Pascal’s Wager, Sartre’s Bet, and The Santa Claus Gamble

Pascal Sartre Santa

Each December, young parents must face one of the great metaphysical dilemmas of all time…well, at least, of recent times,…that is, of recent Judeo-Christian,…ok, Christian…never mind. The point is this: Sleigh bells are ringing off the hook and your little darling leans up, soft wide eyes glistening in anticipation, unfathomable pools of sweetness hanging in the balance,…and you at the other end of her ontological fulcrum as she asks: “Is Santa Claus for real?” Easy now, level it up, the ethical conundrums are on the balance scale; you need to weigh them carefully.

Is it ok to lie,  you wonder…just a wee little white one? After all, she’s just a wee thing herself.  Besides, being the good Karl Popperian that you are, the empirical evidence is not yet conclusive. How about confronting her with the cold truth (at least as you, the bad Popperian, see it), inject some moxie into that supple little backbone, steel up her growth plates – shit happens and then you die. Or, perhaps a reasoned chat? Hmmmm,…Reason; so what if she’s years away from studying The Philosophes, or Rhetorics for that matter – Santa’s just a metonym, dear…you know what a metonym is, don’t you?

Then, you remember Blaise Pascal,…Pascal’s Wager?

Granted, he was more concerned with God’s existence than with Père Noël’s. Slightly higher stakes, but the question is the same. Is He real or not?…and if He’s not, what does that say about Saint – get it – Saint Nick?

First, the good news. For Pascal, it wasn’t really an ethical dilemma, it was a math problem. Statistics to be exact. Odds favor Belief,…take a gamble. After all, Belief warrants an infinity of reward if things work out, and only mild embarrassment if they don’t. Apostasy, on the other hand, risks an eternity with the demonic swarm inside Hieronymus Bosch’s head if you awake to discover you’ve slept in on Judgment Day (…or, in our case at hand, to discover Rudolph is indeed downstairs and off-loading deer tics around the hearth). No back-pedaling,…sorry; you lost the wager.

Even if your lack of Belief proves justified, you’re still left with some serious explaining to do. What’s this on my head, sweetheart?…You mean this old red satin thing with the floppy snowball?…Ah,…why don’t we just go ask your mother, ‘kay?

Of course, Pascal’s game was rigged. Back then, the odds out of 17th century Las Vegas were overwhelming: go for the infinite reward…Hello!?!

But there is another approach you might take, now that you’re gambling.

Why not back Sartre’s Bet. Less well-known than Pascal’s chip toss, Sartre’s existential gamble declined the view from above, and staked it all on Reality on the ground,…as it is on earth (see what I did there?…my novel, As It Is On Earth?). To paraphrase Ronald Aronson*, Sartre regarded the well-lived life as simply a process of placing one’s bets. Risking all for principled belief (lower-case) without the cloying idealism to imagine that such conviction guarantees either salvation or avoiding mistakes. Go All In, Full Monty. If you lose,…so it goes, mistakes are part of the game. Move on. Bet again. Sure Sartre was inclined to spend Banned Xmas with Stalin, but he was just putting his money on hopes for the Brotherhood of Man.

Hmmmmm…? The Brotherhood of Man…Santa Claus, Santa Claus…Brotherhood of Man. Now do you see where we’re going here? Real Shmeal, who cares if Sinterklaas is a flesh and blood geriatric who cheats death. It’s what he represents for the rest of us that counts. Pace Sartre, that is what is, in essence, essential. No need to play Pascal’s hand, keep it close to your vest. Maybe another time, particularly if the – you know what – continues hitting the fan.

So, I say stick with the metonymy card, play it for your little angel – maybe just hide it for awhile inside that wee white lie as you bless her little truth-is-still-relative heart.

And maybe, just this once, go ahead and invert Sartre’s dictum: “essence precedes existence?”

*Ronald Aronson, We Have Only This Life to Live: Selected Essays of Jean-Paul Sartre 1939-1975

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