How Problematic is Pascal?

by John Henson
blaisepascal2.jpgWhat is Pascal’s Wager and why is it even considered when people talk about the existence of God?
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a French mathematician and a contemporary of Rene Descartes. Trained in his youth as a mathematician, Pascal’s studies led him away from his primary work into religion.
It was, perhaps, work on the theory of probability with a mathematician named Fermat that led to his argument from generalized expectations. The result was “Pascal’s Wager,” an argument for the existence of God.
The correspondence between Pascal and Fermat arose from a problem proposed by a gamester, the Chevalier de Mere, to Pascal, who communicated it to Fermat. It is not difficult to see how the solution to a question of probabilities would lead Pascal, a religious man and one who had studied religious subjects, to explore probabilities in support of the existence of God.
The argument is expressed this way:
1. Either God exists or he does not exist.
2. If one believes in the Christian God, then if he exists, one receives an infinitely great reward. If he does not exist, then one loses little or nothing.
3. If one does not believe in the Christian God, then if he exists, one receives an infinitely great punishment and if he does not exist, one gains little or nothing.
4. It is better to either receive an infinitely great reward or lose little or nothing than it is to receive an infinitely great punishment or gain little or nothing.
Therefore:
5. It is better to believe in the Christian God than it is to not believe in the Christian God.
6. If one course of action is better than another, then it is rational to follow that course of action and irrational to follow the other.
7. It is rational to believe in the Christian God and irrational not to believe in the Christian God.
Pascal supports his argument with matrices and mathematical equations. After one reads the entire argument, one may be impressed with its validity and exactness.
However, Pascal’s argument has been attacked somewhat successfully on the basis that the propositions rest upon mathematic probability, not certitude. Pascal insists the “wager must be made by everyone.”
Problems involved with the argument include, expectedly, the undefined probability for God’s existence. Pascal presupposes you should have a probability for God’s existence in the first place.
Perhaps the biggest failure of Pascal’s Wager is that it doesn’t rest upon any direct evidence of God’s existence, as does the argument from design. The direct proofs of the argument from design leave no doubt of its exactness and certainty, where Pascal’s Wager sounds more pragmatic than factual.
Of course, the principal proof of God’s existence is in the world and in scripture with a rather simple argument found in God’s word, which says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork,” (Psalm 19:1 ESV).

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Richard lives in Florence, Alabama and is married to Deirdre. They have three daughters. He is an avid reader, devoted writer and lover of history and research. He is the author of "The Most Important Question" and is working on more books.

3 thoughts on “How Problematic is Pascal?

  1. I know that many Christians say that even if there is no God, or if Christianity is not true, then they would still live the Christian life anyway. However, I guess I am like Paul, if Christ has not been raised (or equally, if there is no God), then let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.

  2. I heard a preacher put it this way: “If you’re living as if there is no God, then YOU.BETTER.BE.RIGHT!” It also follows that if one says that there is no God, then that person has to know everything, for, if he admits that he doesn’t know everything, then that one thing he does not know, is that there is a God.

  3. From continental drift to astronomy, from the presence of other religions (such as Hinduism) to the collective human emotion of loving your kids, the case for a single Christian entity is increasingly slim. Perhaps we should start trying to understand how our concept of the Divine needs to fit within the world rather than trying to shoehorn the world into a concept of the Divine.

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