Philosophy Word of the Day – Pascal’s Wager

Portrait of Blaise Pascal
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“Pascal’s Wager” is the name given to an argument due to Blaise Pascal for believing, or for at least taking steps to believe, in God. The name is somewhat misleading, for in a single paragraph of his Pensées, Pascal apparently presents at least three such arguments, each of which might be called a ‘wager’ — it is only the final of these that is traditionally referred to as “Pascal’s Wager”. We find in it the extraordinary confluence of several important strands of thought: the justification of theism; probability theory and decision theory, used here for almost the first time in history; pragmatism; voluntarism (the thesis that belief is a matter of the will); and the use of the concept of infinity.

(Via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

The argument “is a suggestion . . .  that even though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should wager as though God exists, because so living has everything to gain, and nothing to lose.”

The wager is described in Pensées this way:

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

…”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.

Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. “No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all.”

Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? 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.

“That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much.” Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But 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. (Pensées #233).

(Via Wikipedia)

Any thoughts on this argument?  Do you think it has merit?

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5 thoughts on “Philosophy Word of the Day – Pascal’s Wager

  1. Pascal says over and over that you must choose. It may have been true then, but in our post-modern culture many feel that since there is no absolute truth there is nothing to decide.

  2. Pingback: Sensus Divinitatis News - Philosophy Word of the Day – Pascal’s Wager

  3. Even Rick Warren used this argument once in an interview. I think ultimately, this philosophy can not be refuted. Peoples invoking this argument are usually dead-set on their mindsets, faiths and beliefs. It does not become a reason for your beliefs, and certainly no argument at all. Because you believe, you gladly bet on the one you “think” will be the better bet. There is a presupposition here, which begs the question for your beliefs. One simple view is that the wager is relative to the gamblers… The theists, have the kind of mindset Pascal had. For atheists, I think it would be something like : Secular living and back to dust VS live a fettered life and back to dust. They do not want to include the idea of God at all.

  4. Pascal’s argument is founded upon false premise:” If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible”.

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