The wager is named after the 17th century French mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-62), who became convinced
that it was impossible to come to a knowledge of God through reason. On November 23, 1654, Pascal has a religious experience
that lasted "from about half-past ten in the evening till about half an hour after midnight".
The import of this experience told Pascal that his faith had been too abstract and intellectual.
Pascal's God was not the God of reason, but of revelation.
If you read Pascal's notes in the Pensées, you will discover that the inate depravity of humankind is a constant refrain and that Pascal fancied that because of this depravity Christ "will be in agony until the end of the world".
Pascal put his wager like this: "We are incapable of knowing either what [God] is or whether He is ... Reason cannot decide this question. Infinite chaos separates us. At the far end of this infinite distance a coin is being spun which will come down either heads or tails. How will you wager?" In the Pensées Pascal puts the words "you would not seek me had you not already found me" into God's mouth, and one cannot help but feel that the wager is an extension of this feeling.
Put more simply, Pascal is saying that metaphysical and theological argument and enquiry leaves us knowing nothing about the Divine or Divine matters. Never-the-less we can ask if it is better for us to believe in God than not to believe in God. If God exists then it is better: infinitely better, given the prospect of eternal bliss for believers and eternal damnation for non-believers. If God does not exist, then we loose nothing, and may even gain in this life by loosing 'poisionous pleasures'. So belief is the dominant strategy. It can win and it cannot loose. The wager is 'infini-rien': infinity to nothing.
It was Pascal's belief that you could not just choose to believe because of this kind of consideration, but he thought, perceptively, that beliefs are contagious, and that you could deliberately choose to deaden your intelligence by choosing to associate with people who would pass their belief to you. You would thus, end up believing, and the wager has shown that believing is the most desirable strategy.
Objections To Pascal's WagerThe objections to Pascal's Wager are many. Primarily the wager does not consider enough options. Perhaps the kind of Christian God Pascal was interested in does not exist, but that some other God does exist, and one who reserves bliss for those strong enough not to believe in a Christian kind of God, giving damnation as the reward for those superstitious enough to do so. Perhaps Zeus or the IPU is the real God. If you proceed on a basis of complete ignorance as the wager insists you must, you cannot, assume that the choice is simply between atheism and Christianity.
A more, ah, uncomfortable, objection for the theologically inclined is that the wager proceeds without reference to truth. It is based purely on the benefit to the individual and is purely pragmatic. One suspects that any conceivable form of Christian God would look dimly on such an approach.
The reader is recommended to a particularly spirited objection along these lines from W. K. Clifford (1845-79), in his Lectures and Essays (1879). Clifford quotes Coleridge to considerable effect:
An interesting side issue to Pascal's wager is that Pascal borrowed it from Islam (see Miguel Palacios, "Los precedentes de Pari de Pascal"), and that he assumed the variety of Christian faith one would adopt would be Roman Catholicism. One does not imagine that either of these facts would sit well with the mainly radically Protestant Christians who who constantly reprise the argument in alt.atheism.
What makes Pascal's Wager a landmark in theological thought is that it constituted a direct, reasoned rejection of the agnostic principle - a rejection in which the reason proposed for believing was explicitly a motive for self-persuasion rather than some evidence of truth.