Pascal's Wager: Insurance for Agnostics

Robert Kurland FAITH Magazine March – April 2011

"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls who, on finding one pearl of great value, sold all that he had and bought it." (Matt 13:45,46, RSV).

Among the pile of Pascal's papers that were to be the "Pensees" was a proposition that has kept philosophers and theologians occupied for the last 350 years, Pascal's wager: betting on God is the prudent option.[1] A new way to understand the wager, which is outlined below, is that of contemporary decision analysis (strategies for winning).

First, some background: Pascal believed it was impossible to show from reason alone that God exists:

"If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is." [2]

On the other hand we can know God by faith:

"But by faith we know His existence; in glory we shall know His nature."

This is what Pascal wants us to believe: that there is an afterlife, and its benefits are infinite. Whatever is lost by believing, even if there were no God, is finite, whereas that which is gained, if there is a God, is infinite:

"But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite."

There is a problem with his analysis. Positing an infinite reward introduces paradoxes.[3] These, however, can be circumvented by contemporary decision analysis, by use of the principle of "mini-max regret".[4] Expressed qualitatively,[5] the idea is that you choose the option that will give rise to the mildest "I wish I had done that" feeling. Here's an example: you have a choice between investing in a savings account (at a low interest rate), a "conservative" mutual stock fund (at a somewhat higher expected return rate, but with some risk), and a speculative North Sea oil exploration venture (very risky, but with a high return). You quantify "regret"as the expected return from an investment less the best return from the investment you didn't choose. The mini-max regret principle would have you choose the option with the least negative regret, as an optimistic choice (for reasonable numbers, the North Sea Oil venture). For Pascal's wager, it would lead you to act as if God and an afterlife did exist.

The argument of Pascal's wager is thus addressed to the prudent optimist - the agnostic who believes in the possibility of an afterlife (and God) - and is willing to act so as to gain that reward, even in the midst of doubts. Is belief then a matter of will? The agnostic accepts the premise of the wager, but says

"I am so made that I cannot believe. What, then, would you have me do?"

Pascal responds:

"Endeavour then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it...There are people... who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began (emphasis added); by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc."

Now, can one "fake it until you make it" as Pascal suggests? Or will the sacraments be ineffective, because the motive of the recipient is mercenary? Which of these Catechism dicta is appropriate?:

(1131)"The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace.... They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions." (emphasis added)


(1128) "The sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God." (emphasis added)

The second suggests that if one prays for faith, then the "top-down" approach will work, starting from the head and eventually through to the heart, or, as Pascal suggests:

" each step you take on this road you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognise that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing." ■

Nicholas Reseller, Pascal's Wager — a study of practical reasoning in philosophical theology (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985).

A good summary on the web, with additional references (including other web sites) is given by Alan Hajek:

Daniel Garber, What Happens after Pascal's Wager— livingfaith and rational belief (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2009).

Itzhtak Gilboa, Theory of Decision under Uncertainty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 38-40.

Bas C. van Fraassen, Laws and Symmetry (Oxford: Clarendon Paperbacks, 1989), pp.52-53.

James A. Connor, Pascal's Wager— the man who played dice with God (San Francisco: Harper and Collins, 2006).

[2] All quotations are from Blaise Pascal, Pensees WE. Trotter (Mineola, NY: Dove Philosophical Classics, 2003), #233, pp. 65-69.

[3] Paul Bartha, "Taking stock of infinite value: Pascal's wager and relative utilities."Synthese 154 (2007), 5-52.

James O. Berger, Statistical Decision Theory and Bayesian Analysis (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1985) p.18.

ibid, pp. 377, 387.

[5] The decision analysis is given in more detail at\_id=171231979581598

Faith Magazine