Pascal's Wager

Pascal's Wager

Pascal's Wager (or Pascal's Gambit) is a suggestion posed by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal that even though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should "wager" as though God exists, because so living has potentially everything to gain, and certainly nothing to lose. It was set out in note 233 of his "Pensées", a posthumously published collection of notes made by Pascal in his last years as he worked on a treatise on Christian apologetics.

Historically, Pascal's Wager, groundbreaking as it had charted new territory in probability theory, was one of the first attempts to make use of the concept of infinity, marked the first formal use of decision theory, and anticipated the future philosophies of pragmatism and voluntarism. [Alan Hájek, [ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy] ]


The wager builds on the theme of other "Pensées" where Pascal systematically dismantles the notion that we can trust reason... especially in the areas of religion. Although his notes were found without definite order after his death (the "Pensées" numbering scheme was added by publishers for reference purposes), it can be inferred that the section regarding the wager would have followed his other thoughts that supply the foundation. Much of the book attacks certainty, and is often cited as the first work on existentialism for thoughts like the following:


Pascal's Wager has endured much criticism, starting in its own day. Voltaire, writing a generation after Pascal, rejected the wager as "indecent and childish... the interest I have to believe a thing is no proof that such a thing exists." [Voltaire [ "Remarques sur les Pensees de Pascal" XI] ] But Voltaire, like many other critics, misunderstood the Wager. Pascal did not offer the wager as a proof. cite book
last = Durant
first = Will and Ariel
title = The Age of Voltaire
year = 1965
language = English
pages = page 370
] It is merely a conclusion to his arguments against certainty that relies on the notion that reason is untrustworthy and that discerning God's actual existence appears to be "a coin toss." If reason can be trusted on the question of God's existence, then the wager simply does not apply.

Assumes that the correct god is worshiped

Since there have been many religions throughout history, and therefore many potential gods, some assert that all of them need to be factored into the wager. This would lead to a high probability of believing in the wrong god, which destroys the mathematical advantage Pascal claimed with his Wager. Denis Diderot, a contemporary of Voltaire, concisely expressed this opinion when asked about the wager, saying "an Imam could reason the same way".cite book
last = Diderot
first = Denis
editor = J. Assézar
title = Pensées philosophiques, LIX, Volume 1
origyear = 1746
year = 1875-77
language = French
pages = page 167
] J. L. Mackie notes that "the church within which alone salvation is to be found is not necessarily the Church of Rome, but perhaps that of the Anabaptists or the Mormons or the Muslim Sunnis or the worshipers of Kali or of Odin." [Mackie, J. L.. 1982. "The Miracle of Theism", Oxford, pg. 203]

Pascal himself didn't address the question of other religions in his section on the wager, presumably because throughout the rest of "Pensées" (and in his other works) he examined alternatives, like stoicism, paganism, Islam, and Judaism, and concluded that if any faith is correct, it would be the Christian faith.

Nonetheless, as this criticism has surfaced, apologists of his wager counter that, of the rival options, only the ones that award infinite happiness affect the Wager's 'dominance'. They claim that neither Odin's nor Kali's finite, semi-blissful promise could contend with the infinite bliss offered by Jesus Christ, so they drop out of consideration.Alan Hájek, [ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy] ] Also, the infinite bliss the rival god offers has to be mutually exclusive. If Christ's promise of bliss can be attained concurrently with Jehovah's and Allah's (all three being identified as the God of Abraham), there is no conflict in the decision matrix.

And furthermore, ecumenical interpretations of the Wager [For example: Jeff Jordan, "Gambling on God: Essays on Pascal's Wager", 1994, Rowman & Littlefield.] argue (perhaps in conjunction with [ Romans 1:19-20] and [ Romans 2:14-15] ) that it could even be suggested that believing in an anonymous god or a god by the wrong name, is acceptable so long as that god has the same essential characteristics (like the God of Aristotle). Proponents of this line of reasoning suggest that either all of the gods of history truly boil down to just a small set of "genuine options", [Paul Saka, [ The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Pascal's Wager] ] or that if the wager can simply bring one to believe in "generic theism" it has done its job. [Paul Saka, [ The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Pascal's Wager] ] However, this rebuttal does not grapple with Christianity's requirement in acceptance of Jesus' sacrifice of himself.

Assumes God rewards belief

Richard Dawkins ["The God Delusion" pp. 103–105.] suggests that the wager does not account for the possibility that there is a god that rewards honest attempted reasoning and instead punishes blind or feigned faith. Richard Carrier expands this argument as such:

This would render the initial 4-box set inaccurate, because it does not include the possibility of a god who rewards nonbelief or punishes belief. A revised set, would look like this:

Apologists reply that hypotheses such as these lack the backing of tradition that genuine religions have, and thus should be disregarded. More precisely, these other hypotheses should be assigned zero (or perhaps at most infinitesimal) probability, so that they do not upset Pascal's expectation calculations. The debate then turns once again on what exactly rationality requires of one's probability assignments.

Anti-Pascal wager

Richard Dawkins argues for an "anti-Pascal wager": "Suppose we grant that there is indeed some small chance that God exists. Nevertheless, it could be said that you will lead a better, fuller life if you bet on his not existing, than if you bet on his existing and therefore squander your precious time on worshipping him, sacrificing to him, fighting and dying for him, etc." [The God Delusion] Pascal actually took this idea into account in the original manuscript as explained in the above section.



A variation of this argument within the Islamic "kalam" tradition was discussed by Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni (d. 478/1085) in his "Kitab al-irshad ila-qawati al-adilla fi usul al-i'tiqad" or "A Guide to the Conclusive Proofs for the Principles of Belief". [ al-Juwayni "A Guide to Conclusive Proofs for the Principles of Belief", 6]

Other cultural references

*William James uses Pascal's Wager as an example of choosing a 'living option' in his Will to Believe Doctrine.

*"Les paris stupides" (Stupid Wagers), a Jacques Prévert poem, simply reads, "Un certain Blaise Pascal, etc. etc." (One Blaise Pascal, etc. etc.)

* "My Night at Maud's" is a film by Eric Rohmer that discusses Pascal's wager and its application to real life at great length. In the plot, a Christian, a Marxist and a free thinker debate Pascal's wager even as they unwittingly accept or decline smaller-scale versions through their choices about life and love.

* Repeated reference is made to the wager in Graham Greene's novel "The Quiet American".

*Terry Pratchett satirized Pascal's Wager in The Hogfather. A philosopher claimed, "Possibly the gods exist, and possibly they do not. So why not believe in them in any case? If it's all true you'll go to a lovely place when you die, and if it isn't then you've lost nothing, right?" When the philosopher died, "he woke up in a circle of gods holding nasty-looking sticks and one of them said, 'We're going to show you what we think of Mr Clever Dick in these parts...'"

ee also

* Decision Theory
* Game Theory



*cite book
last = al-Juwayni
first = Imam al-Haramayn
authorlink = Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni
coauthors = Dr. Paul E. Walker (translator)
title = A Guide to Conclusive Proofs for the Principles of Belief
publisher = Garnet Publishing
date = 2000
location = Reading, UK
pages = 6-7
url =
doi =
id =
isbn = 1 85964 157 1

*Leslie Armour, "Infini Rien: Pascal's Wager and the Human Paradox" (The Journal of the History of Philosophy Monograph Series), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993.
*James Cargile, "Pascal's Wager," in "Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology", eds. R. Douglas Geivett and Brendan Sweetman, Oxford University Press, 1992.
*Jeff Jordan, ed. "Gambling on God", Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994. (A collection of the most recent articles on the Wager with a full bibliography.)
*Jeff Jordan, "Pascal's Wager: Pragmatic Arguments and Belief in God", Oxford University Press, 2007 (No doubt not the "final word", but certainly the most thorough and definitive discussion thus far.)
*William G. Lycan and George N. Schlesinger, "You Bet Your Life: Pascal's Wager Defended," in "Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology", eds. R. Douglas Geivett and Brendan Sweetman, Oxford University Press, 1992.
*Michael Martin, "Atheism", Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990, (Pp. 229–238 presents the argument about a god who punishes believers.)
*Thomas V. Morris, "Pascalian Wagering," in "Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology", eds. R. Douglas Geivett and Brendan Sweetman, Oxford University Press, 1992.
*Nicholas Rescher, "Pascal’s Wager: A Study of Practical Reasoning in Philosophical Theology", University of Notre Dame Press, 1985. (The first book-length treatment of the Wager in English.)
*Jamie Whyte, "Crimes against Logic", McGraw-Hill, 2004, (Section with argument about Wager)
*Elizabeth Holowecky, "Taxes and God", KPMG Press, 2008, (Phone interview)

External links

Primary text:
* [ Pascal's "Pensees" Part III — "The Necessity of the Wager" The wager argument itself is found in #233 (Trotter translation)] .Standard references:
* [ Pascal's Wager in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
* [ Pascal's Wager in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

* [ Theistic Belief and Religious Uncertainty] by Jeffrey Jordan

* [ The End of Pascal's Wager: Only Nontheists Go to Heaven (2002)] by Richard Carrier
* [ The Empty Wager] by Sam Harris
* [ The Rejection of Pascal's Wager (2000)] by Paul Tobin
* [ Pascal's Wager: The Atheist's Wager]

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