Betting On Meaning In Life: Pascal’s Wager As A Disproof Of Existential Nihilism

August 22, 2018
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I have made no secret about my appreciation for the philosophy of the Existentialists. I gravitate towards their ideas of personal freedom, authenticity, and responsibility as a means towards personal discovery and development and I have written a great deal about them in previous articles.

But you know what? You take the ideas of existentialism far enough and it can get really fucking bleak. I mean, you can find yourself staring into the abyss real quick if you grab on to it all and follow it to it’s seemingly necessary conclusion and stop there. Existential nihilism. That deep, yawning morass of meaninglessness. The abyss that Nietzsche warned against staring too long into. 

From there it is a short step towards constructing an entire model of meaninglessness of life. Decrying the hopelessness of it all. Sinking into the stubborn malaise. Removing yourself from everything you once loved and valued. You basically turn into a teenager. Yes. Diving too far into the philosophy of existentialism may turn some people into hormonal teenagers who don’t know how to handle their feelings.

Sure, sure. Every existentialist offers his take on escaping the absurdity of it all. For Camus it’s immersion in the sensual. For Sartre it is authenticity. For Kierkegaard it is true faith. They all do their best to help us to escape the anxiety and anguish that can build when we consider the ideas of existential thought, but I think all we have to do is go visit a philosopher that came over 200 years before the first existentialist cried into his pillow over the emptiness of it all. A true polymath, wunderkind from France named Blaise Pascal.

Who was Blaise Pascal?

Blaise Pascal’s life is one of legend and tragedy. He died a young man. Though that did not dampen his contributions to science in the 17th century. A legacy that persists today. His name is a unit of pressure, a programming language, and a science database. Born in 1623, Pascal was quick to excel at all things scientific under the tutelage of his father. He was an inventor, mathematician, scientist and more. Pascal is pretty much the quintessential nerd of nerds. And like all great historical nerds, Pascal also dabbled in philosophy. Now, I won’t pretend to claim to understand all the mathematics and science of Pascal’s contributions. I am just your average nerd and my meager competence is in philosophy. So, that is where I will focus with Pascal.  

One of the most famous stories about him goes like this; a devoutly religious man, Pascal had a famous run in with death on a carriage ride that revealed to him in a dream a vision from God. Pascal scribbled down the description of that vision and carried it sewn into every jacket he ever wore from then on in as a holy reminder of that vision. This vision, and the always carried reminder of it, sent Pascal deep into theology and philosophy and prompted him to offer some of his most famous writings. The most famous of these being the Pensées (“Thoughts”). A book published posthumously that contains the famous wager that bears his name.

What is Pascal’s Wager?

I would like to start by saying, Pascal didn’t need the argument of his wager. He already believed. He offered it as an opportunity for others to find a piece of God for themselves giving them a compelling reason to take that first step of faith. I offer the same. I don’t need the wager I am presenting. I already have my holy vision of the meaning of life sewn into my jacket. I am merely presenting a chance for other people who may be lost in the distress of meaninglessness to take a step in that direction.

So, here is the wager. According to Pascal, and many other philosophers, we can never have demonstrable proof that God exists one way or another. We just don’t have the tools. We lack the right investigative equipment and we lack the cognitive capacity. So, we just need to get on from that metaphysical clusterfuck and accept the fact that no devout theist or devout atheist is ever going to produce the proper evidence to prove or disprove that there is a God. Ok. Can we accept that?

Fine. I know a handful of theists and atheists are shitting their drawers right now and mentally formulating all the evidence they have for their point of view but if you really break it all down, it doesn’t prove anything. Not really. If God does exist the only way to know that would be through direct experiential understanding and it is not cogent to try to discover evidence of the absence of God. So, just work with me here so we can move on.

Now, since we can’t prove that God exists one way or another, Pascal argues that it is the best bet for us to put a wager on the fact that he does exist and then to act accordingly. Why?

For Pascal here are the wager’s terms:

If God exists If God does not exist
Wager that God exists Gain eternal bliss Lose nothing
Wager that God does not exist Gain eternal damnation Lose nothing

This isn’t just some personal development nerd matrix here. There is legitimate mathematical evidence to support the acceptance of this wager. I won’t get into it here for many reasons, not the least of which is that my aptitude for math is piss poor, but there is a great article at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website that goes into the math in detail. I encourage the serious math nerds to dig into that chicken scratch. 

What I will do is offer a summary of the decision matrix above and tie that to our refutation of Existential Nihilism. And that goes something like this:

Rationality suggests that, when presented with two options of equal possibility of being true and no way to prove the truth of either, we should believe that thing that has the most utility. Why? Because the potential for benefit is greater at the same cost. It costs us just as much to believe in God as it does not to believe in God, but the benefit we gain from that belief, if it is true, is far greater than the benefit we gain if we don’t believe in God and God happens to exist.

It is important to note the first thing that may jump out at most people. This does nothing to prove the existence of God. You are right. It doesn’t. That was not Pascal’s intent. His intent, as I stated earlier, was to get people to begin to believe; to take the first steps towards belief to begin a relationship with God and approach for themselves direct understanding of the truth of God that is the only way possible of proving God. This wager is a gateway drug to sincere belief in God.

Pascal’s Wager Vs. Existential Nihilism

In that same way, using Pascal’s Wager as a refutation of Existential Nihilism obviously doesn’t prove anything about the fact that there is or is not real meaning to things in the world. The same conditions apply for proving meaning as for proving God. It’s just not possible. We have no means to measure or quantify the conditions and can not prove it one way or another. SO get over that. 

As such, Pascal’s wager is the perfect argument entry point as a refutation of existential Nihilism because it has similar contingencies and assumptions. So we look to use it is a way to get people to take that tiny step towards belief in meaning. From there we commit to the activities that imbue our life with those meanings and come to that same experiential belief experience desired by Pascal. And by doing so, negate the drowning darkness of existential nihilism.

So, let’s take a similar approach to the original presentation of Pascal’s wager and look at what the decision matrix might be for believing in meaning in life.

Meaning exists Meaning does not exist
Wager that meaning exists Live a meaningful life Lose nothing
Wager meaning does not exist Live a meaningless life Lose nothing

Here we have the same rational resolution of terms and the same reasonableness to make a bet on the something existing rather than not, as it serves the most utility for the same cost.

If we make the wager that life has meaning, and meaning does truly exist in the world, than we are left living a meaningful life, the meaning of which will extend far beyond the bookends of our birth and death. Because if life has meaning it has meaning that meaning would exist outside of us and we would be contributing to it, further refining and expanding upon the meaning of life through our contributions.

On the contrary, if we believe that life does not have meaning and act accordingly, and it ends up that meaning does exist in the world, then we are left with a meaningless life. Or worse, a life that is counter to the meaning we might have desired from it because we acted in a way that stripped the meaning from our lives.

Lastly, let’s say we wager that life has meaning and we live so, committing ourselves to meaningful tasks and values, and we end up finding out that life does not have meaning. I ask, what did we lose by still living a meaningful life? Nothing. We lost nothing by creating meaning in a meaningful world. What’s more, we have actually gained something. And this is something that Pascal did not directly cover, but by believing in meaning and acting as such, we gain a strength of purpose in our activities, regardless of whether there is real meaning in the world.

Summary

To those that would insist upon a model of life that has no meaning, you are walking a thin wire that hovers over oblivion. I have walked that wire. There is the very real potential for calamity if you are not careful in your balancing act. Shit can get really dark and really lonely if you lean to far towards the abyss. I fell myself into the existential void. I was lucky to recover myself before I turned entire to the gloom of it all. 

That is not to say that I am now delusional in my approach to meaning in life. I am no Pollyanna.  I know that if I look out there long enough that it is all just going to dissolve into the absurdity that it is; all the things I do and all the meanings and values I have placed on this tiny insignificant life I have will go up in a puff of smoke.

And I know that the whole of it is probably not going to matter a mouse fart in a hurricane, but the elements of it, the little pieces of experience that I get to create and encounter, they matter because this is all I get. So, if this whole wager argument is bullshit to you. Fine. I can understand that. Let me offer this little argument then; life is meaningful because it’s fucking valuable. This is the only life you get and the meaning of our life comes from the value of our life, from the precious minutes that tick away and harbor us to death.

Every experience we create is worth something, has meaning and value, because we will never be able to create it in just such a way. Life is meaningful precisely because it is the only one we have and the exclusivity of that opportunity makes it the single most valuable commodity we will ever possess. So, don’t waste it. Whatever that looks like for you. And when you need a little reminder, think back to Pascal and his wager. And bet again and again on meaning because it’s the bet with the biggest payout at the least cost. And, at the end of the day, you can not prove if life does or doesn’t have meaning. The best you can do is have faith in either argument and the real question ends up being; would you rather have faith in something filled with hope or faith in something filled with emptiness? I know my answer. What is yours?

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