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.

Pascal on Man’s Disproportion

‘This is where our innate knowledge leads us. If it be not true, there is no truth in man; and if it be true, he finds therein great cause for humiliation, being compelled to abase himself in one way or another. And since he cannot exist without this knowledge, I wish that, before entering on deeper researches into nature, he would consider her both seriously and at leisure, that he would reflect upon himself also, and knowing what proportion there is… Let man then contemplate the whole of nature in her full and grand majesty, and turn his vision from the low objects which surround him. Let him gaze on that brilliant light, set like an eternal lamp to illumine the universe; let the earth appear to him a point in comparison with the vast circle described by the sun; and let him wonder at the fact that this vast circle is itself but a very fine point in comparison with that described by the stars in their revolution round the firmament. But if our view be arrested there, let our imagination pass beyond; it will sooner exhaust the power of conception than nature that of supplying material for conception. The whole visible world is only an imperceptible atom in the ample bosom of nature. No idea approaches it. We may enlarge our conceptions beyond an imaginable space; we only produce atoms in comparison with the reality of things. It is an infinite sphere, the centre of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere. In short, it is the greatest sensible mark of the almighty power of God that imagination loses itself in that thought.

Returning to himself, let man consider what he is in comparison with all existence; let him regard himself as lost in this remote corner of nature; and from the little cell in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the universe, let him estimate at their true value the earth, kingdoms, cities, and himself. What is a man in the Infinite?

But to show him another prodigy equally astonishing, let him examine the most delicate things he knows. Let a mite be given him, with its minute body and parts incomparably more minute, limbs with their joints, veins in the limbs, blood in the veins, humours in the blood, drops in the humours, vapours in the drops. Dividing these last things again, let him exhaust his powers of conception, and let the last object at which he can arrive be now that of our discourse. Perhaps he will think that here is the smallest point in nature. I will let him see therein a new abyss. I will paint for him not only the visible universe, but all that he can conceive of nature’s immensity in the womb of this abridged atom. Let him see therein an infinity of universes, each of which has its firmament, its planets, its earth, in the same proportion as in the visible world; in each earth animals, and in the last mites, in which he will find again all that the first had, finding still in these others the same thing without end and without cessation. Let him lose himself in wonders as amazing in their littleness as the others in their vastness. For who will not be astounded at the fact that our body, which a little while ago was imperceptible in the universe, itself imperceptible in the bosom of the whole, is now a colossus, a world, or rather a whole, in respect of the nothingness which we cannot reach? He who regards himself in this light will be afraid of himself, and observing himself sustained in the body given him by nature between those two abysses of the Infinite and Nothing, will tremble at the sight of these marvels; and I think that, as his curiosity changes into admiration, he will be more disposed to contemplate them in silence than to examine them with presumption.

For, in fact, what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up.

What will he do then, but perceive the appearance of the middle of things, in an eternal despair of knowing either their beginning or their end. All things proceed from the Nothing, and are borne towards the Infinite. Who will follow these marvellous processes? The Author of these wonders understands them. None other can do so.’ (Blaise Pascal, ‘Pensees’, 72)

Thoughts on Pascal

I really do think Pascal is one of the brightest thinkers in the Christian tradition. I’ve not seen too many other apologists who tackle big problems head on like Pascal – for instance, the hiddeness of God (see the ‘Pascal’ category for my thoughts on his famous wager). I think that if Pascal’s style of thinking were taken more seriously, Christianity might be in a better place.

Pascal on ‘The Fundamentals of the Christian Religion’

‘The Christian religion, then, teaches men these two truths; that there is a God whom men can know, and that there is a corruption in their nature which renders them unworthy of Him. It is equally important to men to know both these points; and it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his own wretchedness, and to know his own wretchedness without knowing the Redeemer who can free him from it. The knowledge of only one of these points gives rise either to the pride of philosophers, who have known God, and not their own wretchedness, or to the despair of atheists, who know their own wretchedness, but not the Redeemer. Let us herein examine the order of the world and see if all things do not tend to establish these two chief points of this religion: Jesus Christ is end of all, and the centre to which all tends. Whoever knows Him knows the reason of everything.

Those who fall into error err only through failure to see one of these two things. We can, then, have an excellent knowledge of God without that of our own wretchedness and of our own wretchedness without that of God. But we cannot know Jesus Christ without knowing at the same time both God and our own wretchedness.

Therefore I shall not undertake here to prove by natural reasons either the existence of God, or the Trinity, or the immortality of the soul, or anything of that nature; not only because I should not feel myself sufficiently able to find in nature arguments to convince hardened atheists, but also because such knowledge without Jesus Christ is useless and barren. Though a man should be convinced that numerical proportions are immaterial truths, eternal and dependent on a first truth, in which they subsist and which is called God, I should not think him far advanced towards his own salvation.

The God of Christians is not a God who is simply the author of mathematical truths, or of the order of the elements; that is the view of heathens and Epicureans. He is not merely a God who exercises His providence over the life and fortunes of men, to bestow on those who worship Him a long and happy life. That was the portion of the Jews. But the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of Christians, is a God of love and of comfort, a God who fills the soul and heart of those whom He possesses, a God who makes them conscious of their inward wretchedness, and His infinite mercy, who unites Himself to their inmost soul, who fills it with humility and joy, with confidence and love, who renders them incapable of any other end than Himself.

All who seek God without Jesus Christ, and who rest in nature, either find no light to satisfy them, or come to form for themselves a means of knowing God and serving Him without a mediator. Thereby they fall either into atheism, or into deism, two things which the Christian religion abhors almost equally.

Without Jesus Christ the world would not exist; for it should needs be either that it would be destroyed or be a hell.

If the world existed to instruct man of God, His divinity would shine through every part in it in an indisputable manner; but as it exists only by Jesus Christ, and for Jesus Christ, and to teach men both their corruption and their redemption, all displays the proofs of these two truths.

All appearance indicates neither a total exclusion nor a manifest presence of divinity, but the presence of a God who hides himself. Everything bears this character.’ (Blaise Pascal, ‘Pensees, 556’)

Pascal on Believing

‘We know truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart, and it is in this last way that we know first principles; and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to impugn them. The sceptics, who have only this for their object, labour to no purpose. We know that we do not dream, and, however impossible it is for us to prove it by reason, this inability demonstrates only the weakness of our reason, but not, as they affirm, the uncertainty of all our knowledge. For the knowledge of first principles, as space, time, motion, number, is as sure as any of those which we get from reasoning. And reason must trust these intuitions of the heart, and must base them on every argument. (We have intuitive knowledge of the tri-dimensional nature of space and of the infinity of number, and reason then shows that there are no two square numbers one of which is double of the other. Principles are intuited, propositions are inferred, all with certainty, though in different ways.) And it is as useless and absurd for reason to demand from the heart proofs of her first principles, before admitting them, as it would be for the heart to demand from reason an intuition of all demonstrated propositions before accepting them.

This inability ought, then, to serve only to humble reason, which would judge all, but not to impugn our certainty, as if only reason were capable of instructing us. Would to God, on the contrary, that we had never need of it, and that we knew everything by instinct and intuition! But nature has refused us this boon. On the contrary, she has given us but very little knowledge of this kind; and all the rest can be acquired only by reasoning.

Therefore, those to whom God has imparted religion by intuition are very fortunate and justly convinced. But to those who do not have it, we can give it only by reasoning, waiting for God to give them spiritual insight, without which faith is only human and useless for salvation.’ (Blaise Pascal, ‘Pensees’ 282)

Pascal, the Hidden God, Wagers, and the Burden of Seeking

“Let them at least learn the nature of the religion they are attacking, before they attack it. If this religion boasted of having a clear vision of God, and of possessing Him plain and unveiled, then to say that nothing we see in the world reveals Him with this degree of clarity would indeed be to attack it. But it says, on the contrary, that man is in darkness and far from God, that He has hidden Himself from man’s knowledge, and that the name He has given Himself in the Scriptures is in fact The Hidden God (Is 45:15). Therefore if it seeks to establish these two facts: that God has in the church erected visible signs by which those who sincerely seek Him may recognize Him, and that he has nevertheless so concealed them that He will only be perceived by those who seek Him with all their hearts, what advantage can the attackers gain when, while admitting that they neglect to seek for the truth, they yet cry that nothing reveals it? For the very darkness in which they lie, and for which they blame the Church, establishes one of her two claims, without invalidating the other, and also, far from destroying her doctrine, confirms it” (Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 194).

The French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal is most well known for his famous wager – an argument for belief in God based on probability. However, his theological thought went far beyond simple wagers, and with his gift for brilliant prose, Pascal laid out the Burden of Seeking more clearly than any other writer in the Christian tradition has.
Scripture abounds with examples of God withdrawing His presence from people, prompting the prophet Isaiah to declare that the God of Israel truly is a God who hides Himself (Isaiah 45:15); the Psalms are full of cries for God to cease hiding Himself and to make His presence known. Many of the greatest saints in the church felt abandoned by God – St. John of the Cross devoted an entire volume (‘The Dark Night of the Soul) to the time when one feels the withdrawal of God’s presence.

It is often said that there is no proof of God, and that belief in God requires evidence, and that one making the claim that God exists is required to produce evidence. If one does not meet the burden of proof, then belief is not warranted. One must have proof to be convinced of the existence of God.

“To obtain anything from God, the outward must be joined to the inward; that is to say we must kneel and pray alone, etc. so that proud man, who would not submit to God, may now be subject to the body. To expect any help from this outward act is superstition; a refusal to join it to our inward acts is pride. For we must not misunderstand ourselves; we are as much machines as mind. And hence the means by which a man is persuaded are not demonstration alone. How few things are demonstrated! Proofs convince only the mind. It is habit that produces our strongest and most accepted proofs; it guides the machine, which carries the mind with it unconsciously. Who has proved that there will be a morrow and that we will die?” -Blaise Pascal

Here is another glimmer of the genius of Pascal – the limits of proof. Belief in God depends on more than just proof, because more than just the mind must be convinced of the existence of God. Simple knowledge of God in the form of mental assent will not lead one to salvation – God desires a personal knowledge.

However, as Pascal so astutely noted, Christianity does not claim to have a clear vision of God, plain and unveiled for all to see. Here he notes one of the most foundational aspects of Christian theology: that unless one pursues God wholeheartedly, God will remain hidden.

One aspect of Pascal’s brilliant ‘Pensees,’ is showing the wretchedness of reason – the result of man being far from God and in darkness. It is this condition that keeps man from arriving at God via a logical syllogism – and Pascal recognized that there is also a personal and relational aspect to God that goes beyond logic and reasoning. This certainly doesn’t negate the value of logic and reason but merely shows that via logic and reason alone one cannot arrive at knowledge of God in the personal way.

God is personal – therefore He must be sought after in a personal way. The burden is therefore not one of proof but of seeking. God has promised to meet those who seek Him on the road of their seeking.

Pascal’s famous wager is often dismissed as being nothing more than a blind leap in the dark or an irrational gamble. I concede that it is both of those things – unless the promise of God to meet the seeker is true. If that is the case, then it becomes more than a simple pragmatic wager. It becomes a way to engage someone to seek after God. Pascal was no doubt aware of this, and I can imagine him, with a smile on his lips, stating his famous wager knowing that if one was moved to sincerely seek God by consideration of the wager, that God would indeed reveal Himself to them.

Given these considerations, Pascal’s Wager is less of a flying leap in the dark than a step towards belief; epistemologically, one cannot simply will oneself to believe anything without some kind of warrant. Pascal would say that there is indeed sufficient warrant to make that first step towards belief.