Pascal’s Wager


In his Pensees or "Thoughts", the 17th. Century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal pondered what he called his "wager" regarding the existence of God and the fate of the soul.  Suppose, he wrote, that God really does exist and 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, suppose 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 God exists and holds us accountable, we will have, if nothing else, at least earned a reputation as a basically decent person.


Today, such a gamble is apt to be perceived as insincere, or as a very shallow form of faith at most. 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?


Others, however, have raised questions about Pascal's logical consistency. What if, for example, Godif he existsrewards people not for their goodness, but for cleverness?  After all, did not Pascal himself famously say that "The God of the prophets is not the God of the philosophers"?


Nevertheless, I think these critics are missing the real point, which is not so much a question of proving the existence of God, but as Pascal says it all depends on whether or not the human soul is immortal.  If it isn't, then all talk of a "wager" or gamble seems pointless. After all, did not the Hebrew prophets-who certainly believed in God but had no clear idea of an afterlifewrestle continually with the problem of sinners sinning with seeming impunity?


But what if we don't "have" an immortal soul, but rather have only the potential of making ourselves immortal?  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 behavior (and its social consequences) but is instead the very essence of what we have generally called "religion".


In that case, at least it seems to me, Pascal was essentially right.  Either we cooperate with this great creative force--which we have hitherto called "God"according to its rules, or else go off by ourselves to play our own little game.   


In the first case, our immortality is insured by becoming part of the larger game of life.  And the price that we have to pay in order to play, is to, to a certain extent, risk ourselves and the meaning of our own short life in the goal of achieving something much greater. Either that, or the alternative is to relegate ourselves to the sidelines of evolution.


R W Kropf   10/20/06                                    


Pascal.doc   515words   06-10-20.html