In Defense of the Wager

Pascal is known in the religious/philosophy/apologetics world because of his (in)famous wager. I won’t review the argument here – it can be found online in various translations quite easily.

When one views just the argument on its own, without any context, one comes away less than impressed. A brief look at the context of the argument as well as Pascal’s overall method and goals, however, throw the argument into sharp relief.

Pascal spends a number of pages in his Pensees on boredom. He sees mankind as a fundamentally bored species, who seeks all manner of diversions so as to keep the boredom at bay. Pascal’s aim, then, is too argue against this indifference and boredom and jolt the passive unbeliever not into believing but into taking seriously the notion of belief. The wager is not a slam-dunk argument, but it’s not meant to be. It’s not meant to stand up to rigorous analytic philosophical dissection. It is the climax of Pascal’s efforts in the Pensees. After spending page after page detailing the misery of man in his boredom, the wretchedness of his reason and his pathetic attempts to keep boredom at bay, Pascal’s wager then is meant to move the apathetic person from his state of boredom and diversion into a frame of mind that takes seriously Pascal’s religious claim – that apart from God, man is only in misery and darkness.

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