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Summary in 400 words or less:
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), a French mathematician in Pensées (version below, pps. 122-123):
…‘Either God is or he is not.’ But to which view shall we be inclined? Reason cannot decide this question. Infinite chaos separates us. At the far end of this infinite distance a coin is being spun which will come down heads or tails. How will you wager? Reason cannot make you chose either. Reason cannot prove either wrong.
…you must wager. There is no choice, you are already committed. Which will you choose then? Let us see: since a choice must be made, let us see which offers you the least interest.
Not understanding Pascal’s wager has not stopped academics and others from attacking it as stupid, immoral or both. In fact, it is neither. Pascal’s brilliant argument for the rationality of Christian faith has been libeled and slandered perhaps more than any other argument in the history of philosophy. But Pascal’s wager escapes all its enemies. However, to discern the virtues of the argument requires some patient study of the wager essay and how it relates to other elements of Pascal’s philosophy.
Pascal did not advise people to believe in God on the off chance that, if Christianity is true, you have everything to gain (escaping hell and winning heaven) and nothing to lose. That is, he did not think Christianity lacked positive evidence. Rather, he appealed to our sense of prudence (or rational self-interest) in order to raise the skeptic’s awareness of the importance of pursuing the question of whether Christianity is true or false.
Douglas Groothuis defends Pascal’s wager against several common arguments and then extends its prudential reasoning to Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The reader should conclude that Pascal’s argument bears the weight of careful scrutiny and equips the Christian apologist with a profound apologetic resource.
Scripture for YouVersion: Mark 8:35-37
Three questions (1 fill-in-the-blank, 1 multiple choice, and one discussion question):
References for further reading:
Stephen T. Davis, God, Reason & Theistic Proofs (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 156–66.
Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (London: Penguin Books, 1995)
Kreeft, Peter. Tacelli, Ronald. Twenty Arguments for the Existence of God.
Carrier, Richard: “The End of Pascal’s Wager: Only Nontheists Go To Heaven” (2002) http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/heaven.html (retrieved October 15, 2013)
Pascal’s Wager. Worthwhile books include Nicholas Rescher, Pascal’s Wager: A Study Of Practical Reasoning In Philosophical Theology (Notre Dame, 1985). The best collection of essays is found in Jeff Jordan (ed.), Gambling on God: Essays on Pascal’s Wager (Rowman & Littlefield, 1994). See Kelly James Clark’s review, “Gambling on God” in Perspectives (1995), pp. 30-31. Jeff Jordan, Pascal’s Wager: Pragmatic Arguments and Belief in God (Oxford, 2006). See too Jordan’s entry “Pascal’s Wager,” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Noteworthy articles, aside from the collection in Gambling on God, are: Richard Swinburne, “The Christian Wager,” Religious Studies 4 (1969), pp. 217–228. Thomas V. Morris, “Pascalian Wagering,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 16 (1986), pp. 437–454. William Lycan and George Schlesinger, “You Bet Your Life: Pascal’s Wager Defended,” in Joel Feinberg (ed.), Reason and Responsibility (Wadsworth, 7th ed., 1989). Alexander Tabarrok, “Believe in Pascal’s Wager? Have I got a Deal for You!” Theory and Decision 48/2 (2000), pp. 123-128. Robert Peterson, “Pascal’s Wager: Logical Consistency and Usefulness as an Argument for the Existence of God,” Global Journal of Classical Theology 5/1 (2005). Joel Esala, “The Epistemology of Pascal’s Wager: A Christian Presuppositional Argument,” Reformed Perspectives Magazine 8/2 (2006). Though more similar to a Jamesian-style pragmatic argument, see Stephen T. Davis, “Pascal on Self-Caused Belief,” Religious Studies 27 (1991), pp. 27-37. Joshua L. Golding, Rationality and Religious Theism (Ashgate, 2003), ch. 1.
Mill and James’ Wager. A Mill’s wager, also discussed in Jordan (pp. 187ff), is similar to what is called “the presumption of theism” below. A systematic defense of the Jamesian wager is Jeff Jordan, Pascal’s Wager: Pragmatic Arguments and Belief in God (Oxford, 2006), pp. 164-187. L. Stafford Betty, “Going beyond James: A Pragmatic Argument for God’s Existence,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 49 (2001), pp. 69–84. Sami Pihlström, “Pragmatic and Transcendental Arguments for Theism: a Critical Examination,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 51/3 (2002). Philip Quinn, “Gale on a Pragmatic Argument for Religious Belief,” Philo 6/1 (2003).
Kierkegaard’s Wager. Robert Koons, “Faith, Probability, and Infinite Passion,” Faith and Philosophy 10 (1993), pp. 145-160.
Collaborators: Douglas Groothuis, Chris Lee
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