“If we submit everything to reason, our religion will have no mysterious and supernatural element. If we offend the principles of reason, our religion will be absurd and ridiculous.” — Blaise Pascal, Pensées.
Pascal was a skeptic.
“This is what I see, and what troubles me,” observed Pascal:
“I look on all sides, and everywhere I see nothing but obscurity. Nature offers me nothing that is not a matter of doubt and disquiet.”
An often overlooked yet very important assumption underlying Pascal’s famous “Wager” is that the human mind is not capable of grasping God; therefore, it cannot affirm his existence:
“If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is.”
Clearly, then, Pascal did not intend for his wager to be a proof for God’s existence; if we cannot know with our reason whether or not God exists, all arguments to that effect are futile.
Whether you agree with Pascal’s fideistic approach or not, in order to understand his wager, you must first realize that it is not a proof.
Pascal presents his wager in Pensées, 233. I am going to paraphrase his argument here.
- Either God exists or he does not exist. (Obviously true)
- Let’s flip a coin: Head’s, God exists; Tails, he doesn’t.
- You have to agree that it could land either way.
- There’s a gun to your head. Place your bet (Sorry! There’s no opting out on this one).
- “Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.”
- The only rational choice is to wager on God’s existence, because the stakes are finite and the gain (or loss) is infinite. Do yourself a favor and bet on God.
Alright, I imported the part about the gun. Pascal does not issue any threats but he does say, “You must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked.” To put some teeth into his edict, he needs an enforcer. So I introduced the gunman. That said…
Personally, I would always bet on God, because I am a believer. That happens to be beside the point in this game, however, because reason (called into question) seems to trump faith in this scenario, despite whatever reasons one might have for believing in the first place. For the sake of experiment, here’s what I think I would do in this situation.
- The Joker: There’s a gun pointed at your head and I’m going to shoot. First, I’ll flip a coin. You call it in the air. Head’s, God exists; tails, he doesn’t. Ready…
- James: Wait! I already believe in God! Don’t shoot!
- The Joker: Call it, Jimmy.
- James: In that case, I have a question. Calling heads — does that constitue the short form for the Act of Contrition?
There’s something about this analogy that does not sit well with me. A coin toss, Russian Roulette, Texas hold ‘em — there are too many calculations involved. Belief in God should not work that way, in my opinion, but that’s just me.
I think if a non-believer would call heads in this situation, that’s between him and God. I do believe that God is merciful and I hope as many people as possible will benefit from that mercy, so I’d probably urge him to call heads and hope to see him on the other side, but regarding Pascal’s wager…
Faith just does not work that way — for me. If it does for you, that’s a personal matter between you and God.
There is a flip-side to Paschal’s argument. I like the way Cardinal Ratzinger represents it in his last book before being elected Pope, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures. Ratzinger doesn’t put a gun to anyone’s head. To the non-believer who disregards revelation and mocks the faith, he merely invites him to consider, “What if it’s true?”
In other words, you can opt out if you want (in Paschal’s game, you can’t — you have to wager). But be open and think about it. Don’t be a cynic.
To that I would add that the skeptical approach has its value for the sake of experiment. Speculating on it shows that on a practical level it leaves a lot to be desired. Speculating on it too much might be risky, if you want to keep your faith in tact. As a moderate realist who believes in God, I have to advise you not to play around with skepticism.