Tag Archives: Blaise Pascal

Betting It All

FreeImages.com/Lance Palmer

Previously, I highlighted another brilliant, famous scientist that was a Christian – Blaise Pascal. I also sketched out his Anthropological argument for the existence of God, which is the overarching theme of his unfinished apologetic work collected posthumously as “Pensées”. However, there is a famous part of this work that is more often associated with his name: Pascal’s Wager. It is unfortunate that his “wager” has taken so much focus from his overall case, but such is life. Let’s look at this wager and perhaps answer some objections to it.

While Pensée #418[1] develops it, #387 gives the essence in one sentence: “I should be much more afraid of being mistaken and then finding out that Christianity is true than of being mistaken in believing it to be true.” You might say he is concerned with avoiding the ultimate buyer’s remorse: “What if I buy the spiel that God doesn’t exist, but then meet Him when I die?” Pascal’s development of this in #418 can be arranged in a table of 4 options, based on 2 objective possibilities, and 2 subjective responses to those possible realities, as illustrated below.

Objective Reality
God Exists God does
not exist
Our Subjective Response “I believe” Gain all,
Lose nothing
Gain nothing,
Lose nothing
“I do not
Gain nothing,
Lose all
Gain nothing,
Lose nothing

If God doesn’t exist, any gains or losses in our life are minimal, and approach insignificance, with either belief or unbelief. But if God exists  – that’s what makes it a high-stakes gamble. The gaining of eternal life, of unending communion with our loving Creator, is at stake! Gain that, and gain what really matters; reject that and all the riches or pleasures of the world can’t compensate for eternal separation from God.

That’s basically his wager, but is his wager valid? Are those really our choices? Let me get one objection out of the way first: this is not an argument for the existence of God, but rather for the prudence of faith. Pascal is leaving aside the theoretical for the moment and getting very practical here to encourage the reader to look at what is prudent, or reasonable. Prudence isn’t a very common word anymore, but Thomas Aquinas defined it as “right reason applied to practice.”[2]Pascal is saying that belief is the wise choice not just in theory but in practice.

Now why is “betting on God” prudent? As he points out, we have to bet: those are, in fact, our only choices. God exists or He doesn’t – agnosticism is not on the table. Why? As Peter Kreeft says in his commentary on Pascal: “Death turns agnosticism into atheism. For death turns ‘Tomorrow’ into ‘Never’.”[3] To try to avoid betting is simply to delay it and then bet by default, to lose by forfeiting the game.

But why bet on God rather than atheism? Much has been made of Pascal’s statements in the Wager that “Reason cannot decide this question [of God’s existence],” and “Reason cannot make you choose either, reason cannot prove either [theism or atheism] wrong.” Is he negating all of apologetics here? After all, apologetics is being able to “give a reason for the hope that we have”[1 Pet 3:15], is it not? Keep in mind that the Wager is found in Pascal’s notes for his unfinished defense of Christianity. His whole Anthropological Argument is abductive reasoning. Pascal’s hypothetical seeker in his case asks, “is there really no way of seeing what the cards are?” Pascal’s response: “Yes. Scripture and the rest, etc.” These are all reasons. While it’s true that reason alone cannot prove God’s existence beyond our capacity to deny it, the Cosmological, Teleological, Axiological, and Ontological arguments, as well as Pascal’s own Anthropological argument, stack the odds in favor of the existence of one and only one God – the God of the Bible. So why bet on God? General revelation (nature) and special revelation (Scripture) reasonably point us to Him. Far from a leap in the dark, Christianity “alone has reason” and “reason impels you to believe.”

Some would say that this idea of “betting on God” is a pragmatic or utilitarian religion, a selfish belief that must surely be repugnant to any good God. It’s true that God sees through any mask of belief, as well as condemns selfishness. But I think Peter Kreeft addresses this well when he responds, “To the objection that such ‘belief’ is not yet true faith, the reply is: Of course not, but it is a step on the road to it. Even if it is sheer fear of God’s justice in Hell, ‘ the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Prov1:7).”[4] I don’t think Pascal intended his audience (the sincere seeker) to simply stop at conceding that belief in God is prudent. He is rather driving the seeker inexorably onward to Christianity, with all that entails. The wager is simply removing one roadblock on the way there.

Lastly, Pascal reminds us at the end of his wager that it is not just a hope for some unknowable future: “I tell you that you will gain even in this life”. And again in Pensée #917,  “The Christian’s hope of possessing an infinite good is mingled with actual enjoyment….” Christians get a small foretaste of this blessing even in this life.

A “prudent bet” may sound a bit paradoxical, but as Pascal would say, here, “there is no room for hesitation, you must give everything. And thus, since you are obliged to play, you must be renouncing reason if you hoard your life rather than risk it for an infinite gain.”[5] So, are you in?

[1] Note: I am using Krailsheimer’s translation and numbering for the Pensées. You may read Brunschvicg’s edition for free at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18269/18269-h/18269-h.htm. The numbering there would be: #387 = #241, #418 = #233, and #917 = #540.
[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2nd Part of the 2nd Part, Question 47, Article 2. Aquinas is condensing Aristotle’s definition of Prudence from Nichomachean Ethics Book VI, Part 5: “Practical wisdom, then, must be a reasoned and true state of capacity to act with regard to human goods.” Aristotle’s word φρόνησις (phronesis) is typically translated as “prudence” or “practical wisdom”.
[3] Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined, & Explained (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 300.
[4] ibid., p.301.
[5] ibid., p.294.

Portraits of Christians – Blaise Pascal

For those keeping count, this is the 6th portrait of a great, world-renowned scientist who was also a Christian. This compatibility of science and Christianity may surprise some of you. Well, keep reading!

Blaise Pascal was born in 1623 and died in 1662 at the age of only 39. Yet in that time, he set a high bar. With his mother having died when he was 3, and himself being ill most of his life, his father homeschooled him.[1]  Publishing his first mathematical treatise (on conic sections) at only 16, and inventing a mechanical calculator at the age of 22, he went on to contribute much to our understanding of hydraulics and probability theory. In fact, his mechanical calculator, considered the first computer,  is the reason the first computer programming language I ever learned was named after him. If you’ve used hydraulic brakes in your car, or used a forklift, or a shop press, you’ve applied Pascal’s Law. What he discovered was that pressure increases are equal at all points in a confined fluid, so applying a small force to a small area of confined fluid (like pushing the brake pedal in your car) resulted in a multiplied force at a larger area (like the pistons clamping down on your brake rotors). And if you’ve ever given or been given a shot of any medicine, you’ve benefited from another invention of his: the syringe.[2]

But Pascal realized, like the apostle Paul, that all his accomplishments were rubbish compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ.[Phil 3:7-8] And so Pascal undertook composing a defense of Christianity against the attacks of the skeptics of his day. Though it was never finished, the fragments of his would-be magnum opus were collected posthumously into what has been titled “Pensées”, or “Thoughts”. Some are barely a sentence or two, while others are meticulously edited, rigorous examinations of deep philosophical ideas. The overarching theme of Pensées is what has been called Pascal’s Anthropological argument: that mankind exhibits a greatness and a wretchedness that is best explained by Christianity,[3] and this is just as powerful an argument today as it was then.

You see, while some will try to reduce humans to simply “talking apes”, most people do recognize that there is something different about us compared to all else. Socrates defined man as the “rational animal”, acknowledging that we have a fleshly, animal nature, but that we are different from animals in our reasoning and self-awareness. Humans hold a unique position in the scheme of life, and it is not arrogance to recognize there is a degree of “greatness” associated with that. Pascal would say that “man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but a thinking reed,” and so nobler than all the unthinking universe.[4] But our wretchedness, as Pascal calls it, is perhaps even more obvious to the casual observer than our greatness. For as long as we have had recorded history, we have recorded incessant war, brutality, murder, theft, poverty, greed, corruption – vice after vice. If we are the top of the line, the most advanced of all intelligent life, why do we find it so difficult to “act that way”? And it’s not just the obvious cases like the Hitlers and Stalins of the world that have failed to do the right thing; it’s each one of us. When we’re alone, away from all of the distractions and busyness of our modern lives, and can take a minute to look in the mirror of our minds, we recognize our wretched condition. In those times of self-reflection, we can truly commiserate with the apostle Paul,  “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate…. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want…. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good…. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?”[Rom 7:15,19,21,24] Paul strikes a chord there that Pascal builds on to make his case for Christianity. For this sense of greatness is at odds with our clear observations of our baseness. And as Pascal points out, no other view of life makes sense of this dichotomy as well as the Bible, with its description of our creation in the image of God (our greatness), but also our fall into rebellion against our Creator and the attendant consequences (our wretchedness). To put it in terms of abductive reasoning, Christianity has superior explanatory power than the competing views (atheism, false religions).

Pascal also strove to show man the need for urgency. Perhaps his own chronic illness was a daily reminder of the frailty of our physical life, and a motivation to not delay the most important of decisions and to strongly encourage others to do likewise.  Apathy regarding the truth of Christianity is the worst course of action: “It affects our whole life to know whether the soul is mortal or immortal.”[5] As Peter Kreeft points out in his analysis of Pascal’s Wager, “to every possible question life presents three possible answers: Yes, No and Evasion. Death removes the third answer…. Death turns agnosticism into atheism. For death turns ‘Tomorrow’ into ‘Never.’ ”[6]

In closing, Pascal’s life was a candle that burned quickly, but brightly. And his legacy as a prodigious scientist is only matched by his legacy as a profoundly insightful Christian. Rather than incompatible parts of his life, his faith and his science worked together. As Encyclopedia Britannica put it, “his religious writings are rigorous because of his scientific training”.[2] Think about that term “rigorous.” Synonyms include: extremely thorough, exhaustive, accurate, careful, diligent. Could your beliefs be described that way? Dig into Pascal and make yours a more rigorous faith that will withstand any assaults from false ideologies.[7]

[1] Clarke, Desmond, “Blaise Pascal”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/pascal/ , accessed 2016-12-14.
[2] “Blaise Pascal”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Blaise-Pascal, accessed 2016-12-15.
[3]Douglas Groothuis – Christian Apologetics 101, session 19 (audio course), published by Credo House, 2014.
[4] Blaise Pascal, Pensée #200, as found in Peter Kreeft’s excellent book, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées, Edited, Outlined & Explained, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 55. Pensée numbers are Krailsheimer’s numbering scheme.
[5] ibid., Pensée #164.
[6] ibid., Pensée #418, footnote J.
[7] If you’ve ever started Pensées, struggled, and given up, I highly recommend Kreeft’s work, available here.

Intellectual Sparring

“I Am Sir Lancelot” by N.C. Wyeth, 1922

Have you ever taken part in a debate, or watched one? A question is proposed. A champion comes forward from each side to show why their answer to the question is correct. In a formal debate, they’ve prepared well in advance. The debate may be oral or a written exchange. Some debates will have the audience vote on who “won” the debate. Hopefully, this isn’t just a popularity contest, with the winner decided based on their charisma or their pithy comebacks. Rather, it should be based on who has justified their view the best, who has defended their conclusion by supporting it with true premises using clear terms. Why? A conclusion that logically follows from true premises using unequivocal terms forms an airtight case. If one side can do that, they have won the debate. But is winning the debate the end goal? With our inherent competitiveness, that tends to be the case, but it shouldn’t be. As philosopher Peter Kreeft points out, the real goal should be for both sides to come to agree on the independent truth, regardless of which one found it first.[1] If you prove your point and win the debate, but nobody changes their mind, what have you actually won? What about the debate between atheists and Christians? Is it just about winning an intellectual battle? On the contrary, this issue, above all others, is far from simply an intellectual exercise or game. There are very serious implications. As Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensées, “It concerns all our life to know whether the soul be mortal or immortal.”[2]

One danger in debating the topics such as the existence of God, the deity of Jesus, the reliability of the Bible, and so on, is that we can be lulled into seeing it as just a game – a sort of intellectual sparring, a competition to see who can win the argument and beat their rival. But these are not simply interesting questions to ponder, or tricky propositions to show off our reasoning prowess. These are truly life and death problems (greater even than life and death, if the warnings of the Bible are true). Luke tells us in Acts 24 of the apostle Paul’s journey through the Jewish/Roman legal system. There we read of Paul’s encounter with the Governor, Felix. After hearing from Paul’s accusers, then from Paul, Felix put them off and kept Paul under house arrest. Hoping to get a bribe from Paul, Felix would send for him often to converse with him.[Acts 24:26] But of course, Paul never offered the bribe Felix was hoping for, only frightening talk of “righteousness, self-control, and the judgement to come.”[Acts 24:25] Two years passed like this, and Felix was replaced by a new governor, while Paul continued to await a fair trial. Felix had at his disposal the author of almost half the books of the New Testament, and talked to him often. And yet, there was no repentance, no change. It was only a game to him.

Is that you today? Are topics like the existence of God and the historicity of Jesus Christ simply interesting topics to discuss, idle speculations, or maybe even amusing subjects of ridicule? Understand the seriousness of the stakes. Death is a certainty for every one of us, and it may take any of us at a moment’s notice. It behooves us then to do our due diligence when it comes to determining if there is another stage to life that we should be preparing for now, for we know not how soon we may be expected to pass through that door. It’d be good to learn what’s awaiting you on the other side. While strictly speaking, atheism only claims that God does not exist, it typically coincides with a materialistic view that there is nothing supernatural (i.e. beyond nature), and that there is therefore nothing of a person that survives physical death. Under Christianity, that point of physical death is simply a point on a person’s timeline that started shortly before and continues on afterward infinitely. It is only a transition and not an ending. It is a change in container (the material body), but not in content (the immaterial soul). That completely revolutionizes how we perceive difficulties, suffering and other unfairness in life, or the perceived unfairness of an unusually short life.

On the other hand, maybe you are not opposed to God, per se, like the atheist, but are simply indifferent. You see no reason to bother with the question. Consider another observation from Blaise Pascal:

“The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us, and which touches us so profoundly, that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing what it is. All our actions and thoughts must take such different courses, according as there are or are not eternal joys to hope for, that it is impossible to take one step with sense and judgment, unless we regulate our course by our view of this point which ought to be our ultimate end. Thus our first interest and our first duty is to enlighten ourselves on this subject, whereon depends all our conduct.” [3]

Don’t make the mistake of neglecting that “first duty”. A temporary agnosticism on any subject while you are investigating it is commendable; careful considerations generally turn out better than rash decisions, after all. But prolonged agnosticism is only the trap of apathy and indifference in disguise. You may say that you refuse to choose – that you are agnostic – but as Peter Kreeft has so deftly stated, “to every possible question, life presents three possible answers: Yes, No and Evasion. Death removes the third answer… Death turns agnosticism into atheism. For death turns ‘Tomorrow’ into ‘Never’.”[4] You may not have tomorrow; hence the biblical warning “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.”[Heb 4:7] Have you made the right choice? Not sure? Contact me and we can discuss any questions you have.

[1] Kreeft, Peter, Socratic Logic, (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), p. 346. “Socrates sees himself and ‘O’ [the opponent] not as a winner and a loser but as two scientists mutually seeking the truth by testing two alternative hypotheses. Whichever one finds the truth, both are winners.”
[2] Pascal, Blaise, Pascal’s Pensées, (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co, 1958),  p. 63. Kindle Edition.
[3] ibid., p. 55.
[4]Kreeft, Peter, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined, & Explained, (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1993), pp.299-300.