Blog 5: Pascal’s Pensées part 2 – The Wager

By Richard Keeble

The common and incorrect conception of Pascal’s Wager is an argument for belief in God being a safer bet than retaining an atheistic life. This guise holds that if one commits to belief in God and is right, they gain eternal salvation and if they are wrong, they have lost nothing. On the other hand, it holds that if one remains an atheist and they are right nothing is gained, whereas if they are wrong eternal damnation and suffering is theirs. Therefore, it concludes, faith in God is the more reasonable gamble with the odds stacked in its favour. The arguments against this position are naturally manifold, including the issue of choosing the correct god, or the fact that this “wager” could apply to any figment of the imagination. Furthermore, to base one’s spiritual investment in God on a mere weighing up of odds is widely, and rightly, considered dubious and highly questionable.

The tragedy is that this argument in no way reflects the true Wager presented in the Pensées, not only demonstrating that most who attack the Wager have not even read Pascal, but consequently that he has not fulfilled his vast potential to spiritually enlighten.

The Wager builds on Pascal’s notion that the human condition includes, whether the individual is conscious of it or not, the need for God in his or her life. Unlike René Descartes, a contemporary of Pascal, he held that one cannot simply reason distantly one’s way to God. Abstraction jeopardises the individual’s personal relation to God, a relation so important to Pascal that he sewed his religious experience testimony into his jacket, and would move it from one jacket to the next as he wore them. In this testimony he declared:

“He can be found only in the ways taught in the Gospel. Greatness of the human soul. O righteous Father, the world hath not known thee, but I have known thee… He maintains himself in me only in the ways taught in the Gospel. Renunciation total and sweet.”

The Pensées directly address this personal relation with God, thus here is where the true context of the Wager is to be found. Essentially, Pascal asks what harm there is in attempting to know God through a loving, personal and faithful relationship with him. The Wager is not concerned with the multiplicity of apparent deities, the notion is proposed solely with the Christian God in mind. Abstract reasoning can only take one so far; the God of the Bible is a personal God, and thus relating to him is primarily a personal affair. This is why Pascal states:

“Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists.”

One has the potential to know God personally if only one will attempt to do so. This further builds on Pascal’s negativity towards those to whom such matters seem trivial and inconsequential. Confronted with the possibility of knowing God there is little reason not to attempt to engage with it, for nothing is lost and the greatest could be gained. Atheism does not feature in the Wager. No comparison between the odds of religious belief and refusal to believe is made as the common conception holds; purely because atheism is irrelevant. The Wager is for he or she who wishes to reach God and it presents Pascal’s view on how to go about it. Such reasoning is not abstract but immanent and practical, a perfect example of what I would call experiential or existential rationalism.

However, Pascal greatly accentuates the Wager’s consequences for the individual, to the extent that its effects are swiftly felt and one’s choice to wager immediately vindicated by God’s love and grace. Thus he concludes:

“Now what evil will happen to you in taking this side? You will be trustworthy, honourable, grateful, generous, friendly, sincere, and true. In truth you will no longer have these poisoned pleasures, glory and luxury, but you will have other pleasures.  I tell you that you will gain in this life, at each step you make in this path you will see so much certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you stake, that you will know at last that you have wagered on a certainty, an infinity, for which you have risked nothing.”

Therefore Pascal’s Wager ceases to be a wager in the normal sense as clarity is received as soon as one’s relation to God is earnestly embarked upon. The gifts of God’s grace are immediately made known to the individual. This is Pascal’s way of reaching certainty through faith, as opposed to an impious weighing up of odds for personal gain:

“Thus you will naturally be brought to believe, and will lose your acuteness.- But that is just what I fear.- Why? What have you to lose? But to show you that this is the right way, this it is that will lessen the passions, which are your greatest obstacles”

Pascal sought to find God via the “ways taught in the Gospel”, thus the Wager mirrors Christ’s declaration in John:

“If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority” (7:17)

But what of those who have never experienced faith? Is it so easy to come to a spiritual life, described by Pascal himself as “Forgetfulness of the world and of all save God”? No indeed, Pascal recognises the difficulty of this task. The process may be slow at first, and is utterly a personal affair:

“Labour then to convince yourself, not by increase of the proofs of God, but by the diminution of your passions… Learn of those who have been bound as you are, but who now stake all that they possess; these are they who know the way you would follow, who are cured of a disease of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began, by making believe that they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc.”

Pascal’s mistrust of abstract reasoning, “the proofs of God”, to reach God is again demonstrated. Essentially, Pascal instead calls for an immersion in the life of a believer, in order to become a believer; to spend time with those who have travelled as you do and have reached faith before you. This is reflected by C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:

“The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbour; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him… There is, indeed, one exception. If you do him a good turn, not to please God and obey the law of charity, but to show him what a fine forgiving chap you are, and to put him in your debt, and then sit down to wait for his ‘gratitude’, you will probably be disappointed”

Lewis’ position is equally as experiential as Pascal’s, and just as Pascal does, Lewis calls for the individual to seek to live like a believer, for that is how one becomes a believer.

What also helps to further distinguish Pascal from the more individualist stance of Kierkegaard is his veneration for Catholic ecclesiology, a factor that would also place John Henry Newman’s direction at odds with Kierkegaard’s during their mutual reaction against the rise of liberalism in 19th Century Christendom.

Therefore the purpose of Pascal’s Wager is to initiate an existential transformation, to bring the individual to God whilst at the same time enabling spiritual and practical improvement. Yet the initial decision finds quick vindication and justification, as if the side-effect of the decision to wager is itself the reward. Of course Pascal has made clear that this is to some degree the case, and even in itself is the justification to commit to the Wager.

Finally, the Wager must also be seen in the context of Pascal’s life. Having contributed so greatly to mathematical probability theory, he saw his friends use this to successfully gamble and profit financially, a situation distressing to such a pious mathematician as Pascal. Therefore the Wager, in addition to what has been described here, is this mathematician’s personal idea of atonement; to turn his forces of probability away from the propagation of vice and toward contemplation of the divine.

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