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What is Pascal's Wager

Updated on June 3, 2015

Blaise Pascal and his "Pensees"

Blaise Pascal was born in Rouen France in 1623. A child prodigy, he has been classified as many things: A Mathematician, a Physicist, an Inventor, a Christian philosopher. He made contributions to the study of fluids, probability theory, geometry, economics, and even invented an early mechanic calculator.

But he is best remembered amongst Philosophers of religion for the wager or gambit he posed to those that claim, "I am so made that I cannot believe..." in his Pensees, published in 1669 (seven years after his death).

The Wager

Pascal's Wager is a relatively simple bit a reasoning used to resolve what just might be the most dire of all decisions. Does god exist?

It is laid out classically as follows:

God either is or is not. you have no information that would influence your decision either way and so taking a stand on this question is essentially the equivalent of flipping a coin. You must wager, there is no option that allows you to abstain from choosing one of the two propositions.

Given these conditions let us surmise the gains and losses associated with each option. If you wager that god is and you are correct you stand to gain immortality in paradise, if you are incorrect then you lose nothing. While if you wager that god is not, you still likewise lose nothing if you are correct but risk eternal damnation if you are wrong. As Pascal put it, "If you gain, you gain all. If you lose, you lose nothing. Wager then, without hesitation, that He exists."

While this conclusion seems straight forward and logical enough a number of objections have been raised in regard to it's simplicity and apparently low regard for the attributes of god.

Firstly, the argument assumes that you are wagering on the correct god. Within the pantheon of deities among both current religions and long anachronistic mythologies, if the actual, "god," is not the Christian god (which is the one Pascal is writing on) might not you earn the increased brunt of this actual god's ire for believing in a false god rather than by simply abstaining from any belief?

The second problem flows from this idea of belief and the assumption that you can will yourself into believing something simply as a matter of pragmatic utility. Pascal mistakenly attributes wishful malleability to individual credulity. A carrot or a stick may drive a beast of burden forward but the beast does not move because he believes he is on the correct course to a predetermined destination. The point is that neither the supposed pleasantries of heaven nor the rumored anguish of hell is sufficient to create authentic belief where once none stood.

The final and most significant objection to Pascal's Wager is that it assumes god is a sycophant who can be duped and manipulated. Surely an omniscient god would, by definition, know the falsity of your belief and the motives behind it.

Though, an atheist, I would like to think that if there is a god I would garner more favor by not trying to deceive him. I would like to think god prizes intellectual honesty and an reason use of the mind's faculties over craven and insincere propitiations performed merely to avoid punishment or accrue reward.

And so I suppose it all comes down to your assessment of god. Is he indeed the fearful insecure father that neurotically needs to be loved as the first five commandment would have us believe? Or is he a benevolent force that prizes authenticity, intellectual honesty, and a life of good works over false conciliation and condescension?

The Wager is yours.

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      Cristina 2 years ago

      I had a similar enixrpeece years ago, but it has stayed with me. I was sitting in a small park eating a sandwich, alone but several other people were also in the park and eating their lunch. A man approached me not the others, just me and in a very emotional way told me he was famished and would I give him money. Instead I offered him half of my sandwich. He looked at it with such despair and anguish. I guess it wasn't what he wanted, what he wanted was money. I can no longer remember the rest of the conversation. He walked away, without taking the food. The so called whites of his eyes were yellow. He was also wild eyed. I was filled witih mixed emotions: frightened, yes; disappointed at my growing cynicism that he must not have really been that hungry, or else he would have gladly taken the food; upset at my feelings of fright and of not being able to just give him money, since no matter what he needed it for, he clearly was in some type of dire straits, and who was *I* to question that; so what if his hunger was for drugs rather than food? I should have just given him money. I was partly also annoyed he approached me and only me and no one else. Blah blah blah. The upshot is, why couldn't I have spontaneously just given him money and not second guessed him. Just have reacted with unquestioning compassion, in the moment?

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      Dotty 2 years ago

      You've captured this peyerctlf. Thanks for taking the time!

    • mrblueishmouvesky profile image

      mrblueishmouvesky 4 years ago

      At the start you mention deciding is like flipping a coin, I'd argue that God is when after you've called heads or tails and flipped a bird swoops down and grabs the coin out of the air and flies away.

      The argument is imo flawed from the start, God wont go into a yes / no box that is part of the idea imo

    • JMcFarland profile image

      Julie McFarland 4 years ago from The US of A, but I'm Open to Suggestions

      I wrote a similar hub. Good writing, voted up.