Pascal’s Wager is an argument in apologetic philosophy devised by the seventeenth-century French philosopher, mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal (1623–62). It posits that humans all bet with their lives either that God exists or that he does not. Pascal argues that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.), whereas they stand to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in Heaven) and avoid infinite losses (eternity in Hell).
Pascal’s Wager was based on the idea of the Christian God, though similar arguments have occurred in other religious traditions. The original wager was set out in section 233 of Pascal’s posthumously published Pensées (“Thoughts”). These previously unpublished notes were assembled to form an incomplete treatise on Christian apologetics.
Historically, Pascal’s Wager was groundbreaking because it charted new territory in probability theory, marked the first formal use of decision theory, and anticipated future philosophies such as existentialism, pragmatism and voluntarism.
The Wager uses the following logic (excerpts from Pensées, part III, §233):
- God is, or God is not. Reason cannot decide between the two alternatives.
- A Game is being played… where heads or tails will turn up.
- You must wager (it is not optional).
- Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.
- Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (…) There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.
- But some cannot believe. They should then ‘at least learn your inability to believe…’ and ‘Endeavour then to convince’ themselves.
Pascal asks the reader to analyze humankind’s position, where our actions can be enormously consequential but our understanding of those consequences is flawed. While we can discern a great deal through reason, we are ultimately forced to gamble. Pascal cites a number of distinct areas of uncertainty in human life:
Pascal describes humanity as a finite being trapped within an incomprehensible infinity, briefly thrust into being from non-being, with no explanation of “Why?” or “What?” or “How?” On Pascal’s view, human finitude constrains our ability to reliably achieve truth.
Given that reason alone cannot determine whether God exists, Pascal concludes that this question functions like a coin toss. However, even if we do not know the outcome of this coin toss, we must base our actions on some expectation about the outcome. We must decide whether to live as though God exists, or whether to live as though God does not exist, even though we may be mistaken in either case.
In Pascal’s assessment, participation in this wager is not optional. Merely by existing in a state of uncertainty, we are forced to choose between the available courses of action for practical purposes.
The Pensées passage on Pascal’s Wager is as follows:
Pascal begins by painting a situation where both the existence and non-existence of God are impossible to prove by human reason. So, supposing that reason cannot determine the truth between the two options, one must “wager” by weighing the possible consequences. Pascal’s assumption is that, when it comes to making the decision, no one can refuse to participate; withholding assent is impossible because we are already “embarked”, effectively living out the choice.
We only have two things to stake, our “reason” and our “happiness”. Pascal considers that if there is “equal risk of loss and gain” (i.e. a coin toss), then human reason is powerless to address the question of whether God exists. That being the case, then human reason can only decide the question according to possible resulting happiness of the decision, weighing the gain and loss in believing that God exists and likewise in believing that God does not exist.
He points out that if a wager was between the equal chance of gaining two lifetimes of happiness and gaining nothing, then a person would be a fool to bet on the latter. The same would go if it was three lifetimes of happiness versus nothing. He then argues that it is simply unconscionable by comparison to bet against an eternal life of happiness for the possibility of gaining nothing. The wise decision is to wager that God exists, since “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing”, meaning one can gain eternal life if God exists, but if not, one will be no worse off in death than if one had not believed. On the other hand, if you bet against God, win or lose, you either gain nothing or lose everything. You are either unavoidably annihilated (in which case, nothing matters one way or the other) or lose the opportunity of eternal happiness. In note 194, speaking about those who live apathetically betting against God, he sums up by remarking, “It is to the glory of religion to have for enemies men so unreasonable…”
Inability to believe
Pascal addressed the difficulty that ‘reason‘ and ‘rationality‘ pose to genuine belief by proposing that “acting as if [one] believed” could “cure [one] of unbelief”:
Analysis with decision theory
The possibilities defined by Pascal’s Wager can be thought of as a decision under uncertainty with the values of the following decision matrix.
Given these values, the option of living as if God exists (B) dominates the option of living as if God does not exist (¬B), as long as one assumes a positive probability that God exists. In other words, the expected value gained by choosing B is greater than or equal to that of choosing ¬B.
In fact, according to decision theory, the only value that matters in the above matrix is the +∞ (infinitely positive). Any matrix of the following type (where f1, f2, and f3 are all finite positive or negative numbers) results in (B) as being the only rational decision.
Misunderstanding of the wager
Many criticisms have explained that the wager has been used as a supposed theory of the necessity to believe, although it’s never been Pascal’s intention. As Laurent Thirouin writes:
To be put at the beginning of Pascal’s planned book, the wager was meant to show that logical reasoning cannot support faith or lack thereof,
Pascal’s intended book was precisely to find other ways to establish the value of faith, an apology of the Christian faith.
Criticism of Pascal’s Wager began in his own day, and came from both atheists, who questioned the ‘benefits’ of a deity whose ‘realm’ is beyond reason, and the religiously orthodox, who primarily took issue with the wager’s deistic and agnostic language. It is criticized for not proving God’s existence, the encouragement of false belief, and the problem of which religion and which God should be worshipped.
Nature as not a proof of the existence of God
Voltaire (another prominent French writer of the Enlightenment), a generation after Pascal, rejected the idea that the wager was “proof of God” as “indecent and childish”, adding, “the interest I have to believe a thing is no proof that such a thing exists”.Pascal, however, did not advance the wager as a proof of God’s existence but rather as a necessary pragmatic decision which is “impossible to avoid” for any living person. He argued that abstaining from making a wager is not an option and that “reason is incapable of divining the truth”; thus, a decision of whether or not to believe in the existence of God must be made by “considering the consequences of each possibility”.
Voltaire’s critique concerns not the nature of the Pascalian wager as proof of God’s existence, but the contention that the very belief Pascal tried to promote is not convincing. Voltaire hints at the fact that Pascal, as a Jansenist, believed that only a small, and already predestined, portion of humanity would eventually be saved by God.
Voltaire explained that no matter how far someone is tempted with rewards to believe in Christian salvation, the result will be at best a faint belief. Pascal, in his Pensees, agrees with this, not stating that people can choose to believe (and therefore make a safe wager), but rather that some cannot believe.
As Étienne Souriau explained, in order to accept Pascal’s argument, the bettor needs to be certain that God seriously intends to honour the bet; he says that the Wager assumes that God also accepts the bet, which is not proved; Pascal’s bettor is here like the fool who seeing a leaf floating on a river’s waters and quivering at some point, for a few seconds, between the two sides of a stone, says: “I bet a million with Rothschild that it takes finally the left path.” And, effectively, the leaf passed on the left side of the stone, but unfortunately for the fool Rothschild never said “I [will take that] bet”.
Argument from inconsistent revelations
Main article: Argument from inconsistent revelations
Since there have been many religions throughout history, and therefore many conceptions of God (or gods), some assert that all of them need to be factored into the Wager, in an argument known as the argument from inconsistent revelations. This, its proponents argue, would lead to a high probability of believing in “the wrong god”, which, they claim, eliminates the mathematical advantage Pascal claimed with his Wager. Denis Diderot, a contemporary of Voltaire, concisely expressed this opinion when asked about the Wager, saying “an Imam could reason the same way”. J. L. Mackie notes that “the church within which alone salvation is to be found is not necessarily the Church of Rome, but perhaps that of the Anabaptists or members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or the Muslim Sunnis or the worshipers of Kali or of Odin.”
Another version of this objection argues that for every religion that promulgates rules, there exists another religion that has rules of the opposite kind. If a certain action leads one closer to salvation in the former religion, it leads one further away from it in the latter. Therefore, the expected value of following a certain religion could be negative. Or, one could also argue that there are an infinite number of mutually exclusive religions (which is a subset of the set of all possible religions), and that the probability of any one of them being true is zero; therefore, the expected value of following a certain religion is zero.
Pascal considers this type of objection briefly in the notes compiled into the Pensées, and dismisses it as obviously wrong and disingenuous:
What say [the unbelievers] then? “Do we not see,” say they, “that the brutes live and die like men, and Turks like Christians? They have their ceremonies, their prophets, their doctors, their saints, their monks, like us,” etc. If you care but little to know the truth, that is enough to leave you in repose. But if you desire with all your heart to know it, it is not enough; look at it in detail. That would be sufficient for a question in philosophy; but not here, where everything is at stake. And yet, after a superficial reflection of this kind, we go to amuse ourselves, etc. Let us inquire of this same religion whether it does not give a reason for this obscurity; perhaps it will teach it to us.
This short but densely packed passage, which alludes to numerous themes discussed elsewhere in the Pensées, has given rise to many pages of scholarly analysis.
Pascal says that unbelievers who rest content with the many-religions objection are people whose scepticism has seduced them into a fatal “repose”. If they were really bent on knowing the truth, they would be persuaded to examine “in detail” whether Christianity is like any other religion, but they just cannot be bothered. Their objection might be sufficient were the subject concerned merely some “question in philosophy”, but not “here, where everything is at stake”. In “a matter where they themselves, their eternity, their all are concerned”, they can manage no better than “a superficial reflection” (“une reflexion légère”) and, thinking they have scored a point by asking a leading question, they go off to amuse themselves.
As Pascal scholars observe, Pascal regarded the many-religions objection as a rhetorical ploy, a “trap” that he had no intention of falling into. If, however, any who raised it were sincere, they would want to examine the matter “in detail”. In that case, they could get some pointers by turning to his chapter on “other religions”.
As David Wetsel notes, Pascal’s treatment of the pagan religions is brisk: “As far as Pascal is concerned, the demise of the pagan religions of antiquity speaks for itself. Those pagan religions which still exist in the New World, in India, and in Africa are not even worth a second glance. They are obviously the work of superstition and ignorance and have nothing in them which might interest ‘les gens habiles’ (‘clever men’)“. Islam warrants more attention, being distinguished from paganism (which for Pascal presumably includes all the other non-Christian religions) by its claim to be a revealed religion. Nevertheless, Pascal concludes that the religion founded by Mohammed can on several counts be shown to be devoid of divine authority, and that therefore, as a path to the knowledge of God, it is as much a dead end as paganism. Judaism, in view of its close links to Christianity, he deals with elsewhere.
The many-religions objection is taken more seriously by some later apologists of the Wager, who argue that, of the rival options, only those awarding infinite happiness affect the Wager’s dominance. In the opinion of these apologists “finite, semi-blissful promises such as Kali’s or Odin’s” therefore drop out of consideration. Also, the infinite bliss that the rival conception of God offers has to be mutually exclusive. If Christ’s promise of bliss can be attained concurrently with Jehovah‘s and Allah‘s (all three being identified as the God of Abraham), there is no conflict in the decision matrix in the case where the cost of believing in the wrong conception of God is neutral (limbo/purgatory/spiritual death), although this would be countered with an infinite cost in the case where not believing in the correct conception of God results in punishment (hell).
Furthermore, ecumenical interpretations of the Wager argue that it could even be suggested that believing in a generic God, or a god by the wrong name, is acceptable so long as that conception of God has similar essential characteristics of the conception of God considered in Pascal’s Wager (perhaps the God of Aristotle). Proponents of this line of reasoning suggest that either all of the conceptions of God or gods throughout history truly boil down to just a small set of “genuine options”, or that if Pascal’s Wager can simply bring a person to believe in “generic theism” it has done its job.
Pascal argues implicitly for the uniqueness of Christianity in the Wager itself, writing: “If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible…Who then can blame the Christians for not being able to give reasons for their beliefs, professing as they do a religion which they cannot explain by reason?”
Argument from inauthentic belief
Some critics argue that Pascal’s Wager, for those who cannot believe, suggests feigning belief to gain eternal reward. This would be dishonest and immoral. In addition, it is absurd to think that God, being just and omniscient, would not see through this deceptive strategy on the part of the “believer”, thus nullifying the benefits of the Wager.
Since these criticisms are concerned not with the validity of the Wager itself, but with its possible aftermath—namely that a person who has been convinced of the overwhelming odds in favor of belief might still find himself unable to sincerely believe—they are tangential to the thrust of the Wager. What such critics are objecting to is Pascal’s subsequent advice to an unbeliever who, having concluded that the only rational way to wager is in favor of God’s existence, points out, reasonably enough, that this by no means makes him a believer. This hypothetical unbeliever complains, “I am so made that I cannot believe. What would you have me do?” Pascal, far from suggesting that God can be deceived by outward show, says that God does not regard it at all: “God looks only at what is inward.” For a person who is already convinced of the odds of the Wager but cannot seem to put his heart into the belief, he offers practical advice.
Explicitly addressing the question of inability to believe, Pascal argues that if the Wager is valid, the inability to believe is irrational, and therefore must be caused by feelings: “your inability to believe, because reason compels you to [believe] and yet you cannot, [comes] from your passions.” This inability, therefore, can be overcome by diminishing these irrational sentiments: “Learn from those who were bound like you. . . . Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.—’But this is what I am afraid of.’—And why? What have you to lose?”
Some other critics have objected to Pascal’s Wager on the grounds that he wrongly assumes what type of epistemic character God would likely value in his rational creatures if he existed. More specifically, Richard Carrier has objected by positing an alternative conception of God that prefers his creatures to be honest inquirers and disapproves of thoughtless or feigned belief:
Suppose there is a god who is watching us and choosing which souls of the deceased to bring to heaven, and this god really does want only the morally good to populate heaven. He will probably select from only those who made a significant and responsible effort to discover the truth. . .Therefore, only such people can be sufficiently moral and trustworthy to deserve a place in heaven — unless God wishes to fill heaven with the morally lazy, irresponsible, or untrustworthy.
Richard Carrier, The End of Pascal’s Wager: Only Nontheists Go to Heaven