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by Blaise Pascal

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I love Pensees far too much to write rationally about it, but this I know: most modern philosophy professors are far too dismissive of Blaise Pascal. If they spend any time at all discussing him, they use that time to dismantle the argument famously described as “Pascal’s Wager.”

Roughly, Pascal’s Wager argues as follows: you only have one life, and you know that it is finite (you will die). If there is any chance at all that you might be able to risk that finite life to win “an infinity of infinitely happy life,” the most reasonable thing to do is to take that chance. Even if the odds seem exceedingly slim, “since you are obliged to play, you must be renouncing reason if you hoard your life rather than risk it for an infinite gain . . .” Thus, it makes more sense to wager that Christianity is true rather than to wager that it is false.

This argument has its problems—problems that philosophy professors love to point out. But the thing that never gets said about Pascal’s Wager is that Pascal himself never expected his argument to be persuasive.

One of the things that Pascal articulates so brilliantly in Pensees is the fact that man can know nothing with certainty apart from divine revelation. Where Descartes believes he can use his reason as a foundation for his epistemology, Pascal adamantly argues that our reason is not trustworthy (I’m particularly fond of the plank experiment he describes in fragment 44). Bearing this in mind, it’s ridiculous to think that Pascal would then create an argument for the truth of Christianity that depended upon human reason. He knows that man can never reason to ultimate truth! And he says as much when he prefaces his Wager: “Who then will condemn Christians for being unable to give rational grounds for their belief, professing as they do a religion for which they cannot give rational grounds? . . . ‘Either God is or he is not.’ But to which view shall we be inclined? Reason cannot decide the question.”

Pascal is not a brilliant philosopher because he provided a proof for the existence of God or the truth of Christianity. His brilliance lies in his epistemology, and his incredible insight into the nature of man. To dismiss Pascal because his Wager is unconvincing is like dismissing the diagnosis of a doctor who says you have six months to live because he can’t cure you.

by Jeff Baldwin