The Wager of Immortality
This fact is all the more remarkable when we consider the near universal idolatry of science among contemporary authors, for Pascal possessed one of the great scientific and mathematical minds of all time; his work on conic sections was admired and utilized by no less a figure than Newton. What a spectacle it is to read our fashionable literati, endowed with little more scientific knowledge than what they gained through a general studies course and a perusal of The Selfish Gene mocking the fanatical irrationality of the father of probability theory. If Pascal asserted the limitations of reason, as he most certainly did, it is because he perceived, as well as any man ever did, the utmost capacity of the reasoning faculty. He was a man of science and math who understood quite readily that science and math could not answer those questions he had most long to find answered. His Pensees, even in its fragmentary state, stands as one of the most profound, one of the perspectivally grandest reflections on the nature of human existence ever committed to paper; it is not too audacious a claim to say that every true assertion about mankind can be placed within the parameters of Pascal’s sublime vision.
It is in this masterpiece that the argument of the wager finds place, occupying a mere three or four pages in the larger work. When Pascal’s opponents deride this argument, they never reveal even the slightest indication of familiarity with the magnitude of the entire Pensees. They fix exclusively upon the Wager, and to be sure, the argument is afflicted with unmistakable weaknesses, which can never fail to attract the scrutiny of those in search of easy proof of their mental acumen. The argument is not intended to address the metaphysical issue of whether or not God exists, as some of its more foolish scoffers have mistakenly maintained; it is an appeal to the psychology of the doubter, an attempt to convince him that faith in God resembles any number of decisions which he commonly makes in reference to more mundane concerns, when probabilities, rather than certainties, obtain. Yet even as such, the argument seems strangely indifferent to those psychological elements which compel assent, particularly, all the forms of prior inclination which dispose a mind to entertain an argument in the first place, whether those inclinations take the form of accepted principle, or result from the power of the affections. Hortatory theology traditionally attempts to demonstrate to the prospective believer that faith in God either follows from some set of premises, already established, or that it satisfies some object of the desires. Such arguments assume that belief is best compelled by a knowledge of the object of belief, but Pascal’s argument attempts to compel belief in the absence of any knowledge of the attributes of God, besides his infinity. Such a formalistic method of gaining a mental disposition to believe in God, in large disregard for the actual qualities of God, is quite distant from the prevalent tradition of Christian rhetoric.
It is not at all clear that Pascal’s argument does what he wishes it to do – namely, offer a purely rational, yet at the same time, genuinely compelling argument, of power to dispose every comprehending mind to belief in God. Yet if it does not accomplish this feat (and what other argument has?), it still does accomplish quite a bit, and the passage in which the Wager is presented most certainly rewards a close examination.
What is the most stupid assertion which a philosopher ever committed to paper? Lord knows there is a plethora of candidates, but my choice would come from the Australian David Stove, a man who in general respects deserves to be called anything other than stupid. Yet this passage from Darwinian Fairytales demonstrates the kind of breathtaking slip of concentration to which he was prone: “Take, for example, the theory that human beings are immortal. The falsity of this proposition is obvious now, but it always was as obvious as it now is.” This is audaciously dumb. Who can possibly be ignorant of the fact that certain conviction regarding what ensues after death is impossible for us to attain, and that consequently there can be no form of acquired knowledge which leads to such a conviction. “The fear of death is indeed the pretense of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being a pretense of knowing the unknown.” Thus Socrates, and his assertion of the permanent mysteriousness of what follows after death is still the last word to be said on the matter. This enigma is a fundamental – perhaps the fundamental – feature of human life.
Yet how many persons, in an era of skeptical pretense such as ours, share a like mind with Stove, and harbor the conviction, somewhere in the back of their consciousness, that reason has settled the matter against a belief in immortality. Nor is this a prejudice of recent date; Pomponazzi thought so, and so apparently did Hume, among many others of their eras. With such opinions in full view, Pascal is at some pains to remind the reader of the authentic state of the question, and its ultimate resistance to the inquiries of reason: “Let us examine the point, and let us say, ‘Either God is, or he is not.’ But which side shall we favor? Reason can in no way settle the choice; there is an infinite chaos which separates us. A game is being played, at the extremity of that infinite distance, in which either heads or tails will come up. Which will you bet on? By reason, you cannot choose one or the other; by reason, you can defend neither.” This was the same position which Unamuno insisted on in his Tragic Sense of Life, when he wrote: “This question of the immortality of the soul, of the persistence of the individual consciousness, is not rational, it falls outside reason…This vital longing is not properly a problem, cannot assume a logical status, cannot be formulated in propositions susceptible of rational discussion.”
For everyone of us has chosen already, whether we understand that we have made this choice or no: “You must bet. There is no alternative; you are involved…Your reason is no more offended by choosing one rather than the other, since you must necessarily make a choice. That is one point settled.” Every life, in its general tenor, and in the beliefs which most powerfully shape that tenor, is rationally consistent either with a faith in eternal redemption, or a lack of faith in eternal redemption. Our actions declare our position, however much our intellect wishes to abstain from the declaration. The most apparently mindless and uneducated person, who never read three words of philosophy, who works unreflectingly for his daily bread, takes his pleasures as they come, and all in all, drifts from one experience to the next without so much as single time in his life inquiring into the propriety of his choices, or exerting his will in conformity to such an inquiry, has proclaimed his infidelity with the brazenness of a Hume or a Russell, because a lack of faith in eternal redemption is the only position rationally consistent with such a form of life. And this is so of every life, that it implies a belief in a divine immortality or no, just from the shape of it. So there is no escaping from the choice with which Pascal presents us; we must all choose, simply because we all live and act, and indeed, our lives and our actions have already declared our choice. We must commit, because we have already committed. Any notion that we are free to abstain from such a commitment is illusory. It is not our reason that arbitrates this choice, though it does quite powerfully illuminate the terms of the choice. It is our chosen shape of life – that is to say, our faith – which ultimately must settle the question. This is the form which that “noble risk” of the belief in immortality, declared by Socrates, must inevitably take – a certain form of life, lived in a certain manner, which is consistent with this belief.
How does reason inform us concerning the terms of this choice which we are to make in an ultimately non-rational manner? According to Pascal, it reveals to us the most unambiguous disparity of values, between beatitude, which is of infinite value, and life, which is of no value at all. This is the place in the argument where most skeptics wish to pause; this is the assertion which seems most evidently false to them, and with good reason. Surely, life is not nothing, and in sacrificing it, or any significant part of it, for the sake of any distant promise, it is surely not true that we are staking nothing at all. Only to consider the most trivial of examples, one who fasts on Fridays out of a religious duty might otherwise be feasting upon chateaubriand, and chateaubriand most certainly is not nothing. More seriously, the freedom of both mind and of body, which we seem to forfeit by committing ourselves to a faith in God is, by the testament of the theologians themselves, the very opposite of nothing, for they conceive that it is one of the essential features of our nature, and one which goes far to justify the prevalence of evil. Surely the soul which stakes the excellence of such a form of existence, and all of its potential, isn’t wagering nothing. Is it?
No truer words were ever spoken than that dictum of Dr. Johnson, that all life is an attempt to forget about death. The enormous accumulation of technologically enhanced distraction which we refer to quite inappropriately as our culture is, in many ways, but a collective effort at mutual oblivion regarding the reality of death. Yet in driving the fact of death from our minds, we drive away from our thoughts as well all of the meaning of death, for death is certainly the most meaningful circumstance of life. I am here implying the contemptibleness of a Lucretius or a Whitman, who would try to convince us of the insignificance of death. I am also not denying the great metaphysical doctrine of the ultimate nothingness of death and evil, but simply indicating that among the facts which impress upon our lives their most essential features, none is more reverberative than our transience. To weigh the value of the life that we are asked to wager against immortality, we must estimate it in the light of death. To one who believes that the reality of death does not radically alter the evaluation we must make of life and everything in it, we can only answer with a paraphrase of Anselm: “you do not yet understand the power of death.”
It will be urged that none of this follows by any means, that the industrious man makes for himself a more comfortable life than the lazy one, that the family man enjoys more affection than the independent one, that the good man possesses a greater mental repose – call it happiness – than the indifferent one. It will be maintained with great plausability that even within the boundaries of this world, things of value can be recognized, and preferred to other things. But already we are speaking of preferences and emotions, things which of themselves are less compelling motives than reasons. Certainly, it is true that a man with a family lives a life filled with an abundance and variety of affection absolutely unobtainable to the single man, and affection is a very fine thing, but strictly speaking, the choice to marry then is a choice to benefit oneself. If reason operate at all in such a decision, it is a mere instrumental reason. But marriage as a genuine good, as a discipline of loyalty and sacrifice, cannot exist in a world where all choices are of equal value, because all alike advance us but one step closer to the grave. If death be the final arbiter of being, then I may choose from preference, or I may choose from an emotional impulse, or I may choose from self-love, or I may choose from a Promethean defiance of an absurd universe, but I can never choose from reason. That is to say, I can never select one course as more reasonable than another because both end in death, which is itself the antithesis and destruction of reason. Annihilation is infectious.
Death then is not merely the termination of the functioning organism, with its correspondent elimination of neurological integrity; it is the vast shadow which this prospect casts over the whole of life. It is death as the only conceivable universal end of each and every human scheme, and the repercussions which this fact has upon the entirety of our practical reason. It is the reduction of every design to the same nothingness, in the ultimate unfruitful fruition of them all. It is “death working in all things,” not merely the decadence of the body, but death, the defacer of the good and the enigma of the intellect; death, the dark uninviting harbor towards which every navigation tends; death, the rampant predator of significance; death, the vindicator of nothingness.
The modern self-satisfied intellectual likes to dismiss the belief in immortality as a mere flattery of our vanity, as a comfortable doctrine which eases the perturbation of the mind, and veils from its reflection the loathsome reality of death, but in truth, is it not this same person who, by his assumption that he can hold his entire range of values in the face of regnant death, has anesthetized his soul with the grandest of delusions, to the discomforting truth of the case? Is it not merely because most people refuse to think about death that they fail to consider its devastating consequences? How true the words which Petrarch, in his Secretum, places into the mouth of Augustine: “you will find very few who consider deeply enough the fact that they must die; even with so many things around them taunting them with this fact, nothing quite penetrates inside their unhappy breasts which have grown hardened against all exhortations to salvation.” Indeed, the modern mind has gone to great lengths to deceive itself in this matter. Consider that masterwork of fraudulence, Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus.” What is it that the Frenchman would like us to believe, after he is done with all his airy rodomontade? That a state in which our actions are unintelligible – that is to say, a state in which death pervades all things triumphantly – can be made endurable merely by a shift in our own attitude? That courses of action devoid of real value – that is to say, leveled to nothingness by the gravity of death – can be ennobled simply on account of our choosing them? Is there anyone approaching this essay with clarity and composure who can believe such things? Does not the desperate urgency of self-deceit scream from every sentence? For a more current, and for that reason more materialist, instance of this pathology, consider the following passages from the physicist Steven Weinberg “the more universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. But if there is no solace in the fruits of our research, there is at least some consolation in the research itself. Men and women are not content to comfort themselves with tales of gods and giants, or to confine their thoughts to the daily affairs of life; they also build telescopes and satellites and accelerators, and sit at their desks for endless hours working out the meaning of the data they gather. The effort to understand the universe is on of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.” Of course, Weinberg is a committed materialist, and a materialist is nothing else than one who holds death to be the last word on all things, so it is hardly surprising that he regards the universe itself to be without meaning. His subsequent assertion, that amid this welter of nihilism, scientific inquiry alone carries significance, is quite obviously of the most arbitrary, unwarranted, and strictly miraculous – that is to say, impervious to reason – nature that can be imagined. What we are looking at, as in the case of Camus, is a pathetic soul, unwilling to accept the brutal implications of his dogma, and endeavoring by any means to fabricate a facade of insubstantial belief with which to beguile himself, and with luck, his fellow man.
If the dead rise not, the apparent meaninglessness of material existence is authentic and incorrigible, and our ignorance about the proper shaping of our ends is, not temporary and contingent, but final and necessary. If the dead rise not, the fate of the good man and the wicked are one and the same, and the world is thereby impugned. If the dead rise not, it is the corrosion of the grave that permeates through every one of our acts. If the dead rise not, everything virtuous will be thrown away utterly and forever. If the dead rise not, then death is the king of this world. This is what death means.
In our era of self-professed enlightenment, men have found a wonderful, and typically modern, remedy for this truth, that is, simply not to think about it, and in this way, pretend to have refuted its force. Nothing is more contemptible than the materialist philosopher who declares that physics is complete, and sufficient to account, at least prospectively, for all truths, and that man is motivated by nothing other than forces ultimately explicable by physics – that nothing is real which is not entirely physical – who maintains at the same time that upon such doctrines we can erect our customary ethical principles, our political freedom, and our arts, or that, believing such things, we can likewise believe life to be anything other than pointless, tragic, and unlovely. Such men have little regard for the implications of their own ideas. But the rest of us can quite clearly see that this is not so, that if death is the last word on life, then it is the last word on all the works of life.
So Pascal was correct. If we are asked to wager our life, a life lived without the least aspirations of immortality – as according to the terms of the wager, it must be – then what we are asked to venture is a mode of existence in which there is much to be enjoyed, much pleasure and much exhilaration, but nothing to be valued, no choice to be made with any deliberate significance – a mode of existence which is, rationally speaking, nothing at all. Whoever contemns this premise of Pascal’s argument is like that self-beguiled materialist philosopher, assuming that life lived in the shadow of invincible death retains all the sturdy and comfortable values which he reflexively takes for granted. But it doesn’t; it retains none of them. Pascal was quite justified to assert – and we are quite justified to agree with the assertion – that earthly life, conceived in such a way, is a thing to be reckoned for naught.
What then of the alternative wager? What of immortality? The first thing which needs to be said about this belief is that it is properly understood not as a first principle or a point of self-evident doctrine, but rather as a proposition derived from broader theological convictions. This is not to contradict Bishop Butler’s assertion that a belief in immortality is perfectly consistent with atheism; it is true that the two positions are logically consistent, in the same way that a logical consistency obtains between an infinity of propositions, between which no entailment whatsoever obtains. But the belief in immortality only receives its proper content, and its most compelling rational support, when it is recognized as the entailed proposition of a more fundamental conviction about the divinely ordered universe.
That conviction is the eternal sovereignty of love, and its vindication in the fullness of time. We look to witness the God of perfect love triumph over the adverse powers of this world, we expect his complete conquest of sin and death, and thus we wait for the resurrection of the dead. It is because we believe that the final word to be spoken on the cosmos will be granted to love, that we also believe, as a certain corollary, that the immortal soul will be redeemed from the bondage of death. For between love and death there can be no truce, and as that enigmatic lady once instructed Socrates, “since we have agreed that the lover longs for the good to be his own forever, it follows that we are bound to long for immortality as well as for the good – which is to say that Love is a longing for immortality.”
What is this love, in which we have such faith, and from the might of which we hope to be saved from the decadence of the body? We are quite unfortunate in the impediments which language drops in our way when we entertain this question. As has been noted many times, we have in our tongue but one word to signify the disparate concepts delineated by words like agape and caritas. It was not always so; one of Thomas More’s most indignant accusations against William Tyndale, the early English translator of Scripture, was that he consistently used the word “love” in the place of “charity,” thus confounding the idea of a husband’s affection for his wife with the idea of a sacred aspiration. We can sympathize with More’s outrage, the more so when we consider how the one word left to us has been dragged into degradation by contemporary culture and its recurrence in the mouths of actresses, rock stars, and other such unseemly persons. Such a tawdry notion as is born by the present usage of the word love can hardly imply any of the magnificent assertions hinted at, so let us do our best to clear our minds of prevalent illusions, and examine love in its authentic nature.
Love, as an aspect of desire, is an innate and simple disposition of the mind towards the world. It is usefully compared with its opposite, hatred, which also is an aspect of desire, and thus also an innate and simple disposition of the mind towards the world (hence the absurdity and hypocrisy of attempts to legislate against “hate”). To hate something – a person, an institution, a natural object, a doctrine – is to desire its eradication, to desire the object of hatred to pass from being into non-being. Hatred is the desire for the nothingness of the particular object of hatred. Thus the truth of the Biblical admonition “he who hates his brother is his murderer,” for the Apostle is speaking of genuine hatred, not impatience, anger, or revulsion. Properly speaking, when we hate a thing – whatever it may be – we wish to see it pass out of existence.
Love, as the antipode to hatred, must be the desire for existence; to love an object is to wish that object to exist, to come to light or to be preserved. It is moreover the desire for that object’s perfection, for when anything is said to be perfected what we really mean is that it has come more fully into being. So to love is to desire the good – the approximated perfection – of something, and hence love may be fairly said to deserve that definition which she has born of old, the desire for the good, the desire for perfection. A mind which perceives by love is a mind which passes through the world wishing the flourishing of all that it beholds. Let the lovers attest how fervent and all-consuming this desire may become when it has as its object another soul, but truly, as Diotima attests, this is but one instance of multifarious love. They are as meriting of the honorific of lover who desire the good of the art, of the community, or of the belief. Whatever its object, however, love is always the desire for the complete and perpetual fulfillment of the beloved.
But as soon as we say this, we recognize the impossibility of such a thing in our sphere of being; on account of the prevalence of time and matter (the one thing which ever appears two), nothing ever comes to a complete and enduring perfection. The entropic forces of decay beset every work undertaken beneath the sun. Thus love is either delusional – a naïve appetite for a state of affairs we know can never be, a sentimental residue of our early affections – or it genuinely indicates to us some unseen and largely incomprehensible condition in which things may freely attain to their perfection. But as such a condition can never obtain within the bounds of our known reality, this state of affairs can only be revealed by a form of immortality. Thus the truth of Plato’s dictum, “to love is to desire immortality.”
Once we perceive the nature of a thing’s perfection – the nature of its fulfilled goodness – we can harbor no other purpose towards that object than this perfection. Love really is the mother of reason, for the vision of perfection once revealed to us in the light of caritas must ever afterwards appear as the finest state of affairs conceivable, and thus the end of all our speculation. Our reason follows after our desire in affirming that the kingdom of perfection is indeed the best of all worlds imaginable.
Pascal has advised us that by believing in immortality we gain everything, and so far as this is taken to refer to the condition of the hereafter, it is quite obvious what he meant, for a kingdom of perfection is a state of affairs in which everything good has been brought into being. But in reference to our “present evil world,” the assertion is equally valid. To believe in immortality is to believe in the primacy of love and in its ultimate vindication. It is therefore to recognize in love, here and now, a thing substantial and with authentic reference. It is to conceive of love not as something frail or fanciful, but powerfully efficacious, the origin of boundless worldly energies. It is to be able to work confidently towards those ends which reason assures us are the ends most worthy to be pursued.
All other dogmas are but stoical. In truth, the creed of stoicism has received the assent of far more minds than belonged to a handful of Grecian and Roman gentlemen. The greater part of mankind have always been stoics, for the essence of stoicism is resignation, a resignation adopted in the face of the world’s incorrigible deficiency. Without a conviction of love’s perfecting triumph, the mind is compelled to shift amid the transient and mutable state of the world for some acceptable set of principles, such as the “virtue” of those antique theorists, or the “rights” of present day liberal thinkers. But the mind will always recognize in such a set of principles something inferior to the splendid vision disclosed by love, and will never be able to regard them as anything other than the lovely shoots which burgeon briefly before the onslaught of the storm. It will always remember that the purposes towards which it works are judged by the reason to be eternally deficient. Such a frame of mind may be considered mature, or sensible, or even realistic. But life understood in this way is not as excellent as it might be; it is not everything, and everything is precisely what Pascal promises to us if we wager upon immortality. So again, he is correct.
All of this is a matter of our beliefs; none of this has any bearing on the question of, as a matter of fact, there is an immortality or no. Of course, if we had some means of determining this question with a measure of certainty, then it would be appropriate for our beliefs to match that knowledge. But again, we have no such knowledge. The whole point of Pascal’s argument is that we must choose to believe something in the absence of the only knowledge which could really verify those beliefs, and that under these conditions, a belief in immortality is the choice which is most congenial to our rational natures. Yet there is no reason to suppose that a prospective state of affairs must be congenial to our rational natures. Pascal only aims to convince us of what must follow if it is, and what must follow if it is not.
But is it true that we have no reason whatsoever to believe in the factual reality of an hereafter? Can we not pass a little beyond Pascal here, and see whether there are any arguments with a bearing on the reality of immortality itself? Is it the case that such a belief must be held entirely “on the strength of the absurd,” to use Kierkegaard’s phrase, without a single argument in its favor? Insisting again on what must be repeatedly insisted upon – namely, that anything like rational certainty on the topic of immortality is an impossibility – we can, with perfect consistency, acknowledge that there are arguments for one or the other position which are more or less plausible, more or less coherent, more or less clear. Admitting that there are such arguments against the reality of immortality, admitting in fact that there are numerous and highly plausible arguments for this position, still, is it true that there are no arguments which would lend rational credence to the reality of immortality?
Does not the skeptic of the hereafter doubt largely on the grounds of the inconceivability of the prospect? Do not most cases against the reality of immortality take the following form: “Life, so far as we are acquainted with it, simply refers to a certain order of bio-chemical entities; absent that order, there is no life. What we call the soul, the human person, is but a function of the organism, and we are unfamiliar with any examples of personality existing apart from biology. The intellect itself cannot know anything but what is conveyed or awakened through the senses, thus the notion of an unembodied intellect is unimaginable.” In short, as there is no way for us to conceive of our being but in the form in which we presently exist, it is impossible to believe that we could pass, at the moment of our death, into some unknown, unimagined state of being.
But suppose that we were present during the moments – or whatever we will call that state, which language cannot adequately describe – before the universe’s explosive nativity, when “the sons of men shouted for joy.” Suppose we knew nothing of the world which was about to be birthed, neither its form nor its substance nor its history. Suppose too that we were somehow privy to the councils of the Godhead, and could ascertain that his purposes were to bring forth person-hood into His new work. Would we have any reason to suppose that because He ordained person-hood, He also ordained the existence of our particular biological order, our unique evolutionary history, or even the laws of our physical universe? Is there any necessary connection between the two of them at all? Is it not really the case that matter and mind appear inseparable because in our experience the two things have appeared so? But prior to such experience, we would have no reason to suppose that intellect might not be manifested in a potentially infinite variety of ways. So far is the connection between our biological organization and our subjective experience of personhood from being a necessary state of affairs, we find it perfectly impossible to say how the two things could be connected at all, even though we now know a great deal about that biological organization. Certainly, the most materialist minded of men, those at work on the project of what they call artificial intelligence, cannot disagree with this assertion, since their whole endeavor, the plausibility of which they are constantly defending, is to manifest intelligence and person-hood in vehicles distinctly lacking the unique biological organization of the human being. And if it is conceivable that men at play with matter can bring forth intelligence in a non-human, non-biological entity, then it is certainly conceivable that an omnipresent deity, existing prior to matter, could have ushered our person-hood into existence in some manner other than our present biological form.
So to the skeptic who declares the impossibility of our person-hood being awakened in some unfamiliar and inconceivable form, we can reply, with the certitude of fact, that such a state of affairs is not impossible; it is not even unprecedented, for these are precisely the conditions that obtained when we gained our present uncontroversial existence. And if such an event once took place, there is no reason whatsoever to suppose that it could not occur again. The most compelling argument for the possibility of immortality, then, comes to us by way of analogy; we believe in the possibility of some inconceivable manifestation of our person-hood in a future state, because we enjoy an inconceivable manifestation of our person-hood in our present state. We point to our present mode of existence as evidence for the reality of all the metaphysical conditions which must obtain in a prospective mode of existence. We believe that our essential person-hood can be called out of the darkness of death into some strange condition, because it has already been called out of the greater darkness of nothingness into a startling condition.
Nothing in the world is more contemptible than the modern atheistical academic, blessed with an existence, the origins of which and the fundamental nature of which are entirely mysterious to him, like Khayam of old, knowing “neither why he came nor whence,” surrounded by a universe of utter contingency, who nonetheless stoops over his lectern, and pompously pronounces that he can find no reason in the world – no, in truth, not one – to believe that our person-hood might be manifested in a new and unforeseeable sphere. Such a man misses the fairest of forests for the paltriest of shrubs. Such a man fits Carlyle’s description to the tee, of “one who goes through a wonderful world unwondering.” Such a man has taken the limitations of his knowledge for the limitations of the truth, and thus has perfectly merited the dismissive rebuke of the Apostle, as one “who in wisdom became foolish.”
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