Thursday, March 31, 2022

Pascal's Wager for humans at death's door (i.e., all of us)

Much of the contemporary analytic discussion of Pascal’s Wager has focused on technical questions about how to express Pascal’s Wager formally in a decision-theoretic framework and what to do with it when that is done. And that’s interesting and important stuff. But a remark one of my undergrads made today has made think about the Wager more existentially (and hence in a way closer to Pascal, I guess). Suppose our worry about the Wager is that we’re giving up the certainty of a comfortable future secular life for a very unlikely future supernatural happiness, so that our pattern of risk averseness makes us reject the Wager. My student noted that in this case things will look different if we reflect on the fact that we are all facing the certainty of death. We are all doomed to face that hideous evil.

Let me expand on this thought. Suppose that I am certain to die in an hour. I can spend that hour repenting of my grave sins and going to Mass or I can play video games. Let’s suppose that the chance of Christianity being right is pretty small. But I am facing death. Things are desperate. If I don’t repent, I am pretty much guaranteed to lose my comfortable existence forever in an hour, whether by losing my existence forever if there is no God or by losing my comfort forever if Christianity is right. There is one desperate hope, and the cost of that is adding an hour’s loss of ultimately unimportant pleasures to the infinite loss I am already facing. It sure seems rational to go for it.

Now for most of us, death is several decades away. But what’s the difference between an hour and several decades in the face of eternity?

I think there are two existential ways of thinking that are behind this line of thought. First, that life is very short and death is at hand. Second, given our yearning for eternity, a life without eternal happiness is of little value, and so more or less earthly pleasure is of but small significance.

Not everyone thinks in these ways. But I think we should. We are all facing the hideous danger of eternally losing our happiness—if Christianity is right, because of hell, and if naturalism is right, because death is the end. That danger is at hand: we are all about to die in the blink of an eye. Desparate times call for desparate measures. So we should follow Pascal’s advice: pray, live the Christian life, etc.

The above may not compel if the probability of Christianity is too small. But I don’t think a reasonable person who examines the evidence will think it’s that small.


Walter Van den Acker said...


I'd think that it would be important for God that I really want to repent, that is, that I truly feel that I have done something wrong and that I am genuinely sorry for it.
But there are lots of things that are considered sins by most theists.
But I don't feel sorry for doing them, so I could pretend to repent but surely God would der through it.
Anyway,a truly good God would value sincerity over opportunisme, which is what Pascal's wager comes down to.

Oktavian Zamoyski said...

@Walter, I don't think this is as binary as you are presenting it.

When we commit an evil deed, we either experience guilt or we don't. I think at some level, most of us realize to some degree our guilt, but either pride prevents us from admitting the truth or we have no means by which to expiate for those sins. The prospect of death and eternal damnation is like a wake-up call that can focus our minds. That is one reason why the death penalty *can* be an effective way to motivate the repentance of unrepentant murderers (usually, the death penalty is scheduled years into the future, so it is not as if the murderer in question would lack the time to think about what he's done). If there is no sense guilt, then it is difficult to speak of sin if the cause is a lack of understanding (meaning, most people who know they committed an evil deed will experience a sense of guilt).

Now, if we understand eternal damnation in the more sophisticated sense as the direct result of our own choices (it may be said that the damned aren't so much as cast into hell as they march into hell; hell as the effect of the cause, namely sin, not some arbitrarily inflicted thing by God), then Pascal's wager becomes even more sensible. For either there is ultimate and perfect justice in that the effects of our actions become the punishments for our sins, or there isn't. And because an honest and humble self-appraisal will always reveal to use our sinfulness, either we will get our just deserts because hell exists, or we won't because hell doesn't exist OR because Christ has saved us (the fourth scenario is ruled out as intrinsically irrational; it undermines the tacit premise of the wager that no rational man wishes to be damned).

Walter Van den Acker said...


The point is that an honest and humble self-appraisal Will not always reveal to us our sinfulness.
That's simply something Christans want(People)to believe.

Walter Van den Acker said...


I actually think the probability of Christianity is exactly zero.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Do you also think that the probability that the square root of two is rational is also zero?

Walter Van den Acker said...

AFAIK,thé square root of two is not rational and one and one is not three, but I don't see how that is relevant to what I said.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I'm just probing how generally willing you are to assign zero probability.

I am not sure if I would say that the probability that the square root of two is rational is zero. Isn't there some tiny, tiny chance that I and everyone else has overlooked a subtle flaw in the proof?

And so, wouldn't the same thing apply to whatever arguments against Christianity impress you?

Walter Van den Acker said...


Short answer: no.
Christianity is contradictory in many ways. One and one is not three and a bachelor is not married and a circle is not square.

Marius Blomlie said...

I would say that for every proposition P we believe is true there is a nonzero probability that P is actually false. The only exception is the proposition "something exists", of which we can be absolutely certain.

Walter Van den Acker said...


So there is a non-zero probability that there are square circles?

Marius Blomlie said...


One can claim that there is a nonzero probability that we have misunderstood the concepts of squares and circles in an extremely subtle but ultimately fundamental way, or that there is a nonzero probability that our cognitive faculties are not really capable of giving us true information about the physical or mathematical world. Maybe our impression of us being able to reason in a logical manner is just an illusion.

Everything we believe and experience could potentially be an illusion, except the fact that we know something is existing.

Walter Van den Acker said...


If you truly believed this, you wouldn't witte this.

RunDec said...

"One can claim that there is a nonzero probability that we have misunderstood the concepts of squares and circles in an extremely subtle but ultimately fundamental way"

But then they would be different concepts. Of what I know of squares and circles, the concepts I am acquainted with, I am apodictically certain that there can be no square circle. My knowledge of this is infallible, actually.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I don't know what concepts you're working with. Here are my off-the-top-of-my-head concepts:

- A circle is a non-empty set C of points in Euclidean space with the property that there is a point x in Euclidean space, and all points in C are equidistant from x, and any point in Euclidean space that has the same distance to x as the points in C do is itself in C.

- A square is a set S that contains four distinct points x, y, z and w, such that S is the union of the line segments from x to y, from y to z, from z to w, and from w to x, and these line segments are all of equal length, and each is at right angles to the next one (wrapping around).

I would then prove that no square is a circle by proving that no nontrivial line segment has the property that there is a point equidistant from all the points on that line segment. That's not hard to prove, but there are quite a number of steps, and I am not sure it is reasonable to be apodictically certain that every step is correct.

There is no doubt a different way to proceed in Euclid's geometry which is not based on sets, but even there I bet there will be a number of steps.

Oddly enough, my certainty that no square is a circle does not depend on my having gone through every step in the proof. For I never did. In fact, prior to today, it never occurred to me to wonder how one would prove such a thing. I just relied on my intuition that the two shapes were incompatible. But I know that my intuition about geometric matters is fallible.

Have you gone through a proof?