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Can Pascal Convert the Libertine? An Analysis of the Evaluative Commitment Entailed by Pascal's Wager

Neti Linzer

While Pascal’s wager is commonly approached as a stand-alone decision theoretic problem, there is also a crucial evaluative component to his argument that adds oft-overlooked complexities. Though we can formulate a response to these challenges by drawing on other sections of the Pensées, an examination of an argument from Walter Kaufmann highlights enduring difficulties with this response, leading to the conclusion that Pascal lacks the resources to convincingly appeal to the libertine’s self-interest.

I. Introduction

Pascal’s wager, an argument due to the 17th-century mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, is generally analyzed as a self-contained, formalizable problem, embodying one of the first applications of decision theory (1). In short, it calculates the expected utility of believing in God against that of not believing, and concludes that, inasmuch as rationality entails maximizing expected utility, i.e. making the decision that will most likely lead to the most preferable outcome, it is rational for us to believe in God (2). This is a “wager” insofar as we cannot know with certainty that God exists, and the most we can do is gamble on the fact that He does.

But what I will argue is that the wager argument presupposes a certain evaluative commitment, which Pascal’s targeted audience, the ‘libertine,’ notably lacks (3). The libertine is someone who does not believe in God, and whose value system is instead oriented towards earthly, bodily, happiness. I claim that for someone thus constituted, Pascal’s wager fails to be convincing. The wager, however, is only one part of Pascal’s never-finished apologetic project, the preliminary notes of which are organized in the Pensées, meaning ‘Thoughts.’ I will show that if we examine some of the other arguments Pascal makes throughout the Pensées, then we can formulate a response to this objection on Pascal’s behalf.

As Pascal describes her, the libertine is deeply unhappy when she thinks about the contingencies of the human condition, and she therefore values activities which entertain her and divert her from these disturbing thoughts. In his description of the libertine’s condition, Pascal performs something of a Nietzschean style ‘revaluation’ of this approach to life: it includes a destructive phase—in which Pascal argues that the libertine’s values are based on false presuppositions—followed by a constructive phase—in which Pascal presents the libertine with a more attractive evaluative framework. Once she is in this new cognitive space, the libertine is prepared to be persuaded by the wager.

I argue, however, that inasmuch as there are alternative ways for the libertine to revalue her mortality, Pascal fails to make an argument that will necessarily appeal to her self-interest. Drawing on the work of the 20th-century philosopher Walter Kaufmann, I argue that the libertine can instead revalue her mortality by embracing it, by recognizing the way in which the fact of her death is precisely what makes her life worthwhile. And while Kaufman’s approach certainly might also fail to be convincing it at least offers a viable alternative, and has two advantages over Pascal’s: (i) it draws on known facts (our mortality) rather than theoretical possibilities (an immortal soul), and it does not require any kind of wager. The upshot is that, while thedestructive phase of Pascal’s ‘revaluation’ may have been successful, the success of the constructive phase is dubious. As an appeal to the libertine’s self-interest, the wager falls short.

The first section of this paper presents the objection to Pascal’s argument, the second section develops a response on Pascal's behalf, and the final section presents enduring difficulties with Pascal’s argument by introducing Kaufmann’s alternative approach.

II. The Libertine’s Objection to Pascal’s Wager

Crucially, Pascal’s wager is written in a language that the libertine will understand—the language of self-interest. We can summarize Pascal’s argument by saying that the libertine’s current lifestyle can, at most, offer her finite happiness: “what you are staking is finite.” If she gambles on belief in God, however, then the libertine opens herself up to the possibility of gaining infinite reward, and, as Pascal puts it, “all bets are off wherever there is an infinity.” As long as there are not infinitely greater chances that God doesn’t exist, than that God does exist, then, Pascal urges the libertine that, “there is no time to hesitate, you must give everything.” Pascal thereby appeals to the libertine’s instrumental rationality by identifying what it is that the libertine intrinsically desires—namely, her own “beatitude” (4)—and then by arguing that in order to truly satisfy this desire, the libertine must wager on belief in God (5).

But there is a catch: the infinite happiness guaranteed by God is incomparable to any form of finite happiness that the libertine now enjoys. This is certainly true after the libertine accepts the wager, since belief in God demands that the libertine radically transform her lifestyle, substituting the dictates of her own will for the dictates of God’s. But I will argue that choosing to accept the wager requires the libertine to undergo what is arguably an even more dramatic transformation: she must transform her value system. This is because the wager does not just promise the libertine more happiness, but rather, it promises her qualitatively different happiness. And the wager only works if the libertine values this sort of happiness. It is true that Pascal never specifies what he means by “an infinite life of infinite happiness,” but inasmuch as he believes that it is the result of a life of faith, we can assume that he is referring to a traditional Catholic conception of heaven.

Consider, then, the following reply in the mouth of Pascal’s libertine: an infinite life with God sounds absolutely miserable! First of all, inasmuch as my happiness is derived, at least in part, from the enjoyment of bodily pleasures, I cannot imagine being happy without my body. Happiness means hunting expeditions, games of cards, lavish feasts, and good company—where can I find those in heaven? Moreover, God promises to unite with believers in heaven. But why should I want to unite with God? You are offering me something that satisfies absolutely none of my desires. My life would not be better if God existed, even, (and this is crucial), if God rewarded me as a believer!

Pascal’s wager works by presenting the libertine with a gamble: if God exists, there will be infinite happiness for those who believe and infinite misery for those who do not. This is because God promises to reward believers by uniting with them in heaven, and punishing non-believers by burning, or otherwise punishing them, in hell. But from the libertine’s perspective, there is no gamble: the prospects of heaven and hell are both unattractive, and since we are dealing with infinite amounts of time, they are both infinitely distressing prospects. There is therefore nothing worth gambling on.

We might try to assure the libertine that once she is a believer, she will desire eternal life in heaven. We often persuade people to do something by promising that they might enjoy it, even if right now they cannot understand why. To take a mundane example, you might happily follow the recommendation of a friend to try a new food, even if you cannot imagine what it would be like to eat it. True, the stakes of this decision are qualitatively lower, but the same epistemic uncertainty seems to be at play: you cannot know whether you appreciate this food until you taste it, and you also cannot know whether you value a relationship with God until you attempt to build one. Inasmuch as wagering on the food does not involve any sort of evaluative transformation on your part, wagering on God might be the same way.

But, there is a disanalogy between the two cases. Pascal is presenting the libertine with a certain decision matrix in which Pascal assigns an infinitely positive value to heaven and an infinitely negative value to hell (6). In order for the libertine to assign the same values to the given outcomes in the matrix, she must transform her evaluative framework, so that this-worldly happiness is no longer her highest value. The case of the new food, however, does not require a transformation of this sort. You know that you will either like or dislike the food, and you know that you value eating food that you like and disvalue eating foods that you do not like. Of course, there is still a gamble involved in trying the food since it is impossible to know how you will feel about its taste (7).But crucially, this puts you in a position that is analogous to the libertine considering Pascal’s wager only provided that she has already made the necessary evaluative transformation. It does not put you into the position of a standard libertine, who values her current happiness above all else, and therefore does not see anything to gamble for.

Let’s describe a case that would be more analogous to the wager. Henrietta is a principled ascetic, meaning that she values abstention from earthly pleasures to whatever extent possible. As such, she adheres to a strict diet of only bread and water. She has sworn off earthly pleasures and adheres to a strict diet of bread and water. Suppose that her cousin, Henry, a food connoisseur, wants to convince her to try some caviar. He knows that he has never tasted caviar before, but he argues that, given her expected utility calculations, those who eat caviar enjoy it so much that he stands to gain more than lose from trying the caviar. But of course, even if Henrietta thought that Henry’s calculations were correct, they would be meaningless to her. As a matter of principle, she does not value the sensual pleasure provided by eating delicious food. Therefore, the experience of enjoying the food might be even more negative for Henrietta than the experience of disliking it, inasmuch as she has moral disdain for sensual pleasure. Henry’s calculations will only be persuasive if Henrietta abandons her current ascetic values and adopts a more hedonistic lifestyle. This is similar to the situation that the libertine finds herself in when presented with Pascal’s wager. Just as it would be meaningless to convince Henrietta to eat caviar by convincing her to abandon her ascetic lifestyle, to suggest that the libertine will desire heaven if she is a believing Christian is to reformulate the challenge rather than to address it.

By formulating the libertine’s challenge this way, we realize just what Pascal’s wager requires: before the libertine can decide to wager on God’s existence, she must first revolutionize her evaluative framework, performing what the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would refer to as a “revaluation of values,” i.e. a complete reversal of her normative commitments. At present, a religious lifestyle is not in the libertine’s self-interest; the libertine’s conception of happiness is tethered to her physical existence in this world, and therefore she will not be moved by promises of her soul being rewarded in another world. Now that we have established that the libertine must be induced to reassess her values before she can be persuaded to wager on God’s existence we must ask: does Pascal present the libertine with such an argument?

III. Pascal’s Revaluation

There is an inherent challenge in trying to influence someone to “revalue their values”: namely, identifying which values one can appeal to in formulating the argument. Generally, pragmatic arguments like Pascal’s wager take the agent’s values as a starting point, and then proceed to demonstrate that a certain action will do a better job at furthering the agent’s values. But if we use values as a starting point, how can we cogently provide someone with practical reasons to adopt a wholly new evaluative framework, without invoking the very values that they do not yet possess?

To see how we might formulate a “revaluation” without recourse to other values, we can draw inspiration from Friedrich Nietzsche, whose philosophical undertaking was just that: a revaluation of all values. In his work, Nietzsche’s Revaluation of Values: A Study in Strategies, contemporary Nietzsche scholar, E.E. Sleinis, analyzes the various strategies that Nietzsche uses to achieve his evaluative revolution. One strategy that he discusses, “destruction from within,” undermines a certain value by revealing that it is internally inconsistent (8). This undermines the value on its own terms. There are a few different permutations of this strategy. One, which Sleinis refers to as “false presuppositions,” aims to show that “the value requires a fact to obtain that, as it turns out, fails to obtain.” In attacking the factual, rather than the evaluative component of the value system, Nietzsche is able to undermine it from within, without recourse to other values. For example, Nietzsche devalues “disinterested contemplation as the ideal of aesthetic contemplation” by arguing that humans are simply incapable of disinterested contemplation. We cannot disengage from our passions, emotions, and other interests when we contemplate works of art. “We can put this point in more graphic terms,” explains Sleinis, by arguing that “the pure aesthetic contemplator is a fiction" (9). In what follows, I will demonstrate how Pascal launches a similar attack on the libertine’s value system by arguing, in a parallel manner, that the happy libertine is a fiction.

As mentioned, the wager is merely a part of Pascal’s broader apologetic project, and it is within this broader project that Pascal employs this Nietzschean revaluation strategy. There are many notes in the Pensées devoted to bemoaning the wretchedness of the libertine’s condition, and arguing that man simply cannot be happy without God. And while we do not know where Pascal would have placed these ideas (if at all) in his final work, we can still argue that, Pascal’s intentions aside, they do an excellent job preparing the libertine to be receptive to the wager. Once Pascal convinces the libertine that her approach to life was premised on a false presupposition, he is able to urge her to gamble on a new one.

Pascal undermines the libertine’s approach to life—happiness derived from entertainment or diversions as the ideal of happiness—in the same way that Nietzsche undermines disinterested contemplation as the ideal of aesthetic contemplation: he shows that humans are incapable of achieving happiness through their diversions (10). While traces of this argument are evident throughout the Pensées, Pascal’s most sustained argument for it appears in his section “Diversions.” After examining this argument, we will turn to the possibility of an alternative response on behalf of the libertine in the spirit of philosopher Walter Kaufmann.

Pascal presents us with an imagined dialogue, presumably between a believer and a libertine, in which the libertine explains her approach to life: “is not happiness the ability to be amused by diversion?”(11). For the libertine, to be happy is to be entertained. We can understand some of the more perplexing behaviors of people if we realize that their underlying motivation is to divert and entertain themselves: “those who philosophize about it, and who think people are quite unreasonable to spend a whole day chasing a hare they would not have bought, scarcely know our nature.” People do not hunt because they want the kill, but rather, because hunting provides them with entertainment. Pascal argues that all men, even kings who are in “the finest position of the world,” are miserable, “if they are without what is called diversion” (12).

The reason that we value diversion, explains Pascal, is because it allows us to avoid confronting all of the unpleasant features of our condition. We do not seek “easy and peaceful lives,” because those would force us to think about “our unhappy condition” (13). The “unhappy” quality of our condition is delineated in the believer’s reply to the libertine; the libertine asks whether happiness is not the ability to be amused by diversions, to which the believer replies, “No, because that comes from elsewhere and from outside, and thus it is dependent, and subject to be disturbed by a thousand accidents which cause inevitable distress” (14). All of the activities with which the libertine happily amuses herself are all highly contingent, and are made easily inaccessible by any number of factors that are necessarily out of the libertine’s control.

Moreover, all of the libertine’s amusements are necessarily ephemeral, so that even if they are miraculously undisturbed by illness or accident, they will inevitably be disturbed by death. This is the primary source of the libertine’s inconsolable misery in Pascal’s conception—no matter how much happiness she derives from her activities in this world, her impending death constantly threatens to rob her of everything. As Pascal puts it, man “wants to be happy, wants only to be happy, and cannot want not to be so. But how will he go about it? The best way would be to render herself immortal, but since he cannot do this, he has decided to prevent himself from thinking about it” (15). Thoughts of mortality thwart the libertine’s ability to enjoy the world around, and so the libertine blocks out these thoughts with diversions. In Pascal’s example, the libertine hunts vigorously for a hare that he would never buy, because while “the hare does not save us from the sight of death...the hunt does” (16).

All of this explains how Pascal can argue, in the spirit of Nietzsche, that valuing the happiness derived from diversions as the ideal of happiness falsely assumes that humans can find happiness in diversions. Pascal demonstrates that they cannot. Our diversions are inevitably “subjected to be disturbed by a thousand accidents, and this causes inevitable distress” (17). Crucially, the distress is inevitable; even if we spend most of our time completely amused by diversions, the fact that our source of happiness is external and contingent puts us in a constant state of instability. We are rendered eternally dependent on factors beyond our control and are therefore powerless to console ourselves in the face of adversity unless the universe conspires to offer us diversion.

We might wonder if Pascal’s case is overstated. Couldn’t the libertine seek happiness through something more substantial than a mere “diversion,” like, for example, self-fulfillment? I think that for Pascal the answer is no. This is because death robs any pursuit–even the pursuit of self-fulfillment–of enduring meaning. As Pascal puts it: “the final act is bloody, however fine the rest of the play. In the end, they throw some earth over our head, and that is it forever” (18). The libertine can only be satisfied if she does not think about the “final act” that will undermine “the rest of the play,” and because of this, all of her pursuits, even those that appear most meaningful, are really attempts to distract herself from this sobering fact. Pascal suggests that if the libertine actually confronted the truth of her condition, she would desist from all of her pursuits–even her desire for self-fulfillment–because they would no longer mean anything.

That the libertine seeks to distract herself from the contingency of her condition with something that is itself contingent, is, I think, sufficient to undermine the libertine’s approach to life. But Pascal goes even deeper in exposing the problems with the libertine’s approach. He writes that, “The only thing that consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries. For it is mainly what prevents us from thinking about ourselves, leading us imperceptibly to our ruin” (19). The libertine’s pursuit of diversions makes genuine self-knowledge impossible—if she is always distracting herself, she will never take the time to understand herself and her condition, and search for a more reliable and stable form of happiness. How can we say that someone is happier the more diverted they are, if someone who is diverted is also wholly alienated from herself? (20). It is this consideration that motivates Pascal’s famous observation that, “man’s unhappiness arises from one thing alone: that he cannot remain quietly in his room” (21). As Pascal sees it, diversion as source of true happiness–much like Nietzsche’s detached contemplation–is, indeed, a fiction.

Pascal has induced a value crisis in the libertine by rendering what she previously valued—the amusements of earthly life—fundamentally meaningless. So what now? Left to live without diversion, Pascal explains, “we would be bored, and this boredom would lead us to seek a more solid means of escape” (22).

I will argue that Pascal asking the seeking libertine to consider the possibility of an immortal soul is, in a certain sense, similar, to Nietzsche’s imagined demon presenting the possibility of eternal recurrence–i.e the doctrine that our live will be repeated infinitely many times into the future. Nietzsche presents this as a mere possibility, the consideration of which is nonetheless capable of inspiring an evaluative transformation in his readers (23). Entertaining the possibility of eternal recurrence hopefully inspires us to seek meaning in the lives that we are living on earth, rather than placing all of our hopes on a life after death. Analogously, before the wager, Pascal does not expect the libertine to believe in the immortal soul as a metaphysical fact, but he nonetheless presents it to her as an attractive possibility, powerful enough to reorient her life. If the possibility of an immortal soul isn’t even on her radar, then the wager argument cannot even get off the ground. But Pascal believes that considering this possibility will induce the libertine to seek God, the wager will then point out that doing so maximizes her expected utility, and eventually she will be certain of God’s existence (24).

What makes the libertine’s condition so unhappy are all of the external threats that face her at every moment, the most debilitating of which is her own death (25). The libertine’s old approach was to avoid confronting this reality. As Pascal puts it, “as men are not able to fight against death...they have it into their heads, in order to be happy, not to think of them at all.”What Pascal offers the libertine is a solution that is truly sustainable: instead of valuing distractions from our mortality, we can value that which denies it altogether. We can reject that part of us that gets piled with dirt, since it can only make us unhappy, and instead we can embrace our immortal soul (26). Pascal presents this as a dazzling, metamorphic possibility, writing that “the immortality of the soul is something so important to us, something that touches us so profoundly, that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent to knowing the facts of the matter” (27). Inspired by the possibility of an immortal soul, we are primed to be receptive to the wager, which tells us that if we want to maximize the expected outcome for our soul, we must gamble on God’s existence (28). If we now believe that it is through taking care of our immortal soul that we can transcend the misery of our bodily condition, the wager will indeed have a powerful pull on us.

Inasmuch as the libertine’s challenge is escaping the misery of her contingent condition, Pascal presents the possibility of the immortal soul as a powerful alternative to the use of amusements and diversions. But is this alternative persuasive? The weakness in Pascal’s argument is noted by Sleinis in his analysis of Nietzsche’s parallel argument: “pure possibilities may have some capacity to exert pressure on our choices, but this capacity can in no way be equal to that of known actualities” (29). There is, however, a limit to how influential a mere possibility can be. If you know that a certain consideration that is motivating you to act, is only possibly true, then you won’t feel like you have a decisive reason to act. Pascal is confident that if we take the possibility of an immortal soul seriously, then we will eventually be led to believe it as an actuality. The problem, however, is whether we can take it seriously enough for this epistemic transformation to occur. This doesn’t mean that Pascal’s argument cannot work at all, it just means that its practical success will likely be limited to libertines with certain psychological constitutions (i.e. it will be more persuasive to someone with a credulous disposition than to someone with a skeptical disposition).

IV. Walter Kaufmann on Our Misery

So far, we have seen that Pascal’s wager requires a certain evaluative shift on the part of the libertine, and that certain sections of the Pensées can be read as making an argument for that shift. But there is a weakness to part of this argument, namely, the plausibility that a mere possibility can inspire a dramatic revaluation. What I would like to consider, therefore, is an alternative response to the libertine’s crisis of value that would allow her to retain her current theoretical framework, but nonetheless allow her to transcend the apparent miseries of the human condition.

We can read Kaufmann as addressing the libertine at the same stage that Pascal is—once she has accepted the futility of her diversions but does not know how else to cope with her unhappy condition—and arguing that the libertine can embrace her mortality rather than try to escape from it. Examining Kaufmann’s argument helps us to appreciate the way in which Pascal’s wager falls short as a straightforward appeal to the libertine’s self-interest. At most, the wager offers the libertine one way to escape her misery, but the libertine may find Kaufmann’s ideas more persuasive.

While for Pascal, the libertine is unhappy if she is left to ponder her mortal condition, Kaufmann argues that this is not so; in fact, it is our mortality that renders our lives here worthwhile. The libertine considers herself miserable because she will not live in this worldforever, but Kaufmann urges her to consider how miserable she would be if she did. It's true that death is frightening for those who “fritter their lives away,” but “if one lives intensely, the time comes when sleep seems bliss” (30). Meaning, that if the libertine embraces all that this-life throws at him, then she will welcome death as a much-needed rest. One cannot live intensely forever.

This argument might seem a bit problematic. After all, it is not clear why a simple good night’s sleep (or two) would not suffice for the one who lives intensely—why should she crave eternal sleep? The answer to this lies in the second argument that Kaufmann makes, namely, that without an eternal deadline we would not be able to live our lives as meaningfully. Our impending death offers a perspective that would otherwise be impossible.

Kaufmann describes the way in which the threat of death motivates us to live vigorously: “the life I want is a life I could not endure in eternity. It is a life of love and intensity, suffering and creation, that makes life worthwhile and death welcome.” Death “makes life worthwhile” because it encourages us to carve out lives that are indeed worthwhile. For example, “love can be deepened and made more intense and impassioned by the expectation of impending death,” meaning that our desire to be with someone we love is made all the more acute by our knowledge that we cannot be with them forever. When the libertine worries about the fact that she may one day lose her beloved, she need not retreat from these thoughts—either by seeking diversion or by entertaining the possibility of an immortal soul—but rather, as Kaufmann advises, she should embrace them. The fact that she may never see her beloved again is all the more reason for the libertine to express her love more eloquently and fervently than she ever would have if she was not worried about losing her beloved. It is not just that such intensity and passion would be impossible to sustain in an infinite life, but rather that in an infinite life we could never achieve it in the first place. Death offers a perspective on life that, contrary to what Pascal argues, makes our lives in this world vibrant and precious.

Pascal writes that, “As men have not been able to cure death, wretchedness, ignorance, they have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about those things” (31). But Kaufmann argues that it is precisely by thinking about her own death that the libertine can be inspired to live in a way that makes her happy. Perhaps this is why Ecclesiastes muses that “it is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting”—proximity to death provides the living with an invaluable lesson to truly “take to heart” (32). The libertine desperately avoids confronting her mortality, when in fact, thinking about death makes her life better right now: “one lives better” says Kaufmann, “when one expects to die,” and takes advantage of the time she has (33). This is not to deny the tragic reality that death often visits too early, but rather, to suggest that inasmuch as this is not always the case, we are, as philosopher Bernard Williams puts it, “lucky in having the chance to die” (34).

Pascal might still counter that even if contemplating our death imbues our lives with urgency and significance, belief in the Christian afterlife also accomplishes this inasmuch as our conduct in this life determines how we fare in the next. But this argument will have no sway over the libertine at the stage of the argument at which we are now encountering him—when she does not yet believe in God. And what Kaufmann’s argument has demonstrated is that the libertine does not need to wager on God’s existence in order to live life meaningfully and passionately. While the Wager asked the libertine to revalue her values–which, as we have seen, is a non-trivial requirement–Kaufmann speaks directly to the evaluative commitments that the libertine already has. In a way, Kaufmann uses mortality in the same way that Pascal uses immortality: to redeem us from our misery by impressing upon us the urgency and significance of our lives. It’s true that Kaufmann and Williams don’t consider the possibility of an afterlife that is equally as exciting–if not more exciting–than earthly existence. There is, after all, no reason to assume that when we die we lose our ability to exercise agency. But the point is simply that they offer a way of seeing life on earth as meaningful regardless of what comes afterward. This is in sharp contrast with Pascal’s picture in which life on earth is miserable unless it is redeemed by belief in the afterlife.

This is not to say that Pascal is wrong per sé; it is possible that Kaufmann would have lived a better life had he sought God and embraced religion. It is possible that he is currently burning in the depths of hell, wishing his philosophical reasoning had taken a different turn. But this is of no consequence. What I am arguing is that Pascal is wrong to assume that the libertine’s mortality leaves her irredeemably miserable; Kaufmann offers an alternative perspective, whereby the libertine’s mortality is precisely what redeems her life and makes it worthwhile. Crucially, Kaufmann’s argument does not ask the libertine to entertain any theoretical possibilities like Pascal’s does, and it never requires that she make a wager of any sort. The libertine might still prefer Pascal’s argument, and therefore choose to see “the final act” as “bloody.” But as we have seen, she might choose to welcome death as a “blissful sleep.” And if Pascal cannot convince the libertine that mortal life is miserable, then he cannot get her into the evaluative mindset to be receptive to the wager.

V. Conclusion

The success of Pascal’s wager as an appeal to the libertine’s self-interest depends on his ability to convince the libertine to change her evaluative framework. At least at the outset, the possibility of an infinite life with God in heaven will repel rather than attract the libertine, giving her no reason to “wager all she has” (35). If we study the wager against the backdrop of Pascal’s broader apologetic project, however, we find the resources to persuade the libertine to “revalue her values.”

This argument takes place in two stages. First, Pascal shows the libertine that the premium she places on amusements and entertainment falsely presupposes that they can truly make her happy. Pascal argues that they fail to do so, both because they are external—and therefore “subject to a thousand accidents”—and because they alienate the libertine from herself, making it impossible for her to discover what might truly make her happy. With the libertine’s evaluative framework thus dismantled, the inherent unhappiness of her condition becomes even more acute. Without diversions, she must confront the miserable fact of her mortality head-on.

It is in this evaluative vacuum that Pascal offers her a new value that can save her from the misery of mortality: the immortal soul. At this stage of the argument, the libertine will not believe in the immortality of her soul as a metaphysical fact, but in considering this marvelous possibility, she will be encouraged to investigate it. And when Pascal tells her that her soul will fare best if she gambles on God’s existence, she will eagerly oblige.

But this need not be the only way to save the libertine from the misery of mortality: Kaufmann suggests that the libertine should embrace and cherish her mortality because it is through the prism of her own death that her life becomes urgent and precious. This approach does not require an epistemic leap of faith like Pascal’s did; it simply requires the libertine to look at the fact of her life in a new light. The upshot is that for those who find themselves moved by Pascal’s polemic against diversions, but unmoved by her appeal to dubious metaphysical facts, there might be a more attractive solution.

After he presents the libertine with her wager, Pascal urges that “there is no time to hesitate!” From what we have seen, however, there might be far too much of it.

Endnotes: 1 This insight is due to Ian Hacking, quoted in: Hájek, Alan. “Pascal's Wager.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 1 Sept. 2017, 2 While, as Hajek notes in her article, Pascal actually presents three different wager arguments, for the purposes of this paper, I will not discuss the correct interpretation/presentation of the wager. This is because my paper is not so much about the mechanics of the wager, but about the wager as a general strategy to inspire pragmatic commitment to God. 3 For the purposes of this paper, I adopt Pascal’s use of the term “libertine” to refer to his intended audience. This is partially for convenience, and partially meant to underscore that Pascal’s argument is addressed to a specific target audience and is not necessarily applicable to anyone who does not believe in God. As we will see throughout this paper, Pascal’s libertine has a very specific set of values and concern, which at times may even seem unrealistic. Inasmuch as Pascal sees himself as addressing this sort of person, however, this paper will assume that his observations are accurate, and analyze whether Pascal’s argument is successful on Pascal’s own terms. 4 All quotations in this paragraph come from: Pascal, Blaise, and Roger Ariew. Pensées. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub. Co., 2005 pg. 212-13 (S680/L418). 5 Pascal actually argues that there are two things that the libertine desires: the true and the good. However, Pascal argues that we cannot know whether God exists, and therefore “your reason is no more offended by choosing one rather than the other.” Since the libertine only stands to gain in the realm of happiness, and not in the realm of truth (or at least not yet), I focus, for brevity, only on this claim. 6 This is a simplification. Pascal does not mention exactly how we ought to quantify the harm that will come to a non-believer if God exists. It is certainly possible that the harm will be infinite. And since this is the strongest way to formulate Pascal’s wager, I choose to present it this way. 7 The case of trying a new food is interesting in its own right. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to analyze this case, it is worth noting that it is unclear how one might weigh the value of trying a food and disliking it against the value of trying a food and liking it, since there are also different degrees of liking and disliking a food. But I think it is fair to assume that, having had the experience of eating foods that you’ve liked and disliked, you can have a rough sense of the maximum and minimum amount of pleasure that can be derived from eating a food. I would venture to say that trying a food that you love more than any food you have ever eaten, is still not a qualitatively different type of pleasure than eating a food that you really love. 8 Sleinis, E. E. Nietzsche's Revaluation of Values: A Study in Strategies. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994, pg. 168. 9 Ibid. 10 As Ariew notes in his translation, “the word ‘diversion’suggests entertainment, but to divert literally means: “to turn away” or to mislead.” By using this word, Pascal makes his critique implicit from the beginning. 11 Pascal, S165/L132. 12 Quotations in this paragraph come from Pascal, S168/L136. 13 Ibid. 14 Pascal, S165/L132. 15 Pascal, S166/L134. 16 Pascal, S168/L136. 17 Pascal, S165/L132. 18 Pascal S197/L165. 19 Pascal, S33/L414. 20 The libertine says something in this spirit in Pascal, S165/L132. 21 Pascal S168/L136. 22 Pascal, S33/L414. 23 In some interpretations of Nietzsche, the eternal recurrence is actually presented as a metaphysical truth that we must believe in. Inasmuch as I am looking for an example that will parallel Pascal, however, I have chosen to discuss the interpretation that sees it as a pure possibility. 24 Evidence that Pascal believes those who are inspired by the possibility of an immortal soul and genuinely seek God as a result will come to have sure knowledge of her existence can be found in S681/L427. 25 This is not intended to summarize Pascal’s nuanced account of why we are wretched, but rather to encapsulate what it is that the libertine recognizes as “unhappy” about her condition: that is, all of the external factors that threaten her ability to enjoy diversions, the most intractable of which is death. 26 This might seem almost like a pre-wager-wager: wager on belief in an immortal soul, since it provides the potential for immortality rather than on the belief in a mortal soul, since this will lead to a life of misery. 27 Pascal S681/L427. 28 Of course, it is possible that there are other belief systems which include the notion of an immortal soul in an equally attractive way. This is similar to the well-known “many Gods objection” to Pascal’s wager, and while addressing it is not the subject of this paper, it is worth noting its presence. When I argue later on that the argument can work, I mean that, leaving other considerations such as this objection aside, it can work. 29 Sleinis, pg. 173. 30 Kaufmann, Walter, and Immanuel Velikovsky. The Faith of a Heretic. [1st ed.] Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1961, pg. 386. 31 Pascal S168. 32 Ecclesiastes 7:2. 33 Quotations in this paragraph come from Kaufmann, pg. 386. 34 Williams, Bernard. “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality.” Chapter. In Problems of the Self: Philosophical Papers 1956–1972, 82–100. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973. 35 Pascal, S680/L418.


Kaufmann, Walter, and Immanuel Velikovsky. The Faith of a Heretic. [1st ed.] Garden City, N.Y:

Doubleday, 1961.

Pascal, Blaise, and Roger Ariew. Pensées. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub. Co., 2005.

Sleinis, E. E. Nietzsche's Revaluation of Values: A Study in Strategies. Urbana: University of Illinois

Press, 1994.

Williams, Bernard. “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality.” Chapter. In

Problems of the Self: Philosophical Papers 1956–1972, 82–100. Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press, 1973.

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