Monday, June 06, 2016

The Truth About Pascal's Wager

One of the most popular arguments for God, among those who claim not to believe in Him, is something often called "Pascal's Wager."  Ascribed to the great scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal, generally by people who have never read him, this is the idea that even if there is no decent evidence for God, or if the evidence flows against Christianity, you should believe anyway, because the consequences of being wrong (hell) are so severe, and of being right (heaven) so wonderful, if you lay your stash on the "Yeah God!" slot, and gamble all you got on Christ in the great gaming casino of life.  

This purely prudential argument is said to originate in Blaise Pascal’s Pensees.  And indeed, one finds a chapter in that book, Chapter Three, entitled "On the Necessity of the Wager."  Pascal's argument has been considered, by a long line of skeptics, both contemptible and short-sighted.  For one thing, we are asked, how do we know we're gambling on the right God?  What if we gamble on Pascal’s Roman Catholicism, but it turns out that the God of Shiite Islam is real, and He roasts us for guessing wrong?  Or Theraveda Buddhism?  An otherwise intelligent atheist on a thread for my book, Why the Jesus Seminar can’t find Jesus, informed me this morning: 

And clearly, you haven't given much thought to Pascal, even if you've read him.  His wager only argues for a generic deity, which isn't good enough for most religious people.  Substitute "Allah" or "Zeus" for whatever particular version of God you have in mind, and you'll dismiss the wager as I do.

I responded with heat, which I'll justify below: 

Pardon me?  I've read Pascal, thoroughly and carefully, but haven't given thought to his true intent?  Whereas you haven't read him, don't know what he says, and think you have the right to tell me what he really meant? 

What you say about Pascal is . . . an atheist meme based on nothing more than chronic laziness and arrogance within the atheist community that is repeated against and again, and is highly revealing as it demonstrates (to be frank) the intellectual bankrupcy of modern atheism.  (The same laziness that loses so many debates for atheists who go against (William Lane) Craig, and can't be bothered to do their homework first.) 

In fact, Pensees is an apologetic for the Christian faith, not for a "generic God."  To take The Wager out of the context of Pascal's overall argument and then complain that the argument is lacking, is like stealing the Hope Diamond and then suing the museum in which it was being exhibited for false advertising in promising to let viewers see the Hope Diamond.  

A second common objection to "Pascal's Wager" is, would God (should there be a God) really respect such self-centered, "safety at all costs" motivation?  Maybe if we want to win God's respect, we'd better gamble on honesty.  

Richard Dawkins offers both these objections in The God Delusion.  He said that Pascal "wasn't claiming that his Wager enjoyed anything but very long odds."  In The Truth Behind the New Atheism, I argue that Dawkins fundamentally misrepresents or misunderstands Pascal.  

Such misunderstanding is ubiquitous in the skeptical community.   Even philosophers, who ought to know better, assume that Pascal "holds, with the Renaissance skeptics, that our human resources for securing knowledge by inquiring reason are wholly inadequate to the demands of apologetics."

And here, in a book I was reading this morning by the eminent physicist, Robert Park, in Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud:

"It is the same argument that leads people to stand in line for hours to buy lottery ticks . . . The danger is, of course that the wish can be so powerful that you are tempted to wager on the impossible. In his book on cold fusion, Gary Taubes calls this 'Pascal's Wager.' Blaise Pascal was a renowned 17th Century physicist and mathematician who at the age of 32 renounced a life of science for one of faith. 'Do not hesitate to wager that God exists,' he advised. 'If you win, you win everything.' Needless to say, they love Pascal in Las Vegas. Some form of Pascal's wager is often invoked to justify impossible schemes. As we wander through the world of voodoo science, we will be on the lookout for Pascal's wager in its many guises." (96)

While I've read probably most of Pascal's Pensees in the past, twice at least, enough to refute skeptics who conflate "research" with "web search," and even apparently Oppy, Dawkins, and Park, I had never plowed through the whole book from cover to cover and analyzed the great scientist's apologetic arguments. This last week I finally finished reading the whole book.  I think despite the limitations both of Pascal and of his claims, there is a great deal we can learn from him today.  I begin with my analysis of Pascal's Wager, in the context of the first four chapters of Pensees.  In a later post, I'll tackle the rest of the book, which is the proper full context to understand what Pascal was really getting at, and offers a number of other interesting arguments that tend to get overlooked.   

You can’t kill a likeable meme by facts and argument anymore than you can kill a popular movie character, say James Bond, by shooting, burying, burning, or firing missiles at the man.  The reasons are the same in both cases: lies, like fictional characters, live in the minds that host them, and are therefore impervious to intellectual demolition.  

However, for those who wish to know the truth about Blaise Pascal, Christian faith and its relation to reason, here are the facts.   

Preliminary Considerations

Four preliminary matters must be kept in mind when we read Pensees.  

First, Pensees is not complete.  It is a collection of notes Pascal wrote with a view to completing a great apologetic work.  But Pascal died before he had the chance to finish.  So many of his points are undeveloped, even sketchy, and one can't always tell how he intended to knit bone to bone, and skin to muscle over that framework.  The collection  has been set by subsequent editors into thematic order.  Some arguments are as extended as seven or eight pages of typed text, while in other cases Pascal makes cryptic allusions of a line or two, which were to serve him as notes for whatever connections he intended to add later.  

Second, Pascal's work is old, and from a more militantly sectarian period.  Some of his arguments are therefore both dated and a little unfair.  He calls Protestants "heretics," for instance, and has little good to say about Calvinists in particular, aside from noting (following Clement, and as Chesterton would say later) that heresies are chunks of the truth, cut off from the whole.  He can also be unappreciative of the admirable qualities of the Jesuits, who were attacking his own Jensian school.  

For the time, I don't think Pascal could be considered harsh.  He concentrates mainly on the heart of the Christian faith, so a Protestant like myself can appreciate maybe 95% of the book without feeling offense.  

The oldness of the book also means that Pascal did not know the age of the Earth, or about evolution.  (Though his comments about the size of the universe and the microscopic world are as modern as one might like, stealing the fire of works like EO Wilson's The Meaning of Human Existence at times, for instance.)  His biblical exegesis can be naive.  He writes accurately enough about Islam, but in a vague and not very enlightening way when it comes to China. 

On the other hand, Pascal was also born too early to know some facts that now seem to support Christianity.  He didn’t know that the universe could be shown to have had a beginning.  Like the Catholic novelist Walker Percy, Pascal was fascinated by the Jews, seeing their remarkable survival and world-wide dispersion as a sign of the truth of revelation.  But he didn’t know that prophecies of their return to a new state of Israel would come true.  

Third, Pascal had a weakness at times for special pleading, offering some arguments that only those most eager to accept Christianity, or his particular brand of Christianity, would be willing to buy.  He sometimes overlooked common counterarguments to the Christian faith.   

More central to the present argument, Pascal also keenly recognizes both that human beings are not fully rational, and that Christianity does not predict the truth to be overwhelmingly obvious.  Pascal's Wager emphatically does not assume that the fundamental truths of the Christian faith are completely obscure and unknowable, as so many people who ought to know better claim.  But Pascal does recognize ambiguity in the evidence, and even greater ambiguity in the human heart.  In that sense, he is simply expressing the skepticism traditional to Christian anthropology.  

Divine Hiddenness is Clear to Pascal

Aside from Pascal’s own weaknesses, or those of any man of his period, Pascal also argued that Christianity promises something less than overwhelming evidence for its truth.  This is partly because “men despise religion; they hate it, and fear it is true.” (187)  And it is partly because God allows ambiguity, so that truth will be revealed to those who desire it, and not be forced on those who wish to reject it:

“The conduct of God, who disposes all things kindly, is to put religion into the mind by reason, and into the heart by grace.  But to will to put it into the mind and heart by force is not to put religion there, but terror . . . “ (185)

These two sayings come at the beginning of the key chapter (of the version edited by T. S. Elliot) in which the Wager appears.  Both undermine a simple or naive reading of that passage.  Pascal clearly and repeatedly rejects the assumption that the main variable is the evidence, which we as objective little budding scientists are earnestly trying to decode.  No, the heart of man is set against God, so that even if the evidence is strong, we will perceive it as weak.

After The Wager, Pascal notes as well that we often act on less than 20-20 vision, so there should be no objection to doing so about the Christian faith:

“If we must not act save on a certainty, we ought to not act on religion, for it is not certain.  But how many things we do on an uncertainty: sea voyages, battles!  I say then that we must do nothing at all, for nothing is certain, and that there is more certainty in religion than there is as to whether we may see tomorrow . . . “ (234)

Pascal begins perhaps his longest soliquy, number 194, by speaking both of the perversity of man, and the corresponding hiddenness of God:

”Let them at least learn what is the religion they attack before attacking it.  If this religion boasted of having a clear view of God, and of possessing it open and unveiled, it would be attacking it to say that we see nothing in this world which shows it with this clearness.  But since, on the contrary, it says that men are in darkness and estranged from God, that He has hidden Himself from their knowledge . . . That God has set up in the church visible signs to make Himself known to those who seek him sincerely, and that He has nevertheless so disguised them that he will only be perceived by those who seek Him with all their heart . . . “

So it is not that “nothing in this world” shows God, but nothing shows God “with this clearness.”  Indeed, Pascal ends the same soliquay by noting:

“But for those who bring to the task perfect sincerity and a real desire to meet with truth, those I hope will be satisfied and convinced of the proofs of a religion so divine, which I have hear collected, and in which I have followed somewhat this order . . . “

And that, indeed, is what the Pensees is, in its essence -- a collection of evidences for the Christian faith, and reflections (reasoning) to take the sincere reader beyond evidences to faith itself.  The Wager needs to be understood, and can only be understood, in that context.  

The problem is, if anything Pascal underestimated the obduracy of modern skeptics.  For most of the modern tribes does not even bother reading the full chapter of Pensees in which the Wager is located, let alone the whole book, and find out what “proofs” Pascal has collected.  

The Wager

In Chapter Three, admittedly one does find a few passages which, if read in isolation, or carelessly, appear to support the common myth of Pascal’s Wager.  There is 229, which is part of the introduction to the Wager:

This is what I see and what troubles me. I look on all sides, and I see only darkness everywhere. Nature presents to me nothing which is not matter of doubt and concern. If I saw nothing there which revealed a Divinity, I would come to a negative conclusion; if I saw everywhere the signs of a Creator, I would remain peacefully in faith. But, seeing too much to deny and too little to be sure, I am in a state to be pitied; wherefore I have a hundred time wished that if a God maintains nature, she should testify to Him unequivocally, and that, if the signs she gives are deceptive, she should suppress them altogether; that she should say everything or nothing, that I might see which cause I ought to follow. Whereas in my present state, ignorant of what I am or of what I ought to do, I know neither my condition nor my duty. My heart inclines wholly to know where is the true good, in order to follow it; nothing would be too dear to me for eternity."

Yet even hear, attend closely, and Pascal says “seeing too much to deny,” and writes of “signs” that Nature gives.  

But Pascal does not believe that Nature is the best place to look for evidence for Christianity.  Indeed, he points out that the Bible does not generally argue from Nature.  

Then we come to the Wager itself, which is largely given in 233.  We skip six paragraphs on “the infinite,”and jump to paragraph 7 and on (also leaving out some at the end -- indeed, many of the passages I will cite here are incomplete):

Let us now speak according to natural lights.
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. This being so, who will dare to undertake the decision of the question? Not we, who have no affinity to Him.
Who then will blame Christians for not being able to give a reason for their belief, since they profess a religion for which they cannot give a reason? They declare, in expounding it to the world, that it is a foolishness, stultitiam; and then you complain that they do not prove it! If they proved it, they would not keep their word; it is in lacking proofs, that they are not lacking in sense. "Yes, but although this excuses those who offer it as such, and takes away from them the blame of putting it forward without reason, it does not excuse those who receive it." Let us then examine this point, and say, "God is, or He is not." But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.
Do not then reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. "No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all."
Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake,[Pg 67] your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.—"That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much."—Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness . . .And thus, when one is forced to play, he must renounce reason to preserve his life, rather than risk it for infinite gain, as likely to happen as the loss of nothingness . . . 
"I confess it, I admit it. But, still, is there no means of seeing the faces of the cards?"—Yes, Scripture and the rest, etc. "Yes, but I have my hands tied and my mouth closed; I am forced to wager, and am not free. I am not released, and am so made that I cannot believe. What, then, would you have me do?"
True. But at least learn your inability to believe, since reason brings you to this, and yet you cannot believe. 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. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.—"But this is what I am afraid of."—And why? What have you to lose?
But to show you that this leads you there, it is this which will lessen the passions, which are your stumbling-blocks.
The end of this discourse.—Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at 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.

So Christians (the skeptic remarks) are “not able to give a reason for their belief.”  Isn’t that perfectly clear?  In fact, if Christianity gave proofs, it would disprove itself, for it claims to be “lacking proofs.”  Furthermore, Pascal admits that “Reason can decide nothing there.”  And in wagering, one “must renounce reason to preserve his life, rather than risk it for infinite gain.”  

But even within this passage, if read attentively, the honest skeptic should see that Pascal is not really admitting that Christianity has no evidence in its favor, or even only weak evidence.  He is, rather, conceding that weakness to make a rhetorical point: that the choice itself is existential, that even given obscurity and uncertainty, the Gospel is of infinite value, a Pearl of Great Price, and therefore merits whatever small risk (given our mortality) we may feel we are running, in running after it.  

Furthermore, even here, Pascal’s rhetorical figure of a skeptic asks, “But still, is there no means of seeing the face of the cards?”

What does Pascal say?  “Nope, sorry!  You play yer cards and you take yer chances!”

“Yes, Scripture and the rest.”  

And does Pascal ever mention those elsewhere in his work?  Well not if you’re just googling, or choose to read one passage and ignore the rest of the book.  Pascal may have helped invent the computer, and he may have written a lot about prophecy, but he can hardly be expected to foresee the degree of laziness modern skeptics often exhibit, in seeking proof-texts online!  

The book has 923 passages.  It is astounding, even to those who admit Pascal’s sober view of human self-deception, that a truncated version of 233, almost alone, is isolated and taken, in defiance of the whole spirit of the book, as some sort of confession by the great Blaise Pascal that Christianity lacks evidences in its favor!  

But the purpose of the book as a whole is to GIVE such evidences!  And read carefully, this very passage, and the ones that follow, make it plain that Pascal is keenly aware of such evidences, and has taken pains to make them available to skeptics!  

The modern caricature of Pascal’s Wager is a genuine triumph of modern perversity!  

More Warnings by Pascal

In this very Chapter Three, one finds numerous straightforward declarations that the Christian faith is reasonable, that reason and evidence guide the sincere heart to God:

“The conduct of God, who disposes all things kindly, is to put religion into the mind by reason, and into the heart by grace.” (185)

“To make good men hope it is true, finally, we must prove it is true.” (187)

“Before entering into the proofs of the Christian religion, I find it necesssary to point out the sinfulness of those men who live in indifference to the search for truth in a matter which is so important to them, and which touches them so nearly.” (195)

This latter is placed right after The Wager!  Pascal is promising a series of arguments “proving” Christianity, but rebukes those too lazy and unserious to look for the truth -- and that was before googling and the Pascal’s Wager Meme were invented!  Latar in 195 he writes of opinions that enjoy “a very firm, though hidden, foundation.”  So the naive reading of the Wager is false: it is not that evidence is absent, but that it is hidden, mainly because of human obduracy, partly by the wisdom of God.  (Jesus himself expressed a reluctance to "caste pearls before swine!") 

“According to the doctrine of chance, you ought to put yourself to the trouble of searching for the truth; for if you die without worshipping the True Cause, you are lost.  ‘But,’ say you, ‘if He had wished me to worship Him, He would have left me signs of His will.’  ‘He has done so; but you neglect them.  Seek them, therefore; it is well worth it.” (236)

So already Pascal has promised what he calls “proofs” in one place, “signs of God’s will” in another.  
Then in Chapter Four, the final chapter that lies within the scope of this post, one finds several more such clear “signs” of Pascal’s true intent -- even if one is too lazy to read the rest of the book, and observe as those signs are fulfilled in full chapters dedicated to just what our modern atheist friends deny Pascal would deign to give -- arguments for Christianity.  

“There are three sources of belief: reason, custom, inspiration.  The Christian religion, which alone has reason . . . “ (245)

Christianity alone has reason?  But don't our astute philosophers tell us that Pascal thought that reason had nothing to say in favor of Christianity?  

Pascal argues that custom is important, because one can’t always take the time to review arguments:

“Both our parts must be made to believe, the mind by reasons which it is sufficient to have seen once in a lifetime, and the automaton by custom . . . The reason acts slowly, with so many examinations . . . “ (252)

“Two extremes: to exclude reason, and to admit reason only.” (253)

“The last proceeding of reason is to recognize that there is an infinity of things which are beyond it.  It is but feeble if it does not see so far as to know this.” (267)

“If we submit everything to reason, our religion will have no mysterious and supernatural element.  If we offend the principles of reason, our religion will be absurd and ridiculous.” (273)

“The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” (277)

Not a word of this suggests that anything in Christianity is without intellectual support, or that the faith should be accepted credulously.  Clearly, this is closer to the description of faith and reason I offered, for instance in Jesus and the Religions of Man.  In the end, we believe everything on authority of our mind, senses, other people, or God.  But we believe these authorities (and rejecting some at times) for good reasons.  So faith and reason are, as Pope John Paul put it, like the two wings of a bird, working together to allow us to fly, intellectually speaking.  Pascal recognizes that practically speaking, reason is insufficient, and depends on faith, as faith depends on reason.  

“We know that we do not dream, and however impossible it is for us to prove it by reason, this inability demonstrates only the weakness of our reason, but not, as they affirm, the uncertainty of all knowledge.  For the knowledge of first principles, as space, time, motion, number, is as certain as any of those which we get from reasoning.  And reason must trust these intuitions of the heart . . . “ (282)

Pascal is saying something very important and of continued relevance, here.  In effect, he is rejecting all “brain in the vat” or “Matrix” scenarios, not because he can prove they are wrong -- he already knew we could not -- but because he recognizes our intuition of the reality of the world as coming by faith.  Life in this world demands a great deal of faith, and Pascal urges us to accept that intuition, which alone allows us to interact reasonably with the external world.  These are issues that more recent philosophers like Alvin Plantinga also take up.  

So that portion of life which depends on a faith is not only not opposed to Pascal’s pragmatic science, but is its only possible support.  

“And it is as useless and absurd for reason to demand from the heart proofs of her first principles, before admitting them, as it would be for the heart to demand from reason an intuition of all demonstrated propositions before accepting them . . . But nature . . . Has given us very little knowledge of this (intuitive) kind; and all the rest can be acquired only by reasoning.” (282)

“Instead of complaining that God has hidden Himself, you will give Him thanks for having revealed so much of Himself; and you will also give Him thanks for not having revealed Himself to haughty sages, unworthy to know so holy a God . . . “ (288)

So again, the problem is not lack of revelation, but haughtiness of spirit.  

Finally, at the end of Chapter Four, Pascal briefly reveals a few of his own cards, and gives the reader a clearer idea of what is going to follow in the rest of the book.  Unfortunately, again the “haughty sages” do not seem to trouble themselves to read this, and take Pascal’s own clearly-described plan seriously:

(Proof.—1. The Christian religion, by its establishment, having established itself so strongly, so gently, while contrary to nature.—2. The sanctity, the dignity, and the humility of a Christian soul.—3. The miracles of Holy Scripture.—4. Jesus Christ in particular.—5. The apostles in particular.—6. Moses
[Pg 82]and the prophets in particular.—7. The Jewish people.—8. The prophecies.—9. Perpetuity; no religion has perpetuity.— 10. The doctrine which gives a reason for everything.—11. The sanctity of this law.—12. By the course of the world.
Surely, after considering what is life and what is religion, we should not refuse to obey the inclination to follow it, if it comes into our heart; and it is certain that there is no ground for laughing at those who follow it. (289) 
Proofs of religion.—Morality, Doctrine, Miracles, Prophecies, Types. (290)

Notice that in 289, Pascal says his arguments support not “a generic deity,” as my critic claimed, but “the Christian religion.”  And even as an outline, it is plain that that is true.  It is more clear when one actually reads the later chapters of Pensees.

So one simply cannot cut The Wager out of Pensees, as Thomas Jefferson cut the miracles out of the gospels, and pretend the argument was given in the abstract, without any evidence pointing to Jesus over, say, Mohammed.  It is amazing that leading intellectuals get away with that sham.  Such patent misrepresentation ought to be an embarrassment to modern skepticism.  Unfortunately, it is too typical for skeptics to even notice what they are doing.  

One might argue that Pascal’s arguments, which take up much of the rest of the book (especially their final chapters) fail, or are rendered incredible in the light of later discoveries.  I think that while uneven (and Pascal recognizes that some prophecies are more convincing than others), a strong core of Pascal’s arguments remain credible, in some cases still even thought-provoking, to this day.  I plan to examine some of those arguments in one or two subsequent posts.

But that Pascal makes such arguments, and points to them as powerful evidence for the Christian faith, is undeniable.  It is a miracle of tendacity and laziness, that so many skeptics would make such strong and derisive claims about how Pascal wants us to believe on blind faith, without opening their own eyes to the arguments Pascal actually includes in his great work.  One can’t know for sure exactly how he intended to connect the parts of his book.  But it is perfectly clear that he saw the Wager as necessary not because there is no evidence for Christianity, but because of the very obduracy that causes so many modern skeptics to so badly misread his whole work.  

Pascal would have easily understood Richard Dawkins, I think.  He had his number before he was born.  But Dawkins has not come close to understanding Blaise Pascal.  And neither have his followers.  

Later, as I said, I plan to analyze Pascal's actual arguments for the Christian faith, and evaluate their effectiveness.  

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