A Pascalean Wager Against Scientific Determinism

Slavoj Žižek

June 6, 2022

Pascal’s wager is a practical argument for belief in God formulated by Blaise Pascal in his Pensées (1657–58). There, Pascal applied elements of game theory to show that belief in the Christian religion is rational. He argued that people can choose to believe in God or can choose to not believe in God, and that God either exists or he does not. Under these conditions, if a person believes in the Christian God and this God actually exists, they gain infinite happiness; if a person does not believe in the Christian God and God exists, they receive infinite suffering. On the other hand, if a person believes in the Christian God and God does not exist, then they receive some finite disadvantages from a life of Christian living; and if a person does not believe in this God and God does not exist, then they receive some finite pleasure from a life lived unhindered by Christian morality. As Pascal states, “Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.”[1]

Although Pascal addresses a person who is uncertain about God’s existence, the semantic space of his wager is composed of two axes (I know there is God / I know there is no God; I choose to follow God / I choose against God), the combination of which allows four stances. The first two are ordinary: the common religious stance (I know there is God, and I follow and obey him), and the secular philosophical stance (I know there is no God, and I act accordingly, not caring for the afterlife). These two stances are, as Lacan put it, indifferent, with no deep engagement. The other two are much more interesting: due to their obviously paradoxical nature, they imply a strong subjective engagement. The third one - I know there is no God but I act as if there is one – is the stance of benevolent cynical goodness; it can assume many different forms, from moralist benevolence (even if there is no God let’s act as if he exists, our life will be better…) to capitalist speculation. A capitalist knows there is no Market protecting him with its invisible hand, but he puts his wager on it, hoping that he will be touched by a contingent grace of profit - capitalism is definitely more Jansenist than Protestant.[2]

In contrast to these three stances, the only authentic one, the one enacted by a psychoanalytic subject, is the fourth one: knowing that God/Other exists (that I am caught in its chain), I put my wager against him/it, and in exchange I get hell. What is this hell? Lacan put it clearly: “human desire is hell and this is the only way to understand something. Which is why there is no religion with no place for hell. Not desiring hell is a form of Widerstand, of resistance.”[3] Desire is hell – heaven simply means a universe without desire. “Hell” is not another reality full of horrors, “hell” is the reality we live in, the reality of our lives structured by the inconsistency of our desires, the reality in which we desire what we don’t want and do not even know what we desire. Lacan’s formula “do not compromise your desire” means precisely this: remain faithful to your hellish desire to the end, accept that God himself is hellish, that he also does not dwell in perfect happiness.

Is this choice a simple nonsense? No, because the wager of my choice is that the Other (“God”) is in itself inconsistent, antagonistic, that there is a lack in the Other. As a subject, I am a subject of the signifier, caught in the signifying chain, its effect, but my very existence (or, rather, insistence) bears witness to a lack in the Other, to an obstacle which prevents the Other’s closure into a consistent One. I as a subject am a living proof that the Other is not complete but cracked, that the Other doesn’t know what it wants, that the impenetrable Other is impenetrable also to itself. Here fantasy enters: fantasy, a fantasy formation, is the way we try to obfuscate this crack in the Other. This paradoxical constellation is another way to formulate the “pragmatic contradiction” of predetermination and freedom: I know I am predetermined, but I put my wager against this and act as free.

Since today’s predominant notion of the big Other is that of the scientific knowledge which promises to provide a full causal explanation of my thinking and acting, leaving no space for freedom, the psychoanalytic subject’s answer to today’s big Other, scientific/determinist knowledge, is to conceive my freedom not just as a “user’s illusion” but as something in which that gap in the Other resonates. This is why freedom is ultimately a crazy wager, a risky jump ahead of oneself: we do not wait to be free, in a short-circuit we act as if we already are free. This brings us back to the topic of Buridan’s ass: the wager on freedom is not grounded in reasons, in a free act we do something ignoring reasons or even acting against reasons.

Does this mean that we are free only in crazy practical acts not grounded in theory? Let’s take the relationship between psychoanalytic theory and practice as a properly dialectical one: