Pascal's Wager: Not Such a Bad Argument

November 21, 2019

Pascal's Wager: Not Such a Bad Argument

Andrew Schmidt

On the ABC’s television show Gruen (Season 11 Episode 3), an advertising agency was asked to make an ad convincing us to believe in God. The angle they took was that God was ‘insurance’ for your afterlife.  A little crass perhaps, but the panel loved it! 

Whether or not the agency knew it, that ad echoed a famous piece of Christian apologetics known as Pascal's wager, which treats the choice to become a Christian like a bet. For most people, the existence of God is a matter of uncertainty, in the face of which we have to make our choice whether to live as a Christian or not. Pascal analysed the expected payoffs of these two different choices.[1] His argument can be summarised in the following way:

 

 

Outcome

Expected Payoff

 

 

God exists

God does not exist

 

 

Choice

Be a Christian

Eternal happiness

Lost earthly life

Infinitely positive

Do not be a Christian

Eternal misery

Gained earthly life

Infinitely negative

 

As long as the probability that God exists is greater than zero, the infinite magnitude of the payoffs when God exists will completely outweigh the payoffs when God does not exist. Thus, Pascal says, the only reasonable choice is to be a Christian.

Why then are not more people convinced? Perhaps because the wager calculations do not help the person who simply cannot make themselves believe. Moreover, as William James points out, it is not right to turn truth into mere pragmatics. We cannot simply believe what is convenient.[2] We ought to believe something only on good grounds. As a result, then, if we cannot believe that God exists then we should not do so, Pascal’s wager notwithstanding.

I would like to draw out two points made by Pascal which begin to answer this objection.

Firstly, as he points out repeatedly, the nature of the Christian gospel is that you must wager. ‘You must necessarily choose.’ ‘You must necessarily play.’[3] He is underlining that the question of God’s existence is not one for an ivory tower. It demands a prompt, action-oriented judgment. To take an illustration that would not have been familiar to Pascal, Jesus’ call to repent is like a cricket ball delivered near the line of off-stump. The batsman needs to decide quickly whether to play at the ball (and risk an edge being caught in the slips) or to leave it (and risk being bowled). In order to make this decision, he must resolve the question: will this ball hit the stumps? But he has only a split second to do so, and if he leaves a ball that hits the stumps, he is out! In these circumstances it would be ridiculous for the batsman to adopt the policy that he won’t play at the ball unless he is 100% certain it is headed for the stumps. In the same way, given what is at stake, it would be foolish for the atheist to demand absolute certainty of God’s existence before dipping a toe in the waters of Christianity.

Second, Pascal pushes back against the suggestion that belief is always rational: ‘at least get it into your head,’ he writes, ‘that if you are unable to believe [in God], it is because of your passions’.[4] His solution is not to try ‘convincing yourself by multiplying proofs of God’s existence’, but instead ‘diminishing your passions’. His method? Hang out with Christians and do what they do. This will ‘make you believe quite naturally, and will make you more docile’.[5]

The brutal reality is that we believe all sorts of things for habitual, social or even biological reasons that have nothing to do with truth. Pascal is asking the unbeliever to harness the power of these animal forces to help them believe in Jesus![6] Clearly he was never suggesting that one could simply ‘switch’ belief from atheism to Christianity on looking at the payoff table. What he could reasonably hope, though, was that people might be roused out of apathy, on realising what high stakes we are playing with, and look again at the claims of Jesus.

In general, Christians do not approve of gambling. But since the gospel forces us all to bet either on Jesus or against him, you might like to use Pascal’s wager to open a conversation about God with your friends.

 

 

[1] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A.J. Krailshamer (Penguin, 1995), pp121-25 [para. 418]. I am offering a somewhat more modern and evangelical spin on Pascal’s original. I trust it is faithful to his basic concept.

[2] William James, ‘The Will to Believe’, Address to the Philosophical Clubs of Yale and Brown Universities (1896), accessed at https://www.mnsu.edu/philosophy/THEWILLTOBELIEVEbyJames.pdf, 4.6.19.

[3] Pascal, Op.cit., p123.

[4] Ibid., p124.

[5] Ibid., p125.

[6] This is rather like the suggestion of atheist Sam Harris, who recommends that we embrace our lack of free will: once we understand we are puppets of our nature, we might be able to take hold of one of the strings.



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