Being all deep and stuff: My Thoughts on Pascal’s Pensées (what I’ve read so far)

posted by Dr. James G. Hood
Friday, May 28, 2010

Religion is a powerful force in the world, being one of the few ideologies that millions of people have been willing to die for over the centuries. Many people grow up with a certain system of belief and may go on until death believing in a religion based on faith without fully exploring the rational groundings for that particular system of belief. What about the rest of us who do not simply accept God’s existence as a self evident fact? Pascal posed this exact question and he attempted to answer it with a wager demonstrating God’s existence, and although persuasive in many respects, Pascal’s wager involves many assumptions and begs many questions that must each be respectively explained and answered before Pascal’s argument can be considered a strong, sound one.

            Pascal lays the foundation for his ultimate assertion that God exists by first establishing that humanity is weak and limited. Pascal comes to the conclusion that humanity is weak and limited by a long and complex series of arguments. First, he demonstrates that when people shape their worldview they are either dogmatists or skeptics. However, neither of these perspectives works. Being a total skeptic goes against human nature because humans constantly try to make sense of things, and in order to do so humans will believe in something. Furthermore, being a dogmatist goes against human nature because it is not rationale. No empirical evidence exists to support this faith-based claim. From this point, Pascal asserts that humanity must embrace the third option—belief in God. From this point onward, Pascal bases his argument in the Judeo Christian perspective and many assumptions from this perspective, accepted as premises, are used to support the claim of humankind’s dual condition: people have aspects of being corrupt and not being corrupt engrained into their nature. Humans realize their dual nature which entails never attaining full knowledge and must be content with a level of happiness only approaching perfect happiness. To extend this point, Pascal discusses the concept of original sin, and the fact that most people cannot come to terms with it. He argues, therefore, that because humans’ nature and the concept of original sin are inaccessible through reason, reason cannot be the ultimate means through knowing God and ourselves. Next, Pascal provides numerous illustrative examples to demonstrate that humans cannot grasp the ultimate nature of the metaphysical world. Infinity exists in both directions according to our perceptual observations both on the macroscopic and microscopic scales. Therefore, humans must realize that they are weak because nothing can be fully comprehended. Humans should take solace in the fact that unlike all other creatures in the universe, we are self reflective; therefore, our goal should be to think and think well.

            All of this argumentation lays the framework for Pascal’s Wager. Pascal begins with an argument by analogy: We know an infinite number exists without knowing its nature. In the same way, we know infinite God exists without knowing his nature. Afterwards, Pascal extends his argument by describing God’s characteristics and proving his existence accordingly. The first premise is that God is incomprehensible. Therefore, rationally proving God’s existence would be nonsensical. Following the same reasoning, a person cannot be judged based on whether he/she believes in God. By referring to the previous argument of human nature which establishes that humans will adopt a worldview either consciously or unconsciously, a disjunctive syllogism concerning belief in God presents itself: a person must believe in God or not. Having established that a person must choose to believe in God or not, Pascal examines the stakes and possibilities for reward for each decision. If the belief in God is correct then the person gains everything and if not then that person loses nothing. Considering the stakes more specifically, someone will notice that by making a finite wager for the possibility of infinite gain a person must make the wager. No matter how small and insignificant the finite chance actually is for God to exist is irrelevant. The award is incomprehensibly worth it, so faced with that wager a person must choose to believe in God. However, being the skeptical reader Pascal’s proof begs the question: does someone truly believe in something (God) only if they are doing so because they feel they should?

            Pascal answers this question by arguing that if a person recognizes the truth or at least the seeming truth in his argument then that person should change his/her actions to be those of someone who believes in God. As Pascal argues, using behavioral activation (changing one’s actions to those that accord with a different way of thinking) will eventually change one’s way of thinking to what was previously unthinkable.

Pascal’s argument is problematic because it diminishes the honest quest for truth. Pascal is ultimately arguing that the wager is a well calculated gamble. The point should be emphasized that Pascal’s wager is still a gamble; therefore, evidence may still be found to counter Pascal’s wager. By using behavioral activation on oneself, would seem to brainwash a person into believing in God, which is not justifiable for bringing about belief.

            Furthermore, Pascal’s wager is problematic because it only considers the benefits for why a person should believe in God, not people’s personal motivations. Considering people’s motivations in God shows that believers believe in God only out of self interest. In this way, believers are no different from atheists except for the fact that believers seem to be striving for infinite gain while nonbelievers strive for finite gain. If God looked at motivations, how could one be judged to be better than the other?

            Except for these tantalizing questions, Pascal’s proof of God has been quite persuasive; the problem is that all of these questions are based on is Pascal’s assumption that people should believe in a Christian God. After all, the wager would not work if God was not the benevolent, all-powerful God of the Christians that judges people based on belief, and then sentences them to the appropriate afterlife: heaven or hell. Pascal may have answers to these questions in the wider works of the Pensées, but based on the given argument Pascal’s wager is ineffective at providing justification for belief in God.

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