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  • Religious Conversion, Self-Deception, and Pascal’s Wager
  • Ward E Jones

blaise pascal’s Pensées is a sustained attempt to convert, to lead its reader to form the belief in the articles of faith. Pascal does not hope to convert by a direct presentation of evidence or argument, but rather attempts to induce in the reader a desire for belief in the articles of faith. He hopes that this desire will lead the reader to put herself in a situation in which she will form the belief. Pascal, in other words, wants the reader to take control over her belief, to form it because she wants to do so.

We commonly put ourselves in a situation for the purpose of forming beliefs. This is what happens when we choose to go, say, to university; choosing to learn is choosing to form beliefs in a given field. Pascal urges something more paradoxical.1 He wants to induce us to form a particular belief (or set of beliefs). His dual aim is (i) to induce the unbeliever to want a belief, and then (ii) to induce her to do what she can to gain that belief.

Now if I want a particular belief, I might place myself in a situation in which nonrational or pragmatic determinants would bring about the belief. I might, that is, visit a hypnotist or a brainwasher, choosing some process which will either directly bring about the desired belief without involving my epistemic capabilities, or one which will diminish my epistemic capabilities. Alternatively, I might search for evidence for the desired belief. Wanting to believe that the earth is flat, for example, I might join the Flat Earth Society, hoping to discover or be convinced by the evidence that there is for such a belief. If successful, either process would end in our adoption of a belief. There are, however, differences. The former process, going to a hypnotist or brainwasher, is self-deception. Employing nonrational methods to gain control of our beliefs is one way in which we can deceive ourselves. The latter type [End Page 167] of control, on the other hand, does not appear to be self-deceptive at all, involving as it does the search for evidence for our desired belief.

If, in the Pensées, Pascal is trying to induce the reader to want theistic belief, an interpretative question arises: Is he trying to induce self-deception? Does Pascal want the unbeliever to deceive herself into becoming a believer? Is “Pascalian conversion”—the conversion process which he envisions in the Pensées—analogous to hypnosis or to joining the Flat Earth Society? I will argue that it is the latter, that Pascal does not intend the unbeliever to self-deceive. Indeed, I hope to show that Pascal’s theory of conversion is not only in an important (but qualified) sense rational, but also reveals a sophisticated understanding of belief-formation.2

1. pascal’s practical argument

Arguments are offered to either induce or defend beliefs. Arguments for the existence of God are no different. They are presented to an audience, with one of two hoped-for effects. The unbelieving reader will hopefully come to believe in God, while the believing reader will be able to use the argument to rationally support or defend that already-held belief. An argument for the existence of God is therefore successful if it either induces a belief or provides a rational basis for such a belief.

Descartes and William Paley defend very different versions of arguments for the existence of God. Descartes, writing in the mid-seventeenth century, was a proponent of the ontological argument and a version of the first cause argument, while Paley published a popular account of the argument from design in 1802. Despite their differences, however, both are clear that they intend their arguments to affect beliefs in God, either to induce them or to strengthen them.

In the dedicatory letter to his Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes tells the Faculty of Theology at the Sorbonne that the arguments for God’s existence found in the Meditations are intended for the unbeliever: “For us who are believers, it is enough to accept on...


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