Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Looking back on Pascal's wager

 I've been listening to an overview of philosophy during my commutes to and from work. Yesterday, the professor lectured on Blaise Pascal, who was a 17th century mathematician and philosopher. In the world of philosophy he is best known for his "wager," which is in the Pensees writings that were published after his death. 

I have to admit, when I first read Pascal's wager, I wasn't that impressed. Did it make sense to me? Yeah it did, but it didn't convince me or even move me to be a Christian theist. The first time I heard it was in church by a preacher when I was a teen during the altar call session of the night. The music was playing lightly while the preacher gave his version of the wager. He seemed like a host of a game called "You bet your life!" and I just wasn't impressed. The preacher gave the presentation nicely. I understood the argument that if God does exist I should live as if He exists so as not to face cosmic justice in the afterlife; if He doesn't exist, what did I lose? I lived a good moral life instead of a life of indulgence, so what did I lose? What I lost was a life of indulgence! I could have done whatever I wanted without regret. I could have been selfish! Now, I must confess, when I was a practical atheist I lived a straight-edge lifestyle (I abstained from drugs, alcohol, and sex outside of a monogamous, loving relationship) so I most likely lived better than some Christians did around me (according to the stats I read at that time, Christian teens were just as sexually active as and partied like the "heathen"). I mentioned that because I didn't want to live a life of indulgence. I knew then and know now that such a life is a wasted life. However, Pascal's wager falls because some want to live that way (I would argue that many want to, but let's just be conservative for argument's sake). Some want to "live for the moment." Like some person once said, "party today because tomorrow we die!" Some people like that lifestyle and find Pascal's wager lacking. I understand their point. 

What caused me to think differently about Pascal's wager was in the lecture I heard yesterday. Pensees was published after the death of Pascal, so his work was incomplete. The professor said Pensees was Pascal's reflections or thoughts on life and not meant to be taken as arguments for the existence of God. I assume Pensees was more of an existential work then an apologetic work then, which actually changed my view of Pascal's wager. I was under the impression that his work was meant to be an argument to move the atheist to theism, which is the reason I found the wager lacking and didn't have respect for it. 

The argument is best used for those in the middle I think. Like commenter Bossmanham said on this post: "I think, however, that since he was dealing with a population that primarily was Christian, he was basically trying to get them to stop being so apathetic. In that sense, there may be some worth to it. For instance, I've seen some philosophers who are kind of agnostic, but say that if there is a true religion, Christianity would be it. I think Anthony Flew was in that camp. Perhaps there's some value in it for them?" 

I think the wager is best used for those who find themselves to be agnostic and sympathetic toward Christian theism. That is where Pascal's wager has weight. The wager probably is best for those to, who doubt God's existence emotionally instead of intellectually. If Bob has no problem with the basic arguments for Christian theism (the cosmological argument to the resurrection of Jesus), but instead doubts emotionally, i.e. he continues to "what if..." himself, then Pascal's wager could alleviate the emotional doubt. 

Knowing now that Pascal was not trying to convince atheists to be theists, I now respect the wager. I still think it is a bad argument for theism and that no one should use it in an attempt to convince someone to theism. Instead, I think the wager would be best used in conversation with those who are agnostic, but sympathetic toward theism and for those who are emotional doubters.

More information on Blaise Pascal click here.


  1. My problem with Pascal's wager has always been that while it may give a case for considering theism, it doesn't give a case for Christian theism. I've heard Muslims, Jews and other theists use it. I might compare it to the watchmaker analogy - it's wonderful for arguing theism, but it doesn't tell you what theism. I can tell a watchmaker made a watch, but I will need something else (special revelation, ie. scripture) to tell me who that watchmaker is.

  2. You're defintely correct Tony. Pascal's wager is not a case for Christian theism because like you said, other theists can use it without editing the wager, thus we have yet another flaw with it. To be fair though, I think Pensees is a cumulative case for Christian theism (not a defense, but reflective), so the wager would have been against the backdrop of Christianity and the reader and/or audience would understand that Pascal was betting for Christainity.

    When used in isolation though, yeah, the wager could be for any branch of theism. The cosmological argument too when used in isolation can be used by any theist and deist I might add. I prefer a cumulative case, e.g., using the moral argument along with the resurrection of Jesus. My own personal work is on making the moral argument stronger so as it could only be used to argue for Jehovah God (so Christians and Jews alike could use it).


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