Blaise Pascal was a 17th century French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist. He invented a mechanical calculator, and a modern computer programming language is named after him. His contributions had long-lasting impact in the fields of gambling theory, economics, and actuarial science. He was also a deeply religious man. His Pensées, an ambitious work meant to provide a thorough defense of Christianity, were unfinished at the time of his death. The most famous idea to emerge from his draft has been called Pascal’s Wager.
The basic idea is that either God exists, or He does not, and the matter cannot be proven one way or the other. If He does exist, you have everything to gain by believing that He does, and living your life accordingly, and everything to lose by rejecting or ignoring Him. If He does not exist, you have nothing to lose either way. Regardless of what probability you assign to his existence, the rational “wager” is to live as if He does exist.
Critics of Pascal’s Wager attack not the mathematics of it but the various underlying assumptions. The earliest criticism, attributed to Voltaire, is “the interest I have to believe a thing is no proof that such a thing exists”. Another problem is that there are not just two possible realities (God and no God), but a wide range of possible gods. Furthermore, it is hardly clear that a “belief ” that is the result of a self-interested calculation is something God would want, or that infinite reward and infinite punishment are the only two outcomes (as an aside, this is not actually what I believe about the afterlife, see here).
All of these criticisms are clearly valid, and it is likely that an intellect such as Pascal’s would have addressed them thoroughly, had he finished his book. I don’t think Pascal’s draft should be interpreted as attempting any kind of proof; the whole exercise assumes we can’t prove anything. Nor should it be thought to presume that there are really only two possible realities; everyone with a background in those mathematical specialties that Pascal pioneered has seen how a simplified “2 x 2” case is a common way to introduce subject matter that in its fullness is really “n x n”, or continuous rather than discrete. Where there are multiple possible “rules of the game” (what the consequences are for our choices) as well as the different possible variations of what exists, the problem of maximizing self-interest becomes too complicated to describe, let alone put into practice.
I think the point Pascal was making was not so much an argument for Christianity, but an argument against atheism. The wager offers no help in deciding between competing infinities offering equally large bribes (for example, Christian fundamentalism vs. Muslim fundamentalism). It does, however, suggest that if there is uncertainty, and if one system offers you at best a finite amount of gain or loss (e.g. whatever time you would save by not praying), and many others offer something of infinite value, the “dead-end” system should be discarded, and you would be well-advised to give the others careful study, as well as the benefit of the doubt.
It is likely that in Pascal’s time and place, the only options taken seriously by most thinking people were Christianity and atheism (or its close cousin, apatheism). A rebuttal of atheism usually leads to Christianity either by default (in a predominantly Christian country), or by a more thoughtful process of comparison (see here).
Pascal’s logic attacks atheism on what appears to be its home turf: rational self-interest. The maximization of pleasure and minimization of pain, for its own sake, have always played a central role in man’s natural thought. All high-minded ideas about altruism for its own sake, or the unbiased dedication to truth, rest on philosophical foundations just as unscientific, unproven, and ancient as those of any religion. The thoroughly consistent skeptic would disdain all of them (except to whatever extent they promote self-interest) equally, although very few atheists do so in practice.
Perhaps by presenting the cold, brute logic of the wager, Pascal was trying to arouse the very objections he got. When people react badly on a gut (or soul?) level to the suggestion that God would be honored by someone applying naked self-interest to life’s ultimate question, this can provoke fruitful discomfort within the heart of the critic. First, they may feel discomfort in realizing that self-interest is the only consistent worldview left to the man skeptical of everything. Second, they may realize that the argument’s superficial appeal is so strong because almost all men, almost all the time, focus on their self-interest, even if they espouse a high-minded idea of some sort. Third, the reaction that “what kind of God would want THAT kind of worship” could point a man to the possibility that deep inside himself he might have some innate knowledge of God (and maybe even of what kind of religion God does want).
Making people feel uncomfortable about the moral status quo is the first step in presentation of the Christian Gospel. Before salvation can be understood as “good news”, one has to recognize the serious difficulty posed by the gap between what we all are and what we feel we ought to be. I suspect Pascal understood that, and I can see how Pascal’s wager could play a supporting role in what might have turned out to be a persuasive book had it been finished.
Other than as a crude defense against backsliding into pure selfishness, I would say that Pascal’s wager has no role to play in the daily life of a fully mature Christian. It may, however, be a useful rhetorical technique in waking people up.
(The U2 song referenced in the video above can be found here.)