Wagering like Pascal

In my last post, I argued that reason and scientific knowledge were not enough to apprehend the entirety of reality. I stated that we as humans can know information based on (1) our senses, (2) our intuition, (3) revelation, and (4) the testimony of others. Of course, our ability to ascertain truth from any of these sources is debatable in and of itself – can we really trust our senses? How many times have we heard someone saying something only to find that we misheard them?

Accordingly, I’ve come to the conclusion that, in all honesty, its impossible for us humans to say something is true with 100 percent certainty. Additionally, people tend to view sensory data and experience reality the way they want and/or expect to. I was once convinced that a particular guy liked me, and therefore I viewed everything he did through this perspective, that I built up a substantial body of evidence that he did, in fact, like me. I was wrong, and upon learning so, I was stunned that my perception of reality had been so far off. However, I learned a valuable lesson: my ordering of data about the world around me rests on presuppositions. To make sense of it all, one needs to begin somewhere, and we are colored by what we believe and see what we want to see.

We can question and challenge anyone’s presuppositions, but without them, a system of knowledge cannot be made. Lesslie Newbigin, in his book, _The Gospel in a Pluralist Society_, pointed out that occasionally, someone will conduct a scientific experiment that demonstrates results that contradict one ore more the presuppositions on which science currently rests. When this happens, scientific journals frequently reject the publication of the experiment’s findings—even if they are sound, because to publish them would make science unintelligible, and would render science unreliable and useless whereas we know it to be terrifically useful to us in many ways. If enough people conduct experiments that challenge current scientific presuppositions, then a paradigm shift can be made, but only a few challenges must be rejected in favor of keeping an intelligible system of knowledge. Therefore, our knowledge—even of scientific things—is pragmatic, but not perfect.

If one reads enough of Pascal, one will find that he comes to a very similar conclusion about the limits of human knowledge. He calls God a “hidden God,” meaning that God gives just enough light (evidence) about Himself to permit people to belief in Him, but not enough light to force people to believe in Him. Because in this life we can never know with 100 percent certainty that God exists, it makes much more sense to believe that He does because it (A) gives us a better experience in this world (living morally, having hope, etc.) and (B) will lead to eternal life and happiness if God in fact does exist. If we don’t believe in God, we lose out on A and possibly B. From Pascal’s perspective, even if statistics are 50% that God exists and 50% that God does not exist, because the stakes are so high, with eternal happiness to lose (if God exists) and nothing to gain (if God does not exist), the only rational choice is to be a theist.

The wager wasn’t Pascal’s only reason for belief; the _Penseés_ are a collection of his disparate thoughts about why he believed in God. He never finished it, but he was collecting them to form a more cohesive work on apologetics for the Christian faith.

So what is the light that God gives us? I discovered much of this for myself when I was going through an intense period of doubt, brought on by the fact that I couldn’t stand to fathom anyone enduring hell for the rest of eternity. Until my own experience with doubt, while I had heard that Christian belief was reasonable and it was important for one to know why one believed, I generally had an unquestioned faith. In third grade, I sensed some dissonance between the Genesis account of creation and the fossil record of dinosaurs, but because I had the presupposition that Christianity was true, I concluded that “day” must mean a period of millions of years. In other words, I found ways to reconcile my faith to what I was learning in the world around me.

When doubt found me, I discovered that two, conflicting worldviews had been with me the whole time: one based on a Christian understanding of reality; the other based on a materialist, logical positivist one. Because I didn’t want anyone to go to hell, unlike what God says happens, the materialist worldview became very attractive to me. How much easier would it be if this is all there is, and people are just gone and lifeless in the ground (rather than being in hell) when they are dead?

All the while, I was very concerned about losing my faith because (A) I was convinced it would be a permanent thing (cf. Heb. 6) and (B) I thought it would lead me to hell. But I didn’t want there to be a hell, so I had to find out if there were any credence to this doctrine or not.

Thus, I began a process of searching for religious truth that would take several months. During it, God revealed Himself to me in remarkable ways, making Him undeniable and impossible for me to doubt His existence. He kept sending me the message over and over, through various media: “Abide in Me.” I would attend church, and the Gospel would be from John 15 – Abide in Me. I would flip open a hymnal at random, and there would bet the song “Abide in Me.” And the image of the vine (which is also from this chapter) kept hitting me from everywhere; one pastor even brought in a real grapevine so that the congregation could pass under it to experience in a very real way that “[He is] the vine and [we] are the branches… Abide in Me.”

Even after all this, I would continue to feel tempted to doubt and reject my faith, and I would “hear” things like, “Read Hebrews 2:18.” “For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.” In other words, I wasn’t just randomly picking out chapters and verses out of the air; the Christian God was literally giving me direction. At another time, I heard “Hebrews 4:15.” “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” I found numerous passages in the Bible that talked about the various things with which I was concerned, not because I knew where to look, but because I had randomly turned to them.

Of course, those are just some of the experiential aspects of my faith of how God has revealed Himself to me. They continue today; it’s very frequent for me to be given a thought about a certain aspect of my life in God, only to have that same thought confirmed a mere hours later by a reading from _My Utmost for His Highest_ or from a homily at Mass. While it’s possible that coincidences like this are merely random, when there’s a great confluence of “coincidences” like I’ve experienced, I tend to be persuaded by their authenticity.

This personal body of evidence of mine is just part of the reason why I believe; as I was experiencing doubts, I encountered other evidence that can be more readily grasped by other, more universal ways of knowing. I will get into that evidence in my next discursion.

– Holly


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8 responses to “Wagering like Pascal

  1. GCC

    Thanks for another good post, Holly. I’m looking forward to the next one as you complete (I think) the thoughts on knowledge.

    You’re right that we can’t ever know something one hundred percent. That’s why we set up certain standards.

    It reminds me of story (not true I’m sure) I heard recently about a Russian teacher who was told to teach there is no God. The teacher holds up a pencil and says to the class, “You see the pencil?” The class responds, “Yes!” “Very good, then there is a pencil.” And then the same thing with a book, “You see the book?” “Yes!” “So there’s a book.” And then the teacher said, “Do you see God?” “No…” “Aha, then there is no God!” To which a smart student responded by asking the class, “Does anyone see the teacher’s brains?”

    In any case, when we say we know something I don’t think we are saying that we have absolute 100% certainty about something. We are simply saying that we have an understanding of something and that that understanding meets criteria that are established through a combination of collective agreement and personal feelings. I point this out because I talk about knowing there is a God vs. believing in God. If we can use logic to discover so much about God that we meet the standard of knowledge, it seems reasonable to say we know God, rather than believe in God. It’s unreasonable to apply a different standard just because the subject might be controversial.

    I think Pascal (as you have presented here) is wrong about God, unless of course Pascal would say we can’t know anything. I doubt that though. No one wants to have to say they believe two plus two is four. I think God does give us enough to meet a reasonable standard of knowledge when it comes to God’s existence. (There’s also the point about not being “forced” to believe in God. That’s important, because it goes to free will. And this brings me to an important distinction. God is not interested in us believing in God. God has no need for our beliefs in that sense. What God is interested in is our “acceptance” of God. Our knowledge of God in no way forces us to accept God.) Questions start to arise, however, when it comes to defining what that God is. Indeed, it is nearly impossible for us to define God positively; in most all cases we can only do it negatively.

    After my last post, I feel I must also comment on your description of Pascal’s Wager. This is largely just a rehash of my post, but that’s just because nothing’s changed in the Wager since then and now. The way you’ve presented it here, it is not reasonable or logical. It relies completely on unsupported premises. It does no more good than saying this: Because we can’t know with 100% certainty if being vegans will make us live longer, it makes much more sense to be a vegan because it A.) gives us a better experience in life and B.) will cost more and thus stimulate the economy assigning lasting benefits to our food choices. If we are not vegans we lose out on both A and B. So, even if it’s a 50/50 chance that being a vegan will make, given the great potential benefit if veganism extends our lives, and essentially no loss if it doesn’t, the only rational choice is to be a vegan. Does that make any sense? It shouldn’t. There’s no reason to assume that being a vegan gives us a better experience in this life. There’s also no reason to assume that not being a vegan won’t stimulate the economy. There’s also no reason to assume that we will die any younger if we are not vegans.

    After that example, it’s also worth pointing out again that Pascal’s Wager does nothing to help us determine what exactly that God is, and thus what supportable premises might be. This is what my last post was about. Pascal’s Wager is not logical, it operates on unsupported premises, it does not include all possibilities, and a reasonable, rational person would not make any decision based on it.

    God clearly created logic and gave us the capacity to grasp it. So, if we take Pascal’s stance and assume that God gives us precious little by which we can understand God, and we think that understanding God is important, it makes sense to me at least that we should use every tool we have to understand God. As a result, we should use or logic as we try to understand God, and not simply through that tool out of the toolbox by corrupting it with fallacy.

    I really like what you’ve said about ways of knowing, the four categories, the personal experiences, etc. It sounds like the next one of these is going to get to some real meaty stuff. I’m looking forward to it! So, hurry up, please!!! 🙂

  2. blraatikka

    Holly, this is a slightly off-topic, but the general tone of your post reminds me of this passage from Orthodoxy:
    “But this involved accuracy of the thing makes it very difficult to do what I now have to do, to describe this accumulation of truth. It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is entirely convinced. It is comparatively easy when he is only partially convinced. He is partially convinced because he has found this or that proof of the thing, and he can expound it. But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked suddenly to sum them up. Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?” he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen.” The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.

    “There is, therefore, about all complete conviction a kind of huge helplessness. The belief is so big that it takes a long time to get it into action. And this hesitation chiefly arises, oddly enough, from an indifference about where one should begin. All roads lead to Rome; which is one reason why many people never get there. In the case of this defence of the Christian conviction I confess that I would as soon begin the argument with one thing as another; I would begin it with a turnip or a taximeter cab….”

  3. Holly


    If I understand Chesterton correctly, he’s saying that when it comes to apologetics, one must start somewhere, and it might as well be anywhere.


    The analogy you make between Pascal’s Wager and whether or not one should be a vegan is not a sound one. That is because specific dietary practices (other than eating) are not universal, while death is. (Take your above argument and replace “being a vegan” with “eating” and you’ll quickly see what I mean.)

    We are all going to die, and when we do, there’s logically only two broad possibilities that will happen: either we will experience an afterlife or we will not; either our consciousness will continue or it will not. This is not an either/or fallacy but rather a priori knowledge — there is logically no third option.

    Based on this a priori knowledge, Pascal formulates his Wager. True, the Wager does not at all further the idea that Christianity is the one true religion (to ask it to do this would be like asking the Bible to be a science textbook). Therefore admittedly, it works best in a world in which there is only one monotheistic religion and the choice being between belief/acceptance and unbelief/rejection.

    That said, I think that it’s unfair to dislike the Wager because it does not lead one to figure out what the one true religion is; I think there are other means that can help one do so.

  4. Holly, wherever would you have read Lesslie Newbigin’s “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society?” ASP? Great book! One of my favorites actually. Holding it in hand right now.

  5. Holly

    Yes, I was introduced to it in ASP, and it ranks up there (along with Pascal’s _Pensees_) as my favorite book.

  6. iblase

    I have started a blog that has touched on these issues: http://www.iblase.wordpress.com
    I would love it if you visited. Thanks

  7. iblase

    Thanks for fixing the link. Appreciate it.

  8. Brandon

    Cool blog man. We’ll link to it.

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