Where Pascal metaphorically wagering meets Borges bird-watching

Imagine that as a young person you once had a conversation with a close friend in which you made a wager on God’s existence. One of you argued for God’s existence, the other against. The wager went like this: one of you is to live his life as if God exists; the other is to live his life as if God does not exist. The two of you would meet regularly over the course of time to compare notes, but the wager could only be decided if you both lived into old age, at which point the winner of the wager, you both agreed, would be obvious.

This is the sort of proposition that sometimes informs novels. Pascal handles the matter more briefly, in one of his thoughts (Pensees, #233), in the form of a dialog. It is an either or proposition, one that we are existentially bound to, and it may very well be our freedom that is being wagered; yet Pascal says we have nothing to lose.

Borges, in his essay “The Fearful Sphere of Pascal,” suggests that for Pascal, uncertainty produced anxiety, and that he found no solace in his thought that “Nature is an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” Borges brings to our attention an alternative translation based on Pascal’s notes. Apparently, Pascal had started to write “Nature is a fearful sphere….” Borges points out that Pascal’s sphere is a metaphor, and that “It may be that universal history is the history of the different intonations given a handful of metaphors.”

In Borges’s “Argumentum Ornithologicum,” he argues for the existence of God. Closing his eyes, he envisions a small flock of birds, around ten birds in number, but they quickly disappear, and he’s uncertain exactly how many birds he saw in his vision. To him, the exact number “is inconceivable; ergo, God exists.” The exact number of birds that Borges saw is known to God.

Pascal was a mathematician, a logician, clearly interested in the existential predicament of man; Borges was a poet. They both tested the existence of God by living their lives as if He existed. It may matter not God’s existence if His existence is not evident to us; it does matter how we live our lives, for which there is existential evidence, if none other, and who is able to prove this, wins the wager.

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