The Necessity of Pascal’s Wager

Portrait of Pascal

Portrait of Pascal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For part of my Philosophy of God class on Monday, we discussed the “Wager” of the 17th century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. It occurs in Part III, §233 of his work Pensées (“Thoughts”). Although it generally gets lumped in with arguments for God’s existence, it is more properly an argument for belief in God. That is to say, it is strangely more concerned with you than with God. The basic idea is that it is in your best interest to believe in God, because the potential rewards of belief far outweigh the risks.

If this intrigues you, and you would like to read more about the Wager in general, you cannot do better than the treatment given by the American philosopher Peter Kreeft, who is a great admirer of it.

In this post, instead of discussing the Wager in general, I will focus on only one small part of it, the part that my class seemed to find most intriguing (and the part which Kreeft himself thinks is “the most powerful”): the claim that in regard to the question of the existence of God, neutrality is not an option. Pascal renders this in the form of a dialogue, first with an “agnostic objection,” and then with his reply:

“Both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all.”

Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked.

Is it true that you must wager, “make a bet” concerning the existence of God? Why would that be so? Pascal more or less just asserts it as a brute fact, although he does include that cryptic remark, “you are embarked.” Kreeft understands this to be a reference to death, which seems entirely plausible to me. Human life does not last forever, but instead moves towards death, the point that the great religious traditions of the world agree is decisive in regard to definitely settling the question, “Is there a God?” So, at a certain point in time—one’s death—agnosticism becomes equivalent to atheism. In both cases, there is no belief (albeit for different reasons).

Far be it for me to disagree with Kreeft’s interpretation of Pascal on this point. All I would like to suggest here is that Pascal’s observation that one must wager, at least in regard to this question, may be correct for still other reasons. One reason has to do with man. One reason has to do with society. And one reason has to do with God.

On the individual level, perhaps humans are just hard-wired to ask themselves (or others) the question of God’s existence, and also hard-wired to settle on an answer, one way or the other. There would seem to be some evidence for this in the fact that belief in God is, as the philosopher Robert Spaemann likes to point out, the “oldest rumor” in existence. It is hard to think of a culture in human history that does not include belief in the divine, although the details of this belief have differed. Human beings just seem drawn to this question. Put this together with the fact that humans do not enjoy the discomfort of indecision, and you have a potent motivation in place to make a decision in regard to God. The person who denies this tendency would simply be attempting to deny his or her humanity. That sounds possible in the short term, impossible over time.

On the level of society, the question of God’s existence also has a way of demanding an answer. Let us remember that our modern secular society in the West is the exception, not the norm. In many societies, past and present, the question of God’s existence has quite practical ramifications, and so even should one wish to remain neutral, it will be difficult. Actions will be demanded of you, such as oaths and public prayers. Under such pressure, agnosticism will either “magically” resolve itself, or else be completely internalized while one’s actions take on the veneer of belief or unbelief. But as even an unbeliever such as Nietzsche knew, nothing can subsist forever in the hidden recesses of one’s heart. That which is strong will out. What can never manifest itself one way or another in one’s life will fade into nothingness.

That’s all well and good, you say, but it does not matter to me, because I do live in an exceptional, secular society. Maybe you will get a pass, then. But only if you don’t have to interact in a serious way with believers, because they will demand actions of you that are a step toward a decision. Within my religious tradition, for example, a “mixed marriage” is only allowed if the non-religious partner agrees to be open to having children, and to agree to raise those children as Catholics. Neutrality is difficult for social animals like human beings.

But there is a final consideration that points toward the inevitability of making this wager in regard to God, and this reason is actually the strongest of all in itself—as strong as death, as the Song of Songs puts it—though it may not seem like the strongest to you. It is this: a God of love would eventually demand such a decision of you.

That is to say, people always assume that this question waits there impotently for their attention. Actually, people assume this about everything in reality, which is already a mistake. Things are acting, manifesting and giving themselves to you—it is not that they just sit there inert waiting for you to do all the work. But this is especially the case in regard to a personal God. To put it bluntly, if there is a God, then expect that God to be hunting you. Such is the point of the famous poem “The Hound of Heaven” by Francis Thompson. He describes God’s pursuit of man in recurring lines like the following:

 Still with unhurrying chase,

And unperturbed pace,

Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,

Came on the following Feet,

And a Voice above their beat—

‘Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me.’

To put that in a far less beautiful way, a personal God would not be likely to sit around twiddling his invisible thumbs whilst you make up your mind. True, a God of love would never force you into belief. But love does not preclude making overtures. Consider yourself warned.

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8 Responses to The Necessity of Pascal’s Wager

  1. quiavideruntoculi says:

    “True, a God of love would never force you into belief. But love does not preclude making overtures. Consider yourself warned.”

    Love this.

  2. Greg Ward says:

    “You are embarked.” Now that it powerful stuff – enigmatic and authoritative in a way I love. Great and thought provoking post – thank you. Reminded of CS Lewis and a thought similar to the necessity to wager: “”Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important”

  3. gotdewy says:

    A wonderful take on the necessity of placing a wager. A clarification point: ought I to wager positively out of fear or out of love and do the two look differently insofar as my submission is is concerned?

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      As Pascal formulates the Wager, self-love is the motivation: the possibility of receiving an infinite reward. Your question raises the good point, though, that other motivations would seem to be possible.

      I don’t think the motivation would cause the objective aspects of the submission to look different to us (humans, not God): going to mass is going to mass, whether one goes out of radiant love of God or out of servile fear or because one selfishly wants the grace to finish a dissertation. 🙂

  4. I just found your page looking for Spaemann’s thoughts in English (I am Austrian, so he writes in my native language). I like his thoughts on teleology, and wanted to know what is out there in English …
    I also found this reference: http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/209020?eng=y relating to the thought of B16, still Ratzinger:” We should therefore reverse the axiom of the Enlightenment and say: even those who are unable to accept God should in any case seek to live and direct their lives ‘veluti si Deus daretur’, as if God exists.” (the idea does not only date back to 2005 but was presented in a book called “Auf Christus schauen”, published quite a few years earlier).

    Great post, thanks.

    • alexanderschimpf says:

      Nice to meet you, and thanks for the link!

      Until recently, not much of Spaemann’s thought on teleology has been available in English. This should change soon, however, because a translation of Philosophische Essays is supposedly forthcoming from ISI Press. I don’t have any details, though.

      However, in the meantime, I do know that one of Spaemann’s essays on teleology (Die Unvollendbarkeit der Entteleologisierung) is available in English translation as “The Unrelinquishability of Teleology.” It is Ch. 17 of a book called Contemporary Perspectives on Natural Law: Natural Law as a Limiting Concept, edited by Ana Marta Gonzalez.

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