the nature of the stakes

Pascal 1.jpgThe Frenchman Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was once asked by his friend Chevalier de Méré to help him solve a gambling conundrum. Chevalier wanted to know, should a game or gamble suddenly be interrupted, how should the stakes be divided amongst the players and who would be the winner?

Being a rather brilliant young man, Pascal invented the notion of expected value, and on that basis built a system of calculating all the probabilities using the concept of infinity (modern-day probability theory). As such, he lay the groundwork for what is known today as infinitesimal calculus. Similarly, pragmatism and voluntarism as branches of philosophy also emerged from this fertile bit of thinking. (Whoever said gambling only has negative consequences?)

One more good thing came from this, the postulation he may well be most famous for (besides his many scientific discoveries), namely Pascal’s Wager—his proof for the existence of God. This is how it goes:

Even though the existence of God cannot be proven through reason alone, a person should wager as though God does exist, because so living, she has everything to gain, and nothing to lose. In other words, if it is a mistake to believe in God, you lose nothing (death is just the end), but if it is correct to believe in God, if he does exist, you gain everything! Conclusion; you can’t lose if you risk believing in God.

Not everyone is convinced by Pascal’s argument, nor is everyone in agreement with exactly how he intended it to be understood. However, a few contemporary restatements I’ve come across will show the power of its basic logic. Imagine someone you truly love is dying, and a relatively inexpensive and safe miracle drug is rumoured to offer a 50-50 chance for life. Would it not be reasonable to try it? It would be unreasonable not to. (Especially if someone offers to purchase it on your behalf.) Or, you are told by an unknown person that your house is on fire and your family possibly trapped inside. Would you ignore the report, or check it out quickly? Reasonable people do not doubt what to do in such ordinary cases. Yet, says Pascal, believing in God is just like that. There is a 50-50 percent chance that he is there, and there is no doubt that it is the reasonable option to make your decisions in such a way as to take that into consideration!

One can see why this argument is so much disliked. It gets under the skin of atheism in particular, as a-theos-ism knows very well which God (theos) it chooses not to believe in. Hardcore atheism is a post-enlightenment and distinctly Western phenomenon. This is probably though, not who Pascal had in mind. His aim was to address agnostics and sceptics, the we-can’t-knows and the we-will-never-knows, the uncommitted and the intellectually aloof; the coolest and most self-consciously reason-able people around. Here is the awful catch, says Pascal; ‘life’ does not hang around for perpetual non-committal intellectualism, even if it is in vogue. It sucks in every human breath. There is no neutral observation post. If you sit at the table, you have to place your bet. Pascal uses this analogy. Life is like a ship in a heavy sea in search of a sheltering harbour. It sails past a port with a sign “safe moorings, anchorage available”. The captain decides neither to dock nor to turn away, but to wait till the weather clears to determine the reasonableness of the proposition. But, the ocean current of life does not allow for long indecision, and there comes a time when the ship has drifted past a point of no return and the weather is too foul to turn back. When it is too late. Like the man who proposed marriage but continually put off the date, ‘next year, darling’. One day, to no-one’s surprise except his own, there was no ‘next year’, she had left.

Peter Kreeft, in a similar metaphor put it like this: “Christianity is God’s marriage proposal to the soul. Saying ‘maybe’ and ‘perhaps tomorrow’ cannot continue indefinitely because life does not continue indefinitely.” Pascal like this: “I should be much more afraid of being mistaken and then finding out that Christianity is true than of being mistaken in believing it to be true.”

After his death, a servant discovered inside the hem of Pascal’s cloak a small piece of paper on which he had penned down the nature of his own wager (‘Night of Fire’, Nov. 23, 1654). He always carried it with him and transferred it from one garment to the next. It read as follows:

“… from about half past ten in the evening until half past midnight. Fire. ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob’, not of philosophers and scholars. Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace. God of Jesus Christ. God of Jesus Christ …. Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy … ‘And this is eternal life, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.’…”

[Extract from talk given at the UCT Student Y]

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