Blaise Pascal: A Gambling Man?

Author: Missionaries of the Blessed Sacrament


Worthy is the Lamb Magazine

Pascal's wager, simply put, claims that an infinite "prize" easily warrants a finite wager. Before I elaborate upon this wager I would like to acquaint you with it's highly regarded proponent.

Blaise Pascal is universally recognized as one of the most brilliant men of the modern era; an accomplished mathematician, physicist and philosopher. His life and thought were so intimately commingled that, according to his contemporaries, the witness of the man is no less significant than the message of his work.

Born in the French town of Clermont-en-Auvergne (200 miles southeast of Paris) on June 19, 1623, Blaise was raised by his father Etienne, a mathematician of genuine ability and magistrate of Clermont-Ferrand, since his mother died when he was only three years old. At the age of eight he moved to Paris with his father and two sisters, Gilberte and Jacqeline.

In 1639, at the age of 16, Blaise wrote his first widely acclaimed mathematical treatise, on the properties of conic sections. In 1642, proving his competence in technical matters as well as in pure science, he constructed the first digital calculating machine; the predecessor of our modern calculators and computers and for which he is remembered by the computer language which bears his name.

From 1640 to 1646 Blaise lived in Rouen with his father who was appointed by Richelieu as administrator of that region. Though born and raised Catholic, it was in 1646 at the age of 23, that Blaise became a convert. The necessity of conversion—abandonment of the world and submission to God—became the foundation for the life and work of Blaise Pascal. The experience made him realize that his intellectual ability caused him to relish one of the most dangerous worldly enticements—fame—and he resolved forthwith to abandon the sciences.

Blaise embarked upon a life of religious devotion and strict austerity yet his resolution was not immediately reduced to practice. He continued his research, plunging into Physics, and through some ingenious experiments he demonstrated the existence of the vacuum and the weight of air. Simultaneously he advanced the principles of a truly modern scientific philosophy based on primary reliance upon the experiment. Thus Pascal completed the break between true science and metaphysics.

In 1647, stricken by serious illness, Blaise returned to Paris. Upon the advice of his doctors he relaxed his religious discipline and, though not abandoning faith and devotion, began to frequent the world. Friendships developed with other young men and Blaise became familiar with the emancipated "free-thinker" mentality which provided the background for his later apologetic writings. Also during this period he became convinced that the science of man was of far greater importance than the science of things.

In Paris Blaise continued his mathematical labors and laid the groundwork for what would become the calculus of probabilities. He also helped to introduce the horse-drawn omnibus which is the predecessor of our modern motor bus and he added much to the science of hypsometry, or the precise measurement of altitudes, which is essential to modern meteorology. Most important, his work in physics resulted in the publication (1653) of what would become Pascal's Law; the foundation for hydrostatics and fluid mechanics and the basis for applications such as the hydraulic press, lift and brakes as well as the syringe.

Yet neither science nor the world could satisfy this soul so enamored of the absolute. In 1654 his sister Jacqueline, who had become a religious in the convent at Port-Royal and whom he had helped convert years earlier, privately heard him confess his confusion and understood immediately that Blaise had become a convert for the 2nd time. His famous and brilliantly written Memorial recalls the intense religious experience that resulted during the night of Nov. 23, 1654, in his revelation of the living God. Subsequently Pascal remained intimately linked with the theologians and recluses of Port-Royal.

At the same time, Blaise kept correspondence with his fashionable and worldly friends in Paris, trying to convert them to his religious views... a task at which he succeeded more than once. Some of his remarkable efforts resulted in the publication of Lettres Provinciales (1656-57) in which Pascal displayed his skill as a philosopher and demonstrated the devastating effectiveness of simplicity informed by intelligence and wit. Through this correspondence he also conceived and began his project of an apologetic for the Catholic faith, to be directed towards converting unbelievers.

Though he had given up science after his 2nd conversion in 1654, he returned to this work in 1657, convinced by friends that the publication of another worthwhile discovery would add weight to the arguments of his apologetic. Thus in 1658 his investigations on the cycloid (roulette) were published, providing the foundation for differential and integral calculus as well as probability theory; one of the most important fields in mathematics. Immediately afterwards he withdrew from all "lay" activity, devoting himself to prayer and the completion of his apologetic writings.

In 1659 his illness returned for good and rendered him capable only of one last, short writing, a "Prayer asking God to make good use of his illness", in which he expressed an ardent desire for a conversion still more perfect. Amidst the suffering and agony which marked his last years, a 3rd conversion came and Blaise accomplished a spiritual ascension which brought him to a sort of sainthood. On the 19th of August, 1662, Blaise Pascal died at the age of 39... yet his best contributions were just beginning!

In 1670, eight years after his death, Les pensees was published. This great apologetic, to defend Catholicism against the attack of the "free-thinkers" and the indifference of the worldly, stands as a memorial to the deep convictions of this brilliant man.

Les pensees is an eloquent combination of reason, passion and insight into the human condition. It expresses Pascal's winning personality, profound intellect and rigorous regard for truth based on geometric reasoning and the experimental method. Yet it argues his uncompromising conviction that the certainties of faith are not grasped through reason but through the heart, the mainspring of love, which submits to revealed truth and engages man in a relationship with the living God. In the domain of religion, knowledge is inseparable from love!

In the human mind Pascal recognizes the strict demands for the absolute yet the need for a living truth. The reason is too weak to achieve the absolute, yet it is strong enough to prove that "there are an infinite number of things which surpass it." The human mind recognizes the contradiction of man but cannot explain it. It is only faith—which is superior to reason—in the revelation of the living God that can resolve the problems imposed by reason. Furthermore, reason can grasp revelation as a historical fact surrounded by certain wonderful events that guarantee its supernatural character.

And this brings us to Pascal's Wager wherein the father of probability theory (which describes and governs all games of chance) proposed a challenge to nonbelievers of every age; a last call to conversion.

For those who do not wish to read Les pensees, but would like to accept his challenge, I have formulated an updated version with very finite parameters. In the words of Clint Eastwood: "Do you feel lucky?" Pascal's Wager: An infinite reward warrants a finite wager...

Faith in the living God—as proclaimed by the Catholic Church—is rational... sound reasoning demands conversion!

If you disagree with this statement I invite you—in the spirit of Blaise Pascal; mathematician, physicist, philosopher and devout Catholic—to accept the following challenge. It is finite and uncomplicated. Furthermore, it can be kept secret from those who, not having the genius of a Blaise Pascal, might find your acceptance of this challenge to be a cause for laughter and scorn:

For the remainder of this Lenten season and the duration of the Easter season, ending with the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (May 26):

A) Make a commitment to attend the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass each Sunday, listening for the voice of Christ in this Sacrament of His love... B) Make a commitment to spend an hour each week with Jesus; really, personally and substantially Present in the Most Blessed Sacrament; seeking to establish a personal relationship with our gentle and loving Savior... C) Make a commitment to utter a few short prayers throughout the course of each day; simply asking God to reveal Himself and to grant you the grace to accept His infinite love and submit to His holy will... D) Make a commitment to learn the Catholic Answers to questions which arise. E) Make a commitment to remain open to inspirations of the Holy Spirit even if it means conversion: If you are a baptized Catholic, you might be inspired to accept the gift of His infinite mercy and forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. If you are a non-Catholic, you might be inspired to consider entering the Catholic Church.

It's that simple. If God does not exist you stand to lose nothing by accepting this wager and believing for the next eight weeks. If He does exist—as taught by the Catholic Church and Blaise Pascal—you stand to lose everything by turning it down.

If there ever was such a thing as a "no brainer", this is it!

This challenge is meant to be challenging. It might anger you, trouble your conscience or give rise to difficulties you have regarding the Catholic Faith. I invite you to utilize the resources listed, or to contact this apostolate with questions, comments or concerns.

Taken from the March 1996 issue of "Worthy Is the Lamb"

Further Resources: The Holy Bible, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, EWTN (check local TV listings) This Apostolate:
Missionaries of the Blessed Sacrament
P.O. Box 1701
Plattsburgh, NY 12901