A deeper look at Blaise Pascal’s wager

Many have heard the popular simplified version of Pascal’s Wager, “If there is no God then I do not stand to lose anything but a small amount of fun for upholding a strict moral standard. However, if there is a God then I stand to gain everything if I adhere to His revelation while I stand to lose everything if I behave otherwise.”

While many are content to leave it at this, few understand that this is a minor point in Blaise Pascal‘s larger argument. His main point was that everyone is already making a wager, and that in light of the gravity of the wager, we should take great care in placing our bets.

And fewer still are familiar with Pascal’s brief but brilliant life enough to know that his wager was not made in a vacuum but was made to friends of his who were familiar with other arguments for God’s existence. Who were only prevented from belief in God because they rightly believed that after accepting God they would have to keep his commands. Who didn’t think that believing subsequently following God would make them happy.

It is quite sad that our present cultural emphasis on happiness (defined primarily as pleasure) has taken center stage. Pascal and others of his era would have been appalled as their understanding of happiness hearkened back to Socrates’s wise words that an unexamined life is not worth living.

So Pascal’s wager, in essence, is a challenge to find a more virtuous life than that of follower of Christ.

Read the full text of Pascal’s argument here. It is found in section 3, part 194.

Further resources regarding Pascal’s Wager:

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19 responses to “A deeper look at Blaise Pascal’s wager

  1. Did you mean "to find a more virtuous life THAN that of a follower of Christ" or "to find THE more virtuous life OF a follower of Christ" or similar?

    • To find a more virtuous life than following Christ. Pascal's objective here was to provoke the atheists of his time to come up with a more lofty ideal than that of the Christian life. It was a kind of an argument from aesthetics.

  2. "So Pascal’s wager, in essence, is a challenge to find a more virtuous life than that of follower of Christ."

    You would argue that all followers of Christ are more virtuous than all non-followers?

    • No, the wager is to find a more lofty ideal than the one outlined in Scripture and modeled by Jesus Christ. As Pascal wrote, everyone is living towards an ideal. Even if that ideal is pure sensual hedonism (though often it is a cobbled mix of ideologies), there is still a goal everyone aspires to reach. What Pascal did, in a nutshell is issue a challenge to find a more lofty, complete, or consistent lifestyle goal than the Christian one.

  3. So, could you live your life according to those ideals, without the beliefs, and be living the most virtuous life according to Pascal?

    • That's a really good question Lance. I suppose it is possible to some degree.

      If we get down to it Pascal also argued that even the atheist must borrow from the moral laws set forth in Christianity when he wishes to speak of morality in any objective sense. He also argued elsewhere, in one of his fragments of thought, that the ability to act morally is in accordance with the natural laws given to us according Romans 1.

      However, past merely emulating virtuous behaviors, I don't think it is possible to live "the most virtuous life" since that entails both knowing and believing in the ideals that constitute "the most virtuous life".

      • "If we get down to it Pascal also argued that even the atheist must borrow from the moral laws set forth in Christianity when he wishes to speak of morality in any objective sense."

        And so Christianity also borrowed from other cultures' moralities. This is nothing unique to atheists.

        "However, past merely emulating virtuous behaviors, I don't think it is possible to live "the most virtuous life" since that entails both knowing and believing in the ideals that constitute "the most virtuous life"

        I like how you slipped in "emulate" there, as if those who don't share a belief in a particular deity cannot sincerely conduct virtuous acts all on their own.

        I would argue that you have to ignore a lot of the Bible's instruction and not emulate it's described deity in a number of ways to actually act virtuously.

        • "And so Christianity also borrowed from other cultures' moralities. This is nothing unique to atheists. "

          I know this is something that is rather popular to throw out as a matter of fact. However a cursory examination of the evidence shows that it is simply not true. Christianity, and moreover the Judaism upon which it is founded, is almost wholly unique.

          "I like how you slipped in "emulate" there, as if those who don't share a belief in a particular deity cannot sincerely conduct virtuous acts all on their own. "

          No one (including the Christian) can commit virtuous acts all on their own. If they commit virtuous acts it is only according to the ultimate virtue founded in God. This is part of the good/evil conundrum that continues to confound anyone without a clear understanding of good (and it's accidental but not necessary negation, evil) can only, at best, offer opinions and personal subjective preferences. If we are to use the language of good and evil we must, by necessity of the constraints of language, presuppose the existence of a moral lawgiver to whom we are obligated to give an account of our lives.

          "I would argue that you have to ignore a lot of the Bible's instruction and not emulate it's described deity in a number of ways to actually act virtuously."

          Two questions come to mind here:
          1. What moral standard are you supposing here? And further; if this moral standard is not founded in a God who created us; Why do you suppose anyone is obligated to it?

          2. What do you think needs to be ignored in the Bible to fit with your standard?

          • "I know this is something that is rather popular to throw out as a matter of fact. However a cursory examination of the evidence shows that it is simply not true."

            If the examination required is so cursory, perhaps you could explain it here rather than merely asserting it? And whether or not Christianity "borrowed" moral code aspects, you would have to admit that elements of it's code existed in other cultures before it? You have a strange definition of "unique".

            "No one (including the Christian) can commit virtuous acts all on their own. If they commit virtuous acts it is only according to the ultimate virtue founded in God."

            You have not proved the existence of God so this is a non-sequitar to this conversation.

          • 1. What moral standard are you supposing here? And further; if this moral standard is not founded in a God who created us; Why do you suppose anyone is obligated to it?

            Morality is based on humans' capacity for empathy and reason. Whether that capacity comes from God is at best, indeterminate, so it provides no basis to move this discussion forward. No one is "obligated" to it, but those that can't function in the ways we've organized ourselves end up lonely, incarerated, or dead among many other undesirable states.

            "What do you think needs to be ignored in the Bible to fit with your standard?"

            Most of the vindictive, specious, jealous, destructive god of the old testament and the version of the new testament that set up a system where believing the wring thing nesta you eternal torture in fire. Seems rather plain to me but never underestimate the power of indoctrination I suppose.

          • "Morality is based on humans' capacity for empathy and reason."

            The argument for the existence of objective moral laws coming from empathy is not valid for reasons I outlined here. Another good refutation of secular morality can also be found here.

            "Whether that capacity comes from God is at best, indeterminate, so it provides no basis to move this discussion forward."

            I would argue that is a failing of your presuppositions and not a conclusion that logically follows the given evidence.

            "No one is "obligated" to it, but those that can't function in the ways we've organized ourselves end up lonely, incarerated, or dead among many other undesirable states."

            So you would abandon objective morality altogether in favor of statistical moral norms?.

            "Most of the vindictive, specious, jealous, destructive god of the old testament "

            What makes you presuppose the actions of God as "vindictive, specious, jealous, destructive"?

            "and the version of the new testament that set up a system where believing the wring thing nesta you eternal torture in fire."

            Belief in the writings is not what nets you an eternal torture in fire. It seems to me that you do not have a firm grasp on the basic truth claims made in the Bible.

            "Seems rather plain to me but never underestimate the power of indoctrination I suppose."

            If by "indoctrination" you mean "actually reading and understanding what the Bible says" then I suppose I'll have to agree. I know I cannot force you to, but I would highly encourage you to abandon your Biblical illiteracy through careful study into what the Bible actually says as opposed to either what you think it says or what others who are as equally hostile to Christianity and just as ignorant think it says.

            You see now we have a conundrum. How can we continue to have a productive conversation regarding the Bible when it is painfully apparent at the point that you don't really understand what it says?

            Are you willing and humble enough to ask honest questions with the expectation of honest answers? Or would further discourse between us regarding the Bible prove to be fruitless?

          • Here is the refutation to the charge that Christianity borrowed from anyone else: Correlation does not equal causation. Even if we were to grant that certain elements of the moral code that constitutes Christianity existed in the past as part of other cultures it would still not logically follow that 1. Christianity borrowed from them or 2. that God is not the source of those moral codes.

            "You have not proved the existence of God so this is a non-sequitar to this conversation."

            Yes, that is part of a separate line of thought from the argument for God's existence from the evidence for and existence of objective moral laws.

  4. "Belief in the writings is not what nets you an eternal torture in fire. It seems to me that you do not have a firm grasp on the basic truth claims made in the Bible."

    My apologies if bad typing netted this assesment from you. I meant to write that belief in the "wrong thing" or in other words, failing to believe in the right thing. I did not posit what that right thing is. Would you dispute that failing to believe in this right thing lands you in hell for eternity?

    • Yes, I would dispute that failing to believe in right things is what lands a person in hell for eternity. What lands a person in hell for eternity is their own depravity, sin, and brokenness that they have brought upon themselves, not having inherited it from anyone else.

      You seem to be operating under the assumption that the default destination of people ought to be heaven. That we are somehow "basically good". I would argue, according to both the Bible and all too common human expierience, that such a notion couldn't be farther from the truth.

      The real wonder is that any are saved at all, and that is through 1. acknowledging that there is a God (something I would argue that we know intuitively) 2. that we are not Him and 3. that the one who is God has provided one means of salvation through His Son who bled and died for our own transgressions, Jesus Christ.

      These 3 core things are echoed in 1 Corinthians 15, what is known as the earliest Christian creed or codified set of beliefs that define one as being a Christian or, literally, "little Christ".

      Put simply, we are not saved by what we believe, but by whom we follow.

      • "Yes, I would dispute that failing to believe in right things is what lands a person in hell for eternity. What lands a person in hell for eternity is their own depravity, sin, and brokenness that they have brought upon themselves, not having inherited it from anyone else."

        That's an interesting interpretation of the bible, given god's role as omnipotent creator. Maybe Adam and Eve fit this bill but not everyone downstream of them.

        "Put simply, we are not saved by what we believe, but by whom we follow."

        This is a nice semantic game, given I would bet my bottom dollar that you'd say someone who follows but doesn't believe would be insincere and not worthy of heaven. In fact, that was your position on virtuosity just a few posts above.

        And there are a large number of Christians who take John 3:16 very seriously on "belief" being the saving grace. How is it that this clear message from god in the Bible has so many interpretations?

        • "Maybe Adam and Eve fit this bill but not everyone downstream of them."

          I believe you have a flawed understanding of original sin.

          "I would bet my bottom dollar that you'd say someone who follows but doesn't believe would be insincere and not worthy of heaven."

          Semantics is not a game. I would argue that in order for someone to follow, they must believe and that belief is made manifest in one's actions. Here is a good epistemological overview of the relationship between faith, reason, and action.

          "And there are a large number of Christians who take John 3:16 very seriously on "belief" being the saving grace."

          Statistics don't determine reality.

          "How is it that this clear message from god in the Bible has so many interpretations?"

          How is it that the existence of many interpretations have any bearing on the objective meaning of a text?

          BTW: Christians are not as split on these core truths as you seem to think. Even my Roman Catholic brethren would agree with the essentials laid out in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11.

          • "I believe you have a flawed understanding of original sin."

            There's a difference being not understanding something and rejecting it as nonsense.

            "Statistics don't determine reality."

            No, but how do you know you are in the right statistical group?

            "How is it that the existence of many interpretations have any bearing on the objective meaning of a text?"

            If a supposedly omnipotent and omniscient being created a message so clear it results in these widespread interpretations (including rejection) he has failed miserably as a communicator. So he is not omnipotent and omniscient. So, he is logically incohernet and not worthy of belief.

            Alternatively, he is being purposefully misleading or vague, which means he does not unilaterally wish for all humans to come to him, which also contradicts his description in the text. He comes out logically incohernet no matter how you slice it.

          • "There's a difference being not understanding something and rejecting it as nonsense."

            So your view of man is what? What we are borne as blank slates, tabla rasa, like John Locke postulated? What about our brokenness? Do you think that is something nature and others do to us or something that we do to ourselves?

            "If a supposedly omnipotent and omniscient being created a message so clear it results in these widespread interpretations (including rejection) he has failed miserably as a communicator."

            I would argue that God's ability to communicate is not diminished by our stubbornness in not accepting it. Here is an excellent piece a friend of mine wrote recently on the perspicuity of Scripture.

  5. "I would argue that God's ability to communicate is not diminished by our stubbornness in not accepting it"

    This is willfully ignoring reality, isn't it? You have a whole spectrum from complete non-belief to believing exactly as you do with a multiude of options along this spectrum and you chalk up everyone else that disagrees with your interpretation as stubborn? You might want to work on pridefulness, Wes.

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