Book Review: Reconsidering ‘Pascal’s Wager in Pensées’ by Blaise Pascal (Four Stars)

Book Review: Reconsidering ‘Pascal’s Wager in Pensées’ by Blaise Pascal (Part Two)

Four Stars

“The last act is tragic, however happy all the rest of the play is; at the last a little earth is thrown upon our heads, and that is the end forever.”

The first two sections of Pascal’s Pensées is filled with disconnected thoughts and aphorisms (reviewed here) generally pointing to man’s misery separate from God. Now Pascal turns to his infamous wager. Here his argument becomes dense and philosophic. The casual reader is tempted to think, “I can skim this. Everyone knows what Pascal’s Wager is.” No, you don’t. In simplifying Pascal’s argument, modern scholars miss his point, and mislead you as well. If you read only one section on Pensées, read Section Three. Here his avowed purpose was “to incite the search after God.”

In brief, Pascal reasons why you should make the wager, only secondarily how you should make it. He was surrounded by mature, intelligent people who spent their entire life diverting themselves from the most important issue of life. The following are key thoughts, in his own words:

“Men despise religion; they hate it; and fear it is true.”

“[God] will only be perceived by those who seek him with all their heart.”

“They believe they have made great efforts for their instruction, when they have spent a few hours in reading some book of scripture, and have questioned some priest on the truths of the faith. After that, they boast of having made vain search in books and among men. This negligence is insufferable.”

“They did not find within themselves the lights which convince them of it [and] neglect to seek them elsewhere.”

“It is a great evil thus to be in doubt. The doubter … is altogether completely unhappy and completely wrong.”

“All I know is that I must soon die, but what I know least is this very death which I cannot escape.”

“It is not natural that there should be men indifferent to the loss of their existence.”

“Let them at least be honest men, if they cannot be Christians. There are two kinds of people one can call reasonable; those who serve God with all their heart because they know Him, and those who seek Him with all their heart because they do not know Him.”

“Let us imagine a number of men in chains, and all condemned to death, where some are killed each day in the sight of the others, and those who remain see their own fate in that of their fellows, and wait their turn, looking at each other sorrowfully and without hope. It is an image of the condition of men.”

“We seek the truth without hesitation.”

“Between us and heaven or hell there is only life, which is the frailest thing in the world.”

“Our soul is cast into a body, where it finds number, time, dimension. Thereupon it reasons, and calls nature, necessity, and can believe nothing else.”

“It is incomprehensible that God should exist, and it is incomprehensible that He should not exist.”

“You can defend neither of the propositions. Do not reprove then those who have made a choice. The true course is not to wager at all.”

“Yes, but you must wager. It is not optional.”

“If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.”

“It is impossible to take one step with sense and judgment, unless we regulate our course by the truth of that point which ought to be our ultimate end.”

“Every play stakes a certainty to gain an uncertainty.”

“At least learn your inability to believe. Endeavor then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Follow by acting as if [you] believed. What have you to lose?”

“You will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognize that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.”

“If we must not act save on a certainty, we ought not to act on religion, for it is not certain. But … there is more certainty in religion than there is as to whether we see tomorrow.”

“According to the doctrine of chance, you ought to put yourself to the trouble of searching for the truth; for if you die without worshipping the True Cause, you are lost–‘But,’ you say, ‘if He had wished me to worship Him, He would have left me sign of His will.’ He had done so, but you neglect them.”

Did you notice how current some of that was? Moderns don’t even go so far as to read a little Bible and talk to a clergy, they read some one like Richard Dawkins and think they understand the whole issue. Tell me, do you believe what politicians claim their opponent believes or intends? Of course not. Then why do you accept the hatchet job of an unbeliever as definitive?

His argument is flawed, but deserves better treatment than it’s gotten. One problem is with his comparing infinities. He was supposed to be the greatest mathematician of his age, but equating mathematical infinities with supernatural ones appears unreliable.

Quibble: All that untranslated Latin was acceptable in 1660, when all educated people read Latin. It is not acceptable in a 1958 translation, when few read Latin, to not render the Latin into English. (Yes, the language and punctuation is archaic; blame that on the translators, too, not Pascal.)

So you see, Pascal’s wager is not believing or not believing, but on making a serious inquiry into the truth claims of Christianity. His argument was with his contemporaries (and ours) who amused themselves to death trying to avoid the most critical decision of their lives.

Because, as he says, “We [all] die alone.”