Pascal’s Wager

Ah, Pascal’s Wager. It attempts not to provide a proof of God’s existence, but rather it tries to show that no matter if he does or does not exist, it is stupid not to believe that he does. An interesting approach, but I think it completely fails. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone actually use this argument, but I’m sure it is done. I know I’ve heard of atheists making fun of it, so I thought I may as well talk about it.

This thought was first made by Blaise Pascal. It was quite brilliant in its originality, even if it does have lots of holes. It was one of the first examples of reasoning according to what is useful and what value a decision has, not what is true. It evaluates the results of belief and unbelief in God when put into the context of agnosticism. Hmm that’s vague. Oh well let me just show you the argument.

Many, at the moment I think I am among them, believe that it is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of God. There are arguments for both sides and right now human reason cannot give us a definitive answer to the problem. So, we must turn to something else to justify our belief or unbelief. Let’s consider the gains or losses of both sides.

  1. God doesn’t exist and you don’t believe in him – temporary gain
  2. God doesn’t exist and you do believe in him – temporary loss
  3. God does exist and you don’t believe in him – eternal loss
  4. God does exist and you do believe in him – eternal gain

So obviously, believe in God. It would be stupid not to. Even if there was a tiny amount of doubt in your mind, just the slightest sliver, it would be completely unreasonable to choose to be an atheist. If you just happen to be wrong, then you are in infinite debt! Eternal loss! But if you had gone against your doubt and believed, you would have had infinite and eternal gain. If you go against your doubt and become a theist, and it turns out that you were wrong, so what? You will have been wrong in life, but oh well. Life is over now, so who cares. A fairly powerful argument taken at first glance.

Now for the problems. First, bring up the huge amount of different religions and concepts of God. Many of these are mutually exclusive, only one of them can be true. For example, there are two people that believe in God. One says that God wants you to love unbelievers and try to bring them into your faith, and another says that you should kill unbelievers because they are gravely sinning. The former says that killing unbelievers is evil, the latter says that loving unbelievers is evil. Only one can be right. If you apply Pascal’s Wager then belief in God results both in eternal loss and eternal gain at the same time, because there are now multiple definitions of God. Thus it is pointless. Pascal did respond to this by saying that there is only one reasonable God, the Judea-Christian God. At least many religions can be ruled out because of blatant contradictions, and the ones that remain aren’t mutually exclusive, so the Wager still applies. A decent response, but it will definitely not convince almost all atheists, as they see all religion as stupid.

Second, dispute the eternal loss. I am mostly referring to Hell when I talk about the eternal/infinite loss, so… unpopular. Hell is an ugly concept and a lot of people don’t like it. And if there is no eternal loss or eternal gain, if you go to heaven no matter what, then of course the argument falls apart.

Third, point out that this is not actually a proof. The argument makes no claim whatsoever as to whether or not God actually exists, so you can’t use it to prove that he exists. The only thing it is good for is trying to convince someone that it is unreasonable to be an atheist, no matter the evidence. So in debates about the truth of his existence, this Wager has no place. But remember that is not the goal of the Wager, so it really isn’t a great objection.

Finally, dispute the eternal gain. You can argue that this would produce superficial belief, not true belief. You would only be able to live as though you believe, it doesn’t help you actually believe. And according to Christianity at least, that is not good enough. Works don’t mean a thing for your salvation, so using this line of reasoning to try to live like you believe would not let you achieve the infinite gain. You must actually be convinced of his existence to have faith in him and worship him and all that, just pretending to believe so that you can get into heaven won’t cut it. If you take away the infinite gain, then once again of course the argument falls apart.

Yay. I’m done. That was a good little discussion. To summarize, Pascal’s Wager is an interesting idea and it started a lot of important theories, but in itself it is not very convincing. So Christians, don’t use it unless you make it better somehow. And atheists… I dunno. Don’t think that it is the epitome of apologetics.

One thought on “Pascal’s Wager

  1. Yes, Pascal is pretty weak sauce as apologetics go, but that does not stop the evangelicals from trying it. My Fundie Brother-in-law even tried it on my spouse, and you’d think he’d know better.

    Another problem about the wager, if you are looking at it as hedging your bets, then you ought to be trying to avoid the worst punishment for non-belief. So you should look for the religion that has the worst hell for non-believers, and believe in that one just in case. That does not necessarily lead to xianity.

    And also, any god worth calling a god would know if you are only pretending to believe just in case there is a hell. Is it better to put on a sham of belief, or to be honest about doubts?

    Or, as Homer Simpson so wisely said, “Suppose we’ve chosen the wrong god. Every time we go to church we’re just making him madder and madder”

    I think the real purpose of the wager is the same purpose as the rest of apologetics: to let believers feel more confident in what they believe. To allow them to ignore their doubts and hard questions, because they’ve heard an expanation from a “deep thinker” that’s good enough to let them keep on believing. People who already believe seem very happy with apologetics, but I have never, not once, seen an atheist converted by any apologetic argument.

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