A Pascalean Wager Against Scientific Determinism


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 totoday’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: theory is not only the theory of clinical practice but simultaneously the theory of the ultimate failure of the practice (as Freud put it, clinical practice would be fully possible only in a situation in which it would no longer be needed). In this sense, Lacan said that clinical practice is the Real-impossible of psychoanalysis (in contrast to theory). This does not mean that theory is just talk, words, while practice takes place in the actual world where we really encounter psychic pain and suffering – it means almost the opposite. The aspect of impossibility of the clinical practice can only be demarcated through theory – without the theoretical gaze, clinical practice functions like any other practical endeavor, a profession following its rules.

And the same goes for revolutionary activity. In his long poem “Lenin,” Mayakovsky, THE poet of the Soviet Revolution, wrote: “Our dialectics / weren’t derived / from Hegel’s cunning. / Through battle’s din / it burst into our verse / when bullets from our guns / sent bosses running / the same as we / had run from theirs at first.” As a card-carrying Hegelian, I am tempted to add: this – not reading Hegel – is one of the reasons why the Soviet revolution ended up in Stalinism. Lenin’s well-known aphorism from his Philosophical Notebooks – “It is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently, half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx!!”[4] – should thus be taken quite literally (and applied to Lenin himself till 1915).

This brings us to the ambiguity of the formula $-a, the empty subject confronted to the objet a. Subject is voided, emptied of all substantial content by the signifying order; however, this void is correlative to the objet a which stands for the void in the Other itself, and, simultaneously, for the excess for which there is no place in the Other – this is why $-a is simultaneously the formula of a fantasy which fills in this void.

To put it in the well-known Lacanian terms, the shift to be accomplished here is the shift from alienation to separation: from the subject being erased/voided by the Other ($) – and in this narrow sense separated from the Other – to the emergence of objet a as an excess, of a point at which the Other is separated from itself. What is absolutely to be avoided here is the Feuerbachian – early Marx’s formula according to which the separation of God from man is an effect of the separation of man from himself, so that God vanishes when humans appropriate their essence, their authentic potentials. In theological terms, the space of freedom is opened when I (a believer alienated in God as the absolute master) discover that God himself is already separated from himself – which happens at its purest in Christianity only, when in Christ god separates himself from himself. The paradox of the proposed wager is that I do not wage on God’s perfection but on God’s imperfection, on his failure and inconsistency – or, as Chesterton put it: “Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone has felt that God, to be wholly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king.”[5] Freud was well aware of this paradox when, in his The Ego and the Id, he wrote:

If anyone were to put forward the paradoxical proposition that normal man is not only far more immoral than he believes but also far more moral than he knows, psycho-analysis, on whose findings the first half of the assertion rests, would have no objection to raise against the second half.[6]

Alenka Zupančič applied this same paradox to Kant’s notion of freedom: we are not only much less free than we believe, we are also much more free than we know. Where I believe that I am free (in the sense of experiencing myself as a spontaneous agent), Kant has no problemin admitting that, in principle, all my spontaneous acts are conditioned by “pathological” causes – in psychoanalysis, free associations prove this abundantly. But where the subject goes to the end in his reduction denouncing the spontaneity of his “inner life,” he stumbles upon a freedom that that reaches well beyond “doing what I feel or want.” This affects also Kant’s notion of autonomy: where I act freely, do what I want, I am enslaved to my pathological motivations. I am really autonomous when I do something I simply cannot not do.[7] How, exactly, are we to understand this? NOT in the Spinozean way of freedom as known necessity: in Spinoza (and his followers like Althusser) there is no place for pure cogito, science is a knowledge which does not imply any subjective position, or, as Lacan put it, science forecloses subject. But Lacan’s “there is no meta-language” means precisely that there is no external-asubjective position of knowledge available to us – which subject is then implied by a scientific discourse? Here we have to introduce the difference between subject of enunciation and subject of the enunciated: freedom as subjective experience, spontaneous feeling of acting, is imaginary, determined by the unconscious Other, it concerns the subject of the enunciated – in Kant’s terms, this freedom is always ruled by pathological motivations and thus reducible to causality. But when we accept that this spontaneous freedom is imaginary, determined by pathological causal mechanisms, what remains is the empty subject deprived of its pathological content – and this is the Cartesian cogito. This subject cannot be grounded in natural determinism because it arouses as an “answer of the real”(Lacan), as a reaction to a traumatic cut. Here Heidegger misses the point when, in his Zollikoner Seminare, he dismisses Freud as a causal determinist:

“He postulates for the conscious human phenomena that they can be explained without gaps, i.e. the continuity of causal connections. Since there are no such connections ‘in the consciousness,’ he has to invent ‘the unconscious,’ in which there have to be the causal links without gaps.”[8]

This interpretation may appear correct: is it not that Freud tries to discover a causal order in what appears to our consciousness as a confused and contingent array of mental facts (slips of tongue, dreams, clinical symptoms) and, in this way, to close the chain of causal links that run our psyche? However, Heidegger completely misses the way the Freudian “unconscious” is grounded in the traumatic encounter of an Otherness whose intrusion precisely breaks, interrupts, the continuity of the causal link: what we get in the “unconscious” is not a complete, uninterrupted, causal link, but the repercussions, the after-shocks, of a traumatic interruption. What Freud calls “symptoms” are ways to deal with a traumatic cut, while “fantasy” is a formation destined to cover up this cut. Human freedom is ultimately not a user’s illusion only if it is grounded in this catastrophe.

[1] See Pascal’s wager | Definition, Description, Criticisms, & Facts | Britannica.

[2] I rely here on Dominiek Hoens, “Is Life but a Pascalean Dream?”, Psychoanalytische Perspectivien, Vol. 36/2, pp.169-185, available online at Is life but a Pascalian dream? A commentary on Lacan’s Louvain lecture – Psychoanalytische Perspectieven.

[3] “Reponse de Jacques Lacan a une question de Marcel Ritter,” Lettres de l’Ecole freudienne 18 (1975), p. 7-12.

[4] See lenin-cw-vol-38.pdf (marxists.org).

[5] G.K.Chesterton, Orthodoxy, San Francisco: Ignatius Press 1995, p. 145.

[6] Sigmund Freud, “The Ego and the Id,” quoted from https://www.sigmundfreud.net/the-ego-and-the-id-pdf-ebook.jsp.

[7] I rely here extensively on Alenka Zupančič, Ethics of the Real: Kant and Lacan, London: Verso Books 1995.

[8] Martin Heidegger, Zollikoner Seminare, Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann 2017, p. 260.