The sublime rhetoric of Pascal's wager.

Author:Matheson, Calum
Position:Blaise Pascal - Essay

Physicist, mathematician, and philosopher Blaise Pascal's most lasting influence today may derive from a short passage in his fragmentary Pensees known as "Pascal's wager" or simply "the wager." In it, Pascal (2003) argued that acting as if one believes in God is rational even without proof because, if God is real, the rewards of belief are infinite in the form of everlasting life, while in any other case losses are finite. Thus, there is "no choice," for "wherever there is infinity, and where there are not infinite chances of losing against that of winning, there is no room for hesitation, you must give everything" (123). Pascal's argument is explicitly rhetorical: it is about judgment under conditions of uncertainty and is aimed at provoking a particular action in its audience, namely, adherence to the Church. The inescapable exigence of choice is evident to Pascal, who repeatedly states that the wager must be made. Faced with the necessity of choosing between Christianity, with the attendant infinite rewards, and non-belief, with its finite (at best) benefits, the only rational decision is to accept God.

The form of Pascal's wager has been adapted outside of its explicitly religious context. It perennially crops up in debates over important public political decisions, from space exploration (Bostrom 2003) and asteroid collisions (Matheny 2007,1340-1342) to climate change (Hurka 1993, 25) and anything else potentially covered by the precautionary principle. (1) Chief amongst these is nuclear weapons. Most clearly articulated in Jonathan Schell's (1982) Fate of the Earth and modified in Dick Cheney's "One Percent Doctrine," the logic of the wager features in calculations of the catastrophic, but relatively unlikely, prospect of nuclear destruction. But despite its continued iteration, the logic of Pascal's wager is far from uncontroversial. A great number of critics over the years have shown that Pascal's argument is fundamentally unsound whether or not God exists. Indeed, as a logical proof the wager has few defenders. How then might we account for its persistence? What political possibilities does the trope afford?

To answer these questions, this article will examine Pascal's original wager and the logical objections to it with reference to debates over nuclear weapons. My central argument is that Pascal's wager is best understood as an example of the rhetorical sublime. In making this case, I will link the sublime to Paul de Man's observations on the undecidability of grammar and rhetoric. Critics of Pascal have often interpreted his wager grammatically as a logical argument for belief rather than rhetorically as a use of trope to establish the impossibility of logical argument. Even those who identify rhetoric at work in Pascal's wager tend to analyze it in terms of rational persuasion, oftentimes with some distrust. However, Pascal's rhetorical method in the wager is more akin to the sublime style of Longinus (1991) than the rational persuasion of Aristotelian logos, a result of the negative theology that informed Pascal's approach to the subject of God. The wager's power comes not from its mathematical consistency or reasoned argument but rather its stark presentation of infinity as something that exceeds reason itself in some measure and forces the potential believer to confront what exceeds logic itself. The outcome of this discussion matters because it implicates modern-day uses of the wager's argumentative structure and the sublime more generally. Appeals to act in the face of enormous, but enormously unlikely, threats cannot be effectively resisted by simply disputing the logic of their calculation, nor are they productive roadmaps for politics as conventionally understood. Rather, these arguments should be read in relation to Pascal's original theological motive as efforts to overwhelm auditors with the appeal to values and forces beyond their ability to comprehend or calculate with reason alone. Like Pascal's wager, the sublime also has its critics, and the nuclear example suggests that it might be particularly threatening in combination with Pascal's wager. However, the wager might also be read as evidence that the sublime also presents opportunities for political critique. Although Schell and Cheney's opposite deployments of the infinite demonstrate that aporia may result, Pascal's sublime rhetoric should not be dismissed. Indecision can also gesture towards political possibilities beyond rational, orderly politics.

This essay will proceed in four parts. First, it will elaborate the structure and context of Pascal's original wager in the Pensees and the logical objections to it with the aim of recovering Pascal's reputation as a rhetorician employing a powerful trope, rather than a mathematician systematizing belief. Second, it will discuss Jonathan Schell's famous appeal for nuclear abolition in his book Fate of the Earth and Dick Cheney's so-called "One Percent Doctrine" against terrorism as contemporary uses of the wager's logical structure. Third, it will analyze the wager in terms of its sublime rhetoric and the influence of negative theology on Pascal's work. Finally, it will conclude with a discussion of the appeal to infinity as an argumentative strategy and the challenges of the sublime as an aspect of political rhetoric.

Pascal's wager

When he died at the age of 39, Blaise Pascal was in the midst of a project (or projects) of apology for the Christian faith. Although the work was never completed, it was ultimately to be assembled as the Pensees, a "mildly heretical" treatise reflecting Pascal's Jansenist conviction (Velchik 2009, 1). Much of the book concerns the fallen state of humanity and the inability to directly contemplate the "hidden God," the motive force of the universe that exists beyond the realms of speech and rational cognition. Pascal's work was inspired by the events of November 23 1654, eight years prior to his death, which he christened the "Night of Fire." Vividly described in the Pensees, the Night of Fire was a two-hour long religious vision which he interpreted as a revelation of God (Ludwin 2001, xi). Unable to communicate this experience directly, Pascal nevertheless endeavored to reach unbelievers with his brand of Jansenist Catholicism. One result was his famous wager, which Westel (1995, 13) has suggested would have been near the beginning of the assembled Pensees based on Pascal's notes and more recent textual scholarship. There is "not one inkling of doubt" that the final project was intended as an extended Christian apology (Westel 1995, 18) with the wager as a key element. (2)

"'Either God is or he [sic] is not,'" Pascal (2003) wrote. "Reason cannot decide this question. Infinite chaos separates us. At the far end of this infinite distance a coin is being spun which will come down heads or tails. How will you wager? Reason cannot make you choose either, reason cannot prove either wrong" (122). Because the proposition that God is real cannot be proven or disproven, neither decision is clearly correct. But some decision must be made, because one either believes or does not--"you are already committed," as Pascal put it (2003, 122). (3) Pascal argues that four outcomes are possible--that God exists and I believe, that God exists and that I do not believe, that God does not exist but I believe, and that God does not exist and I do not believe. These outcomes can be mapped onto a decision matrix, and indeed Pascal is considered one of the progenitors of decision theory for his analysis of alternative choices (Jordan 1994a, 3).

Although Pascal implied a 50% probability of God's existence (assuming that the coin he described is fair), the most significant aspect of his argument is that probability itself is unimportant for this particular decision. Because the rewards for belief if God is real are "an eternity of life and happiness" while the potential losses of false belief are finite, the potential benefits of belief outweigh any drawback. "[T]hough there were an infinite number of chances," Pascal (2003) wrote, "of which only one were in your favor," one would be right to wager if "there were an infinity of infinitely happy life to be won." But the chance of God's existence is not one-in-infinity, but some finite fraction: "there is an infinity of infinitely happy life to be won, one chance of winning against a finite number of chances of losing, and what you are staking is finite" (123-124). That Pascal describes the bet in terms of "lives" bet and won only eases the way for its adaptation to public policy questions.

Pascal's argument here is not that God exists, but that given the non-zero chance that God exists multiplied by the infinite reward of correct belief, it is rational to act as if God exists. It is rational to believe because of the expected value of this course of action, and if the "passions" prevent "reason" from convincing the gambler, then behaving like one believes by "taking holy water, having masses said, and so on" will eventually lead one to belief (Pascal 2003, 124). Pascal also argues that the salubrious effects of a pious lifestyle are worth the attendant loss of hedonistic pleasures even without the infinite rewards of Heaven (125). Eventually, as these boons accumulate and the convert behaves in a pious fashion, the repetition of worship will instill genuine faith and fear for one's immortal soul: "Anyone who grows accustomed to faith believes it, and can no longer help fearing hell, and believes nothing else" (126). The fear of hell adds a dimension of infinite suffering as an alternative to infinite happiness, and it is this negative incentive that is often echoed in secular incarnations of the wager.

Leaving aside the moral objections to Pascal's wager, the logic of this argument has been attacked in a number of ways. One objection is that because many gods--perhaps an infinite number of them--are possible...

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