Pascal's Pensées: Week 36, The Wager


Yes, but you must wager. There is no choice, you are already committed. Which will you choose then? Let us see: since a choice must be made, let us see which offers you the least interest. 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 avoid: error and wretchedness. Since you must necessarily choose, your reason is no more affronted by choosing one rather than the other. That is one point cleared up. But your happiness? Let us weigh up the gain and the loss involved in calling heads that God exists. Let us assess the two cases: if you win you win everything, if you lose you lose everything. Do not hesitate then; wager that he does exist...


This is a selection from Pascal's most famous pensée, commonly called "the Wager." 

I expect many of you have heard of the Wager before. Pascal describes life as a bet: Does God exist or not exist? He then moves to the two payoffs of the bet: losing everything or winning everything. Having set out the game, Pascal thinks the choice is obvious: Wager that God exists.

The Wager is one of those arguments for the existence of God that, in my estimation, seems persuasive to those who are already convinced of God's existence. Less so to the unconvinced. That said, Pascal's Wager has impacted the faith journey of many people, and has played a role in religious conversions. 

I think one of the ways the argument hasn't aged well is in its focus upon two eternal outcomes. The way the Wager is often presented is by describing the payoffs of God's existence as either heaven or hell, depending upon your bet. In the secular West, however, describing our ultimate fates as between heaven or hell increasingly strikes many listeners as overwrought, too fundamentalist and mythological. Given that, I think most modern people are simply indifferent to Pascal's wager, unwilling to even consider the imaginative space the Wager inhabits, for to entertain the Wager already gives too much away. By and large, modern people lack the existential seriousness and urgency required to make one work through Pascal's decision tree.

Consequently, I think that simplistic and crude presentations of the Wager will generally fail to persuade modern people. Less because of skepticism than indifference. But the heart of the Wager, in my estimation, retains some potency. The key is a shift of emphasis. Traditionally, the Wager focuses upon winning or losing, the outcome in the afterlife. As I said, that focus might not play very well with modern people. But the other place to put the emphasis isn't upon the outcome but upon the betting.

Life is a bet, like it or not. As Pascal says, you have to put your money down, there's no way to avoid it, you are already committed to the game. Your entire stack of chips is pushed in for an "all-in" bet. You have to live against some eschatological backdrop. And most people do live with a backdrop, at least vaguely, working under some misty assumption that life has some afterlife, that what we do in life, in the language of the movie Gladiator, "echos in eternity." Again, what this echo looks like is metaphysically vague for most people, and it can be materialistically unpacked as leaving an enduring impact or legacy upon the lives of others. Regardless, we're pushing our life past our death, and it is this afterlife that imbues life with meaning and significance. Here's how William James, not a religious person, describes our existential situation:

If this life is not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight.

For most of us, life certainly does feel like a real fight where something is eternally gained for the universe. But that's a bet. The other bet is that your life is a private and meaningless game of theatricals from which you can withdraw at will. This is the Wager. And it's here, with the conviction that life is a high stakes game full of eschatological drama and pathos, where I think Pascal's Wager still holds some power. 

So for my part, I'm with Pascal. I bet on the fight.

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