A Sympathetic View of Pascal's Wager

Let’s chill out a bit on Pascal’s wager.

It was notes for a book he never actually managed to publish. Maybe he would have cut it had he hadn’t died. Also, in context, it was a thought experiment on reasoning in a probabilistic way, perhaps more so than an appeal to conversion.

Yes, silly Chrisitians have repeated it in brain dead ways, but respect the dead on this one. He was in a different context, and these are notes for a book he never published. Pascal was on the great scientists. He was brilliant, even if you think he was wrong about God. I’m sure also he would have been quick to call ID bad science and bad theology. It might be worth understanding what he meant in the original context.


Do you have any ideas on that? I really can’t see where he would have gone with it to make it anything like intellectually respectable.

Let’s just start with the fact that he never published it. It was unpublished notes for a book.

OK. Where do we go from that?

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Yes, I’ve always hated the fact that the modern form of the argument is called “Pascal’s Wager” even though it doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with what Pascal was actually saying. Sometimes we do great thinkers no favors by giving them “credit” for a modern spin on their ideas which is not really all that faithful to their views. Unfortunately, even philosophers and textbooks call the idea “Pascal’s Wager” and it’s hard to change standard and entrenched labels.

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Now if people would just stop using it, we might have something :slight_smile:


Unfortunately, with scholars of long ago, we tend to treat virtually every word they wrote on paper as if it was meant to be studied and scrutinized to the max. Consider Fermat’s innocent little note about a nifty little proof for which he had insufficient room to write it in the margin. Consider Beethoven’s rough drafts for his Fifth Symphony and his Fidelio/Lenore overtures. (He scribbled and marked out and virtually exhausted/filled his pages, leaving it to his transcriber to make sense out of it.)


It is unrefined thoughts, at best.

Reading the original context, in my view, it functions more like a type of thought experiment in probabilistic reasoning (before Bayes?). Remember, also, he wasn’t reciting a canned argument. He was exploring the meaning of infinity as the notion was becoming known at the time too.

Now, in our context, it is a stale argument with obvious counters. In his context, it was the beginnings of an interesting synthesis of several concepts.

He did something similar with the notion of a “vacuum”. In a lot of ways Pascal was like @AndyWalsh, drawing on illustrations from science with a lot of creativity. Pensees might have been a very interesting book when it was done. At the moment, all we have are his notes. I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt for this reason. On one hand, I imagine he’d be please we are discussing him 350 years later. On the other hand, I’m sure he’d be embarrassed about his half formed thoughts being in public.

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I think the best retort, that best honors Pascal, is to say:

You sir, are no Blaise Pascal. He can make that argument, but you are no Pascal.


It’s unclear to me what Pascal’s wager has to do with infinity. Explain?

What would that context be, and what concepts are you referring to?

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A central piece of his argument is that:

infinity x finite small number > finite large number

This was a (relatively?) new idea at the time. He was turning this idea around in his head. Who knows how it would have ultimately been put together in to the book. But he was discussing at least in part to play with the math. I know this is trivial in our moment, but in his.

His context was at the beginning of the Scientific revolution, he died about 1660, was doing work (including on fluids and gas) from something like 1620 to 1660 (these are very rough dates from memory. He was a Catholic, like @PdotdQ, but surprisingly anti-natural theology. He disliked arguments from God from science, which is why I say he would have disliked ID.

In his context, also, there was not other religions visible to him. That was outside his view. So the rebuttal of “did he have the right God” wasn’t the question in their moment. It is in our pluralistic context, but not his. Several of the early scientists, as they did their scientific work, were thinking through the epistemology of belief in God. Bacon and Boyle spend an inordinate amount of time working out arguments for the existence of God, even though everyone around them believe in God. These were not arguments precisely directed at atheists such as yourself. They were, instead, part of their epistemological work as “natural philosophers”.

Of course, I think that @Philosurfer, @jongarvey and @rcohlers can all clarify more on this than I, and perhaps even correct my errors.

If I ever criticize Pascal’s wager, I am not criticizing Pascal. I might be criticizing the way that it is used today.


In that case, it is because it was a mathematically interesting conjecture – quite apart from how it originated in Fermat’s notes.


This is totally legitimate.


True, but because his note said that he had found a delightful proof for the theorem, centuries of mathematicians wracked their brains to “rediscover” what he had found. Eventually many decided that he had goofed and had only thought he had a proof. If he were around to hear that today, he might say, “Chill! It was just a casual thought at the time. I woke up the next morning and realized that my proof was no good. I never bothered to go back and cross out my marginal note. I had no idea that future generations would scrutinize it to the max!”

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Another example from the same trove of notes that has become an annoying cliche is the “God-Shaped Void” in all our hearts. This is directly from this quote by Pascal:

“There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator, made know through Jesus Christ.”

In context, it is important to remember that he was part of the scientific community just as they discovered that a true vacuum can exist in nature, even though “nature abhors a vacuum.” The idea here, far more clear in the original context, is that we are created to be in relationship with God through Jesus, but we can still find ourselves existing without it being properly filled.

He was, once again, playing with a parable that arose in cutting edge science. The original context is far more interesting than the cliche we’ve been left with.

When Pascal said it, it was not a cliche. It was a deep analogy with several layers and angles. It was so potent an analogy that it eventually, sadly, became a cliche.

@AndyWalsh, what do you think of this? Also, we should get back to discussing your book soon!!! :smile:

Still can’t see any depth or angularity in it. Could you explain? Can I assume that the theological content is irrelevant, and any comparison of finite to infinite would have done as well?

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I’m sadly occupied and can’t answer this second. Perhaps @AndyWalsh can? I’ll try and get to this when I can.

Some preamble: I was not impressed with Pascal’s Wager the first time I came across it either, sometime in high school. I have since warmed to Pascal’s thinking and approach, although I recognize along with many others in this thread that the label “Pascal’s Wager” has been applied to a variety of statements that differ in their merits and their resemblance to what Pascal actually wrote. My appreciation for Pascal has come from understanding better his context, and from gaining more experience with reasoning from uncertainty.

The analogy @swamidass was referring to was the God-shaped vacuum quote, while @John_Harshman’s comments about finite & infinite suggest a reference back to the “wager.” Maybe there’s some crossed signals here, or maybe I’m just not following. I’ll share a couple initial thoughts about both and we can go from there.

Could Pascal have used other illustrations for exploring how finite probabilities and infinity relate? Sure, although such mathematical exploration was not his only goal. And in a Christian context, God and his boundless good gifts are a pretty natural place to go when thinking about the infinite, while applications from the natural world would have been less apparent. I don’t know the full history of infinity in mathematics, but Pascal was working in an era before calculus and its framework for working with the infinite.

Is a vacuum a good analogy for the Christian concept of every person’s need for a relationship with their creator? Well, I think it has some interesting connections to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 12:43-45 and the idea that our spiritual “house” needs to be occupied by something and it will get filled one way or the other. That’s similar to a vacuum. Pascal isn’t exactly making the same point, emphasizing that nothing in creation will properly occupy that place. Natural vacuums don’t work that way; all matter is pretty much equal in terms of occupying vacuums. So there’s not a perfect 1-to-1 correspondence, but it is still a useful analogy in that it allows us to talk more concretely about the similarities and differences.

In both cases, I think Pascal is exploring how he can articulate what he believes about God in the emerging language of contemporary science. He didn’t necessarily see these as arguments for belief in God, and didn’t seem to expect a nonbeliever to accept the terms of the wager. Instead, such discussion of God flows naturally from a prior belief.

And yes, none of this has the sparkle of novelty these days after 350 years of progress in math, physics, philosophy and theology. Just like it’s more difficult to appreciate the groundbreaking nature of Citizen Kane after decades of watching films that expanded on the techniques it introduced. Incidentally, that’s a secondary function of the pop culture references in my book; to date the science analogies so that they self-destruct before the science is out-of-date. Although that may not have worked for Pascal, who led up to his “wager” with a discussion of the “pop culture” of contemporary gaming society and games of chances.


This is a great way of putting it. Also @AndyWalsh, you are a great example of someone living out that model of engagement with science in our moment.

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