Blaise Pascal’s Wager Argument and Other Stuff. Let’s give it a try!

Posted: January 4, 2014 in History/Philosophy
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Blaise Pascal has written extensively on religion. His Pensees and Lettres Provenciales against the Jesuits are interesting sources of his religiosity. I’ll explain some of the arguments that Pascal gives, including Pascal’s wager argument. This latter argument is, in my opinion, the only one of the classic arguments that Dawkins hasn’t really been able to destroy fully in his book The God Delusion. I’ll come back to that later.

The first argument says that all humans have always been looking for happiness. They have a certain knowledge of what absolute happiness is, some kind of memory. Yet, we notice on a practical level that it seems impossible to reach it. In this quest for happiness, the things around us (worldly things like power, scientific knowledge and sensual pleasure) aren’t sufficient, they’re too limited. In order to bridge the gap between the searching individual and happiness we need help from something beyond, namely, God. (N148)

Everything that isn’t directed at Christian love is merely a symbol. Love is the only topic of Scripture.” (N270)

Pascal doesn’t even mention the wager-argument in his list of proofs. He sums up: ethics, doctrine, wonders, prophecies and symbols (N402).
Ethics. God gives us a firm ground for the Good. It doesn’t mean that Pascal will take the Bible and other texts as literal and direct sources for his moral beliefs. It’s more like a recognition of the existence of love and the Good and its incompatibility with materialistic science. So there has to be something beyond matter and the scientific method.
Doctrine. By doctrine he refers to a large body of texts produced by a variety of intellectuals throughout many centuries (although Saint Augustine seems to have a special place). Historically speaking this collection of texts is changeable and considering the work Pascal puts in his attack on the Jesuits, he doesn’t take the idea of a “doctrine” as something that is 100% fixed for eternity and not open for discussion.
Wonders and prophecies are both a combination of information in the Bible and history. For example, Pascal discusses the announcement of the messiah and the role of the Jews in the Bible. The coming of Christ, his crucifixion and the lack of a Jewish country are proofs that the prophecies came true. About the wonders, Pascal says that they aren’t that clear because God only wants to show himself to those that are looking for him.
Symbols. Symbols are signs from God, but they only point towards something else. Unfortunately, some have taken these symbols for ends in themselves.

Now we finally arrived at the wager-argument. The argument is in his pensees merely an a propos, a by the way. At that time, Pascal was working on probability and managed to bring science and coincidence/luck/… together.

The wager argument goes like this:
There are two possibilities: either God exists or he doesn’t exist.
The relative probability of both is impossible to count, but let’s assume it’s 1/10 000 (it’s exact numbers are irrelevant).
God exists = infinite issue vs God doesn’t exist = finite issue.
(1/10 000 * infinite) > (9 999/10 000 * finite number).

The argument is not so much that you have nothing to lose. Because this finite number is the amount of time, energy and resources that you put in your religion while alive. The point is that no matter how much trouble you take in your belief and no matter how small the chances are, infinity will always be the better gamble.

Dawkins asks what the value is of such an argument in religion. Aren’t you supposed to belief in God? Instead of counting what is best for you?
There are plenty of places where Dawkins is attacking the idea of belief, emotions and intuition. It’s a bit odd to see how he is apparently asking here whether it’s ok to be religous on merely a mathematical argument.
Secondly, as previously mentioned Pascal highly values belief and emotions as well. Dawkins can attack the texts about love and the Holy Spirit in his typical psychological way, but the wager argument can’t be attacked for it’s lack of such – according to Dawkins – easy targets.

Dawkins goes on and points at other virtues besides belief (virtue ethics is btw something that he will dismiss later on in the book when he is defending consequentialism as the only proper ethical theory). Now, Pascal writes about love (N270) and the Holy Spirit as the essential part in the interpretation of the Bible (N367). Those are key in our moral beliefs. For Pascal, they probably can be viewed as synonyms. Yet, neither of them can be found in science. Now, the act of believing entails this reaching-out beyond science. To belief is to make this movement towards the infinite that includes the Good. I wonder what Dawkins’ metaphysics of virtues is…

The last point seems a bit more problematic. What about all the other Gods? Well, Pascal doesn’t write about most of the other Gods, he limits himself to Islam and Judaism. Of course, he tries to defend Christianity (and more specific, Catholicism) against the other religions. But even if we take all the Gods that have ever been prayed to in history, the argument of Pascal would still be in favor of belief in at least some religion. The argument is still the same, if you don’t belief, you have zero chance of eternity; if you do belief you can now be wrong in two ways, namely, there is no god or you’ve believed in a wrong God. Nevertheless, your chances are higher than zero.

This argument has never been about Catholicism (although does Pascal attack the protesters, Islam and Judaism at different instances). It’s only a proof of an infinite being, God, that allows humans to have an infinite after-life.


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