Blaise Pascal: Thoughts on Misery, Awareness, and God

Pascal’s work “Pensées” is widely regarded as a work of Christian Apologetics designed to make the case for the belief in God.

Pascal on misery, entertainment, diversion and delusion:

Misery.–The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this [diversions] we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.

Pensées # 171

Diversion.–As men are not able to fight against death, misery, ignorance, they have taken it into their heads, in order to be happy, not to think of them at all.

Pensées # 168

Pascal thought that to believe in God was worthwhile, since it provides us with a sense of fulfillment and meaning to an otherwise meaningless life. But suppose God doesn’t actually exist?

Pascal argues that if one believes in God there is minimal sacrifice; and if God does indeed exist, and one believes, one gains “everything” (heaven, eternal life). If God exists but one does not believe, one loses everything (damnation, hell, eternal separation from God). However, if God does not exist and we simply pass into oblivion, we lose very little. But at least while we lived, we had a sense of fulfillment and purpose, and thus, peace.

This argument is better known as “Pascal’s Wager“:

Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists.

Pensées

Although Pascal’s reasoning has a decidedly Judeo-Christian slant (heaven or hell), I think the basic premise still holds – that is, belief in God, attempting to “know” God – should God exist – is a relatively low cost proposition, with the potential to reap rewards either in this life, and/or the next (if there is a next life).

Some have equated Pascal’s Wager with Game Theory, which I think is a fairly sound comparison.

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