Thursday, 1 October 2009

Pascal's Wager and the Problem of Hell

Pascals' Wager, as set out in the Pensées, is about the gain of Heaven, not the loss of Hell; it is about the most meaningful way to enter the presence of God. It is not a negative argument, or a threat. It is, rather, a challenge to atheism and to the limits of reason. Above all, it is calmly intellectual in approach; Pascal does not set out to achieve his aim like some kind of Medieval preacher, by using irrational concepts of fear. Hell is never explicitly defined. Consider some of the following:

Between us and heaven or hell there is only life half-way, the most fragile thing in the world. (213)

As far as the choices go, you must take the trouble to seek the truth, for if you die without worshipping the true principles you are lost. 'But', you say, 'if he had wanted me to worship him, he would have left some sign of his will.' So he did, but you pay no heed. Look for them then; it is well worth it. (236)

One of the ways in which the damned will be confounded is that they will see themselves condemned by their own reason, by which they claimed to condemn the Christian religion. (563)

So, death is certain; all follows from that. Reason cannot determine if God exists or not. It is not a matter that is subject to any rational proof. Believing is thus a leap beyond the limits of reason, which carries the possibility of infinite reward. For, "if you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.' I would go so far as to suggest that fear of hell is not valid reason for this leap of faith. It would deceive neither God...nor Pascal!

The wider question on the Problem of Hell has no validity, because I cannot say, no one can say, what Pascal would have thought of this. I imagine that most people who believe in Heaven and Hell would choose to be in one place rather than the other. And for those who believe that God does not exist, well, why should they be concerned either about the Problem of Hell, or about Pascal's Wager? :))


  1. Have you read Auden's poem on Pascal? Or, for that matter Yeats' Crazy Jane poems?

    'But Love has pitched his mansion in
    The place of excrement;
    For nothing can be sole or whole
    That has not been rent.'

    (W. B. Yeats. 'Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop').

  2. No, I have not. Thanks for drawing my attention to these, Rehan.

  3. At first sight, Pascal's wager looks very much like one of those problems of rational action under conditions of uncertainty described by modern decision theorists. But there are two main problems with his approach.

    Firstly, the premisses of the wager don't deal with the possibility of the existence of Gods other than the Christian God, Gods who might very well be equally jealous and vindictive. The incorporation of such a possibility would skew Pascal's model more than a little.

    Secondly, he fails to deal convincingly with the problem of belief or faith. As any accomplished knave will know, hypocrisy is a most useful addition to those vices which provide their own reward - but in the eyes of an omniscient God, wouldn't it just be another sin? Pascal tries to circumvent this problem by citing the role of custom in shaping belief: "Anyone who grows accustomed to faith believes it, and can no longer help fearing hell, and believes nothing else." Indeed, since he expressly rejects both reason (except indirectly, through consideration of the wager) and the "depraved" human will as valid ways to arrive at belief, he has little option. But while custom might explain how a child can acquire belief, or why an unreflective person never loses it, it seems at best an uncertain conveyance for all those suppositious roues, blades, scoffers and freethinkers, who, having accepted the logic of the wager, now wish to make the momentous leap from a calculating self-interest to that unquestioning inner faith which perceives God "by the heart".

    Pascal was right to regard the will as problematic. We (or at least those of us not prone to psychotic delusions) can no more arrive at belief through a pure act of will, than we can bring about a given state of affairs merely by believng it to be true. This does not mean that the will has no influence on what we believe, or even that it ought to have none. In the words of William James: "not only as a matter of fact do we find our passional nature influencing us in our opinions, but ... there are some options between opinions in which this influence must be regarded both as an inevitable and a lawful determinant of our choice ... In truths dependent on our personal action ... faith based on desire is certainly a lawful and possibly an indispensible thing". And so it is. But what has it got to do with belief in God?

    Some modern thinkers claim that human beings are in some significant way predisposed, or "hard-wired", to believe in God, and that without this belief, their lives lose their meaning and value, moral standards are undermined, and vital social institutions break down. The philosopher Roger Scruton writes: "I assented to ... [all the tenets of the Catholic Faith]: not one of them created the slightest intellectual difficulty, save the major premise of God's existence. But this too could be held in place, I surmised, by the structure that had been built on it ... When the doctrines are all in place ... neatly interlocking, expressed and endorsed by ritual, then, I reasoned, none can be prised free and exposed to questioning. The structure stands unshakeably, even though built upon nothing." Like Pascal, they begin with an acknowledgement that it is impossible to prove the existence of God, but argue that we should believe nevertheless, or at least behave as if we did, because the consequences of our unbelief are existential Angst, moral anarchy, and social breakdown. While I do not deny that it presents manifold difficulties, I still find this the most seductive argument of all in favour of religious belief.

  4. What a super, thoughtful contribution, Allectus. You really understand the subject, really understand Pascal at a far higher level than I do myself.