by John Henson
What 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.
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).
by John Henson