Pascal’s wager

Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662) was a prodigy and genius. His name is still in our every day vernacular. When someone recently did an ‘energy audit’ for our house, it involved lowering the pressure to a certain number of Pascals. Because Pascal invented a calculator for his tax collector father, often considered to be the first computer, an early computer language was named after him. He is recognized to this day for contributions he made to mathematics and geometry; his genius may have rivaled that of Sir Isaac Newton.

While he was in his 30s, not long before his untimely death, Pascal converted to a form of Roman Catholicism named Jansenism, which was a full embrace of Augustine. Pascal would give up his scientific pursuits in order to live a devout life. Some attribute this to things in his personal life — he had an ailment that left him in constant pain, many of the people around him were Jansenists, and he had a brush with death that apparently caused him to think deeply about life. In any event, Pascal confronted the full force of the age of reason that by his day was displacing the age of faith and, despite his vast intellect, chose faith.

To many, this seems odd. Of course, in the 17th century even men of reason such as Galileo and Newton remained devout; Deism and atheism were still a century away from being considered. But Pascal realized something that few at the time really comprehended: reason itself led to a path of meaningless. If this theme sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve blogged about it in my last two blog entries. I wasn’t going to continue along those lines, but Jeffrey Lees very intelligent and thoughtful comment to my last blog entry inspired me. Pascal, like his contemporary Pierre Bayle, were fidiests, meaning that they rejected the idea of faith and reason being united in religious belief in favor of faith alone. This is close to the kind of spiritualism espoused by Augustine, whose early work defined Christian theology.

For Augustine the purpose of life was to worship God, and see the symbolism of God in everything. For both Pascal and Bayle (whose momentous work “Critical and Historical Dictionary” was the most widely read work of the 17th and 18th centuries), man could and should not use reason to find God, but simply focus on faith. Bayle was even misunderstood by French enlightenment scholars for his writings that painted Christian traditions as irrational and contradictory. King David was an adulterer who even sent a man to the front to die so that he could sleep with his wife, yet God loved him? Yet Bayle’s point was not to argue against Christianity, but to say that reason can’t explain God’s ways, you simply had to have faith — trying to understand through reason would lead nowhere.

Pascal was tormented by the absurdity of the human condition. People were filled, he argued, with hatred of others and hatred of self. They secretly wanted friends to fail so they could look good by comparison. Murder was evil, yet one would be decorated for killing those “on the other side of the river” because they were different. People filled their lives with endless distractions to avoid confronting their own lives and life’s meaning. People feared that kind of self-reflection, and would instead live frenetic lives filled with efforts at short term pleasure or long term addictions, a kind of empty meaningless existence with a depth of absurdity that caused Pascal inner grief, as noted in his posthumous work Pensees, which was a serious of notes meant to be put together in a defense of fidiest Christianity. Pascal died at age 38, but the book became a best seller when it was published.

It should be clear why the comment by Jeffrey Lees would get me to think about Pascal. Jeffrey mentioned the innate need for meaning, and Pascal’s description of the emptiness of the diversions of 17th century France sound much like some of the critique of consumer society. It may not have been hyperconsumerism, but it was still a kind of quest for meaning or, at the very least, an absurd effort to distract oneself from the fact there is no meaning.

Pascal was right. You look at life and it really is absurd. Take a step back and look at what people worry about, the kinds of bizarre behavior we’re engaged in, and it looks trivial and transient. We all die, but we cling to life. We honor good deeds, but strive to get ahead of others. We justify killing in the name of politics, but hate politics. We spend more time worrying about whether an outfit will make us look fat or silly than about people starving across the globe. We get caught up in sports, reality TV, video games and other meaningless activities, all while saying we love life and want to live it to the fullest. We seek meaning, but few really take the time to try to find it. Even religion has become a kind of crutch for many — not defining how they live, but a routine that allows them to say they don’t need to think about meaning because they’ve chosen one.

People strive for money, even though after a certain level it doesn’t seem to add much. The absurdity that gripped Pascal and enthralled his readers is evident to everyone even today if we look at things with a kind of detachment. Even our burial customs and refusal to talk about things like death and religion is odd. We look at primitive tribes from Africa as strange and exotic, but our culture is in some ways more absurd, so distanced we are from nature.

Pascal decided the only way to make sense of this was through faith, and he describes Christianity as a way that suddenly gives meaning and coherence to life and this world. What appeared absurd is suddenly meaningful in the heart. The head cannot understand; with God the heart understands fully. No doubt Pascal felt this and believed it deeply. To the reasonable he offered Pascal’s wager — if there is a God and you believe you have eternal life, if you do not believe you may be punished forever. If there is no God and you believe, you’ve lost nothing. If there is no God and you don’t believe, you gain nothing. Isn’t it logical to choose to believe?

Obviously, Montesquieu and the next generation of Europeans would discover that the question is rendered more difficult by having to add “which God,” since other faiths offer similar dilemmas. But Pascal, in an odd way recognizing what the post-modernists now see as the fundamental flaw of enlightenment reason-based thinking, saw that cold, materialist reason had no power to explain the pain, absurdity, and emptiness of this world. He saw that it could not provide meaning, and thus contributed to the absurdity by driving humans to distractions and diversions — so afraid are they of confronting the true state of their being.

So I reconsider Pascal’s wager. Not from the stand point of Christianity, I’m too enlightenment shaped to be able to accept a set of myths as truth. Rather, from the stand point of whether to embrace a dogmatic materialism focused solely on reason and devoid of any consideration of something deeper, spiritual, or connected to sentiment. Should one let the head silence the heart? I think not. Thus in this post-enlightenment world where anything spiritual but not religious is dismissed as “new age,” and those who are firmly embedded in a kind of faith in materialism want to deride things that question that approach, I won’t go that route. I’ll embrace the notion that there is ‘another side of life.’ I don’t know what it is. I won’t be dogmatic about it. I’ll play with and listen to ideas. I’ll explore coincidences in life, wonder about deeper meanings of chance encounters or events or people that are in my life. I’ll reflect. I’ll think. I’ll not try to distract myself from really examining my life — and I’ll not let myself become comfortable with the absurdity of the world around me. As Pascal notes, “the heart has reasons that reason cannot understand.”

  1. #1 by Rafe Champion on July 14, 2008 - 03:12

    Bill Bartley offered a new take on the old problem of rationality and justified belief. The bottom line is to settle for a critical preference that may change in a reasonable manner in response to new evidence or new arguments. He did this in a book called “The Retreat to Commitment” (1962). The story began with a study of rationality in Protestant theology.

    “This essay is a study of problems of self-identity and integrity in the Protestant and rationalist traditions. Probably the two most influential spiritual traditions of Western culture, both have helped provide involvement and purposive living in the past: and both offer their services to help overcome present-day alienation. However, these two traditions not only are internally confused but also are breeding confusion and alienation quite out of proportion to the internal confusion of either.”

    He sketched the evolution of liberal Protestant theology in the 19th and 20th centuries as non-fundamentalist Christians tried to retain both Christianity and rationality in the face of the rising tides of science and secularisation.

    To get away from skepticism and fideism he developed a position that he called pancritical rationalism, based on a rejection of a fundamental assumption that he called “justificationism”.

    The latter part of this essay provides the skeleton of his case.

    According to the pancritical rationalists no position can be positively justified but it is quite likely that some will turn out to he better than others in the light of critical discussion and tests. Or at least it is possible to specify what would count as a better idea. This form of rationality holds all its positions and propositions open to criticism and a standard objection to this stance is that it is empty; just holding our positions open to criticism provides no guidance as to what position we should adopt in any particular situation. This criticism misses its mark for two reasons. First, pancritical rationalism is not a position and it does not aim to have specific content. It is not supposed to solve the kind of problems that are solved by adopting a position on some issue or other, it is concerned with the way that such positions are adopted, criticised, defended and relinquished. The second reason why the criticism of emptiness misses the mark is that Bartley does provide guidance on adopting positions. We may adopt the position that to this moment has stood up to criticism most effectively. Of course this is no help for the justificationist who seeks stronger reasons for belief, but that is a problem for the justificationist, not for others who are prepared to operate on the basis of critical preferences.

    It appears that Bartley has provided a weighty crowbar to apply to the wall of irrationalism. Where best to apply the point of this instrument? One approach is to challenge irrationalists at every opportunity but this may not work due to the capacity of people to ignore rational arguments when it suits them. A complementary approach is to focus on rationalists, with the aim of ensuring that we get rid of their own justificationism. Irrationalism is parasitic on rationalism, which up to date has been carried in the rationalist tradition. If rationalists cease to sustain the framework of justificationism then irrationalism will have to sustain itself without the unwitting assistance of its enemies. Irrationalism can be regarded as a kind of disease, a form of intellectual AIDS carried by rationalism, waiting only for the right conditions (social or political crises of some kind, or even simply personal stress). Then new forms of irrationalism and superstition come to the surface, much to the surprise and disgust of rationalists. The rationalist tradition has done remarkably well considering the logical problems In Its foundations and one can only be optimistic about its future prospects, as Bartley’s work becomes better known.

  2. #2 by renaissanceguy on December 28, 2008 - 04:04

    The problem that I have with Fideism is that it renders faith something undefinable and incomprehensible. What I cannot define or comprehend has no reality to me.

    In Latin the word fides has the meaning of trust, and it refers to trusting in what has been proved faithful (fideles. It doesn’t mean a blind leap or an arbitrary whim or an ungrounded assumption. The Fideists seem to define faith as those things, and to me that is just useless. If I put faith in something for no good reason, then it is just as likely to fail as to succeed.

    For example, if I meet a stranger and ask him to deliver $1000 in cash to my wife in “faith,” that is not faith at all. If, however, I ask my very best friend who has never cheated me or taken advantage of me in any way, then I am justified in saying that I have faith in him.

    The biblical Hebrew and biblical Greek words have similar meanings. They are a combination of believing in something based on evidence and acting upon it in trust.

    Pascal, Kierkegard, and Wittgenstein annoy me, because they apparently lived in a made-up fantasy world in which faith is equivalent to wishful thinking and arbitrary whim. If God is not really real, and demonstrably so, then I neither need Him nor want Him. I don’t believe that an intelligent Being, as God is supposed to be, would expect people to believe in Him without providing rational reasons and at least some evidence for doing so.

    “I choose to believe because it is absurd” or “I choose to believe simply because I want to” just don’t cut it for me.

  3. #3 by Scott Erb on December 28, 2008 - 04:21

    I understand you RG. I do look at it differently — I actually agree with Pascal that I don’t see any way we can know for sure. I’ve not found any way to demonstrably prove God real or unreal using reason, or to prove or disprove any ideology or ethical system. One can build on assumptions, and argue that assumptions are reasonable, but there is always in every view considerable uncertainty — and that uncertainty rises the more sophisticated the perspective becomes.

    So I end up saying one makes ones’ call based on what one believes right. Not arbitrarily — that would be dice rolling — but on what ones’ heart feels, ones’ mind views as plausible, and what seems to work for daily living. I don’t think we have an answer key, I don’t think it’s possible to know we’re right or even if there is a ‘right’ approach. Though inherent in that is a deep sense that I accept I can’t prove myself right and thus have to live without expecting others to come to the same conclusion I have come to.

    But there is irony. Me the non-Christian focusing more on faith and a belief that reality may be outside our capacity to comprehend, and you the Christian wanting demonstrable rational proof and a clear definition. Usually it’s the reverse!

  4. #4 by drummerejk on May 4, 2009 - 12:21


  5. #5 by drummerejk on May 4, 2009 - 12:23

    im from a club penguin wordpress so u probly dont care

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