February 23, 2009

The Wager

While browsing my Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, I found an effective synthesis of the famous Pascal’s wager, so I thought it might be useful—above all for my younger readers—to share at least a portion of the item. Here it goes:

The ancient and popular (or vulgar) view that belief in God is the ‘best bet’, given its classic formulation in the Pensées of Pascal. Suppose that metaphysical argument leaves us knowing nothing about divine matters. Nevertheless, we can ask if it is better for us to believe in God. If God exists then it is clearly better: infinitely better, given the prospect of eternal bliss for believers, and eternal damnation for non-believers. If God does not exist, then we lose nothing, and may even gain in this life by losing ‘poisonous pleasures’. So belief is the dominant strategy. It can win, and cannot lose. The wager is ‘infini-rien’: infinity to nothing.

Pascal knew that you could not just chose to believe because of this kind of consideration, but thought, perceptively, that beliefs are contagious, and you could deliberately deaden you’re your intelligence by choosing to associate with people who would pass their belief to you. You would thus end up believing, and the argument has shown that this is the most desirable strategy.

And to complete the job, here is how the wager is described by Pascal himself in the Pensées (from Wikipedia):

If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is [...].
[..] "God is, or He is not." But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.
Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. "No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all."
Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.
"That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much." Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.


  1. Have known the wager for years, but, this is the first time I've actually read what he wrote. A bit more complex than we're lead to believe. Kind of like my bit on the Crusades, "well, not exactly" what we were taught. Sometimes it seems like my life since college, 30 plus years, YIKES!! has been recovering from education. My name is Steven, and I'm a recovering eduholic.

  2. Hmmm...thinking...I've always been of the opinion that the wager makes the assumption that God can be fooled. Professing belief before you have it, hoping that it will rub off from others...God would see that coming from the beginning. But the question is, would it count?

  3. If you apply the reasoning of Pascal's Wager further, to the case where you have to choose among more than one religion, you find that the better wager would be to convert to Islam.

  4. Interesting post, Stefano. Actually, Pascal’s argument has been criticized by many, while a number of authors have explicitly conceded that the Wager is valid (see here, for instance), and it would take years to exhaust the subject. Let’s just say that what has generally been regarded as the most important criticism is “the many Gods objection.” Actually, Pascal has not considered enough possibilities (and that’s why your argument is well-grounded).

    The other “uncomfortable feature” of the argument—according to the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy—is that unlike most arguments for belief, it proceeds without reference to the likelihood of truth. W.K. Clifford once quoted Samuel Coleridge to contest the Wager: “He who begins by loving Christianity better than Truth, will proceed by loving his own sect or Church better than Christianity, and in the end loving himself better than all.”

    Voltaire, in turn, suggested that Pascal’s calculations, and his appeal to self-interest, are unworthy of the gravity of the subject of theistic belief.

    Nevertheless, I think Pascal has the merit of focusing attention on the practical aspect of the issue. Thus making it more easy for uncertain and hesitant people to believe. In other words, his argument is, in my view, more a pragmatic tactic than an philosophical strategy, targeted to certain people at certain times and places, though with a lasting and astonishing power of suggestion.

  5. Steven, it took me several minutes to realize what “eduholic” truly means … (thanks Google!)

  6. Paul, God is more merciful than we can imagine ...

  7. Believing what is not seen is better than believing for nothing at all if the result is for the betterment of mankind and the world as a whole. There is no more discussion needed if warring parties tend to agree with meeting in the middle for the sake of saving humanity.