Thoughts (Pensées), by Blaise Pascal

by Rex Rouis

Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662), was a child prodigy, and one of the greatest French mathematicians of his time. He was also a physicist, inventor, philosopher, and most importantly Christian author. Pascal’s earliest work was in the natural and applied sciences where he made important contributions to the study of fluids, and clarified the concepts of pressure and vacuum.

On 23 November 1654, Pascal had an intense religious vision and immediately recorded the experience in a brief note to himself, which began, “Fire, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars…” and concluded by quoting Psalm 119:16: “I will not forget thy word. Amen.”

Pascal’s most influential theological work, referred to posthumously as the Pensées (“Thoughts”), was not completed until after his death. It was to have been a sustained and coherent examination and defense of the Christian faith. The first version of the detached notes appeared in print as, “Thoughts of M. Pascal on religion, and on some other subjects”, and soon became a classic.

Thoughts, by Blaise Pascal

Out of this work came what is known as “Pascal’s Wager” (or Pascal’s Gambit).  It is a formal suggestion that even if the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a rational person should wager as though God exists, because living life accordingly has everything to gain, and nothing to lose. The Wager was set out in note 233 of “Thoughts”, and goes as follows:

1. “God is, or He is not”
2. A Game is being played… where heads or tails will turn up.
3. According to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.
4. You must wager. It is not optional.
5. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.
6. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (…) There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.

Pascal’s Wager was groundbreaking because it charted new territory in probability theory, was one of the first attempts to make use of the concept of infinity, and marked the first formal use of decision theory. Read about Sir Isaac Newton, dark matter, and my prayer equation..

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