of the question? Not we, who have no affinity to Him.”
In other words, if God exists, he is so utterly beyond our understanding that it is foolish to think that we could prove his existence with any certainty. And just as much as God’s existence cannot be proven, his non-existence is equally beyond our ability to prove.
However, this leaves us in a bit of a bind. We cannot prove either that God does or does not exist with any certainty, yet many religions, including the Abrahamic religions, claim that failing to accept the existence of God can lead to negative results ranging from being denied an afterlife at all to being forced to live an eternity of pain and suffering. One of the most famous depictions of these sorts of punishments comes from Dante Alighieri in his famous book Inferno.
Therefore, if we find that we are more convinced by the arguments that claim God does not exist and end up finding out that He does when we die, we could be in quite a bit of trouble. This choice is unavoidable, or as Pascal says: “you must wager. It is not optional” (66).
Recognizing both the conundrum that we find ourselves in and its potential ramifications, Pascal offers a solution. Well known as a mathematician, Pascal takes a probabilistic approach to the issue of belief. As Pascal explains, there are essentially four possible scenarios that can result from our choice:
- We choose to believe, and God does exist,
- We choose to believe, and God does not exist,
- We choose not to believe, and God does exist, and
- We choose not to believe, and God does not exist.
Cases 1 and 3 have the greatest consequences to consider; if 1 turns out to be true, then we are granted the blessings that come from having faith, which may be an eternity of paradise. However, if 3 turns out to be true, then we must suffer the consequences, the most drastic being an eternity of suffering.
Scenarios 2 and 4 have much less dramatic consequences; in either of these cases, nothing eternal happens, and our lives on Earth are not affected much. The following chart helps to visualize all the possible choices and their consequences:
|Pascal’s Wager||God exists||God does not exist|
|I believe||1) Eternal reward||2) Nothing eternal, minor consequences on Earth|
|I do not believe||3) Eternal punishment||4) Nothing eternal, minor consequences on Earth|
As we can see, whether we believe in him or not, if God does not exist then nothing significant happens. However, if God does exist, there are some serious repercussions. Because we do not lose anything if God does not exist, yet stand to lose or gain quite a bit if he does, Pascal argues that it makes mathematical sense to believe in God. We lose little if we believe and are wrong, and we stand to gain an infinitely great reward if we are right.
Objection To Pascal’s Wager #1: What Do We Believe?
While Pascal’s Wager does offer an alternative approach to belief for those who are not convinced by traditional arguments, it is not without criticism. One of the most widely discussed objections to the Wager is that it fails to take into account the large variety of religions that one can choose from, many of which argue that their specific approach is the only way to gain eternal rewards.
In other words, the choice that Pascal presents is grossly oversimplified; we must not only choose to believe, but we must choose to believe the correct version of the correct religion. For example, if I choose to believe in Yahweh and it turns out that the Christian God as advocated by Lutherans is the correct one, then my belief is all for nothing. As such, the Wager is immensely more complicated than Pascal assumes, thus rendering it much weaker, according to critics.
Objection To Pascal’s Wager #2: Can We Choose to Believe?
A second objection, anticipated by Pascal himself, is that we cannot simply choose to believe something. We might be able to say that we do, but saying that we believe and actually believing are two different things. Hence, I may genuinely be convinced that the Wager is a strong argument and want to believe, but perhaps something in my mind continues to prevent me from whole-heartedly doing so.
Pascal tells such people to “at least learn your inability to believe, since reason brings you to this, and yet you cannot believe. Endeavour then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions” (68). in other words, if you continue to try, you will be more likely to convince yourself eventually. However, what happens if this is not the case for you?
An example of this objection can be understood through the following analogy. Suppose that someone walks up to you and says that they will give you a million dollars if you believe that they can fly. Of course, you are initially inclined to say, “Sure, why not? You can fly,” in hopes that they give you the money. However, in order to get the money, you must first jump off a skyscraper and let them catch you as you fall. Here, simply telling them you believe and actually believing are two very different things, and even if you try, you may never get to a point of true belief. In this same way, while the prospect of an eternity of paradise can convince us to try and believe, if we are not convinced, can we truly say we believe?
Objection to Pascal’s Wager #3: Are the Consequences on Earth Really That Minor?
A third objection to consider here is whether some of the consequences presented in Pascal’s Wager are as minor as claimed. In particular, we can examine the claim that if we believe that God exists and he does not, then there are no major consequences.
Suppose that we do choose to believe. Imagine, additionally, that this belief requires a large amount of self-sacrifice; is a lifetime of self-sacrifice really that inconsequential, especially if it turns out that this lifetime is all we have?
The famous (and by some accounts infamous) philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche deals with this very topic in many of his works. He argues that many people choose to live a life of self-sacrifice, deciding to deny themselves happiness and self-fulfillment in hopes that doing so will give them something greater in the afterlife. However, Nietzsche, being the atheist that he is, believed that this was a mistake. These individuals were giving up their happiness and self-fulfillment (essentially, their lives) for something that is never to come.
In terms of Pascal’s Wager, we must ask ourselves if the consequences of religious self-denial and sacrifice, which in many cases can even include imperatives about who we are or not allowed to love either romantically or platonically, are worth the potential yet unguaranteed rewards. Regardless of our answer, we must acknowledge that these consequences are far more important than Pascal claims in his Wager.