“Pascal’s Wager” was not to promote a “game of chance” – It was to promote “playing by the rules”

sketch of pascal © 2007 Thomas Christensen

sketch of pascal © 2007 Thomas Christensen

Last February I read a blog post on “Pascal’s Wager” that I thought missed the main point and purpose of his wager. I then decided to do a google search and found that mis-understanding, and then mis-representing Pascal’s Wager seemed to be a favorite pastime of skeptics and atheists. I further studied the wager myself, and decided to post a comment on the blog (which is the body of this post) as an attempt to “rehabilitate” Pascal and his Wager to some extent. I find it extremely ironic that It seems necessary to defend a genius like Pascal, and my theory is that his detractors I found have possibly been mainly reading “reviews” by others like themselves, rather than reading Pascal himself.

I titled this post “Pascal’s Wager” was not to promote a “game of chance” – It was to promote “playing by the rules” because I believe that the purpose of the wager was not merely to induce people to play a rationalistic game of chance with their eternal destiny at stake, but mainly to induce them to seek to find God himself according to the method or rules that God has set up and which govern the way “the game” of Christianity must be played.

My blog comment:

Hello – I’m glad that people are still thinking about Pascal’s wager! You wrote that “Pascal’s Wager is an attempt to rationalize whether or not one should believe in God” which I agree in a sense is true, but I believe it is much more than that. I think the key to understanding Pascal and the wager is to ask if he was merely presenting a “rational argument.” The reason this is a key question is because of two things I believe were true of Pascal and the wager:

  • To “wager” did not mean to seek God through reason
  • Pascal did not believe that anyone could find God through reason

It is important to note that the context of the whole “wager” is Christianity. For Pascal the only God was the God of the Bible. Therefore his wager was only concerned with a person coming to believe in Christianity or not. Other religions are therefore irrelevant to his “odds.” Since the faith in question was Christianity, Pascal believed that it could only be judged as false if what it claimed was false. He thought that Christianity did not claim that God could be found merely through human reason. In Pensee 194 he addresses this in great detail, saying

“…He has hidden Himself from their knowledge, that this is in fact the name which He gives Himself in the Scriptures, Deus absconditus”.

Pascal clearly believed that men “in darkness and estranged from God” could not find Him through their reason alone.

Unless Pascal was unbelievably inconsistent, which is doubtful, it would logically not follow that the purpose of his “wager” was to induce men to seek him by the means of reason. The key to the “wager” then is to understand how one would actually “wager.” In the wager he says:

“Endeavour, then, to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions…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.”

I wish that Pascal had said what I think he meant here in the way that he said it in Pensee 194, where he said more clearly:

“…that God has set up in the Church visible signs to make Himself known to those who would seek him sincerely, and that He has nevertheless so disguised them that He will only be perceived by those who seek Him with all their heart”.

Pascal’s wager can only be understood in light of his entire view of the means by which men come to believe in God. These views of his are plainly seen in his famous statements from the “night of fire” where he learned that God was “not the God of the philosophers” and that “he is only found by the ways taught in the gospels”; and in his famous Pensee 277:

“The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know…the heart naturally loves the Universal Being, and also itself naturally according as it gives itself to them; and it hardens itself against one or the other at its will.”

For Pascal, to “wager” was distinctly a verb that implied a sincere, serious, and sustained search for the God of the Bible in the ways taught by the gospel. One cannot “wager” if the term remains merely a noun. Pensee 194 is the key to the “wager” and says many similar things. He says,

“The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us, and which touches us so profoundly, that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing what it is. All our actions and thoughts must take such different courses, according as there are or are not eternal joys to hope for…”.

This is the theoretical context from which Pascal presents the “wager.” And if one wants to “wager” in the full Pascalian sense, that would entail reading scripture, praying, seeking to be repentant; going to Church, etc.

In Pensee 194 Pascal was concerned that if men attack Christianity,

“let them at least learn what is the religion they attack.”

I think the same could be said regarding attacking Pascal. I think that if someone really wants to understand Pascal they need to read more than Pensee 233. I did a google search on the wager and probably 75% of what I found by obviously brilliant and mathematical minds, was that they understand Pascal and the wager in the context of rationalism. It seems that they don’t know that Pascal can only be understood in the context of fideism.

It’s ironic that Pascal, who has been called “the first modern Christian,” and a “proto-existentialist,” has not been appreciated for what he essentially was, a man that wanted men to reason holistically as men with bodies, hearts, wills, intellects; and not merely as machines of “pure reason.” It took philosophy 200 years to catch up to him, but by that time he was mostly forgotten to them regarding his best instincts, namely that man was a creature with a heart that had its own “reasons.”

I apologize for this lengthy comment, and especially if I have mis-understood you in any way! If you would like to come visit my blog and make some long comments there!

Regards,

Bryan @ manifestpropensity

For those interested in reading for themselves the portions of Pascal’s “Pensees” that deal with “the wager.

To the reader:

I try to keep these posts as short as possible, while knowing that their content has probably provoked some thoughts, questions, implications, or critiques. Therefore, any of these from the reader are greatly appreciated in order to “fill out” these posts. Many thanks in advance!

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2013. Excerpts, links, and reblogging may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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8 thoughts on ““Pascal’s Wager” was not to promote a “game of chance” – It was to promote “playing by the rules”

  1. paarsurrey says:

    Reblogged this on paarsurrey and commented:
    Paarsurrey says:
    The conjugal partner of reason to find the one true God is Word of Revelation; not the science or the scientific method. Science can only deal in the things material and physical; not even the spiritual things.The one true God created everything physical, material and spiritual; and he is out of this. He is everywhere with His attributes though.

    • Bryan says:

      Hi paarsurrey, and thanks for the comment and for reblogging my post. I think I understand what you are saying in your comment and I agree. I would only add that according to the bible, the material/physical creation that can be studied by science also does bear a spiritual witness to human beings, although this “general revelation” becomes distorted because of the “noetic effects of sin” on the human intellect, heart and will. Thus we have the “Word of Revelation” as you say, which is harder to distort, although we succeed at that also. But God succeeds through using both also, if we are willing to make the reasonable “wager” and seek God according to how he says we need to, in order to find him.

    • I’m happy that you are sharing your opinions but why is your opinion any better than any of the millions of other opinions? There are so many lies out there. I’m sure you understand my default position of disbelief.

      • Bryan says:

        Hi and thanks for your follow up comment. It came just as I was posting my reply to your first one! I certainly appreciate your questioning the importance of my “opinions”, your observation of “so many lies out there” and your “default position of disbelief.”

        I am writing what I write because although I certainly express some personal opinions, my main purpose is to express truths that i don’t believe are merely my opinions, or anyone’s opinions, but God’s truth. I know this opens a can of worms but if there is no absolute truth then all there is is opinion.

        Obviously for me to be able to demonstrate that there is such a thing as absolute truth, and that it is from the one true God, is not something I can do in a few sentences. One thing I can say that i said in my other reply, is that though there are millions of opinions, there are not very many different worldviews. There are probably only a half dozen worldviews, just as there are about the same number of “world religions.” There are really not that many “choices.”

        I am always learning about these things, although I believe in the Christian worldview. I also, before I became Christian, spent about a four year fairly intensive and obsessed period of my life in which I considered and sought to practice Hinduism, Shamanism, New Age Beliefs, with Christianity at the bottom of my list (although I was “brought up” in nominal Christianity.

        So in a sense I did “wager” on at least a few major worldviews/religions. I always summarize my searching with the recognition that thankfully God “wagered” on me.

        I appreciate your honesty and hope you will consider that most of us mainly follow “opinions” of a select few: Moses, Plato, Aristotle, Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, Descartes, Hegel, Kant, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and maybe a few others. (It is much simpler than thinking we need to choose from among millions.)

        Bryan

  2. Are you saying that if I earnestly search for god then I will find him?

    There are 7 billion people on Earth that are earnestly searching and they have come up with thousands of different gods. How can Pascal’s method be correct?

  3. Bryan says:

    Hi and thanks for reading my blog and the comment! I actually am saying that if you earnestly seek God that you will find him, but I would like to qualify that statement somewhat. I tried to be clear in this post about Pascal’s wager and perhaps I was not clear enough so I will try to clarify a few things.

    Pascal’s wager was only about seeking to find the God of Christianity, and was not about seeking “god” as he may be defined in other religions. The background of Pascal’s wager was that he saw that many people of his time did not believe in the God of Christianity, but Pascal thought they had no real basis for their dis-belief, since they had not sought to find him according to how Christianity says he may be found. To logically disbelieve Christianity one needs to show that its method for finding God does not work, and if that method is not tried it cannot be shown that it does not work. It is a sort of scientific method, like having a hypothesis, and then doing experiments based on the hypothesis. The doing of the experiment will either prove or dis-prove the hypothesis; not doing experiments does not prove or dis-prove it.

    It is only when we do not understand that Pascal’s wager is a Christian hypothesis that it seems to lose it’s power. This mistake is huge, because considered in light of what seems a multitude of religious options today, Pascal’s wager seems impossible, since It is probably not logistically possible for a person to follow every religion’s prescriptions in order to prove or disprove them.

    Of course the fact of many religions does make one wonder how to apply the wager in this pluralistic religious context. It may help to consider that the “multitude” of specific religions that exist can probably be dramatically reduced to a handful of different main types since the reason there are multitudes of religions is because there are many variants of a few major types. Also, even the major types can be rationally tested inasmuch as whether their tenets are remotely feasible. So if there was a “major” religious type characterized by the tenet that Santa Claus was God, I would not believe that I need to follow whatever Santa Claus supposedly taught in order to prove him false or true.

    The bottom line is that Pascal was a brilliant scientist, and he thought there were enough rational evidences that Christianity was a viable hypothesis. Since Christianity was a viable hypothesis, it merits testing as does any viable hypothesis.

    On final qualification is that neither Christianity (nor I) believe that all 7 billion people are “earnestly seeking God.” Christianity teaches that we generally are “not seeking the true God” and we generally find what we are seeking: lesser “gods.” But the true God who commands that we have no other gods before him seeks those that are willing to forsake their idols. There is a deep impulse for the true God, but because of our sinfulness we are all susceptible to settling for the lesser gods that are more manageable and less threatening to our self-sufficiency. To some extent, religious people are all wrestling with the true God and their deep desires, and the false gods and their sinful tendencies to settle for less.

    I do not know for sure, but I think that Christianity may be unique among the seeming options, with it’s critique of the “religious nature” of man, and the “jealous nature” of the true God.

    I hope this answer clarifies things more, and I am glad to try to answer your question(s).

    Bryan

  4. You are correct, you did say that Pascal’s Wager should only be used in the context of Christianity. I read your post and comment a couple more times and it seems more clear now that you started a discussion on finding the true god after you decide the Christian one is real. My comments were on a different topic and I apologize.

  5. Bryan says:

    Thanks and no apology is necessary because my writing is probably not nearly as clear as I think it is. I actually don’t propose that Pascal’s wager is used “after we decide the Christian one (God) is real” – what Pascal proposed was that God’s existence is at least “an important possibility” and therefore warrants serious seeking according to Christianity’s own tenets regarding finding him. So I would say Pascal’s wager is used “after we decide the Christian one (God) is an important possibility.
    Bryan

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