Pascal’s Wager, certitude and doubt, and the human condition

“The wager,” says Thomas S. Hibbs, author of a new book on Pascal’s philosophy and faith, “demands a kind of self-transformation of one’s passions, a movement from self-interested calculation to generous self-giving.”

Portrait of Blaise Pascal (1623-62), by unknown artist. [Wikipedia]. "Wagering On an Ironic God" is by Dr. Thomas S. Hibbs and published by Baylor University Press.

Thomas S. Hibbs is s Dean of the Honors College and Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University, and the author of many essays and books on philosophy and popular culture. He is also a contributor to Catholic World Report. His most recent book is Wagering On an Ironic God: Pascal on Faith and Philosophy, published last year by Baylor University Press.

Dr. Hibbs recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of CWR, about Pascal, the famed philosopher’s “wager”, his debt to St. Augustine, and Christ as the “Eucharistic Cipher”.

CWR: How would you describe or explain Pascal as a philosopher? What are some distinctive traits and themes in his thought and style? Early on you situate Pascal within an “ancient quarrel”. What is that quarrel?

Hibbs: For Pascal, philosophy functions as a salutary corrective to the forgetful way in which most human beings pass their lives. It raises, in a serious way, questions about serious matters and initiates the search for answers. In one section, entitled “Against Indifference,” in his Pensées, the text in which he develops his apology for the Christian faith, Pascal urges every human being to seek knowledge about human destiny—about the existence of God, the nature of the soul, and the prospect for immortality. Given human ignorance about the most important matters, to see life is a matter not of piety but of mere self-interest: “we need only see what the least enlightened see.”

But the best that philosophy can do is to sharpen our sense of the most reasonable options; it cannot finally resolve the big questions about human happiness, about morality, or the state of the soul. In a fragment entitled “Letter to induce men to seek God,” Pascal comments, “make them look for him among the philosophers, skeptics, and dogmatists, who will worry the man who seeks.” Only the Christian faith instructs us in a convincing way about the human condition and the remedies to the evils that beset us.

Despite his skepticism about philosophy’s achievements, Pascal begins his apology for the Christian faith in a properly philosophical manner, with the question of the best way of life and who teaches authoritatively concerning that life. The case for Christianity is grounded in its penetrating understanding of the human condition and in its promise of true happiness. Here Christianity meets philosophy on its proper terrain. It shares with ancient philosophy an understanding of human life structured as a quest for the good.

So, Pascal provides a distinctively theological answer to a properly philosophical question.

CWR: What is Pascal’s wager? How has it often been misunderstood by non-believers or misused by Christians? Also, why is it important to insist that Pascal is not “an anti-intellectual fideist”?

Hibbs: Pascal’s wager, often the only part of his writings to receive any attention from philosophers or to be included in undergraduate philosophy classes, is a pithy and dramatic argument that engages an unbeliever in the hope of persuading him that it is in his best interest to believe in the existence of God and to begin to live in accord with that belief.

Its structure is quite simple—believing requires marginal costs and offers the prospect of huge benefit, in fact, infinite benefit. But its analytical basis is in fact quite sophisticated. It is known as one of the first instances of applied probability theory. It is in short an argument for how we ought to reason, deliberate, and act in the face of uncertainty that, in this instance, weighs the loss of finite goods involved in believing in God with the potential infinite good of eternal happiness to be gained through belief.

Since the argument assumes that the existence of God is philosophically uncertain, in adopting belief one does not act against reason. Thus, it is not a form of fideism, if fideism is understood as opting for faith against the evidence of reason. Even if one grants the force of this argument, as a stand-alone piece of reasoning it leaves much undetermined. For instance, the wager does not tell us which sort of God, whose conception of God, we ought to follow. Only Pascal’s larger account of the superiority of the Christian understanding of the human condition, of scripture, and of redemption can do that.

Moreover, that larger account provides a response to the famous rejoinder of William James to the wager, namely, that anyone who believed on the basis of such a crude self-interested calculus would merit not salvation but damnation. Even within the wager, it is clear that what starts out as a simple gamble involves, as Pascal puts it, wagering all you have, indeed your very self. The wager demands a kind of self-transformation of one’s passions, a movement from self-interested calculation to generous self-giving.

CWR: Irony is a key theme in this book. What are some ways in which it relates to Pascal’s thought and the “wager” in particular? Why is this so significant to understanding the “wager” properly?

Hibbs: The book takes its cue from a pithy aphorism of Pascal: “Philosophers astonish ordinary people. Christians astonish the philosophers.” As the Catholic scholar Tony Esolen notes in his book Ironies of Faith, irony flourishes in the gap between what we think we know and what we actually know, between what we expect and what comes to pass. One who is subject to irony is surprised or astonished to have his or her ignorance revealed. As Esolen’s book makes clear, scripture is replete with ironic moments, reversals in understanding and shocks of awareness. Similarly, God’s revealing of the life of wisdom to the lowly, to the foolish of this world, startles both those captivated by worldly honor and wealth and the philosophers, who have transcended the customary desires of the many. By masking his divinity in his humanity and appearing at a particular time and place, Christ “swindles us into restoration and dupes us into truth,“ as Esolen memorably puts it.

Now, this sort of irony is quite different from the sort of irony that has come to dominate modern consciousness. In fact, irony is now often treated as a stand-in for a kind of cool, apathetic mood or a detached, cynical posture. Yet irony as a deflationary mood or posture has had its advocates. In the late 20th century, the philosopher Richard Rorty wrote:

Once upon a time we felt a need to worship something which lay beyond the visible world . . . [and now we have arrived at] the point where we no longer worship anything, where we treat nothing as a quasi-divinity, where we treat everything-our language, our conscience, our community-as a product of time and chance.

The result for Rorty is ironic detachment from what he calls our “final vocabulary,” the language we use to talk about our ultimate aims and fundamental commitments. Rorty is a sort of high-brow version of the world-view on offer in Seinfeld or its spin-off, Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. Despite its claim to being subversive, there is nothing especially disruptive about Rorty’s irony; it is in fact nothing more than the smug and self-congratulatory irony of the liberal academic.

As the contemporary Plato scholar Charles Griswold notes, there are two ways of thinking about the enigmas and surprise associated with irony. The point might be that within “every philosophical position there is a puzzle, within which there awaits a riddle, and so forth ad infinitum.” The implication would be that the “universe is intrinsically unknowable.” But there is another possibility. “The function of irony” is to initiative us in a search to discover the answer to a “multi-faceted question: what is the good life for a human being?”

For Pascal, just as the philosopher surprises ordinary people, by putting into question what they think they know about their place in the cosmos, so too does the Christian surprise the philosopher by countering the philosopher’s assumption of having achieved the highest level of awareness and best way of life available to human beings.

CWR: Pascal emphasizes how man seeks happiness and love. In what ways is he indebted to Augustine?

Hibbs: With few exceptions, classical philosophy understands itself as a quest for the human good. That quest is rooted in the recognition that the human soul longs for happiness and that it is ordered to a love of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Early Christian thinkers eagerly embraced this conception of the human soul. Of course all these thinkers operated with certain assumptions about the place of the human person in a well-ordered cosmos.

With the coming of modern science, the sense of the well-ordered whole, reasonably obvious to any observation of nature, is put in doubt. For Pascal, human persons are, to use the language of Walker Percy, lost in the cosmos. In fact, Pascal’s own thought sees through the alleged certainties of modern science, with its boast to understand and control nature, and anticipates post-modern thought, where nearly every thing that we know and experience is thought to be partial and contingent.

Yet for Pascal none of this alters the nature or fundamental longing of the human soul. We are situated between absolute certitude and paralyzing doubt; we must avoid the twin vices of presumption and despair. In this he retains Augustine’s understanding of the human soul as ordered to wisdom and happiness. In Augustinian language, he writes, “man is obviously made for thinking…. [T]he proper order of thought is to begin with ourselves, and with our author and our end” (#620).

Pascal also shares Augustine’s view of the human soul as intrinsically ordered to infinite happiness. Of the philosophers, he writes:

They have realized that the true good must be such that it may be possessed by all men at once without diminution or envy, and that no one should be able to lose it against his will. Their reason is that this desire is natural to man, since all men inevitably feel it, and man cannot be without it, and they therefore conclude…

As the abrupt ending of this passage makes clear, he thinks that the philosophers progress in characterizing the good leads them to a conception of the good that is, apart from faith, unrealizable. Only union with Christ enables the efficacious love of the good.

CWR: Please summarize Pascal’s account of the human condition and how Christ both explains and cures that condition. Also, what do you mean when, near the conclusion of the book, you discuss Christ as “the Eucharistic Cipher”? What does Pascal say about Christ and the Eucharist? And how does it relate to conversion and spiritual transformation?

Hibbs: Pascal’s sees the human condition as a paradoxical combination of wretchedness and greatness. Our wretchedness is evident in the way in which our passions and imagine regularly subvert reason and in our penchant for diverting ourselves from the present. We regret or relish the past and fear or anticipate the future. Thus, Pascal grimly concludes, we can never securely experience happiness because we cannot live contentedly in the present, the only dimension of time that is actually real. Thus, “we never live but only hope to live.” Yet these examples of our wretchedness prove our greatness; for we can recognize that these are disorders and that some other ordering of our souls is natural and appropriate to us. Our wretchedness, he memorably writes, is that of a “dispossessed king.”

In our fallen state, we vacillate, in keeping with our dual state, between pride and despair. Knowing God merely as God and not as redeemer only exacerbates this condition, as it engenders the proud assumption that we have attained God by our own powers. True knowledge of God is inseparable from self-knowledge and a recognition of our own wretchedness. Yet true knowledge must not leave us despairing over our condition; it must offer the hope of a cure. Not knowing our own wretchedness makes for pride. Knowing our own wretchedness without knowing God makes for despair. Knowing Christ strikes the balance because he shows us both “God and our own wretchedness” (#192). The religion of a humiliated, crucified God—inconceivable to natural reason—accounts for the paradoxes of human nature. This is perhaps the most dramatic instance of Christian irony.

A further irony, particularly from the perspective of philosophy, is the Christianity, which initially appears to be yet another primitive myth, is fully open to reason and embraces the philosophical quest.

What revelation presents to the philosopher is a cipher, a phenomenon with two meanings. Pascal writes:

A cipher has two meanings. When we find out an important letter in which we discover a clear meaning, and in which it is nevertheless said that the meaning is veiled and obscure, that it is hidden, so that we might read the letter without seeing it, and interpret it without understanding it, what must we think but that here is a cipher with a double meaning, and the more so if we find obvious contradictions in the literal meaning? (260)

For Pascal, Christ is the key to the intelligibility of the human condition and the means by which our disordered and divided souls can become rightly ordered and whole. “It was not right that Christ should appear in a manner manifestly divine and absolutely capable of convincing all men, but neither was it right that his coming should be so hidden that he could not be recognized by those who sincerely sought him” Christian way can thus become a puzzle, not so much to be solved and dismissed, as a source of ever-increasing wonder, even awe. As Pascal writes, a “figure includes absence and presence” (#265); “once the secret” to the deciphering of the figure is revealed, “it is impossible not to see it” (#267).

As Pascal writes, when God appears, he nonetheless remains veiled. Pascal traces the history of divine hiddenness, even as he underscores the role of hiddenness as pedagogical, mystical, and sacramental. Christ is himself a cipher. Pascal ends the discussion of divine hiddenness with a reflection on mode of presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist, the centerpiece of Catholic sacramental life. Pascal affirms the central theological insight of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Eucharistic hymn, the Pange Lingua Gloriosi, that faith discerns what exceeds the apprehension of the feeble sense. Here, we experience the “presence of a hidden God.”

The focus on the Eucharist helps to make sense of what is often thought to be a perplexing part of the wager. Toward the end of that discussion, Pascal counsels his interlocutor, who now desires faith but does not yet possess it, that he should “learn of those who have been bound like you. . . . Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc.” (418). Pascal is proposing an initiation into the rites and practices of the Church. In the accent on the imitation of others who show the way, Pascal highlights the way in which wagering on the Christian God is not a matter of a single act of faith, made at a moment in time, by an isolated individual; instead, it is a matter of incorporation into a communal body. As much as during his life Pascal may have found himself in conflict with certain members of the church hierarchy, he is unwavering in his affirmation. “The history of the Church,” he writes, “should properly be called the history of truth” (776). In marked contrast to his observations about the futility and misery of human life apart from grace, he describes life in the church thus: “There is a certain pleasure in being on board a ship battered by storms so long as one is assured that one will not perish. The persecutions that afflict the Church are of this sort” (743).

About Carl E. Olson 1077 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind", co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

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  1. A Catholic website that is also a forum for learning providing valuable knowledge and real continued education like this dialogue with Hibbs on Pascal along with, that is not limited to good Christian polemic reaches a needed and personally much appreciated standard of excellence.

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