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):
- “God is, or He is not”
- A Game is being played… where heads or tails will turn up.
- According to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.
- You must wager. (It’s not optional.)
- 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.
- 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.
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.