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The Wager

Human Happiness (excerpts from Pensées), Blaise Pascal

PascalThis is a short book of extracts from Pascal’s Pensées put together by Penguin Books as part of their ‘Great Ideas’ series, which they launched a few years ago.  I’m not sure why they chose to call it Human Happiness, but it may have something to do with Pascal’s observation that “[a]ll men seek happiness. This is without exception.”  It is, however, worth pointing out that happiness is not really the central theme of the excerpts in question here, and the desire for happiness serves more as an anchor for Pascal’s views on the ‘wretchedness’ of the human condition.  In other words, the fact that we endlessly pursue happiness makes our anguish and doubt all the more difficult to bear.  This is perhaps the ‘classic’ view of Pascal and his writing, and indeed the quote on the cover of the book gives us a flavour of how the 17th century French Jansenist viewed man’s natural state as caught between the cold cruelty of nature and the warm embrace of God:

“What then is to become of man? Will he be the equal of God or the beasts? What a terrifying distance! What then shall it be?”

The idea of distance between polarities ties in nicely with Pascal’s famous metaphysical wager, which is helpfully signposted to us in the book as [THE WAGER] in case we miss it.  Despite this warning I didn’t actually see it coming and it was only afterwards when I thought about what Pascal was proposing that it occurred to me that I’d encountered the wager before.  For those of you haven’t had the pleasure, or who need reminding, Pascal’s Wager basically posits that man must choose between God and No God – “God is, or He is not” – and that mathematically this should boil down to a rational assessment of the risk involved in either option.  In other words it comes down to the following: (i) if we bet on God and He exists then we win everything (and if we bet on God and he doesn’t exist then we lose nothing); and conversely (ii) if we don’t bet on God and He exists then we lose everything (and if we don’t bet on God and He doesn’t exist then we win nothing).

Pascal’s straightforward conclusion is that we should obviously bet on God.

My immediate reaction upon processing all this was that the simplistic logic of the Wager only carries weight because Pascal is renowned as one of the greatest mathematicians in human history (i.e. he must be right because he’s good with numbers).  I think this initial objection (Objection 1, if you will) stems from the fact that Pascal’s equation seems to rely on what Dawkins labelled “inauthentic belief”, otherwise known as the “you can’t just feign belief and ‘bet’ on God” objection.  However, further investigation has led me to conclude that this does a disservice to what Pascal is saying, mainly because the context of the Wager indicates that it’s not really supposed to be a cynic’s hedging of bets, but rather a way of placating man’s voracious appetite for reason.  In other words, the Wager is there as a sort of gateway to religious enlightenment, which presupposes that every man and woman will be able to find the truth of God so long as his or her rationality is temporarily assuaged (i.e. he/she is willing to give God a chance).  This gives rise to Objection 2.

Objection 2 is based on the fact that the Wager then becomes a placebo of sorts, to be taken in order to ignore our rational faculties, and more importantly it assumes that belief in a particular Christian God is a foregone conclusion once the placebo has been administered.  As Diderot pointed out, “an Imam could reason the same way.”  This is particularly worrying as Pascal himself recognises that imagination is “the dominant faculty in man, master of error and falsehood.”  Given this propensity for error, it seems unwise to further dampen our ability to consider things rationally and just drift towards spirituality.  This could lead us anywhere or nowhere (particularly if we accept that “man is vile enough to bow down to beasts and even worship them”).  As such, I prefer Pascal’s other argument, which is basically that man trying to understand God is like a two-dimensional animal trying to understand a three-dimensional universe (Dante said much the same thing).

For those of you who’ve made it this far, however, I wouldn’t base your decision on whether or not to approach this book on your feelings for the Wager, which only has a minor role to play, or even religion, which admittedly has a larger part.  Pascal’s writing is incredibly sharp, and his observations regarding human nature are both shrewd and hilarious:

We would all cheerfully be cowards if that would acquire us a reputation for bravery.”

It is also challenging, and that’s not always a bad thing.

The Editors

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