–Arts and letters for the modern age–

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–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Course Notes: Pascal, “The Wager” (1657-8)

by | Feb 3, 2024

Course Notes are short pieces on classic papers and essays that I taught regularly, during my thirty-year career as a philosophy professor.


Over the 20+ years that I taught philosophy at Missouri State University, I offered four or five different versions of Introduction to Philosophy. In the second-to-last version, I did a sort of “great works” Intro course, with material ranging across the different subject areas of philosophy presented in chronological order. I wanted something concerning religious belief from either the medieval or early modern period, and after trying different things, settled on Pascal’s Wager from the Pensees. (It replaced St. Anselm’s Monologion, which students had difficulty digesting.) “The Wager” is short, written in an accessible style, and fascinating, not to mention influential.

One of the interesting things about the Wager is that its argument takes a very different form from its medieval predecessors. Where the Scholastics tried to demonstrate that God exists by way of proofs, Pascal maintained that one should believe in God, because doing so is one’s best bet. The Wager is remarkable, then, in that it suggests that belief in God, even in the absence of evidence or reasons for thinking he exists, is the rational choice.

Pascal observes that either God exists or he doesn’t and that one can either believe in him or not, and then imagines the consequences of belief or non-belief, given God’s existence or non-existence. The result is a decision scenario, sketched in the table below:

God Exists

God Does Not Exist

Believe in God

Enjoy eternal paradise.

Nothing lost.

Don’t believe in God

Suffer eternal damnation.

Nothing lost.

Pascal maintains that the rational choice is clearly belief, given that it yields the best range of outcomes – eternal paradise or nothing lost – while unbelief yields the worst range of outcomes – eternal damnation or nothing lost. And on first glance, it certainly looks as if he is right.

Over the course of my teaching career, I tried to strike a balance. On the one hand, I prefered not to hide from students what I think about important subjects. When you do, it simply invites them to speculate as to what your views are, which means that they will often get it wrong. Additionally, college students are adults to whom a professor should be able to speak without the sort of self-censorship and mild dissembling that are appropriate when talking to young children. On the other hand, I also didn’t want to tell students what they should think about philosophical questions, for which there inevitably are multiple reasonable points of view.  So, rather than characterize the Wager as fallacious – which I think it is – I chose instead to describe three things about it that should give a person pause and encourage further consideration.

First, I am quite skeptical of the claim that if one believes in God when in fact there is none, nothing is lost. Depending on the commitments that come with such a belief – strict dietary laws, severe constraints on sexual behavior, limitations on what one can do on the Sabbath, etc. – quite a lot may be lost. If I was to commit to Orthodox Jewish belief, for example, I would never be able to eat some of my favorite foods for the entirety of my life, something I would not just consider a loss, but something of a tragedy.

Second, the Wager depends on a very specific religious commitment to Christianity or other religions that involve eternal reward and punishment for belief/non-belief, which is by no means all of them. Judaism, for example, has no conception of eternal punishment for non-belief. And if one imagines a very different kind of God – say a philosopher-God who prefers honest skeptics to betting believers – the relevant risks and rewards may be actually inverted. The point is that there is nothing in the Wager itself that legitimates the belief in any particular God or religious tradition, yet, one must assume a very particular one for the good and bad bets to work out the way Pascal intends them to.

Finally, the Wager fallaciously infers probabilities from the logical principle of bivalence. It is true, logically speaking, that God either exists or doesn’t, but it doesn’t follow from this that God’s existence is a 50/50 matter. Yet, the Wager only works if the chances of God’s existence or non-existence is an even split. If the chances of God existing are one in ten million, then the idea that it is reasonable to give up so many of life’s greatest joys on such a slim likelihood is hard to sustain. And beyond this, I’m highly dubious that something like God’s existence can even be assigned a probability at all. Probabilities have to be based on something, and in the case of the existence of an invisible superbeing, it’s not clear what that something is.

The Wager is interesting and challenging for any reader, but for my students at Missouri State, who overwhelmingly came from evangelical and Pentecostal backgrounds, it was of special interest.