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Pascal’s Wager

“God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up… Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose… But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is… If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.” [Blaise Pascal, Pensées]

Pascal’s argument is not really a proof of God’s existence, rather, it is an argument for belief. Pascal argues that one must choose to either believe in God or not believe in God and accept the possible consequences thereafter. Because he believed it was impossible to prove God’s existence through reason, Pascal argued that one must bet (or wager) on God’s existence. If you believe in God and turn out to be correct, he reasoned, then you gain everything by achieving eternal life in heaven. If you believe in God and turn out to be incorrect then you lose nothing – you simply die and that’s it. On the other hand, if you don’t believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you lose everything and suffer in eternal damnation. If you don’t believe in God and turn out to be correct you don’t gain anything – again you simply die and that’s it. Based purely, it seems, on the possibility of reward, Pascal concluded that the safest bet was to wager that God did exist, and hence, believe in Him.

Formally, Pascal’s Wager may be outlined in the following manner:

  1. It is possible that the Christian God exists and it is possible that the Christian God does not exist.
  2. If one believes in the Christian God then if he exists then one receives an infinitely great reward and if he does not exist then one loses little or nothing.
  3. If one does not believe in the Christian God then if he exists then one receives an infinitely great punishment and if he does not exist then one gains little or nothing.
  4. It is better to either receive an infinitely great reward or lose little or nothing than it is to either receive an infinitely great punishment or gain little or nothing.
    Therefore:
  5. It is better to believe in the Christian God than it is to disbelieve in the Christian God.
  6. If one course of action is better than another then it is rational to follow that course of action and irrational to follow the other.
    Therefore:
  7. It is rational to believe in the Christian God and irrational to disbelieve in the Christian God.

Objections

There are obvious problems with Pascal’s reasoning, even aside from the fact that he only had the Christian God in mind and that the argument leaves one feeling somewhat unsatisfied.

It is false that this wager costs nothing

This argument relies on the fact that it costs nothing to believe in god and thus one looses nothing if in the end he does not exist. This is not entirely true. In some cases it may cost quite a bit. It costs a lifetime dedicated to false beliefs and worthless rituals. It costs the person’s interest in finding what is really true and what is really false.

The wager advocates getting rewards over finding the truth

One who abides by this argument is in effect saying that we should choose our beliefs based on ‘possible’ rewards regardless of whether they are true or not. Isn’t the truth worth much, much more to us than this? Should we pick and choose our beliefs according to which sounds the most pleasant?

Let’s say that I offer you eternal paradise after you die if you send me all of your money right now. Should you do it, even though there is no way for you to know whether I am lying or not? Let’s say that you then find out that a million others have taken the offer and not one has gained eternal paradise. Would you still take the offer?

The wager provides no answer for the most important question

The wager provides no answer for the question, believe in what? The argument presupposes only two possible choices here: belief or unbelief. But this is false dichotomy.

The many Christian sects and other religions render choosing impossible

Members of many denominations of Christianity and other religions will tell you that their way is the only way to reach heaven or whatever lies beyond. Some ask you to merely accept Jesus as your savior and you will be saved. Others believe other certain sacraments are required as well. The Church of Christ, for instance, says baptism is necessary. With a thousand or so different sects and denominations, which one do you choose to follow?

Given this, just believing in a god is no longer enough. And that’s just assuming you choose the Christian God. What if the Greeks were correct? Now you better start believing in Zeus as well to better your chances.

So in reality, in order for you to really and truly “Play it Safe”, you would have to adopt every practice of all denominations of all religions. Not only would this be mentally and physically impossible, it is also theoretically impossible. Muslims, for instance, preach that all believers in the Trinity, which would include most Christians, are doomed to eternal hellfire! “In blasphemy indeed are those that say God is Christ the son of Mary.” (Sura 5:17 in the Koran). In this case, believing in one means not believing in the other, the two in effect cancel each other out.

Thus by choosing one possible denomination of one possible religion over the countless possible ones and saying “this one is right” no longer becomes “Playing it safe”. It becomes a giant gamble with all odds against you. Not even a seasoned Vegas Gambler would work under odds like that. The chances of you winning and the Muslims and every other group that has existed being wrong are not enough to justify this rationale of thinking. Any Christian or other believer who thinks that he or she is “playing it safe” is only ignorant of the real gamble involved.

With god, all things are possible

There is also more to this seemingly ‘innocent’ gamble as well. How can we even know for sure that if we don’t believe in this God we have lost everything? The truth is that we cannot.

-It is possible to imagine a God who rewards us for not believing in Him!

-Some Calvinists believed that He already determined who would be saved and who wouldn’t long before He created the world and for no reason whatsoever. If that is the case, then there is really nothing we can do about it anyway.

-Deists believe that God created the universe then split…really nothing more than a “first cause” so to speak. If this is the case, believing in Him would be worthless since He’s not even around.

-Pascal’s Wager assumes that God actually cares what we believe. What if He doesn’t care whatsoever? Why should this God care what a single human being thinks of Him?

-What kind of a God would reward you for reducing His existence to a gamble? After all, Christians do condemn gambling and the Bible discourages selfishness. I highly doubt that a God would reward you for just happening to play the odds correctly – and what odds they are.

This page was last modified on November 13th, 2009 at 7:14 pm

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