What if you had the opportunity to make the bet of a lifetime? Let’s say that, for a coin flip, you have the chance to bet on whether it’s going to land on heads or tails. If your guess is heads and you’re right, you receive 100,000 dollars. If your bet is tails and you’re right, you receive nothing. Here’s the catch: If you bet tails and you are wrong, you have to give up 100,000. If you guess heads and you are wrong, you give up...nothing! Of course, you would bet heads, and either gain 100,000 or lose nothing at all. If you picked tails, you’d be risking a loss of 100,000 to win nothing at all. What we should do seems pretty straightforward, but what if, instead of betting with 100,000 dollars, we were betting with something far more precious: the fate of our eternities?
Just like we examined the payoffs of betting in the previous scenario, we can think about how we would bet on God’s existence. If you believe that God exists, and you’re right, then you reap the benefits of eternal life. If you believe that God does not exist, and you are right, then you reap the finite benefits of being right in your lifetime. However, if you believe that God does not exist, and you are wrong, you are subject to eternal damnation. If you believe that God exists, and this is untrue, then you experience the finite loss of being wrong.
The conclusion that you ought to “bet” on the probability that God exists, no matter how small, to avoid the infinite loss of eternal damnation, is known as Pascal’s Wager.
Pascal’s Wager is an argument that, insofar as human beings bet on God’s existence with the fates of their eternities, the rational person ought to believe and live as if God exists. If they analyze the payoffs of believing and disbelieving in God, considering both whether God does or does not exist in each scenario, they will come to this conclusion. To avoid eternal damnation, and in hopes of achieving eternal life, one ought to believe in God.
Blaise Pascal was a famous mathematician, philosopher, and physicist. You might know him from his work on what is known as Pascal’s triangle in mathematics or for his work in probability theory. He was also very religious and, in his later life, decided to write a book of Christian apologetics. Although he did not finish the book before his death, Pascal did assemble many of his notes between 1657 and 1658, which was published posthumously under the title “Pensées,” meaning “Thoughts.”
It was in this book that Pascal laid out the “wager for God’s existence” — a bet in which everyone must wager on infinite gain and loss. Of course, it is Pascal’s conclusion that the rational being would choose to believe in God to avoid infinite loss and for the prospect of infinite gain. After all, if one believes in God and God doesn’t exist, whatever finite loss they experience is surely smaller than the risk of infinite and eternal damnation. Indeed, Pascal acknowledges that “if men are capable of any truths, this is one.”
Despite Pascal’s confidence in his “wager,” several critiques of his argument arose after his death. One of these concerns was made by Pascal’s contemporary and famous philosopher Denis Diderot, who pointed out that Pascal’s “wager” didn’t give a reason as to why Pascal’s Christian God and the nonexistence of a deity were the only two options. There is a multitude of religions that assert the existence of many different “Gods,” and Pascal’s Wager doesn’t tell us which one is right — it only tells us that it is essential to be right.
Another objection concerns the nature of belief and disbelief. Even if you were to agree with Pascal about the ramifications of his proposed “wager,” could you really believe something just because you decide to? Devout followers of every religion face doubts about their faith from time to time; for someone just introduced to religion, belief might not come as easy as Pascal might think. Could you genuinely believe that your hair was made out of spaghetti even if I paid you a million dollars? Is adopting beliefs solely on the basis of the benefits even ethical?
Regardless of whether you think Pascal’s Wager is a valid argument for God’s existence or a bunch of baloney, it illuminates a lot about human decision-making and the nature of belief. Pascal’s Wager draws attention to the fact that human beings should think about decisions that have enormous consequences very carefully, a sentiment that is clearly echoed in debates today. Proponents of solutions for climate change often argue that fighting climate change is a wager that presents no drawbacks but avoids a very grim future: the destruction of our planet! The idea that we ought to err on the side of caution by avoiding the possibility of large negative consequences is the essence of Pascal’s Wager.
Pascal’s Wager also shows us how important it is to critically examine our belief and belief systems and to think about how we should go about believing. Can we believe only because it might help or benefit us? Should we even? These are questions that fall under the category of “Evidentialist objections” to Pascalian reasoning, and ones that religious leaders still grapple with today. Does God care about how you arrive at belief, and if that process was guided by self-interest? How ethical is self-interest as a motivation for belief in general?
At the end of the day, Pascal has presented us with a “wager” for God’s existence that should be looked at with care and deep thoughtfulness. If, like Pascal, you find it convincing, it is a powerful argument in apologetics. If not, it still brings up important considerations about humankind that we ought not to ignore.