Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s Wager

Once again I come back to motif of God in Miguel de Unamuno’s creativity. I would like to say a few words about Pascal’s Wager, which is in fact a question about essence of God and faith.

Blais Pascal (1623-1662) was a French mathematician from the XVII century. In Unamuno’s eyes, he was an ascetic and spiritual personality just like many saints of Christian Church.

In the work The Agony of Christianity, Miguel de Unamuno analyses Pascal’s wager. It is one of the most famous thoughts of this philosopher, so I would like to recall his words:

Order – I would have far more fear of being mistaken, and of finding that the Christian religion was true, than of not being mistaken in being in true (Pascal, 2006, 241).

Pascal’s wager is, in fact, the voice in a theological discussion with Jesuits about obedience.

Pascal’s Wager against Obedience

Ignacy Loyola, leader of the Jesuits, in the letter to Society of Jesus from the 1553 year described three steps of obedience.

The first step is the external level – filling superiors’ orders. The second step is a subordinate’s internal agreement with a superior’s will.

Finally, the third step is called a perfect sacrifice not only from a subordinate’s will but also from his reason. It leads to a situation in which the subordinate has the same will as superior.

According to Pascal, this third step of obedience is impossible. Humans try to escape their absurdity by a secret of God’s grace.

Loyola’s theory was a foundation for probabilism. According to probabilism, when there is no certainty, the best option is the possibility.

Pascal’s critics

Pascal criticized this theory, especially the third step of obedience. The rebellion of Pascal’s reason was against this rule, but on the other hand, his emotional side agrees with it. Unamuno adds that awareness of the power of the reason is only the one who has not given up in some circumstances.

Similarly, Pascal was opposing the rule, which with time became a dogma of the infallibility of the pope. This dogma can be interpreted as a limitation in science’s development and cognition of God.

For the French researcher, this situation was a reason for a strong inner conflict. He was convinced that obedience is an internal independence decision based on feelings, not reason.

In Unamuno’s interpretation:

Pascal wanted to submit, he preached submission to himself; meanwhile he searched everywhere, groaning as he searched, searching without finding; meanwhile the everlasting silence of space affrighted him. His faith was persuasion, but not conviction (Unamuno, 1928, 129-130).

Faith according to Pascal’s Wager

In this way, Pascal came to the problem of faith. He was convinced that real and useful faith is possible only thanks to God’s intervention. But what is ‘useful faith’? It is only one possible means of saving from reason because reason is not only a powerful tool but also a trap for human mentality.

The essence of ‘useful faith’ is the difference between thought and idea. The idea is a synonym of something constant and stable, while the thought is something changeable, fluid, and free. For Unamuno, a thought is an idea in the act, but the idea is a dogma.

The thought is something dynamic, alive and flexible which gives a chance of cognition of reality and oneself, while the idea is static and dead, which leads to a schematization of reality. The thought comes to the essence of the problem, while dogma only gives its schemata and simplification.

Pascal’s Thoughts

It is a completely different understanding of ideas than in Plato’s interpretation. Probably, the ancient philosopher’s idea was similar to what Pascal perceived as thought. Plato’s idea is dynamic and flexible as an open structure, just like Pascal’s thought. 

Because of the character of thoughts in Pascal’s way of thinking, his work titled Thoughts (Penseés) from 1670 settles nothing but can be an inspiration for the following research. Just like Unamuno emphasizes, it is not an apologetic work as many others in his time.

In this sense, we can say that this is a work with an open structure, on the edge of philosophy and literature or even poetry. This form of intellectual expression was characteristic of many existentialists.

Knowing of God and Pascal’s Wager

According to Unamuno, necessity has a negative influence on human development. Faced with necessity, one loses consciousness of God and free will. Sometimes one has no occasion to struggle about one’s salvation from nothingness and death. In this case, one is not an active subject but only an object of faith.  A crucial meaning in a human existential struggle with their own life has the possibility of deciding. But, to do it, one needs an arbitrary God, not a dogmatic one.

According to Pascal, there are three ways of knowing God: reason, custom, and inspiration (Pascal, 2006, 245). They are adequate for the abstract character of God.

In Unamuno’s interpretation, Pascal’s tragedy was an impossibility to believe with reason: Therein lay his intimate tragedy. He pursued his salvation through the route of a skepticism which he loved, fettered somewhat by his inner dogmatism (Unamuno, 1928, 132). 

Does the lack of doubts take away from one’s humanity? The rational order describes human reality while faith ruins this order and the human sense of independence.

Therefore, for Pascal, the Jesuits’ dogma of obedience was unacceptable. It kills a fight and agony of a human being on the way to faith. With irrationality of faith and obedience, Christianity loses its vibrant nature, doesn’t it?

Existence or Insistence according to Pascal

Unamuno’s solution in this crisis of faith is distinguishing between existence (ex-sists) and insistence (in-sists) of God. God who exists is objective, present in the outside world. God who insists is a subjective, internal one. 

The symptoms of existence require social relations and attitudes in the external world, while with insistence they are unnecessary. Insistence gives a person much more liberty and possibility to escape into the inner world from violence or prevent oneself from it.

To sum up, we can say that the vitality of religion depends on religious conflicts and the crisis of individuality, but not on fanatical obedience. For this reason, Pascal accused Jesuits of stupefying others. They are like soldiers, which are unitedly striving for what is necessary, but they are free in case of doubt. But, are they free according to Pascal?

The Spanish philosopher describes their strategy in this way: In order to play at liberty they enlarge the field of doubt, calling that doubt which is no doubt at all (Unamuno, 1928, 146).

Unamuno, just like Pascal, has a negative attitude towards Loyola’s spiritual exercises, which pervert a specific character of Christianity, making it closer to Tibetan Buddhism. If it is Unamuno’s charge against Jesuits, what is he afraid of?

Assimilation of some forms of religious practices could be useful and enrich Christian spirituality, so what’s wrong with that? Probably, it’s not the Buddhist religious practices that matter but the European cultural identity. At the beginning of the XX century, the national identity was much stronger than multicultural tendencies which dominated the second part of this century. 

The Essence of Agony and Pascal’s Wager

Miguel de Unamuno emphasizes the connection between morality and religion. Morality is a way of meeting with God. In this sense, religion is a core of morality. Similar meaning carries studying Catholicism as the organized and dogmatic religion; we can view Christianity as a personal essence of religion.

Describing agony, Unamuno introduces the term ‘orthodox heretic’. At first glance, it is an absurd term, isn’t it? But, to explain this term, we should start with the word ‘heretic’. It is a person who chooses an independable doctrine and tries to create it in his own way. In this way, one understands something that for others is the faith issue.

According to Unamuno, Pascal is an example of an orthodox heretic in geometry. For heretic, knowledge has a personal character, and often it is out of mainstream culture and science which has an orthodox character.

Therefore, heresy is a natural and vital beginning of every orthodoxy. 

 God and Moral Order

Heresy does not avoid controversial conclusions. For example, the moral order issue shows helplessness in confrontation with divinity. Of course, it is only one of many rational and inconclusive, in Unamuno’s opinion, evidence.

Unamuno considers a relation of the moral order to God. Everyone knows that murder or lie are forms of evil. But why are they symptoms of evil? Are they identified in this way because of God’s will or because of their negative moral character?

In the first case, God who sets these rules must be capricious and ridiculous, which is not a positive in this divine image. When human behavior is capricious it is negative, just as ridiculous behaviors. How can this God be a symbol of good perfection and salvation?

In the second case, if God knows that these deeds are wrong, it means that He himself is a subject of nature. So, nature limits His will. It means He is not omnipotent.

In both cases, intellectual analysis of God makes Him internally contradictory, therefore impossible.

The Desire of God according to Pascal

The existence of God is an unsolvable problem for the human mind. The fact is that it is impossible to prove the absence of God. For this reason, faith is based on a desire of God. For every person, it can be different, just like subjective and individual is His image for everyone.

This elusiveness of God is His strength in human consciousness. The image of God as a good and perfect creation is a challenging role model for humans in everyday life.

The presence of God brings a moral order, in reality, His presence is demanding for the stability of the human world. His absence puts humans in an existential crisis in the world without values.

The lack of values can put a human being in a difficult situation. For this reason, some people without remorse are used to manipulating others. Unamuno describes it as morally disgusting.

According to the Spanish philosopher, if someone denies God, one does it out of despair that one has not found Him. 

Believing in God is a desire for His presence and to behave as if He exists. This hunger for divinity leads a person to hope of His presence: Of this divine longing is born our sense of beauty, of finality, of goodness (Unamuno, 2005, 260).

So, God is a personalization of values in human life. It makes them more accessible to everyone and more readable for everyone independently from the moral and emotional variety of people. 

Source :

Pascal B. (1958/2006). Pascal’s Penseés, trans. by T.S. Eliot, New York: E.P. Dutton&Co. Inc., The Project Gutenberg EBook,

Unamuno M. de. (1954/2005). Tragic Sense of Life, trans. by J.E. Crawford Flitch, The Project Gutenberg EBook,

Unamuno M. de. (1928). The Agony of Christianity, trans. by P. Loving, New York: Payson&Clarke Ltd.

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