Monday, June 19, 2017

Skepticism and eternal life: Pascal's famous wager

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of mathematician and mystic Blaise Pascal (books by this author), born in Clermont, France (1623). He was homeschooled by his father, a mathematician who believed that children should absorb knowledge naturally rather than by studying. So he didn't go to school in his youth, but he worked on geometric problems in the yard, while playing with sticks. When he was 12, he showed his father that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles. His father was shocked that he had figured this out on his own, and invited him to join in scientific discussions with other mathematicians. At 16, he published an article on the geometric properties of cones, and a few years later, he invented the first mechanical calculator.

Pascal's family was not religious, but in 1646, he met two Christian mystics who cared for his father during an illness. They converted Pascal, and he converted his family, but he continued working on scientific experiments, showing that a vacuum could exist in nature, and invented the mathematics of probability.

Then, one night in November of 1654, he experienced a divine vision, which he called a "night of fire." He wrote an account of the experience and sewed it into his coat lining to carry until his death. After that night, he decided to forget the world and everything except for God. He left Paris in 1655 and went to live in a convent. While living there, his niece was miraculously cured of an eye disease by touching a thorn from the crown of Jesus. He decided to write a book to convert skeptics to Christianity.

Pascal wrote a series of notes and fragments about his thoughts on religion, but he never completed the book. The notes were found after his death and published as Pensées (Thoughts, 1669). In that book, he describes his famous wager, arguing that if God does not exist, the skeptic loses nothing by believing in him; but if God does exist, the skeptic gains eternal life by believing in him. He also argued that it is the heart that experiences God, and not reason.

He wrote: "Man. What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy. Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error: the pride and refuse of the universe."

Pascal also said, "Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed."

* * * * *

And there is this personal postscript: 

I repeat a portion of one of the foregoing paragraphs:

"[Pascal argued] that if God does not exist, the skeptic loses nothing by believing in him; but if God does exist, the skeptic gains eternal life by believing in him. He also argued that it is the heart that experiences God, and not reason."

And I say this: I agree with Pascal, and my agreement is (nearly) 100 percent; however, I wonder what Pascal really means when he says "it is the heart that experiences God, and not reason," especially as (1) I think it somewhat contradicts his skeptic-as-believer thesis, (2) I remain confused about the "eternal life" concept; and (3) I doubt that a "heart" experiences anything that "reason" cannot explain and understand (but I could be quite wrong).

Well, I now leave you with three questions:

(1) What do you think Pascal means in his heart v. reason statement?
(2) What do you think "eternal life" means?
(3) What do you think of Pascal's wager? (i.e., are you a skeptic, believer, or both?) 


  1. Pascal's remark about the heart and God is similar to something Georges Lemaitre, discoverer of the Big Bang, said.

    1. Frank, fair enough; now I have to learn about Lemaitre and the Big Bang. Damn, there is so much to learn in life and not enough time to learn it all. But I keep trying. Thanks.

  2. In my opinion, Tim, reason can only go so far when it comes to debating whether God exists, or what God's nature is. The rest is a matter of individual faith. The two are by no means mutually exclusive; both are critical parts of human understanding, I think.

    1. Hmmm. Then there is the difference between faith and belief. I'll post more about that problem someday.

  3. In _Pensees_ Pascal said that everything we do, think, etc. is merely a distraction, to keep us thinking about death. This would apply, although he seems not to have noticed this, to religious beliefs and debates and thinking also. His argument in his wager is strictly practical ad logical, yet he insists the heart is more important than reasoning with regard to God.

    His logical powers seem to have disappeared in the religious area.

    You should read _Pensees_ and track his statements on religion--several interesting contradictions occur in addition to what I've just mentioned.

    1. You're right, Fred. I should read the book. Soon? Hmmm. I wonder if reason is compatible with spiritual matters. Aquinus tried. Pascal tried. I try. But I am not very bright. Not like Aquinus and Pascal and billions of others. Indeed, I struggle more and more each day to think sensibly and correctly. It ain't easy.

    2. Tim,

      I went to a Catholic University and took a number of theology classes as I was a practicing Catholic at that time. One of the instructors in a theology class said that reasoning can take one only so far, and then one must make a leap of faith.

      Another one said that at the end, it's between you and God. Religious dogma and beliefs are helpful, but that what is supremely important is your own conscience. He didn't say it, but I felt that he was telling us that priests and churches and dogma get in the way.

      I think there's a Buddhist or a Zen Buddhist saying that says that if one meets Buddha on the road, kill him.

    3. Kill him? Wow! I don't begin to understand that notion. Thanks, though, for provoking me to ponder more in different ways.

    4. Tim,

      Mudpuddle can probably explain this more clearly, but it has to do with what the priest implied (or so I thought) in the theology class--priests and churches and dogma get in the way between one and God.

      At a certain stage in one's spiritual growth, one must strike out on one's own path and not follow anyone else.

    5. Take the road not taken? So says Frost?

  4. What do you think Pascal means in his heart v. reason statement?

    That Faith has a greater emotional foundation than an intellectual one.

    What do you think "eternal life" means?

    I'll keep my opinion on that to myself unless you insist...

    What do you think of Pascal's wager? (i.e., are you a skeptic, believer, or both?)

    Well, you know I'm a skeptic & Atheist..... So:

    Pascal was wrong when he said that the skeptic had nothing to lose and everything to gain. If God did indeed create us then our reasoning faculties are god-given. If we use those faculties to come to the honest conclusion that God does not exist then He can hardly blame us - when we find out the contrary - if we made an honest mistake. He is, after all the God of Love and Forgiveness. I doubt very much if he would value us the same way if we took the wager and essentially 'pretended' to believe whilst deep in our hearts knew otherwise out of either fear or 'hedging our bets'.

    From a personal point of view my skepticism and my reasoning faculties are a significant part of who I am. I can't imagine giving them up on the off-chance that my reason was that faulty. I would spend the rest of my life walking around denying who I was and forever feeling like a hypocrite. So it's not really 'giving up nothing'.

    1. CK: astute and accurate; tx...

    2. Cy, I always enjoy your visits and comments. The whole subject is a can of worms without a bottom. I'm certainly confused by it all. Hell, life confuses me. Eternal life is beyond befuddling. Thanks, CyberKitten, for sharing your thoughts. 'Tis all a muddle to me. Hamlet had it right: the rest is silence? That's the solution to the riddle? Hmmm.

    3. I try Mudpuddle, I try.... Years of thought, study and training help (plus quite a few arguments along the way).

      Thanks Tim. I'm always cautious responding to often well meaning open questions from people of faith. I've been burnt more than once by their reactions. Unfortunately few of these types of questions can be answered in this life. If there is another life after this (which I doubt) we'll know then and only then. Of course if I'm right... Well.... that's a whole other ball of wax.