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Today we conclude our unit on Philosophy of Religion and Hank gets a little help from Indiana Jones to explain religious pragmatism and Pascal’s Wager, fideism, and Kierkegaard’s leap to faith.


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Remember when you were little and your mom told you to eat your spinach so you’d grow up big and strong? Or in college, when you set your clock ten minutes ahead, to fool yourself to get to class on time?

We all engage in useful fictions – things that we choose to believe, because... they just make life easier. And when we do this, we are being pragmatists. Pragmatism is based on the theory that finding true beliefs is less important than finding beliefs that work, practically, in the living of your life.

In this view, it doesn’t really matter whether spinach actually helps muscle growth; if eating spinach will improve your life, and believing that it’ll make you strong convinces you to eat it – then it’s a useful belief, which is all that matters. Pragmatism is relatively recent as philosophical movements go. But some of the most well-known American pragmatists – like William James, and, I would argue, Indiana Jones – have an ideological ancestor in 17th century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal.

You can be a pragmatist about basically anything – knowledge, spinach, metaphysics, ethics, or whether it’s actually 11:30 right now or 11:40. But Pascal took a pragmatic approach to one of the biggest issues in philosophy: God’s existence.

[Theme Music]

Pascal was a theist, which, given his place in history, may not be all that surprising. But what is weird is that Pascal’s argument for God’s existence had very little to do with whether God was actually real. Instead, it had everything to do with with whether belief in his existence was practical. This reasoning became known as Pascal’s Wager, and it’s really a gambler’s argument for religious belief.

Pascal’s thinking went like this: Either God exists or he doesn’t, and reason will never give us an answer. So you must choose blindly to believe or not to believe in God – you can’t abstain from choosing. If you choose to believe in God and he exists, you get an infinite reward – heaven. If you choose to believe in God and he doesn’t exist, you’re not really out much. If you choose not to believe in God and he doesn’t exist, you also don’t gain much. If you choose not to believe in God and he does exist, you get infinite punishment – hell.

Therefore, the smart bet is to put your chips on God existing, every time. Pascal argued that, if there is the slightest chance that God exists – even if that chance is low – only a fool would bet against his existence, given that the stakes are so high. In the face of incomplete information, Pascal decided, we should play the odds, and believe whatever offers us the greatest benefit. It’s kind of brilliant, right?

But there are a couple of ways you could argue against this. You might say Pascal’s done the math wrong – that choosing to walk the straight and narrow in the service of an imaginary deity actually does cost you something. Like, you might miss out on stuff that you would otherwise want to do – like, sleeping in on Sunday mornings, or living a heavy-metal-rock-star lifestyle, or, I dunno, coveting stuff. By this logic, you’d lose out if you abstained from all of that in the name of something that ended up not being real.

But Pascal, like William James, disagreed with this line of reasoning, because he saw great personal benefit in being a believer. He thought theists have better lives, not because God is blessing them as some kind of reward, but because belief simply has inherent benefits – like the security of feeling that the world is ordered and meaningful... That someone is always looking out for you... That death isn’t the end.

Now, even if you agree that religious belief is comforting, you might still question Pascal’s motives. Does believing in something because it’s the safest bet really win you a ticket to heaven? Doesn’t God want you to be less self-interested when it comes to believing in him? Well, not according to Pascal. He thought how and why you choose to believe doesn’t really matter, because the fact is, God doesn’t care how he gets you, as long as he gets you.

OK, so how do you will yourself into believing in something, just because it’s where the smart money is? Easy! Pascal said you essentially brainwash yourself into true belief, so that what starts out as self-interest can eventually grow into an honest conviction. And you do this, basically, by walking the walk and talking the talk. Start going to church. Start praying. Hang out with other believers. At first it might seem weird and disingenuous, but over time, it’ll become an ingrained part of your belief system.

You know what it’s kind of like? Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s probably pop-culture’s finest allegory of pragmatic belief in action. Throughout the whole Indiana Jones trilogy – I’m just gonna pretend the fourth one was never made – Indy is painted as a pretty agnostic character. He hunts religious relics for a living, but the powers that those relics are said to possess are just “hocus pocus” to him. So, at the end of The Last Crusade, (spoilers) Indy manages to find the Holy Grail, in an ancient temple, after getting through a bunch of booby traps.

And each trap is kind of a test of faith. He has to know where to kneel, and how to spell the name of God, and he has to jump into an abyss with the hope that he will somehow survive. Indiana ends up passing all of those tests. But not because he suddenly stops being agnostic and starts believing in God – at least not that we know of. Instead, he just does what he has to do. He’s literally going through the motions. There’s something about that, that would make Pascal proud. Because, to him, it would probably look like Indy was on the path to eventually, truly believing.

Now, some critics have pointed out that, when it comes to a really usable belief system, you’re gonna need more than just: "fake it ‘til you make it." For example, maybe you were one of those kids, raised in a religious household, who was just never feeling it.

We all know people who were immersed in a culture of religious belief from birth, but end up to rejecting those beliefs as adults. And for those people, trying to force yourself to believe is not only ineffective, it can lead to some pretty serious unhappiness – the exact opposite of what a pragmatist wants.

So it might be that, for a pragmatist, the best advice for non-believers is that they just gotta live their lives. Maybe they’ll find God and maybe they won’t, but making yourself swallow it like medicine doesn’t seem like the way to maximize belief.

OK, so Pascal said that we should believe in God because belief is just practically useful. But Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher, went even further. He adopted the famous tenet of fideism, stating: “I believe because it is absurd to believe.” Fideism is the school of thought that says religious belief has to come from faith alone. It says stuff like arguments and evidence actually kill what’s great about religion – which is wonder and mystery.

Kierkegaard said that the fantastic thing about belief in God is that it’s entirely irrational – you can’t do it with your brain. You have to take what he called the leap to faith. And, again, here I turn to Indiana Jones. Remember when Indy faces his last test of faith-slash-booby trap in the Last Crusade? He has to try to make an impossible jump across a scary dark pit to get to the Holy Grail. There is no way he can do it – it’s suicide.

But, it turns out, there’s a bridge. He can’t see it, but in order to find out that it’s there, he has to take that step. He has to take a chance on something that defies all reason. That’s what religion is all about, according to Kierkegaard. We jump and hope like hell that God catches us. And the only way to know, is to jump. We have to surrender reason to get to truth.

Now, I hate to break it to you, but this is the end of our unit on the philosophy of religion. I’m interested to hear what you think about that in the comments. But before we go, I want to head to the Thought Bubble for some Flash Philosophy.

Our old friend Bertrand Russell once posited the existence of a china teapot, orbiting the sun somewhere between Earth and Mars. Let’s say that back on Earth there were a bunch of Teapot-ists, people who argued that, since we can’t disprove the teapot’s existence, they were justified in believing in it. Not only that, they constructed great buildings, erected statues, composed songs, held weekly services, and appealed to the teapot for help in their daily lives.

But everyone else thought the Teapot-ists were ridiculous, because there was no evidence to support their belief in the teapot. For their part, the Teapot-ists just replied that none of the Ateapot-ists could prove that it wasn’t there. Thanks, Thought Bubble!

Aaand I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. Pragmatism, or the leap to faith, might be a solution to the problem of God’s existence, if you’re not satisfied with any of the other, more evidence-based arguments. But believing in something because it’s expedient – or because it frees you from having to have any reasons at all – can still have its risks.

After all, if we can leap to God, we can also leap to Russell’s teapot, or to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Or, much worse, we could leap to particular beliefs about God – like that he wants us to deny rights to certain kinds of people – or kill them. These beliefs aren’t representative of the views of most theists, but the problem is, if you’re giving up on reasons and evidence, all beliefs are philosophically equal.

We count on evidence and justification to help us adjudicate between beliefs, to decide what we value. If you throw that out, and fall back on faith alone, the sum of your religious arguments is going to end up being: I have faith in the things I choose to have faith in. And in that case, no one can tell anyone else that their belief is wrong, or dangerous, or unjustified, because you can’t justify faith.

Today we’ve thought a bunch about about religious pragmatism and Pascal’s Wager, and we’ve also learned about fideism and Kierkegaard’s leap to faith. Next time we’re going to learn about existentialism, which is a movement Kierkegaard is considered to belong to. But as we will see, existentialists can come in many different flavors.

This episode of Crash Course Philosophy is made possible by Squarespace. Squarespace is a way to create a website, blog or online store for you and your ideas. Squarespace features a user-friendly interface, custom templates and 24/7 customer support. Try Squarespace at for a special offer. Squarespace: share your passion with the world.

Crash Course Philosophy is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel to check out amazing shows like The Art Assignment, Shanx FX, and It’s Okay to Be Smart. This episode of Crash Course was filmed in the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of all these awesome people and our equally fantastic graphics team is Thought Café.