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Pascal’s wager

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K3581-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2015
Retrieved January 19, 2018, from

Article Summary

Pascal’s wager is a type of theistic argument developed by Blaisé Pascal, a French mathematician of the seventeenth century. There are at least four versions of the wager within Pascal’s posthumously published work, Pensées, each of which is a pragmatic argument. Pragmatic arguments for theism are designed to motivate and support belief even in the absence of strong evidence. They seek to show that theistic belief is permissible, even if one does not think that it is likely that God exists, and then to employ prudential reasons to conclude that one should accept theism. Other theistic arguments – the Ontological Proof or the Cosmological Argument for example - provide epistemic reasons in support of theism: that is, reasons to think that there exists an all-powerful, all-knowing, morally perfect being. According to Pascal, there is good reason to seek to inculcate theistic belief, even if one does not appreciate the evidence in support of theism (see Pascal 1960). The role of the wager, as Pascal conceived it, was to move self-interested individuals towards a perspective in which they could appreciate the evidence for theism. Understood in this way, the wager is not a pragmatic trumping of the epistemic, but a means of bridging the chasm between the pragmatic and the epistemic.

The wager has the structure of a gamble, a decision made under uncertainty. Pascal assumed that a person, just by virtue of being in the world, is in a betting situation such that one cannot avoid betting one's life on whether God exists or not. The wager concerning God is forced, one might say, since trying to avoid wagering is tantamount to wagering for one of the alternatives. To wager that God exists is to take steps to inculcate theistic belief. To wager against is to do nothing. Bringing about belief is not an action that one can directly will, but one can take steps to try to bring about belief indirectly.

If one wagers on God and believes, then there are two possible outcomes. Either God exists and one may have put oneself in a position to gain an eternity of bliss; or, God does not exist and one loses little, if anything. On the other hand, if one bets against God and wins, one gains little. But, if one loses that wager, the consequences may be dismal. Because the first alternative has an outcome that overwhelms any possible gain attached to nonbelief, the choice is clear, says Pascal, one should wager that God exists.

Citing this article:
Jordan, Jeff. Pascal’s wager, 2015, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K3581-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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