Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s Wager? Really? Has anyone who’s actually thought about it recently for more than five seconds taken it seriously?

Admittedly, arguing against Pascal’s Wager is cheap entertainment, like using the broad side of a barn for target practice. It’s dead easy. But doesn’t that make you wonder all the more why such a bad argument persists to this day?

I suggest that it’s because many believers who make a point of trying to defend their beliefs have not been equipped to argue rationally.  They don’t generally teach critical thinking in Sunday School (that would not be the way to put butts in pews, after all).  It seems to me that it’s an argument used by believers who are less interested in discovering what is most likely true than they are in defending their beliefs against the shocking reality that some people don’t believe as they do and, even worse, that some people think that god-belief is wrong-headed.

Anyway, I’m going to add my voice to the many that have already attacked this easy prey.  After all, I’m not too proud to take aim at an easy target from time to time.  Here we go.

According to the relevant Wikipedia article, this is the argument:

The philosophy uses the following logic (excerpts from Pensées, part III, note 233):

  1. “God is, or He is not”
  2. A Game is being played… where heads or tails will turn up.
  3. According to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.
  4. You must wager. (It’s not optional.)
  5. 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.
  6. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (…) There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.

Before I look at the argument point by point, here’s the response that most appeals to me personally: how am I to pretend to believe that which I find is most probably not true and still have any self-respect at all?  Is God going to be impressed by my attempt to brainwash myself into believing in him, not because I think that such belief is probably true but because of a calculation that suggests that such self-foolery might be beneficial to me?  Does the God of Christianity care nothing for honesty and personal integrity?

Now, on to the argument.

1. “God is, or He is not”

I’ll accept that, as long as the God that is being posited isn’t related to Schrödinger’s cat.

2. A Game is being played… where heads or tails will turn up.

Let’s play.

3. According to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.

Already, the argument has failed.  There are many rational arguments against the existence of God, not the least of which stem from the lack of testable evidence or sound arguments in favour of God’s existence.  But let’s continue, just for the sake of argument.

4. You must wager. (It’s not optional.)

For the sake of the game, you have no choice.  In real life, one is free to ignore the question completely and simply live as one sees fit.

5. 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.

If I lose, I lose nothing?  Nothing except the self-respect that comes from valuing personal integrity and intellectual honesty.  That’s a lot to lose, considering that there are absolutely no good reasons to think that the “all” which a believer supposedly might gain is at all likely to exist, assuming that what is meant by that “all” has to do with eternity in paradise in the presence of God.  For the sake of some ridiculous fairy tale, I’m supposed to lie to myself until I somehow begin to believe the lie?  No thanks.

6. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

Sorry, but forget it.  You offer no sound reasons to think that there is anything to gain and I have identified something precious that would be lost.

Other arguments against Pascal’s Wager include this simple but devastating objection: how do you know you’re believing in the right God?  What if belief in the Christian God so angers the real God that you’re condemned to Hell for it?  If, as the argument states, there’s no rational defence for or against God’s existence, then the same should hold true for any other god concept that one might hold.  So, the anti-Christian God should be as likely as any other, no?

A friend of mine has worked on a Reverse Pascal’s Wager which is meant to turn the original version on its head and offer us, instead, an argument for strong atheism.  I’ll admit that I haven’t examined it because I haven’t found it necessary to do that much work to refute the notion that there are gods.  However, if you’d like to take a look at it, it’s here.

Now, perhaps this argument would have been received differently in the time and culture in which it was introduced than it is today.  After all, we understand the world quite a bit differently than they did in the seventeenth century.  So, we might cut Blaise Pascal some slack.  However, those who perpetuate the argument today have no such excuse.  It seems to me that to continue to offer such an obviously bad argument is, at best, shameful.

So, stop it.

9 thoughts on “Pascal’s Wager

  1. Greta

    first-order logic cnoant, in general, distinguish finite models from infinite models. Specifically, if a fist order theory had arbitrarily large finite models, then it has an infinite one.

    Reply
    1. Brad Post author

      Greta, I can’t decide whether or not your comment is spam, partly because I can’t figure out what you’re trying to say.

      Reply
      1. Yusuf

        Other life is an ethical, soical and universal nessecity , as it would be the means of restitution and fair, and punishment of wrong on his sin and reward improved the kindness, Howshall a person like Hitler or Genghis Khan or Mussolini or others be punished on the atrocities they committed, do you as soon as their death, whether suicide ormurder this will be the only reward? Or should thatbe tortured in the fire terrible as it caused thetragedies and calamities of nations and peoples and individuals, children and all the damaged party, eventhe weight of the atom, and how the reward of do good in their lives to the people and to mankind did not give them a right to remuneration, that our faithwe Muslims had to be there day of Judgement dayfinds all of thegood work of his punishment and all the evil work of the evil as well as

        Reply
        1. Brad Post author

          It is natural that we long for justice but the universe is in no way obligated to arrange itself in accordance with our needs and desires. What you or I think should be cannot reasonably be seen as a guide to what actually is. There is only justice to the extent that we humans can be just. Beyond that, there are only the natural laws of the universe. That may not provide you with much satisfaction but it is reality.

          Reply
        2. Eiinlemotz

          I feel you, I recently had a loved one pass away sudnldey completely unexpected. There were so many things I wish I could of told him before he died, and knowing that I wont ever see him again makes me sick to my stomach.I hope there is a god, and a heaven. I really, really want to believe there is so maybe I could have some comfort.

          Reply
    2. Melek

      Why is anyone tailkng about pathetic failure of religous beliefs? You might as well wallow in the dirt like some ignorant savages. The time for being controlled slaves is 100 years ago. So not fall victim to magic and bullshit.No-religion is the one defining thing that the red communists got correct!

      Reply
      1. Rayssa

        I am in the same boat. I really want to beeivle there is a God and I would like there to be a continuation of my soul. I become very depressed when I think about God. I am 61 years old and have struggled with this since I was about 17 years old. When I start obsessing about this I consider suicide as good idea. At my age I have learned not act on that decision. However, I cry when I realize I do not beeivle in a spiritual world. I can love nature, family and considerable more ideas. I want to beeivle in a greater inteligent power/source. I want to know how and please do not say Just have faith:. I want to know how other non-beeivlers cope. Thank you

        Reply
        1. Brad Post author

          I’m not sure what to say to someone who wants there to be a God. Gods tend to be capricious, dictatorial and cruel. I’m rather glad that they’ve turned out to be fictional.

          Regarding death, I’d prefer to live until I no longer desire life but I don’t find it helpful to wish for that which cannot be had. Technology might one day make that possible but it’s unlikely to happen in my lifetime. My approach is to accept the reality of life and death and to carry on living.

          It sounds to me like you are grieving the loss of belief in the supernatural or the divine. I hope that you can eventually come to acceptance.

          Reply

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