Pascal's "Suggestion"

30 January 2006

Pascal’s Wager, developed in the 1800’s by Blaise Pascal, is an argument for God’s existence. This argument is actually quite popular amongst Christians. It may perhaps be one of the most commonly used arguments for believing in God. Many Christians use Pascal’s Wager without realizing its premises or even being aware that it was created hundreds of years ago.

Pascal’s Premises

Craig explains Pascal’s argument quite well:

“The founder of probability theory, Pascal argues that when the odds that God exists are even, then the prudent man will gamble that God exists. This is a wager that all men must make- the game is in progress and a bet must be laid. There is no option: you have already joined the game. Which then will you choose- that God exists or that he does not? Pascal argues that since the odds are even reason is not violated in making either choice; therefore, reasons cannot determine which bet to make. Therefore, the choice should be made pragmatically in terms of maximizing one’s happiness. If one wagers that God exists and he does, one has gained eternal life and infinite happiness. If he does not exist,one has lost nothing. On the other hand, if one wagers that God does not exist and he does, then one has suffered infinite loss. If he does not in fact exist, then one has gained nothing. Hence the only prudent choice is to believe that God exists.” 1

Pascal therefore argues that belief in God is a win-win situation, and there is no benefit to believing in atheism.

Objections to Pascal’s Wager

A number of critiques of this argument are available on the Internet. 2,3,4 Many objections have been advanced against the Wager:

1. Other religions could be correct.

Christianity is not the only religion that claims there are rewards for believing and punishment for not believing. At least initially, it is only an arbitrary assertion that Christianity should be believed because of the Wager. Islam, Judaism, and other religions are live possibilities.

However, this objection could be overcome in a number of ways. First of all, it could be argued that there are very few such religions, and you might as well pick one of them. In other words, although the existence of other religions with similar salvation schemes to that of Christianity does make the choice more difficult, it is best to take a shot with your eyes closed than take no shot at all. Of course, someone in this scenario would be just as justified to believe in a different religion with a belief-dependent salvation scheme.

Secondly, this objection could be overcome by adding in a premise to the argument, namely, that Christianity and atheism are the only two rational alternatives. This, however, would give the argument quite a burden because it would then have to refute all other world religions with a belief-dependent salvation scheme (or, in the very least, show that they are not as rational to believe as Christianity). If this could be done, Pascal’s Wager could argue that believing in Christianity is the most wise option, rather than atheism. Despite the tough burden, I think it can be argued quite effectively that Christianity is more rational to believe than other world religions with belief-dependent salvation, and if it were not for other objections to Pascal I think the argument could withstand this particular objection.

2. It is immoral to believe something merely for personal gain.

The foundation of the Wager is that one should believe Christianity is true because one will gain much by accepting such a belief. However, believing something just for personal gain is morally repugnant.

A few responses can be made towards this objection. Firstly, so what? Even if it is true that it is morally heinous to believe something just for personal gain, it does not follow that doing such is intellectually wrong-headed. For, it can be smart to do something while not necessarily being moral to do something. Furthermore, it could be argued that the non-theist doesn’t have any foundation for his morality anyways. How can they argue that Pascal’s Wager is immoral if they do not have a consistent moral code of their own? 5

Secondly, the principle that believing something for personal gain is immoral is itself debatable. If the belief does not involve the harming of others, it is hard for me to see a reason why it should be considered immoral to believe it.

3. One does not give up nothing by believing that God exists.

Another common argument against Pascal’s Wager is that a person must give up quite a bit in order to believe in God. They may claim that believing in God can make one’s life more difficult, perhaps by instilling feelings of guilt. Moreover, a religious person may waste much of their time on a nonexistent god; with activities such as church and scriptural study.

The arguer of Pascal’s Wager may reply that such minor nuisances are worth the potential benefits. Furthermore, the arguer may counter that belief in God can actually make one’s life more enjoyable. God can instill confidence and security, and activities like church and scriptural study can be rewarding and can also be good social outlets. Atheism, on the other hand, can lead to despair, depression, and a lack of meaning. If this is true, then Pascal’s Wager is even stronger, for you lose much more for believing atheism and gain much more for believing in God.

The Failure of Pascal’s Wager

There is one argument against the wager for which I believe there can be no successful rebuttal-

Belief cannot be gained by force.

In other words, it is impossible to compel someone to actually believe something using threats or physical violence (or by use of bribes). Inasmuch as the Wager attempts to use the threat of Hell (or the enticement of Heaven) to compel belief, it is a failure both morally and intellectually as an argument.

The “moral” failure comes down to this- it is immoral to threaten somebody in order to cause them to believe something. For example, it is immoral to hold a gun to someone’s head and say, “Love me or I will kill you.” This is simply an evil thing to do, for you have no right to threaten somebody just because they don’t believe something you wish they would. Beliefs are a matter of free will, and it is morally repugnant to attempt to take that basic freedom from somebody.

The intellectual failure of the argument is that it simply won’t work. Even if someone pointed a gun to your head and you said, “I love you” out of fear, you do not actually gain that belief. You may even wish you had that belief. However, deep down, nothing has really changed about you. Your feelings remain the same.

Imagine if somebody told you that they would torture you unless you sincerely thought the Earth was flat. There is simply no way for an educated individual to sincerely believe such a thing. You can claim that you believe it, you can wish that you believed it, but you cannot honestly come to such a belief by persuasion of threats and violence.

So it is with the Wager. Even if the Wager caused somebody to claim that they believed, or to wish that they believed, they would still not sincerely hold to the truth of Christianity. Therefore, Pascal’s Wager is a moral and intellectual failure, as it is generally proposed.

The Use of the Wager

Pascal’s Wager does not, in my mind, provide a good reason for believing in Christianity. This does not mean that the Wager is worthless. I think it serves another purpose. Instead of necessitating belief, the Wager should necessitate a careful examination of the evidence.

Pascal’s Wager is correct in asserting that there are potential bad consequences of rejecting Christianity if it is indeed true. The same holds true for any religion that is similar to Christianity in its reward/punishment aspect. Therefore, it makes sense (following the Wager) to examine the evidence carefully and closely. The same is true of the moral form of the argument- Christianity, if true, involves a tremendous sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which cannot be ignored in good conscience. Religion should not be brushed off in a few minutes. It must be investigated thoroughly.

Many individuals do not pay religion the attention it deserves. Quite a few atheists reject religion without any significant investigation at all. Many theists say they believe in God but, nevertheless, feel that there is no need to investigate religions or seek out the true nature of God.

Pascal’s Wager should bring an end to such foolish notions. Unfortunately, the formulation of the argument as such may have a miniscule audience- as the very people it should influence are the least likely to examine it in the first place! However, I suggest that this argument be advanced towards those who claim that there is “no need” to examine religion closely.

Conclusion:

Pascal’s Wager is a very famous and popular argument for the truth of Christianity. A wide variety of objections have been advanced against the argument. Although most of these objections have at least a potential counter, I believe there is one that sticks- it is morally and intellectually wrong-headed to try to compel belief by threats or force. However, the Wager should be used as an argument to investigate religion closely. Perhaps, once some nonbelievers are convinced of the foolishness of their lackadaisical attitude, they will discover that Christianity is in fact true.

Notes:

1. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, (Crossway Books, 1994) p. 54 See book review.

2. Theodore M. Drange, Pascal’s Wager Refuted, found at http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/theodore_drange/wager.html

3. Richard Carrier, The End of Pascal’s Wager: Only Nonbelievers go to Heaven, found at http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/heaven.html

4. Ebon Musings, A Flip of the Coin, found at http://ebonmusings.org/atheism/wager.html

5. Obviously, this is a seriously controversial contention and I don’t mean to imply that I can discuss it adequately within the confines of this brief article.






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  1. Egad, you’re being spammed. You should consider getting a human lock on this feedback bar. I have to say, I highly enjoy your line of thinking on this article. I’m a big believer in free will, so it makes me really happy to know that you believe that you can’t force someone to believe something. Not that people don’t try, but it makes me really glad to see someone on the internet that thinks this way.


    — Tyflec Kyger    Nov 28, 09:20 PM    #
  2. Christianity rational? You’ve got to be kidding me!


    Loi P    Jan 8, 06:29 PM    #
  3. I would like to point out that what you deem as the failure of Pascal’s wager is actually its greatest strength. People are terrified of death, and terrified of pain and punishment. For many people, these are enough reasons to become a God fearing Christian, and they are very good reasons. Many religions, including Christianity, promise eternal damnation, or horrific pain, to the unbeliever. This is enough reason for any level headed sinner to take notice.


    — Glorp    Jun 1, 05:07 PM    #
  4. Glorp has a valid point. The Old Testament God was definitely into the whole fear and respect factor of salvation (see Egyptian Plagues, Sodom and Gomorrah, etc.) until Jesus came around with the idea of a loving, forgiving God. My first doubt, when I became aware my own spirituality, was why good-natured, loving non-Christians go to Hell. That first doubt was what set me on the search for Truth. Adding to Glorp’s statement, that fear of Hell started me on the path for Truth, but I don’t think it, in itself, caused me to believe in God. In any case, Pascal’s Wager is a great way to open the minds of some close-minded atheists, et al. (not that all atheists are close-minded, mind you)


    Dakota    Jan 21, 02:19 AM    #
  5. I appreciate your ambition and forum. I think you take some problematic leaps in your apology.

    In Section 1 you state that: One way to overcome the objection is the infrequency of occurences of religions unsimilar to Christianity in their conception of salvation.

    This is a bad argument for many reasons. Lets pretend that there were 5 world religions and 4 had similar beliefs and 1 didn’t. Then, that 1 oddball would be an infrequent occurence. However, what if that one accounted for 1/2 the worlds population? Or even more importantly what if that one….was right? If you are going to “take your shot” with the one, as you recommend, why not the one without the damnation problem.

    Then you state “What if we could just change the premise? It may be difficult (nay impossible) to prove…but if we could?” Really?!?…and if we could change the rules for Monopoly so that I got paid when I landed on other’s
    properties it would make it easier.

    Section 2.
    Again a troublesome retort fraught with peril. You seem to tacitly agree with the premise of the argument that it is immoral,… but you imply that it still makes sense to do. Then, you go ad hominem and say that ‘they’ (whoever the ‘they’ are) have no consistent moral code. Says who? Who are these people and why do you believe that they cannot abide by a consistent moral code? And, if that is your criteria, then Christianity is out the window too for its lack of ability interdenominationally to achieve the same accord.

    Section 3.
    More unfounded claims, and straw man arguments, so lets skip to your conclusion in summary:

    “PW = flimsy argument for Xty, but good 4 getting people to think. Also, atheists (still beating a dead horse),‘reject religion without any significant investigation at all’.”

    Wow, you haven’t met many atheists (of which I am not one). Most I have met, are actually people who are true seekers who get tired of flimsy arguments and end up going their own way.

    Maybe skepticism isn’t the way to go. It involves implying logic to an being that if it existed would be beyond logic. Not only that, but we have poor tools with which to plumb the depths of such a being. Its like trying to use a TRS-80 to run Photoshop. Maybe switching to Gnosticism and hoping like hell your revelation is spot in is the way to go. Good luck in your search!


    Matthew    Apr 25, 06:58 PM    #
  6. On the last objection, the one you claim has no answer:

    Self-deception is still a concern here, but if we rephrase in terms of making an attempt to develop a relationship with the divine, which might in turn lead to a sincere conviction of faith, I think this concern lessens.

    That said, I would state your following getting people to think argument even more strongly, and say that it provides incentive for people to search for God unceasingly until they find God.


    KKairos    Oct 3, 05:22 PM    #
  7. My biggest issue with Pascal is that anyone can make up any religion they want and make hell worse and heaven better. If you don’t believe you and all your friends go to hell but if you do believe you can get anyone you want saved. This would lead the gambling-prone theist to adopt this new religion rather than traditional Christianity (yes I would know I made it up, but others may not especially if I can keep the belief alive long enough) because the penalty for non-belief is worse and the gain of belief is greater.

    Here’s an interesting sales-pitch that points out a flaw in the argument:
    http://lesswrong.com/lw/1pj/pascals_pyramid_scheme/


    Matt    Mar 6, 02:42 PM    #
  8. You give in too quickly in the “belief cannot be gained by force” debate. Your analogy of the gun-to-head and flat-earth both assume the person KNOWS the opposite to be true. In the case of the existence of god(s), we cannot KNOW that fact, therefore the Wager is not compelling us to reject our own intuition. If I’ve never had a Big Mac, and someone holds a gun to my head and asks me to believe I like Big Macs, it isn’t so much a stretch. After all, I have no idea. And there are millions of other people who DO like them. There are billions of people who like some sort of burger. Even though there are some people who reject burgers altogether, I think I could convince myself I like Big-Macs until proven otherwise. I call this: The Burger Proposition ™. :)


    — Jonathan    Jan 13, 10:45 AM    #
  9. The problem with Christianity (today) is the extremes of the spectrum, Having gone through a rigorous Christian based rehab. The next 5 years I spent trying to follow a calling to the ministry. God never came through for me on that. So, yes you do give up quite a bit of time and effort after believing.


    joseph    Mar 16, 08:08 PM    #
  10. Hello Matthew,

    Concerning your critique of my second point, please don’t take me to be saying that atheists are immoral. I’m just saying that they may not be able to locate a philosophically relevant grounding for moral beliefs. There is no insult meant here.

    Also, I only said that “quite a few” atheists reject religion without a thorough investigation. This is based on my personal experience and thus I qualified that with the “quite a few” term, I’m not claiming that all atheists are so indifferent.


    Kyle Deming    Mar 25, 01:12 AM    #
  11. “I think it can be argued quite effectively that Christianity is more rational to believe than other world religions with belief-dependent salvation, and if it were not for other objections to Pascal I think the argument could withstand this particular objection.”

    HA!

    Do you realise that Pascal’s Wager is … A WAGER?
    If you can reasonably show that it is more rational to believe Christianity than other religions then there’s no point in making the wager in the first place. You have to show that your faith is true and others are false, if you can do that, a wager is silly.

    I also feel the need to tell you I feel sorry for you. You refer to William Lane Craig a lot. That cannot feel nice.


    Mike Wolfe    Jun 30, 10:20 PM    #
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