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Pascal's Wager

Blaise Pascal
Blaise Pascal

A friend asked about Pascal's position on the question of God's existence, and the capabilities of human reason to determine that question, in light of the Wager. This was my response.

Thinking about your questions, I cannot help but recall John Henry Newman’s quip about the prayer of the modern sceptic - ‘Oh God, if there be a God, save my soul, if I have a soul’! Is this where Pascal’s wager leaves us – knowing nothing, blindly throwing our lot in with ‘God’, as a matter of sheer pragmatism? Is Pascal’s wager a desperate last ditch attempt to stave of impending agnosticism? Is Pascal trying to justify the unjustifiable – belief in ‘God’, whatever He or She or It may be?

I don’t think so.

Pascal belongs comfortably within the tradition of western philosophy. For instance, he accepts the classic distinctions between faith and reason, between body and soul, and between the material and the immaterial. Often he sounds very much like his nemesis, Descartes.

Theologically, he was an Augustinian. By the standards of Roman Catholic thinkers, he was rather pessimistic, but he was not a fideist. He accepted the Catholic teaching on concupiscence, in which original sin has not taken away a person’s natural abilities to reason, but has damaged their ability to master their passions by their reason. (This puts him at odds, both theologically and temperamentally, with magisterial Protestantism).

Pascal is no Kant. Kant was stodgy, meticulous and boring. Pascal argues like a passionate lover, trying to win his interlocutor by wooing them. Unlike Plato and Marx, he had a profound understanding of human nature, and he is fascinated by human motivation. Pascal lived in the real world, among ordinary folk. The Pensees are written for normal people, not scholars.

From this, we should draw two conclusions. First, Pascal does not represent a radical departure from pre-modern and early-modern western thought. Secondly, Pascal writes as a sage rather than an academic. His wisdom deals with the whole of life, and his methods of persuasion likewise engage the whole person. These points need to be kept in mind when interpreting the Wager.

Enough of the prolegomena. Now to your questions.

Faith and reason

Two extremes: to exclude reason, to admit reason only. (253)

Reason would never submit, if it did not judge that there are some occasions on which it ought to submit. It is then right for it to submit, when it judges that it ought to submit.’ (270)

Faith indeed tells what the senses do not tell, but not the contrary of what they see. It is above them and not contrary to them. (265)

Reason, properly exercised, knows its limits.

Reason and the question of God

The metaphysical proofs of God are so remote from the reasoning of men, and so complicated, that they would make little impression; and if they should be of service to some, it would be only during the moment that they see such demonstration; but an hour afterwards they fear they have been mistaken.’ (543)

Indeed, the medieval philosophers couldn’t agree amongst themselves about the metaphysical proofs. Aquinas rejected Anselm’s ontological argument and Averroes’ Kalam argument. Scotus rejected Aquinas’ doctrine of analogy, which is a necessary presupposition for Aquinas’ cosmological arguments.

Pascal doesn’t say that the metaphysical proofs are wrong. However, he doesn’t think they are sufficient to provide certainty to someone who is not already convinced of God’s existence. They were not intended to.

Even Thomas Aquinas, who is more optimistic than Pascal about the capacity of human reason, was well aware of its limits:

‘the truth about God, such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors.’

The Wager

Let’s now turn to the Wager. Pascal starts by discussing what we can know about God by unaided reason. (‘Let us now speak according to natural lights.’)

“We know neither the existence nor the nature of God, because He has neither extension nor limits”.

“If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprenhensible, since having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are therefore incapable of knowing what He is or if He is.”

These statements need some unpacking.

First, Pascal says that we cannot know the nature of God (God as He is in Himself) by reason alone. This is just basic Christianity. (For instance, that God is a Trinity is a matter of revelation, not reason).

Much more striking is Pascal’s statement that we are incapable of knowing if God exists – ‘if He is’. The whole Wager presupposes this point.

Let us then examine this point, and say, "God is, or He is not." But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.

Reason, Pascal thinks, cannot decide the question. This seems to put him at odds with many mainstream Christian thinkers, and his own contemporaries (e.g. Descartes, Leibniz).

However, subjectively, Pascal is surely correct to say that reason alone can’t definitively resolve the question of God. For most people, it doesn’t:

"Why! Do you not say yourself that the heavens and birds prove God?" No. "And does your religion not say so?" No. For although it is true in a sense for some souls to whom God gives this light, yet it is false with respect to the majority of men. (245)

That’s not to say that reason doesn’t provide clues along the journey, but for someone wanting certainty, unaided reason will not provide it.

The Wager’s genius is that it shows the question of God to be a moral question. Pascal and his interlocutor are agreed that reason alone can’t resolve the question of God. Very well, Pascal says, but it doesn’t follow that your ignorance is a reason for unbelief.

The Wager is not directed at the convinced atheist (who thinks reason shows that there is no God), but at the agnostic who is open to the idea of God.

Pascal thinks most unbelievers don’t have a good reason for their unbelief. Their disbelief is not due to reason, but desire. It is easier to live as though God doesn’t exist, because believing in God is costly. Such reasoning, however, is foolish.

A person must choose. ‘Whoever is not with me is against me’, Jesus said. If reason cannot decide the question, why default to disbelief? The Wager seeks to confound those who hide behind their ignorance to justify their disbelief in God. The agnostic acting reasonably should default to belief (or, perhaps more accurately, be striving to learn whether they should believe), because to do otherwise is to risk losing infinite goodness.

The only reasonably agnostic is the agnostic who is passionately seeking the truth. An agnostic who is content not knowing is a fool:

“There are only three sorts of people: those who have found God and serve him; those who are busy seeking him and have not found him; those who live without either seeking or finding him. The first are reasonable and happy, the last are foolish and unhappy; those in the middle are unhappy and reasonable. (257)

The identity of God

One powerful critique of the Wager is that, when Pascal talks about God throughout the Pensees, he is not talking about any God. He is talking about the Christian God, and therefore asking people to believe in Christianity (as opposed to the God of deism or another religion). The choice between belief and disbelief is therefore not a binary choice.

“They [critics of Christianity] imagine that it [Christianity] consists simply in the worship of a God considered as great, powerful, and eternal; which is strictly deism, almost as far removed from the Christian religion as atheism, which is its exact opposite.”

After all, the climax of the Pensees is a resounding affirmation of the particularity of the God who revealed Himself, first to Israel and finally in Jesus of Nazareth:

‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars …
“And this is eternal life, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent.”’

The critique works, if one treats the Wager as if it were supposed to provide a sufficient reason for believing in God. However, that is not how the Wager functions for Pascal. The Wager is but one step on the journey to God. It is an invitation to seek, for Pascal believes (as his great master taught), that those who seek the truth will find it.

Not through their own intellectual ability, however.

Pascal is shamelessly biblical in his judgment on the human condition, and for the need for grace in salvation. Rebellious humanity doesn’t have a claim on God. Only God can show us God.

Reason points beyond itself, showing that if we are to know God, we need God to show himself to us. The incarnation is the centre of Pascal’s ‘system’. God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, whom we encounter in Scripture and in the sacramental fellowship of the church. This is where Pascal wants the Wager to lead us – away from self reliance, to despairing at our ability to grasp God on our own, to trusting God who has made himself known in Jesus Christ. Nature and reason are made perfect by grace and faith!