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Pascal’s Wagering

Even great philosophers must eat, go to the bathroom, iron their shirts, get dumped. Like all of us, some live great lives, most suffer. But none can avoid the troubles of being human.

‘If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.’

- Blaise Pascal, ‘Pensées’

In the beginning, they were just friendly bets. None of us considered it a problem.

The first I recall was Blaise proving to Leibniz that you could cure a hangover using two raw eggs and the calculus of indivisibles, after which Leibniz had to skip gaily across the Pont Neuf with his breeches pulled down around his shoe buckles. That April, Descartes came in from Holland to argue against the existence of vacuums and ended up owing 15 deniers when Blaise set a shot of Sambuca on fire and made the glass stick to the palm of his hand.

But everything changed when Pascal placed his first bet on God.

On that frigid, fateful, December afternoon we were delivering one of his mechanical calculators to the accounting firm of Kah-Pey-Em-Ghee. The walk was long and Pascal’s frail constitution sought asylum in the warm foyer of Paris’s newest casino, ‘York, York,’ which was famous for its hourly reenactments of the Battle of Hastings, and for its policy of keeping gamblers alert late into the night by stabbing them in the eye with a sharp pin.

As I held his cloak and tried to pinch passing waitresses through seven layers of thick petticoat, Blaise won 200 livre on the ‘First Mover,’ proving nine times in a row that ‘All things must be set in motion by another thing, thus we can assume a first mover, who is God.’ He barely slept that night, the bracing memory of pulling those colored chips to his belly rousing him at short intervals, and before breakfast we were back at the same table, the strategy tweaked only slightly. This time he let it ride on ‘Nothing can be caused by itself, therefore God must be the first cause.’

Within a week, Blaise dispatched me to tell his father that he had given up mathematics to start betting God’s existence full-time.

His favorite system was a Cosmological Regression. This meant he pocketed half his winnings every time he proved God necessary and eternal, increasing his bet on the next argument by 50 percent. When the house could prove God didn’t exist (say, with the assertion that a necessary being is logically absurd since whatever we can conceive as being existent, we can also conceive as being non-existent), he reduced the wager to his original five-livres and began again. As the months passed, occasional losses were always offset by large windfalls—most memorably the Sunday he cashed in an unlikely parlay: ‘God is a being that which no greater can be conceived,’ AND ‘A being which exists in reality is greater than a being which exists only in the mind,’ SO ‘It is impossible for God to exist only in the mind.’

‘You’re a genius,’ I told him that night, lighting a cigar from a match held, against all physical laws, between an Italian stripper’s spectacular bosoms.

In a short time, word spread around Paris that Pascal was the thinker to beat at that year’s World Cup of Philosophy. His rooms were always comped. His purse overflowed with all-you-can-eat coupons. His credit was good in the casinos and in the shops. He could get excellent, same-day seats for ‘Groupe Bleu d’Homme.’

But as large as his bankroll grew, it only took three weeks to throw it all away. Looking for bigger scores, he started playing a modified Martingale in combination with the Argument From Design. In one terrible streak, Blaise lost everything: His money, his home, his family’s secret recipe for pomme frites. It was a teleological disaster.

Then things really got bad.

It was late Thursday night and the Zeno boards, monitored stoically by blue-haired pre-Socratics in the daylight hours, were packed away in a locker until morning. A boisterous crowd had gathered around a pretty, corseted Mademoiselle who controlled the Euclid table for over an hour, correctly identifying 43 logical fallacies in a row. ‘Slothful induction!’ we heard her squeal, and her tablemates roared as they collected their side wagers and rained chips down upon her in gratitude.

We had the 20-livre God table to ourselves and Blaise had staged a modest run by sticking to conservative bets—playing it strictly according to Anselm—but he was nowhere near to clearing his tab with the house.

Just as Pascal hoped to turn a corner by switching to the riskier Transcendental Canfield, claiming that atheism itself proves the existence of God because authoritative reason cannot emerge from inchoate matter, the Pit Boss walked over with a pair of goons and tapped Blaise on the shoulder. ‘Do I look like an imbecile to you, Pascal? An idiot?’

‘Is something wrong?’ I asked.

He ignored me. ‘I know what you’re doing…’

‘And what is that?’ Pascal asked.

‘You’re counting objections.’

Blaise would have turned white if his skin weren’t naturally the color and consistency of fromage de chevre spooned across a country baguette. ‘I beg your pardon, I’m doing nothing of the sort!’

‘Don’t lie to me,’ the Pit Boss said, gesturing toward the mirrors placed at complementary angles throughout the room. ‘We know the house pushed on ‘God is nature,’ then you doubled down on ‘God cannot be a deceiver.’ You’re no chump. That’s a smart play. But three hands later you were sitting on ‘God is truth, and truth is self-evident,’ and you still took the insurance. We both know insurance is a sucker bet, Pascal. You’d have never touched it unless you knew the dealer had ‘The Problem of Evil’ still in the shoe.’

Blaise turned to me for help and I looked away. With a nod from the Boss, the goons lifted Pascal by his arms and carried him towards the door as I followed, holding my cloak up to cover my face. The high rollers playing Baccarationality gasped. A woman at the Rousseulette wheel fainted. Couples filing in for the Social Contract Bridge tournament exchanged catty whispers.

In the following weeks, my friend hit bottom. The long queues of Bohemian messengers bearing party invitations trickled and vanished. Aristocrats who once sent their sons to Pascal for tutoring now spread fabricated tales of his debauchery, which allegedly involved a pet monkey and a small boy named ‘Emmanuel.’ When he sought to reestablish a correspondence with Fermat concerning a unified theory of probability, Pierre returned the letter, having scrawled along the paper’s edge: ‘I have compiled a truly remarkable list of obscenities for you which this margin is too small to contain.’

But even through the humiliation, the compulsion still raged within him.

Banned from the casinos, Blaise rolled up huge debts with illegal existentialists, who set arbitrary odds and paid off arguments on a whim. After losing three times in a week to the idea that all of human consciousness is the precocious hallucination of a disembodied llama brain in a mad sorcerer’s laboratory, Blaise began to despair, and I knew I had to help him.

The intervention took place three days later at John Locke’s summer place. As far as Pascal knew, we had planned a gentleman’s discussion of natural law accompanied by blackberry Bordeaux and light appetizers. The second he saw Spinoza, however, Blaise knew we were serious.

Hobbes insisted that the intervention would only work if each of us surrendered to an absolute leader who could ensure that everyone would be acting only for Pascal’s benefit, then nominated himself for the job. Hobbes pulled close to Blaise, who was sweating and fidgeting in a red velvet chair.

‘Over time, Pascal, the pious man has two big disadvantages which tip the odds in the house’s favor: ‘The Problem of Evil,’ and ‘The Problem of Free Will.’ If God is beneficent and all-powerful, how can he let evil exist? Further, if God is all knowing, how can any man be said to act freely? Doesn’t the very act of gambling, which requires uncertainty of the outcome, disprove the existence of an omniscient God?’

Blaise started to object but he was up against Europe’s greatest logicians, who covered their ears and began trilling their tongues. Leibniz called him ‘the dimmest of all possible dimwads.’ Descartes frowned and pointed to his temple. ‘Il a trop de vide dans sa tête.’ He has too much vacuum in his head. Everyone laughed except me.

Blaise and I left the next morning for an agnostic retreat in the South where we played children’s games without keeping score and solved uncomplicated math problems on the beach. We returned after Blaise at last decided that God could only be known in the heart, and not through gambling alone. He never again wagered on God, as far as I know, but he couldn’t resist handing out the occasional tip to a friend.

‘I have a smart play for you,’ he said on my last visit, as the malignancy in his stomach snaked its way towards his brain. ‘Objective judgments that things are moral or good require an external standard of perfect goodness, thus presuming the perfect mind of God.’

Blaise winked at me, slipped a twenty in my shirt pocket and, an instant later, fell asleep.