Blaise Pascal was an important French philosopher and mathematician. Although he made numerous contributions to a number of intellectual fields, he was a great theological thinker, and arguably his greatest contribution was made in the form of a book called the Pensées, which is French for "Thoughts." The book consists of Pascal's personal reflections on a number of topics, which prominently include his own spirituality. Placed somewhere between essays (like those of Michel de Montaigne or Ralph Waldo Emerson) and aphorisms (like those of Arthur Schopenhauer or Marcus Aurelius), this book is a striking and unique text in the history of thought, and its erudite but personal nature makes it an interesting piece of literature in today's world.
Logic and Faith
One of the most well-known ideas that Pascal put forth in the Pensées is commonly referred to as "Pascal's Wager." This idea is the result of Pascal's reflections about the nature of faith, and about his own beliefs in the Christian God. Pascal supposed that given a crisis of faith or uncertainty regarding faith, one should be able to arrive at a reasonable conclusion using the power of thought and logic. Although, many Christians believe that faith and logic are fundamentally incompatible, Pascal was interested to see how they could inform one another, and his conclusions are interesting from both academic and spiritual points of view.
In short, this idea invites the both the faithful and unfaithful to consider the consequences of their chosen paradigms. According to Pascal, as there is no scientific or logical way to arrive at a certain knowledge about the existence of God, both the aspects of belief and non-belief amount to a kind of bet, or a wager. For example, if I claim that God exists, in essence, I'm betting that I am right, and the same is true if I claim that the Christian God does not exist.
Now, in most instances such as betting on races or gambling in casinos, we have some idea of how we should proceed, given the context of the wagers that we make. In other words, we tend to bet on things when the odds are in our favor. For example, during a poker game I will make a wager if it is likely that I have the best hand, or if it is likely that I can convince my opponents that I have the best hand. If these outcomes are unlikely, I probably will not bet. In case of faith, this analogy raises the question of odds. Is it more likely that God exists or that God does not exist? Is God a myth or reality? We could consider various arguments in favor of both answers, but in the end, it makes the most sense to conclude that the odds do not strongly favor one side or another, at least as far as we can tell. Thus, we need to take another facet of betting into account.
According to Pascal, making a well-informed wager requires taking into account, the consequences of both winning and losing the bet. To continue with the poker example: if I choose to bet on a particular hand, I must consider not only the odds, but also my overall position in the game if I win and if I lose. I could bet a large amount on reasonably strong odds, but if I lose, all my money would be gone. Therefore, it often makes more sense to bet a sensible amount so that if I lose, I will be able to keep playing.
What if God exists?
How does all this apply to faith? The answer lies in the "what if" question that characterizes the above idea. What if I don't believe in God? Pascal reasons that this amounts to betting my soul on this idea that there is no Christian God, and acting accordingly. Without faith, I may not live a Christian life because I don't believe that there are consequences. If I'm correct, no harm would come to me, or to my soul, when I die. However, if I'm wrong, the consequences could be dire, even including eternal damnation if I sin too seriously. On the other hand, if I do believe in God, I will live a Christian life, accepting Jesus Christ as my savior, avoiding sin, and perhaps missing out on a few of life's indulgent pleasures. The consequences? If I am right, my eternal soul will be saved. If I am wrong, no harm is done.
The Safe Bet
By taking the above considerations into account, Pascal's conclusion is: if I have faith and I lead a Christian life, the worst thing that could possibly happen to me is that I am wrong, and I am neither saved nor damned. On the other hand, if I lack faith and live an non-Christian life, the worst thing that could happen to me is a bit worse. Therefore, it makes far more sense to live a Christian life and seek faith than it does to live faithlessly. Maybe, Pascal's wager amounts to making a "safe bet", and many have argued that his kind of faith doesn't count, because it's based on logic. The "safest bet" is to check out the Pensées and decide for yourself.