Such intuition, which Pascal sites in the heart, is also where true faith in God is to be found; the function of his apology is to persuade his reader rationally that the Christian religion is true because its description of the human condition is accurate, but it cannot do more than predispose the reader to receive the gratuitous divine gift of faith. In this sense it is a superfluous enterprise; and although in his Écrits sur la Grâce (Writings on grace) (1657-8?) he tries to come to terms with the Tridentine proposition that the just are able of themselves to obey the Commandments, Pascal seems to concede the inefficacy of instilling rational conviction alone at various points in the Pensées.

As he does elsewhere, Pascal here sets up powerful binary oppositions between philosophies and exploits their reciprocal failings and strengths. Scepticism is modest in its claims, yet impotent and negative; dogmatism (roughly, rationalistic neo-Stoicism) is presumptuous and yet has some purchase on the real world. Philosophy is therefore incapable both of knowing humanity and of taking action. Pascal finds a way beyond this impasse by exploiting his insight about the infinitely great and the infinitely small in a novel manner: humans are everything with respect to nothing, and nothing with respect to everything (God and the cosmos). They are also imbued with a desperate desire for certainty, and cannot suspend their judgment indefinitely, because they are subject to an existential imperative: ‘you must take on the bet, for you are in the game’ (Pascal 1670: 550).

This is the context of the famous wager argument, which had been used before Pascal by other apologists. Either God exists, or he does not: if human life is vain and wretched (as Pascal believes he has demonstrated), humans have nothing to lose by betting on the next life (that is submitting to the Christian religion), for they have lost nothing in the case of God’s nonexistence, and gained everything if he does exist. Some have seen this argument as purely rhetorical; others have accused it of being a case of petitio principii (the worthlessness of life is presupposed in the conclusion that we have nothing to lose in sacrificing the allegedly vain pleasures of this world); yet others see in it an ingenious example of decision theory avant la lettre.