Essay: Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s Wager, written by Blaise Pascal, in essence states that it is prudent to believe in God’s existence because it is the best bet. Even if one assumes, that God’s existence is extremely unlikely, betting on it makes sense, for its results far outweighs the results from not betting on God’s existence.
Pascal states that we as human beings, know and understand the nature of the finite because we are finite and have similar extension, and we know the existence of the infinite but are oblivious to its nature, because it is not bound by limits like we are. With respect to God, Pascal states we are completely at odds. We can neither acknowledge the existence of God, nor God’s nature. The reason behind this is that God has neither extension nor limits. If there is a God, he is infinitely incomprehensible to us. He has neither parts nor limbs, and no affinity to us. It is next to impossible for us to know either what He is or even if He is. Pascal asks if someone would dare to take on the decision to such a question, and states that humans, having no affinity to him would not do so. He offers a solutions with the example of Christians. He says they are faultless in their failure to offer proof of God’s existence, since they profess a religion for which a reason cannot be given. He states that Christians, declare to the world the foolishness of the situation and then laughs at the world for demanding an explanation. By proving God’s existence they would go against their word. We can either say ‘God is, or God is not’, but picking which side to we should align ourselves is a lot harder than it seems. He says that there exists an infinite chaos between us, and that a game of head or tails is being played at the extremes of this infinite distance. According to reason, we can wager on neither, for we can defend neither position. One should then lash out against someone for making a choice. We cannot blame someone for making a choice, or a choice in particular using the argument that they are both wrong, and stating the best way forward is to refrain from wagering at all. Pascal says, that it is a necessity that we wager. The wager is akin to a catch-22 situation. We must make a wager, but whatever bet we make is the wrong one, and there doesn’t seem to be a way to win, unless we do not bet.
Pascal, and I, disagree with this notion. With respect to our reason, whether He exists or not, our reason remains unscathed, because a choice was made out of compulsion. If we make a wager and gain, we gain all, and if we lose, we go right back to where we were, no worse than before, having lost absolutely nothing. In such a situation, it is imperative that a wager be made without hesitation and much forethought. Not only must we make a wager, but we must wager in favor of God’s existence.
God Exists God does not exist
Wager for God Gain All Status quo
Wager against God Misery Status quo

(Source: Pascal’s Wager, Citation 5)
Wagering for God is far more appealing than wagering against God. The worst that could happen if I were to wager for God, is the best that could happen in I were to wager against God. Any outcome resulting from wagering for God, supersedes rigidly any outcome that result from wagering against God. Any rational mind would thus wager for God, and this is what Pascal is trying to convey. One objection that Pascal immediately addresses is that one may wager too much, and he says the we lose nothing at all if we wager for God, and that we gain something great if we wager for God, but the fact that we mat gain something great by wagering for God, goes to prove that we do indeed have something to lose if we are to wager against God. There is an equal opportunity for gain and for loss. If there was an opportunity for one to win twice the amount they bet, the might wager, but if they were in a position where they would gain three lives, it would foolhardy to not wager, and a lot more temerarious, to not take a swing at gaining thrice as much when forced to wager. If in such a hypothetical case, where one can gain three lives, one must wager for the existence of God, when faced with the real situation where one can gain an eternity of life, any rational mind will and must wager for the existence of God.
The most important part of Pascal’s Wager, is his explanation of the outcomes where he all but explicitly states that wagering for God results may result in Salvation, whereas, wagering against God may lead to damnation (as Pascal states, hell). If God does indeed exist, and I wagered that he exists, my utility from such a situation is infinite. The benefits are plentiful, and stretch far beyond my wildest dreams, however if I wagered against God, and this were true, I have a lot to lose. Pascal states, whatever number I may assign to the probability that God exists given it is not zero, and is finite, this will hold true. When wagering even the smallest probability against a finite chance of loss, where the reward outweighs the loss by astronomical margins, it is best to wager for God’s existence.
A neat way to sum up Pascal Wager again boils down to the aforementioned question, either God exists or he doesn’t, and wager for the same. Rationally, the probability that God exists is positive, and no infinite, and we assume that should we win we reap the maximum reward, which is infinite utility. A rational mind would pick the option where the benefits are maximized. The rational augment is to wager for God, and it is our best interest to do so, and because we are in a position where we must wager, we must wager for God’s existence.
Pascal’s wager is not without its objections. Many argue that the matrix that Pascal offers may be different for many people, and that salvation might not be as infinite as Pascal makes it out to be. Some argue, no matter how astronomically high the value, it is still finite, and it must be so. The fact that his argument is based on the most rational decision is a little puzzling, and while it holds with economic theories where men always act rationally, the theory falls a little flat when an irrational decision is made, or when an irrational person makes the decision. A rational person, may view hell as the rational for himself, and this would contort the neatly laid out theory.
The argument presented by W.K. Clifford in ‘The Ethics of Belief’ can be seen as opposition to Pascal’s wager, whereas William James’s ‘The Will to Believe’ adds on well to what Pascal is trying to prophesize. Consider the following:
P1: There is no evidence that God exists
P2: Without evidence it is wrong to believe something exists
C: It is wrong to believe God exists.
Clifford argued that belief without evidence is immoral, and should be avoided at all costs. In his essay, ‘The Ethics of Belief’, he writes an interesting story about the captain of an old ship. The captain feels the ship is no longer sea worthy, but he is worried about the costs of repairing the ship. He brushes away the thoughts from his mind and convinces himself that the ship is seaworthy. He sets sail, and all is well to begin with. He is content and perfectly happy, and convinces himself that nothing is wrong with the ship. However, he is wrong, and the ship, which is not seaworthy sinks on its voyage, killing everyone onboard. Clifford blames the captain in this instance. He says the captain should have believed that the ship was seaworthy without evidence. Using this story, Clifford concluded that it is wrong always, everywhere and for anyone to believe anything without sufficient evidence. He speaks then of a theist, who believes in God without evidence, that the life of such a man is a sin against mankind. William James on the other hand, believed it was sometimes okay to believe without evidence. James uses extremely interesting stories much like Clifford’s shipwreck story to convey his message. One example of a story that can be considered ‘Jamesian’ in nature, is as follows.
A guy, let’s call him Mark has a math test tomorrow, and he is scared. He knows from past experience that he will in all likelihood get nervous and tensed and mess up his paper. He knows only one to way to deal with this. He has no reason to think that he will do well on his test, however if he can convince himself that he ace it, he will be more relaxed and stay calm and actually be able to do a very good job.
In Mark’s case, it would make sense for him to believe that he would do well on the test, and would be a good idea. It would benefit him, and there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with him believing this simple yet harmless lie. Mark would not ‘catch a stain which can never be wiped away (Clifford)’. Being in a state of affairs helps those state of affairs come true. James says, we should weigh the value of believing against the risk of being false, and in the case of God’s existence the former outweighs the latter, simply because the potential gains from the potential belief are so large.
I believe that Pascal’s Wager does offer us a good pragmatic reason to believe in God. Pascal appeals to the logic within us, and asks us to rationally weigh our options. By weighing up potential gains, against losses, I see no reason to not believe in God. Believing in God and being proven correct has a lot of gains, and proven wrong has no pitfalls, whereas not believing and being proven correct has the worst possible outcome. As discussed in the paper, any rational mind would then rationalize and wager for God’s existence. Further augmented is my belief in my positon by the articles written by Clifford and James. God is defined as the Supreme Being, the nicest of all niceties, incapable of bad. Yet in Clifford’s argument, God punishes innocent people for not having enough evidence to believe in something. I find such a notion to be in contradiction to God, and agree more with James, that sometimes if needed, it is okay to believe in something without evidence, and as Pascal states, in the case of God, believing without evidence, is the right way to go. The benefits of believing quintessentially outweigh the resulting banes from not believing. While believing in God’s existence would no harm us in any way, not believing in God would only harm us. In such a situation it is no surprise that one who is rational and of sane mind would consider it prudent and pragmatic to believe in God’s existence.

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