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Pascal's Wager: The Man Who Played Dice with God    by James A. Connor order for
Pascal's Wager
by James A. Connor
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2006 (2006)
* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Nearly everyone has heard of Pascal's Wager, a clever argument about the advisability of belief in God. But few people know anything about the fascinating man whose name is attached to the argument. Now, with James A. Connor's wonderful new biography, everyone has the opportunity to learn more about the French mathematician whose revolutionary ideas anticipated the complexities of the modern world.

Born in 1623, Blaise Pascal was chronically ill throughout his lifetime and lived only thirty-nine years, but his accomplishments during his brief and difficult life were remarkable. He never attended school, but the precocious Blaise was home-schooled by his intellectually gifted father, and by the age of twelve, Blaise was recognized as a prodigy whose abilities in mathematics gained him wide-spread attention.

Blaise would go on to become 'the man who invented the Modern World, or at least a good chunk of it.' He invented 'one of the first calculating machines,' - to assist his father in the elder Pascal's cumbersome duties as tax collector. Blaise would go on to be responsible for developing 'the very first public transportation system, Probability Theory, Decision Theory, risk management.' He even 'proved the existence of the vacuum.' Pascal's innovations 'set the stage for Quantum Physics, the insurance industry, management science, racing forms, the computer, Power Ball lotteries, the jet engine, the internal combustion engine, the atomic bomb, mass media, and on and on.' As the author convincingly argues in Pascal's Wager, 'you cannot walk ten feet in the twenty-first century without running into something that Pascal's 39 years of the seventeenth century did not affect in one way or another.'

To understand Blaise Pascal's life and accomplishments, it is important to understand that he came of age in a volatile 17th century France wherein 'Change was everywhere. Doubt was everywhere.' This was the conflicted France of Louis XIII, Cardinal Richelieu (that most ruthless cleric of inestimable power and importance), Rene Descartes, and Louis XIV. It was a turbulent and unstable France in which politics, religion, philosophy, science, and mathematics were constantly at odds. Mathematics, however, was rapidly replacing mystic fakeries - alchemy and astrology - and notwithstanding tensions in predominantly Roman Catholic France, this was becoming a brave new world in which intellectuals were beginning to perceive God as the 'ultimate mathematician.' And this was the conflicted world in which the mathematician Blaise Pascal - with his unique blending of Catholic intellectualism and secular intellectual inquiry - became 'adept at reading God's mind.'

Ultimately, after a mystical experience that affected him near the end of his life, Blaise offered the world his famous mathematical (not philosophical) argument (in the form of a wager) in which there are four possibilities based on gambling and probabilities (which can be paraphrased as follows):

(1) You believe in God, and God exists, which means that you win (because you wind up in Heaven)! This, in Pascal's pragmatic view, is as good at its gets.

(2) You believe in God, and God doesn't exist, which means that you actually lose nothing other than the fact you have probably given up some wild and sinful times on earth. And Pascal - in spite of his chronic health problems - enjoyed his own small share of sinful hedonism, although he was also wracked by guilt over his secular adventures.

(3) You don't believe in God, and God doesn't exist, in which case you lose nothing but instead have some wild and sinful times - without an eternal penalty.

(4) You don't believe in God, and God does exist, which means you lose (because you wind up in Hell)! This, again in Pascal's rational view, is as bad as it gets.

So there you have, as the author James A. Connor describes it, Pascal's puckish application of game theory to theology. If you want to buy into Connor's argument, you simply ought to accept the rules of Pascal's game and understand the context of the game; moreover, given all that is at stake, says Connor, 'you'd be the worst kind of donkey not to believe in God, Pascal's God.'

To understand what Connor means by that challenge, and if you want to understand what Connor means by 'Pascal's God,' you really must read Pascal's Wager, one of the most stimulating and interesting biographies to have come along in the last few decades. Filled with thought-provoking details and characterized by its easy-to-read, engaging prose, Pascal's Wager makes some difficult philosophical, theological, scientific, and mathematic concepts quite accessible and understandable. And along the way you enjoy the bonus of learning about one of the 17th century's most fascinating men. Don't miss it!

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