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Pascal 2.0

Pascal’s Wager 2.0 by Gary Gutting.

One benefit of teaching introductory philosophy to undergraduates is that it lets you talk about philosophy with eager and intelligent people who do not come with predispositions formed by years of technical study. This semester, preparing for a philosophy seminar with first-year honors students at Notre Dame, I reread with fresh eyes one of philosophy’s best-known arguments for belief in God — Pascal’s wager.

The argument, made by the 17th -century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, holds that believing in God is a good bet at any odds, since the possible payoff — eternal happiness — far outweighs any costs of believing — even of believing in a God who does not exist.

Most discussions of Pascal’s wager take it as a peculiar if not perverse calculation of self-interest. As Pascal puts it: “If you win, you win everything; if you lose, you lose nothing.” Taken this way, the argument seems morally suspect; William James noted that those who engaged in such egotistic reasoning might be among the first that God would exclude from heaven. In considering it again, I found what I think may be a more fruitful way of developing the wager argument.

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