What Really Are the Odds of Living Forever?
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. Wager then, without hesitation that He is….there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.
So begins the core of the argument found in the Pensées or “Thoughts” of the French mathematician and scientist Blaise Pascal (1623-62). In Part III of this notebook, which was not published until some years after his death, Pascal pondered “On the Necessity of the Wager” regarding the existence of God and the fate of the soul. His argument, which goes on at some length, is usually summarized in something like the following paragraph.
Suppose that there really is a God who will hold us accountable for the way we live our life. In that case we’d better behave or we’ll surely end up the loser. On the other hand, if such a belief is an illusion, still, when we die, what really will we have lost? Perhaps an excuse to have lived however we pleased? But on the other hand, if we have lived as if there is a God who holds us accountable, we will have, if nothing else, at least earned a reputation as a basically decent person.
Put in those terms, Pascal’s argument is often perceived as being as cynical, insincere, or, at the most, as a very shallow form of faith. Would God really reward us for simply playing it safe? Might we not say that what we have here is not faith at all, but at best a vague hope, or at worst, venal self-promotion? Would not God, some critics ask, be justified in sending such a believer to hell as a punishment for his insincerity? (However, it strikes me as rather odd how unbelievers who often make this criticism can claim to be so sure that God, whom they do not believe in, is of such a vindictive nature.)
Instead, I would suggest that the critics need to take a much closer look at what Pascal was saying. We should especially note that he says
… it is no use to say it is uncertain if we will gain, and it is certain that we risk, and that the infinite distance between the certainty of what is staked and the uncertainty of what will be gained, equals the finite good which is certainly staked against the uncertain infinite. It is not so, as every player stakes a certainty to gain an uncertainty, yet he stakes a finite certainty to gain a finite uncertainty, without transgressing against reason.
… if there are as many risks on one side as on the other, the course is to play even; and then the certainty of the stake is equal to the uncertainty of the gain, so far is it from fact that there is an infinite distance between them. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain. This is demonstrable; and if men are capable of any truths, this is one.
Volumes have been written, pro and con, about Pascal and his famous wager, and no doubt, the objection can been made that Pascal had in mind the traditional view of the Abrahamic faith tradition of a God who is preeminently a “person” who cares about how we live our lives and will hold each of us accountable. However, is not this same accountability also implicit in Asian views of karma and rebirth, even though, according to Puligandla (1975, p. 25), the ultimate reality and the law of karma may be seen as being impersonal?
Thus, the focus of Pascal’s wager really doesn’t necessarily have to be applied to the issue as to whether or not there is a personal God, but can also be applied to the question as to whether or not something of our selves—call it soul or spirit—survives the physical death of our body.
In fact, this seems to be implied when Pascal added, “And thus, when one is forced to play, he must renounce reason to preserve his life rather than risk it for infinite gain, as likely to happen as the loss of nothingness.” In other words, life leaves us no choice: we are forced to choose, and the choice of nothingness is no more reasonable than the risk involved in believing.
I believe that the risk of not believing may be even greater. This would
be because of what I suggested in Chapter 4, that we are not born with immortal
souls but instead only with a spiritual capacity to grow or develop one. If so,
then the risk of not believing would give new meaning to Hamlet’s famous
question about whether it is better “to be or not to be?”. This ability to
destroy our own being, thus our own evolutionary potential, would certainly be
in sharp contrast to what many assume Pascal envisioned; that the penalty for
wagering wrongly would be to suffer eternal torment. It would be even more in
contrast to what
In The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard mentions Pascal at least four times (1959, p. 40, 44, 217, 233) which, when taken together point out how Pascal’s 17th century era physics, with his concepts of the infinitely large and the infinitely small, each reproducing the other but on a vastly different scale, were essentially an “illusion” caused by the ignorance of evolution and especially his failure to recognize the emergence of the infinitely complex. Consequently, according to Teilhard, Pascal’s wager needs to be corrected, at least to the extent that the odds are seen as being in any sense even.
Instead, as Teilhard put it, “when one of the alternatives is weighted with logic, and in a sense by the promise of a whole world, can we still speak of a game of simple chance?”
Teilhard then moved quickly to answer that question by responding:
The world is too big a concern for that. To bring us into existence it has from the beginning juggled miraculously with too many improbabilities for there to be any risk whatever in committing ourselves further and following it right to the end. (Teilhard, 1959, p. 233)
This argument of Teilhard’s in some way anticipates what has come to be called the “anthropic principle”, which is the much debated argument that evolution appears to have been “designed” in some way to produce intelligent life—either that, or else one must presuppose the existence of innumerable other universes to account for the slim chance that life might appear in at least one of them. Then, based on that same sort of reasoning, Teilhard pushed his argument on to a final step, asserting that, in view of the whole direction that evolution has taken so far, adding, with an eye to the future that…
… life, by its very structure, having once been lifted to the stage of thought, cannot go on at all without requiring to ascend even further… [and consequently]…That there is for us, in the future, under some form or other, at least collective, not only survival, but super-life. (Teilhard, 1959, p. 234)
Teilhard’s mention of a “collective” form of a “super-life” here might suggest something like the concept of the re-absorption of the individual soul at the time of death into a “world-soul”, or something like Aristotle’s idea that the intellectual soul or rationality in some sense might achieve immortality. However, what Teilhard had in mind becomes clear in Book Four, where this collective is described as culminating in the “Omega-Point”, which although it is already realized in God, nevertheless includes individual human consciousness, a point that he further elaborated in his 1937 “Sketch of a Personalistic Universe” (Teilhard, 1969, p. 65-71).
In any case, it needs to be remembered that fundamental to Teilhard’s view is the principle that true “union”—as distinguished from mere conglomeration—“differentiates”. In this case, our immortality is insured by becoming part of the larger game of life. It is not a question of absenting ourselves from the rough and tumble of life in the world, which is the impression given by Pascal’s strict Jansenist piety, sometimes described as a kind of Catholic puritanism. Instead, the price that we have to pay in order to play, is, to a certain extent, to risk ourselves and the meaning of our own short life in the goal of achieving something much greater than just our own holiness or our own salvation. Either that, or the alternative is to relegate ourselves to the sidelines of evolution.
Yet, what if we don’t have naturally immortal souls as something given to us, but rather have only the potential of making ourselves immortal? And then suppose the condition of such an advance is not simply our own will power but instead our conscious alignment with that creative energy that lies at the heart of the evolution or future of the Universe? In other words, suppose that what we call “ethics” or “morality” is not just a question of our behavior as individuals, or even just its social consequences, but is ultimately a matter of love on a much more universal scale, and, as such, is the very essence of what we have generally called “religion”.
Here I would again point out that I choose to differ slightly from Teilhard in this regard. In a footnote in The Phenomenon of Man (1959, p. 169, n.1), Teilhard appears to have given the impression that what we call the “soul” is, in some sense, naturally immortal, if not exactly in the sense that Platonism thought souls to be—that is, as pre-existing spiritual entities—but rather as a natural or automatic result of the evolutionary process. However, as we shall see, certain comments (which we will see in the next chapter) that Teilhard made shortly before his death seem to indicate he was having second thoughts about this. Thus, I tend more to side with Karl Rahner (1978, p. 120-128) who saw this aspect of our human nature as an “obediential” capacity, something that is, of its nature, incomplete and remains so unless we reach out in some way toward God for its fulfillment.
This view, which Rahner often expressed in terms of humans possessing a “supernatural existential”, might also explain the Vatican II teachings (quoted in Chapter 5) regarding the salvation of non-believers, with their seeking of what they believe is right and good for the world beyond what is simply for ones own selfish purposes. This seeking is, or at least in existential terms amounts to openness to God’s grace with its gift of eternal life. In this aspect, Karl Rahner admitted that he was indebted to Teilhard’s views, especially when it came to the subject of “hominization” or the evolution of the human species. Rahner also seems to have been influenced by Henri de Lubac, a Jesuit who was a personal friend of Teilhard, but whose views expressed in his own book on the subject of human nature and God’s grace were proscribed, much like Teilhard’s writings, by Roman censors back in 1950. This was particularly ironic, inasmuch as de Lubac’s views were largely derived from those of the ancient Eastern Church theologians who saw human nature as incomplete and requiring God’s grace before a human can achieve his or her full human capacities. De Lubac’s book Le surnaturel was finally published with Church approval in 1964 and he has also been credited—although those who did so remain officially anonymous—with having had a large part to play in the drafting of the last (and longest) document to come out of the Second Vatican Council, known by its Latin title Gaudium et spes (“Joy and Hope”) or more formally as the “Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”. In any case, there are passages in it that resemble, almost word for word, some of Teilhard’s writings.
Despite the great contrast between these three great modern Jesuit thinkers and Pascal with his 17th century physics and Jansenist sympathies—his Provincial Letters were particularly scathing in their criticism of what Pascal believed to be laxity in Jesuit ethical reasoning—I think that Pascal was essentially right when it comes to evaluating what is at stake in his “wager”. Either we cooperate with this great creative force which we have generally, and again, perhaps too casually, called “God”. Or else we can go off by ourselves to play our own little game, one which in the end, if we can believe most of the scientists as well as Pascal, will only lead, if not to actual, at least to virtual nothingness. Accordingly, given this new and greatly expanded interpretation of Pascal’s wager, one in which the odds are weighted more strongly in favor of the survival of life in a “world” beyond this one, I think the words of the contemporary Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Küng are telling. As he wrote in the last part of the epilogue of his 2007 book on science and religion (p. 205-206):
I personally have accepted Blaise Pascal’s ‘wager’ and have put my stake on God and the infinite against the void and nothingness—not on the basis of a calculation of probability or mathematical logic but on the basis of a rational trust. I do not believe in the later legendary elaborations of the New Testament message of the resurrection but in its original core: that this Jesus of Nazareth did not die into nothingness, but into God. So trusting in this message, I hope as a Christian, like many people in other religions, not to die into nothingness, which seems to me to be extremely irrational and senseless. Rather, I hope to die into the ultimate reality, into God, which—beyond space and time in the hidden real dimension of the infinite—transcends all human reason and conceiving…
Küng then continues,
Of course, I am aware of the abiding risk of this wager in unconditional trust, but I am convinced that even if I lose the wager in death, I will have lost nothing for my life; at all events, I will have lived a better, happier, more meaningful life than if I had not had hope. (Küng, 2007, p. 205-206)
I think it is significant that Küng dealt with these matters and many more surrounding the subject of death and the possibilities of an afterlife in his 1982 book titled Ewiges Leben? (Eternal Life?) and that we should note that the 1985 English translation bears the subtitle Life After Death as a Medical, Philosophical, and Theological Problem. Yet despite this extensive look at the whole subject, in this earlier book Küng does not mention Pascal’s wager and in fact only mentions him once, this in regard to another author’s recalling Pascal’s paradoxical remark about it not needing the whole universe to kill a human and that just one drop of [tainted] water is sufficient!
Küng did, however, take a paragraph of this earlier book (1985, p. 226) to distance himself from Teilhard’s view that science itself discloses an ultimate meaning to the universe. Instead, he credits Teilhard with “establishing a new understanding between theology and natural science”, apparently because Teilhard had forced the Church to take evolution seriously. But in regard to Teilhard’s views as to the direction evolution is taking, Küng cautioned against what he saw as an unwarranted mixing of scientific conclusions with religious convictions.
So what has taken place to explain the liberal theologian Küng turning to pondering Pascal’s wager? The cynic might ascribe it to Küng being several decades older when he began to take Pascal more seriously. Or could it be instead that Küng has taken Teilhard more seriously? If his 2007 book on the subject is any indication, it appears that he has. Not that he still didn’t have doubts about some of Teilhard’s theological ideas, especially his almost complete avoidance of the historical Jesus. But despite these misgivings, there can be no doubt that to Küng, Teilhard has become something of a hero because of his stubborn insistence that theologians must take science seriously, even when it meant being held under suspicion by church authorities and the suppression of his writings—a fate not unlike that suffered by Küng, who was deprived of his status as the officially Church-approved Catholic theologian at the University of Tübingen.
In this latter regard, Küng singles out one of Teilhard’s papers that particularly aroused ecclesiastical alarm bells. This was Teilhard’s long 1934 essay on “How I Believe” (Teilhard, 1969, p. 96-132), which begins with this fourfold profession of faith:
I believe that the universe is in evolution.
I believe that evolution proceeds toward spirit.
I believe that spirit is realized in a form of personality.
I believe that the supremely personal is the universal Christ.
Then, not too much further into the same essay, Teilhard made the statement, one which particularly alarmed the Roman authorities:
If, as the result of some interior revolution, I were to lose in succession my faith in Christ, my faith in a personal God, and my faith in spirit, I feel that I should continue to believe invincibly in the world. The world (its value, its infallibility and its goodness)—that, when all is said and done, is the first, the last, and the only thing in which I believe. It is by this faith that I live. And it is to this faith, I feel, that at the moment of death, rising above all doubts, I shall surrender myself. (Teilhard, 1969, p. 99)
What are we to make of this last statement? Taken in isolation, it certainly seems to be a rather disconcerting admission coming from a Catholic priest. Was Teilhard on the brink of losing his faith—or had he done so already? Considering the way he had been treated by the Church, one might readily understand and forgive him for walking out on it altogether. But he never did.
when taken in the context of the psychological steps through which his
faith progressed—which he insisted that he was trying to outline in this
essay—it is rather a bold statement of the foundation of where his faith began.
Not that it was always so. He had grown up in a home of rather conventional 19th
century French Catholic piety which, like Pascal’s, was flavored with
Jansenism and its overtones of odium mundi, which if not an outright
hatred of this world, at least harbored strong suspicions of any attachment to
the world as a source of corruption of the spirit and a danger to the faith.
Teilhard’s faith had become just the opposite. Strangely fascinated by rocks
and minerals as a child—he said because of their permanence—he had
rediscovered, during his early training as a Jesuit on the
Only if we understand all this, can we then appreciate how fundamental was his belief in evolution and the vehemence of that paragraph quoted above, which if understood in context, takes us to the next step, his “Faith in Spirit”— a “spirit which is born within, and as a function of matter” (Teilhard, 1969, p. 103-108).
I do not think that it is possible to overemphasize the importance of that last quoted statement if we are to understand the core of Teilhard’s thinking or the evolutionary thesis that is the impetus behind the writing of this book. Even though the material and the spiritual may often seem to pull us in opposite directions—which they often do in practice, and which struggle forms the main theme of so much traditional spirituality—we must understand that the contest is not between two opposed entities, but between two vectors or directions of movement affecting a single basic thing, or what Teilhard termed (using the German word—surely a major concession for Frenchman!) weltstoff. In other words, it is a matter of understanding evolution in terms of the emergence of the spirit from the basic “stuff” of what is generally called “matter”, which, as was explained in Chapter 4, especially in the light of contemporary cosmology, could be best thought of as a kind of a subsequent congealment of the energy released at the moment of the big bang.
In any case, it is this fundamental unity of matter and spirit that explains Teilhard’s insistence that, when it comes to the evaluation of this evolution, we must hold, as an “absolute principle of appraisal” or even as “the absolute condition of the world’s existence”, to this maxim: “it is better, no matter what the cost, to be more conscious than less conscious.” Thus, while Teilhard admitted that many people he knew could not follow him in this belief, he laid the blame not on any ill-will on their part, but on their failure to see or appreciate the world seen as a whole. However, once this holistic viewpoint is achieved, then, despite all the changes and fluctuations that occur within nature, we come to the realization “that the only [i.e., constant] reality in the world is the passion for growth.”
Next (Teilhard, 1969, p. 109), at least for the purpose or aim of this book, comes the most important step of all, which is “Faith in Immortality”, which, in turn, forms the beginning of the next stage of Teilhard’s understanding and presentation of his beliefs. Yet, at this point, he had to admit that what he held was more a “vision of hope” (emphasis mine) and that by immortality he meant, first of all “irreversibility” (this time the emphasis was his). Here he based his argument on what he considered to be another fundamental law within the universe and that is “if a thing is possible, it will be realized.” And then, after admitting that entropy (again the second law of thermodynamics) still plays a role, one intensifying the struggle for life, Teilhard insisted that nevertheless life constantly reasserts itself.
In any case, I think it is significant that here Teilhard turned to the philosopher Maurice Blondel—whose book L’Action had, in 1893, caught the world’s attention, as well as the Catholic Church’s suspicions —and to the work of Teilhard’s own friend, Édouard Le Roy, who had been a disciple of Henri Bergson, and who like Blondel, fell under the censure of the Church. Teilhard summed up their thought thus:
‘If that thing, apparently so small, which we know as human activity, is to be set in motion, nothing less is required than the attraction of a result that cannot be destroyed. We press on only in the hope of an immortal conquest.’ And from this I draw the direct conclusion that ‘ahead of us there must therefore lie something that is immortal.’ (Teilhard, 1969, p. 110)
And what is that thing that is immortal? As he expressed it in the third item of his short 1934 profession of faith, it is “a form of personality.” Later, to be even more specific, he modified that statement in a footnote added from his 1950 essay “The Heart of Matter”. It reads, “Today, I would say, ‘I believe that in man, spirit is fully realized in person” (Teilhard, 1978, p. 78, n.7). In other words, Teilhard believed that, from the scientific perspective, that reflective consciousness—to be able “to know that we know”, which he saw as being the defining characteristic of human life—represents, at least on this planet, the culmination of evolution and that if evolution is to continue or even result in something lasting, it can only be in the form of the human spirit or that core of individual personhood that past ages, and occasionally even Teilhard, called “soul”.
Thus Teilhard stubbornly remained committed to his vocation, not only as a scientist, but also as a Jesuit priest who remained devoutly loyal to his vision of Christ, seen as the center of human co-consciousness, and thus also as the pinnacle of human evolution. I will not go further into this last element of Teilhard’s faith, as that is not the purpose of this book, which is to strengthen the hope of immortality to persons of any faith or even no faith at all. But I do hope that this will show how the faith of Teilhard de Chardin was founded on the bedrock of his love for the world and his conviction that its evolution is—as the gathered scientists at the Darwin Centennial in 1959 were to say, and as Teilhard had already stressed—irreversible.
That conviction in itself is, I believe, to some degree, a leap of faith, and it explains why Küng, who has in some ways been treated by the Vatican much as Teilhard was, speaks of his own acceptance of Pascal’s wager, not just in terms of hope, but of “trust”—which is, as we have seen, the gospel sense or the basic meaning of the word faith. As such it is both a “rational trust” but even more an “unconditional trust” that we “will not die into nothingness.”
Although he was not speaking of religious faith in his book Creative Evolution, Bergson—who although he was raised Jewish, had become an atheist around age sixteen—nevertheless wrote at some length, toward the beginning of his chapter (the same as quoted previously in this book) on “The Meaning of Life”, about the limitations of the human intellect and its reasoning abilities. The intellect has become, as he put it, “a nucleus formed by means of condensation”, and thus, by a process of abstraction, “detached itself from a vaster reality…” So it is “of the essence of reasoning to shut itself up in the circle of the given.” Thus, he described what we might even see as a vicious circle:
So you may speculate as intelligently as you will on the mechanism of intelligence: you will never, by this method, succeed in going beyond it. You may get something more complex, but not something higher nor even something different.
What is the answer? Bergson likened the situation to the difference between walking and swimming. “Thousands upon thousands variations on the theme of walking will never yield a rule for swimming”, but once you have taken the leap—and here Bergson actually uses that word—you will understand how “Swimming is an extension of walking.”
So, as Bergson had already admitted, “there is a kind of absurdity in trying to know otherwise than by intelligence”, still—and here I have added emphasis to Bergson’s own words—“if the risk be frankly accepted, action will perhaps cut the knot that reasoning has tied and will not unloose.” In light of this latter statement, it is understandable why Bergson, toward the end of his life, seriously considered becoming a Catholic, although he ultimately decided against it, apparently in solidarity with his fellow Jews who were being interned and even murdered by the Nazis.
Of course, one need not go to any of these more recent authors to learn what is ultimately at stake. It is not just a matter of finding the meaning of life, even it be characterized, as did Frankl, as “ultimate meaning”. Jesus himself put it even more starkly when he warned his followers with his question about “What does it profit…?”, which when translated in terms that accord much more closely with what we learned in chapter 4 is not just (as our old renditions of Luke 9:25 had it) about losing our “souls”. Instead, as the majority of our contemporary translations have it, it is a choice between gaining the whole world, but at the price of losing or “forfeiting” ourselves. And thus, if we were to retranslate this warning into evolutionary terms, it would be ultimately a choice between achieving our full potential as human beings or else passing away into a final state of non-existence or total nothingness.
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