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Philosophy 302: Ethics
Blaise Pascal, "The Wager"

Abstract:  Since Pascal does not think a sound argument can be given for God's existence, he proposes a persuasive consideration.

1. According to Pascal, how much can be known about God?

2. Reconstruct Pascal's wager as carefully as possible. 

3. Explain whether you consider Pascal's wager a proof of God's existence or not. 

4. What major objections can you construct to the wager? Can these objections be countered?

5. Clarify the meaning of Pascal's sentence, "The heart has its reasons which reason does not know."


1. According to Pascal, how much can be known about God?

God is so completely different from us that there is no way for us to comprehend him.

We can know that He is, but
we cannot know what He is.

Ordinary human descriptions are futile and paradoxical when applied beyond the bounds of everyday application when we say God is all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing. These predicates are beyond our experience.

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2. Reconstruct Pascal's wager as carefully as possible. 

Pascal does not think that the atheist or the believer would be convinced by his argument. Instead, he directs the Wager to the curious and unconvinced.

I have a choice: either first I believe God exists or second I do not believe God exists.

First, if I believe God exists, and God in fact does exist, then I will gain infinite happiness. However, if I believe God exists, and God in fact does not exist, then I will have no payoff.

Second, if I do not believe God exists, and God in fact does exist, then I will gain infinite pain. However, if I believe God does not exist, and God in fact does not exist, then I will have no payoff.

Thus, I have everything to gain and nothing to lose by believing in God, and I have everything to lose and nothing to gain by not believing in God. On these grounds, one would be foolish not to believe.

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3. Explain whether you consider Pascal's wager a proof of God's existence or not. 

Pascal's wager is at best a motive for believing, not a proof.  Even so, the Wager presupposes many conditions for the Wager to fit a rational decision theory model.

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4. What major objections can you construct to the wager? Can these objections be countered?

Two main objections are often raised to Pascal's Wager.

(1) To believe in God simply for the payoff is the wrong motive for belief. Such self-seeking individuals would not properly serve the Deity.

(2) In order to be sure of a payoff, an individual would not know which God or gods to believe in to cover the conditions of the wager. Would the Wager also hold for Zeus, Odin, or Mithra? One would have to believe in all gods to be sure, but if there were only one God in fact, then this strategy would defeat itself.

Pascal would argue that proper motive would naturally follow one's belief and that one's conception of God simply depends upon one's level of understanding--so in effect all persons conceive the same God differently according to each person's understanding.

We come to have faith in God by "acting as if you believed." We, in effect, change our attitude, not our reason.

Like Tolstoy would write much later, we learn from those who believe and become like them. As a result of the Wager, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain

These possible responses are speculative.

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5. Clarify the meaning of Pascal's sentence, "The heart has its reasons which reason does not know."

The everyday beliefs we act on are the things we believe the strongest. We never bother to prove these beliefs. We do not try to prove the existence of the external world, that the sun will rise tomorrow, that the floor will remain under our feet, or that we are awake.

It is little matter that we can, or cannot, prove these beliefs, so likewise, it is little matter that we prove God's existence. We simply assume life will go on, without proof; otherwise, it would be disastrous to our everyday existence if we were occupied with proving these ordinary things.

Human beings live not by reason alone.  Without heart, feeling, emotion, life would lose its value. Our uniqueness as a species might be the ability to think, but let not that blind ourselves to the fact that our whole value individually or as a group is not in reason alone.

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Recommended Sources

Pascal's Wager:  A thorough examination of the wager and its objections from the point of view of probability and decision theory.

J.D. Williams, The Compleat Startegyst: being a primer on the theory of games of startegy, McGraw-Hill, 1954.

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