Pascal’s Wager and Insufficient Belief 

An analysis on Pascal’s famous wager written for my senior philosophy class.

Following the death of Pascal, a collection of his written thoughts were published in the Pensées. Within this work, Pascal presents a risk analysis of whether or not one should believe in God in the event that God truly exists or does not exist. His consideration of four different combinations of personal belief and the truth of God’s existence is better known as Pascal’s Wager. Pascal’s argument for believing in the existence of God hinges upon the idea that such a belief or claim of belief necessarily fulfills the requirements to gain access to heaven and receive the eternal benefit that is thought to outweigh all other worldly finite costs. However, in examining the two major religions of Christianity and Islam, both argue that believing in God’s existence is a necessary, but not sufficient condition to ascend into heaven after death. Furthermore, depending on the various God believing religions and their specifications for acquiring entrance into heaven, choosing not to stay true to one’s self or seek evidence, but instead pursuing self-interested motives, goes against common ethical and moral qualities of humans who gain eternal life. Ultimately, Pascal, in trying to take an alternative approach by showing it is prudent to believe in God, oversimplifies the relationship between choosing belief in God’s existence and gaining access to the reward of infinite life that his wager system is built upon. 

Screen Shot 2018-12-18 at 12.17.40 AM.pngPascal, unlike many other religious philosophers before him, does not argue for the necessary existence of God. In fact, he defines God as an infinitely incomprehensible and limitless being who has no similarities to humans. As a result, humans are incapable of knowing God or the truth of God’s existence through knowledge, reasoning, or sound argument (51). However, Pascal argues that it is rational to believe in God regardless of some or even substantial improbability that God exists. According to Pascal, the only option is to wager the existence of God in a situation of equal risk. The two outcomes are losing finite nothingness for wagering incorrectly or gaining an eternity of life and happiness for wagering correctly that God exists when he in fact does (51). Pascal attempts to show that belief in God’s existence is most logical because even if evidence suggests that it is highly improbable for God to exists, the reward for belief is so much greater and incomparable to the potential minimal gains or consequences of not believing in God’s existence. 

If we accept Pascal’s layout of a four scenario wager system with equal risk and finitely low cost, the central issue to his justification for the belief in God is still that choosing to believe in the existence of God for the sake of potentially reaping the infinite benefits does not make one a true believer worthy to receive the reward of going to an eternal paradise. Most religions, include the largest two, Christianity and Islam, consider belief in the existence of God is required, but insufficient to go to heaven. Even the devil himself believes that God exists and the devil clearly does not ascend into heaven. For these religions, assurance to gain acceptance into the Promise Land entails belief in God’s existence in addition to an assortment of faith, prayer, good works, confession, or martyrdom. Making the choice to believe in God’s existence for purely rational, self-interested reasons alone is distinctly different from the true belief and/or actions required to guarantee entrance into heaven. 

Pascal himself acknowledges this objection and responds to it in Pensées by claiming that the wager was only intended to be an initial incentive to believe in the existence God. If one is truly dedicated to being a recipient of eternal life, Pascal advises them to cure their unbelief by  surrounding themselves with other true, heaven-attaining religious believers. Through putting on a presence of belief by going through the motions of a believer, such as “taking holy water, having masses said,” one will ultimately become influenced to a point where he or she becomes a ‘true’ believer’ (52). This counterargument that one can trick their own mind into believing something is built upon well-supported empirical and scientific facts. For example, this phenomenon can be seen in the placebo-effect when patient conditions improve not due to the placebo drug, but because the patient’s belief in the treatment stimulates healing (Harvard Health). More specifically, the idea that actions lacking belief can eventually lead to belief is supported by the research work of social psychologists that show “standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident, can boost feelings of confidence, and might have an impact on our chances for success” (TED). 

While this response succeeds in demonstrating the possibility to convert chosen beliefs to true beliefs through positive mental attitudes or actions, it raises the question of whether or not such mind manipulation, driven by an ultimately utilitarian perspective to maximize reward for one’s self, is unethical and could inhibit chances of living life eternally in heaven by violating moral law. Given these two options Pascal presents – believe that God exists or God does not exist – it’s quite clear that the option with greatest payoff and expected value to one’s life and happiness should be chosen. Pascal clearly states that knowledge and evidence cannot decide the question of whether God exists and that gambling is the only way. This worldview promotes a utilitarian outlook in which individuals act out of self-interest and efforts to maximize happiness. Such a society quickly descends into lacking justice and punishing the innocent. Additionally, the view Pascal presents advocates against individuals seeking knowledge, discovering truth, and examining evidence. It even goes to the lengths of encouraging mindlessly and habitually training oneself into belief rather than preserving the value of human ability to think rationally and stay true to personal beliefs. Not only are these perspectives harmful to the success and improvement of society, but also these selfish and immoral behaviors are denounced in most major religions and as a result would likely prevent one from entrance into heaven. The God of these religions is more likely to punish than reward those who blindly follow the action of others and fail to use the unique rational agency that has been gifted to humans. Arguably, there may exist some religion in which punishing the innocent does not violate moral law, but in such a situations a conscious decision must be made to choose a religion and a God that differs from the Judeo-Christian God. This transitions into the issue of plurality of Gods and the lack of assurance that the religious individuals one should be surrounding themselves with and following the actions of in order to be influenced into “true belief” necessarily have it right and understand the requirements for entrance into heaven. Often times, religions have beliefs of what God’s expectation to receive eternal glory that are mutually exclusive in that acting and believing one way for eternal life provided by one God means no reward from another conception of God. 

Overall, there remains pervasive and problematic issues with Pascal’s theory in believing the existence of God that range from selfish and utilitarian motives behind belief, the insufficient choice of believing, and the morally questionable act of tricking your mind into belief to the problem of figuring out what concept of God and behavior should be followed in order to attain the infinite reward of eternal life. 

Pascal

Cuddy, Amy. “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are.” Amy Cuddy: Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are | TED Talk. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Oct. 2017. 

Perry, John, Michael Bratman, and John M. Fischer. Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print. 

Publishing, Harvard Health. “The Power of the Placebo Effect.” Harvard Health. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Oct. 2017.