Blaise Pascal’s infamous “wager” doesn’t get a lot of credit for being a rigorous philosophical argument for the existence of God, and with good reason. It is not a rigorous philosophical argument for the existence of God; nor is it meant to be. It is, however, a pragmatic argument for the belief in the existence of God; and I think it deserves to be taken more seriously than it often is.
So what exactly is the wager? Most caricatures present it something like this:
- If you believe in God, and you’re right, you get rewarded with eternal life
- If you believe in God, and you’re wrong, you die and nothing happens
- If you don’t believe in God, and you’re wrong, you receive eternal punishment
- If you don’t believe in God, and you’re right, you die and nothing happens
Hence, the caricature goes, you ought to believe in God, because the risk of being wrong if you don’t far outweighs any possible temporal benefits you might receive from a life of nonbelief.
When presented like this, the wager seems somewhat misguided and even perhaps intellectually dishonest, almost as if you are “tricking” yourself into believing something just out of fear of possible reprecussions if you don’t.
This concern for the wager’s potential intellectual dishonesty is expressed even towards philosophically serious defenses of the wager, such as this critique given in a short article by philosopher Randal Rauser, who suggests that the wager perhaps threatens to “undermine epistemic virtue,” which is defined as an obligation to “always seek truth above all” and which includes qualities such as the belief “that I ought always to consider my own cognitive biases, that I ought to devote substantial time to the problems with my own beliefs and to weighing the evidence for beliefs contrary to my own” .
So are these fair accusations leveled against the wager? It’s important to keep in mind, as we begin to examine the wager itself, that it was born in a very specific historical and philosophical context, that of the enlightenment and the birth of modern philosophy. Pascal’s thought was in many ways a reaction to the pure rationalism of some of his near contemporaries, such as Rene Descartes. The project of modern philosophy was defined in large part by the optimistic attempt to “mathematize” philosophy. Pascal likewise mathematized philosophy, in his own way. But his mathematization focused more on the applicative and pragmatic aspects, rather than on the purely abstract and rationalized.
Pascal rightly noticed that some of our beliefs really are purely rational (e.g., such as the belief that two and two is four); but that many, if not most, of our beliefs are not purely rational, and instead involve a large number of highly complex decision making factors. When you decide to walk out your door in the morning, or go to work, or live in a certain community, etc., you are hardly ever making these decisions on wholly abstract, rationalized principles. You are instead pragmatically weighing a large variety of factors, risks, benefits, probabilities, etc. As Hume would put it, you cannot have any sort of absolute, demonstrative certainty that the sun will rise in the morning; but you must still make decisions vital to living out a functioning life about whether or not you believe the sun will rise in the morning.
So whereas Descartes treats the question of God’s existence like a geometrical proof, Pascal approaches it as a practical, life-influencing decision. Granted that we have to live our lives, and granted that our beliefs about the existence or non-existence of God can significantly impact how we live our lives, what is the best way to go about making a decision about this belief?
For Pascal, the answer is to weigh potential risks and benefits; but it is not merely to weigh potential risks and benefits. This is, rather, more of a final step in the process. It’s important to realize this point, because it provides an answer to a potential critique of the wager.
Suppose that instead of deciding between Christian theism and unbelief, you’re trying to decide between Christian theism and some never before heard of religion (let’s call it religion X). The benefit for believing in religion X is likewise eternal reward; and the punishment for not believing it is eternal suffering. But, religion X makes the claim that the eternal reward they are offered is qualtiatively infinitely superior than that offered by the Christian idea of heaven; and the eternal punishment they are threatened with is qualitatively infinitely more painful than that offered by the Christian idea of hell. Though in both worldviews you are offered either an eternity of reward or punishment, the stakes are infinitely higher for religion x. Accordingly, if one were to make a decision entirely on weighing risks and benefits, it seems like one would be compelled to believe in religion x for no other reason than that happens to believe in a more extreme afterlife. Indeed, someone could intentionally invent a new religion with these qualities for precisely the reason of getting people to believe in it, despite knowing the whole time that it has been completely fabricated.
Something doesn’t seem right about this; and I think it’s fair to assume that most Christians will have a similar reaction to the proposal of “religion x” as most unbelievers usually have towards Pascal’s wager.
But, in fact, this drastically misunderstands the wager. Pascal does intend the wager as a kind of pragmatic calculus which weighs potentials risks and benefits and makes a decision accordingly, but he only intends the wager to be used under certain conditions. If these prior conditions are not met, the whole wager becomes meaningless.
What are these prior conditions? Pascal writes:
“God is, or is not. But towards which side will we lean? Reason cannot decide anything. There is an infinite chaos separating us. At the far end of this infinite distance a game is being played and the coin will come down heads or tails. How will you wager? Reason cannot make you choose one way or the other, reason cannot make you defend either of the two choices” .
Here is the point that is most often missed in discussion of the wager: it is only meant to be taken, and indeed only can be taken, in those situations wherein “reason cannot decide . . . reason cannot make you defend either of the two choices.”
Now, for Pascal, reason can never make this ultimate decision, because God is infinitely beyond reason. He makes the following case for thinking reason cannot decide:
- If there is a God, He is infinitely beyond the capacities of human reason
- What is infinitely beyond the capacities of human reason cannot be known by reason
- Therefore, if there is a God, God cannot be known by human reason
In other words, even if there is a God, God cannot in principle be known by our reason; so something other than reason must make a choice about whether or not to believe in the existence of God.
We must be clear, however, about what Pascal is and is not saying when he claims God cannot in principle be known by reason. What he is not saying is that belief in God is unreasonable or irrational or can never have epistemic support. Again, we must remember the historical and philosophical context in which Pascal is writing. When Pascal says God cannot be known by reason, he is responding to the position of those like Descartes who thought that God can be defined and demonstrated by pure reason alone, like a mathematical proof. God cannot be known in this way, Pascal is contending. But he is not denying that one can have “reasons” for believing in God; indeed part of his whole project is to show that one can have reasons for believing in God. What he is denying is that pure reason alone can ever give us an absolute, definitive demonstration of God’s existence.
Though Pascal does not explicitly address this, it is easy to think that the principle of the wager’s conditions could be applied to various other situations wherein reason alone is incapable of making a final decision. In particular, if we take “reason” to be something less than the absolute rationalism which Pascal is responding to in the wager, and something more akin to probabilistic evidence, then we could imagine a situation in which one genuinely seeks the truth and comes to a point where they think the existence of God has exactly a 50% probability. In this case, pure reason is unable to make a decision about the existence of God, and there must be some other determining factor.
Pascal’s image of a coin flip is a nice illustration here. Suppose someone flips a coin and you, for some reason, are bound by necessity to make an estimation — heads or tails. But, for all intents and purposes, there is a 50/50 chance for either. You thus cannot “reason” your way to a choice of one or the other, and so something besides reason must determine your answer.
But why think, one might respond, that we are in a position where we are “bound by necessity” to make a choice between one or the other? If reason cannot decide, is it not completely appropriate to refrain from making a decision altogether, maintaining a healthy agnosticism?
Pascal thinks not: “You have to wager. It is not up to you, you are already committed. Which then will you choose?” . My read of this assertion is that Pascal holds that we are all, by virtue of existing as rational agents, are automatically committed to making a decision. Agnosticism, then, is still a choice. The wager then seems to be not between choosing to believe and choosing not to believe, but rather between choosing to believe and not choosing to believe. The latter is an umbrella which covers a plethora of epistemic stances, including atheism and agnosticism. It is hence impossible not to choose, because not choosing is itself a choice. Not choosing has equal pragmatic ramifications.
Let us, then, recount all of those to whom the wager cannot apply:
- The wager cannot apply to those who think absolute, demonstrative reason can decide about the existence of God (whether affirmatively or negatively)
- The wager cannot apply to those who think probabilistic reason in general points strongly in one direction over the other (i.e. one who thinks there are good reasons to believe in the existence of God or not to believe in the existence of God)
The wager can apply to those who find that the question of the existence of God either in principle or in fact cannot be determined by reason alone, and hence must have some other principle of determination (Pascal technically only refers the argument to those who find reason in principle incapable, but I have extended it in application to those who also find reason in fact incapable).
What should be taken away from this discussion is that if you are someone who thinks there are good reasons to not believe in God, then the wager is not meant for you. Pascal is not suggesting that you should contradict your own rationality by forcing a worldview upon yourself which conflicts with your perception of the evidence. If that is your situation, then the wager is not relevant for you.
When this is realized, I think that the wager becomes much more plausible than it is usually held to be. I happen to disagree with Pascal’s epistemology: I think reason is in principle capable of demonstrating the existence of God. But I do believe that there might be people who find themselves at a point on their intellectual journeys where they are in fact unable to make a decision based on reason alone, in which case the wager might very well be an entirely justified option.
In a future post, I will lay out the actual wager itself, to see whether it does the job that Pascal thinks it can.
. See Rauser’s article here: https://randalrauser.com/2016/09/rotas-wager-pascal-epistemic-virtue/
. Blaise Pascal. Pensees and other writings. Translated by Honor Levi. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Page 153.
. Ibid. 154.