Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a mathematician, a physicist and a philosopher. In spite of his erudite and eventful life, he is now mostly remembered for his highly controversial wager with God.
Pascal was a religious man. He grew up a Catholic, then he embraced a religious movement called Jansenism; a doctrine of Cornelis Jansen and his disciples, which centred around a firm belief in predestination and a rejection of free will. Pascal believed and accepted Augustinian belief in the Genesis account of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. He believed that only through the will of God, could man achieve salvation.
The Sacrifice of a Magnificent Intellect
In hindsight, philosophers and academics express regret at Pascal’s devotion to religion at the expense of his mathematical and scientific genius.
Julia Chew in Blaise Pascal – Life, says, “He devoted his life to religion and philosophy yet his genius lay in mathematics.” Bertrand Russell goes even further in History of Western Philosophy, when he says: “Pascal sacrificed his magnificent mathematical intellect to his God, thereby attributing to Him a barbarity which was a cosmic enlargement of Pascal’s morbid mental tortures.”
The scepticism of the humanist philosopher, Michel de Montagne, who lived from 1533-1592, influenced Pascal; perhaps this influence also had some bearing on his “mental tortures.” Pascal believed that realism could only work from first principles. It could not, in any way, establish the truth of those principles. For a religious man, this must have been a difficult theory with which to come to terms.
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In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins describes as a “No Brainer” a specific wager in Pascal’s Pensees, a project that was left unfinished after his death. He decided the question of whether God existed or not could not be settled by rational means. However, if God did exist, then by believing in Him, man could achieve eternal bliss. But if God did not exist, then nothing was lost.
On the other hand, the unbeliever in God’s existence would receive eternal damnation if he was mistaken; and if he was correct, then nothing was gained or lost.
In essence, Blaise Pascal felt that there’s a greater risk in living as an atheist and then finding out that God exists, than in living as a Christian and being incorrect.
As Jeremy Harwood says in Philosophy, 100 Great Thinkers, “The wager is not an argument for the existence of God, rather it is an argument for the rationality of belief.” There is, of course, an enormous difference between these two arguments.
So – is this wager of Pascal’s a rational approach to an unanswerable problem?
Richard Dawkins on the Penalty for Guessing Wrong
Richard Dawkins finds something inherently odd about Pascal’s argument, mainly because we cannot choose what we believe. We simply believe what we believe, and it’s not something we can just decide to do. “I can decide to go to church,” says Dawkins, “and I can decide to recite the Nicene Creed, and I can decide to swear on a stack of bibles that I believe every word inside them.”
None of this helps if Dawkins doesn’t truly believe; it is simply… “an argument for feigning belief in God.”
- Would God, if he exists, be pleased at being believed in, as though it was something very special? Maybe he would prefer kindness, generosity or humility.
- Would God prize honesty in seeking after truth more highly than a feigned belief?
Jeremy Harwood agrees, saying: “Would God not see through someone who believed in him purely for convenience’s sake, on the basis of a self-interested calculation? Or, if God is all forgiving, how can Pascal be so sure that all unbelievers inevitably face damnation?”
The Wrong God?
Dawkins makes another interesting speculation. Perhaps the God you face on your deathbed may turn out to be Baal or any one of the multiplicity of potential alternative gods or goddesses humans worship, or have worshipped over the years. Dawkins further speculates that maybe Pascal was joking with his wager, just as Dawkins is joking about the alternative gods. This does, however, seem unlikely; considering the enormous devotion the philosopher consistently demonstrated toward his religion.
An Example of Decision Theory
Pascal’s wager is, says Jeremy Harwood… “one of the earliest examples of what is termed ‘decision theory.’” Many philosophers still have great respect for Pascal’s theories.
Blaise Pascal became ill and died in 1662 of an undiagnosed disease, leaving behind his key work, Summa Logica, after a brief but remarkable life.