Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s Wager, also known as Pascal’s Gambit, is a suggestion posed by the French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist Blaise Pascal that even if the existence of God could not be determined through reason, a rational person should wager as though God exists, because living life accordingly has everything to gain, and nothing to lose. Pascal formulated his suggestion uniquely on the God of Jesus Christ as implied by the greater context of his Pensées, a posthumously published collection of notes made by Pascal in his last years as he worked on a treatise on Christian apologetics.

The philosophy uses the following logic (excerpts from Pensées, part III, note 233):

  1. “God is, or He is not”
  2. A Game is being played… where heads or tails will turn up.
  3. According to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions. There is an infinite chaos which separated us.
  4. You must wager. It is not optional.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Pascal asks the reader to analyze the position of mankind, this crisis of existence and lack of complete understanding. While Mankind can discern a great deal through reason, it is also hopelessly removed from knowing everything through it. He describes Mankind as a finite being trapped within an incomprehensible infinity. Thrust into being from non-being for a brief life only to go out again, with no explanation whatsoever of “Why?” or “What?” or “How?”. The finite nature of our being constrains reason with respect to every form of knowledge. Now, assuming that reason alone cannot determine whether or not God exists, the ontological question is reduced to a coin toss. However, making a choice to live as though God exists or does not exist is unavoidable even if the ontological question is inconclusive. In Pascal’s assessment, participation in this Wager is not optional because Mankind is already thrust into existence. So even if God’s existence cannot be independently confirmed or denied, nevertheless the Wager is necessary and the possible scenarios must be considered and decided upon pragmatically.

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 or not. That being the case, we 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.

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 have either gained 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.

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