Pascal's Wager [reprise]

In another conversation with one of my deist friends, the topic of Pascal’s Wager came up again. This argument in favor of theism has been refuted innumerable times but, in my experience, an important aspect of its failure is too seldom elucidated…hence my being compelled to write some more on Mr. Pascal.

In the way of background (for those of you that are new to theistic debates), Blaise Pascal (the brilliant 17th century mathematician, physicist and philosopher) offered the following in support of believing in the God of Abraham:

It is better to believe in God and be wrong, than to NOT believe in God and be wrong.

This is based on the Christian religious narrative that those who deny the existence of God will be out of favor with the Supreme Being and be cast down into hell with its associated burning sulfur lakes and gnashing of teeth. [It should be noted that Mr. Pascal didn’t really buy into the validity of his argument as much as the theists who bring it out in their defense.]

The argument has been refuted by others far more scholarly than me, but I wish to point out (what are to me) the two most cogent failures of Pascal’s Wager.

Belief is not a conscious choice. The idea that one can, as an act of will, just decide to believe something is ludicrous. In my discussion at a local watering hole, I pointed to the paper coasters at the corner of the bar where we were seated and asked “Is there any way that you can make yourself believe, as an act of will, make yourself believe that those coasters are actually woven from hair shaved from the heads of fairies?” We had some fun with the fact that he hadn’t been drinking long enough so say so, but the rhetorical question has an obvious answer. One cannot, as a matter of will, believe something without some body of evidence to support it. When the theist brings out Pascal’s Wager to a non-believer and asks us to believe for no other reason than the potential upside, they might as well ask us to pass a live walrus out our rectum.

The false assumption that there is no cost to belief. What is assumed when offering Pascal’s Wager as an argument is that there is absolutely no cost that comes with theistic belief. This, in my experience, is the aspect that receives too little attention when refuting the argument. The underlying premise is that you have the possibility of “eternal reward” with belief in God versus “eternal punishment” without that belief and that even the slightest chance of its truth makes it a good bet.

This fails because there is, indeed, a cost to belief. On the surface, one could readily identify myriad personal costs to belief. These could be things like not being able to sleep in on your holy day, limitation on foods that you might otherwise enjoy, special requirements for clothing and garments. Still these are personal costs that involve no victim (other than the believer who has willingly decided to believe). These costs (and they are costs) could be perfectly justifiable to the believer so the argument hasn’t failed yet. Where the argument fails is when that conscious belief involves others as victims. Depending on what theistic narrative you decide to believe, there ARE victims. Let’s use Catholicism and homosexuality as an example (being raised Catholic it is low hanging fruit for me). Part of the official narrative of the Catholic Church is that homosexuality is an evil choice and thereby demonizes all homosexuals. By electing to believe in this particular narrative, the participant has willingly demonized a segment of society…they have willingly decided to hate somebody because they were told to do so. That is just one example of many. There is the cost of subjugation of women; the cost of stifling medical research and education; etc. etc. etc..

Yes there is a cost to belief (depending on what dogma you hang your hat on). There is a cost to society and it is not insignificant. If your belief makes a victim out of others, then it is immoral…plain and simple.


Paul said...

I would add that the Pascal's Wager argument also proves too much. The argument is essentially that since the consequences of not believing in X are infinitely bad, you should believe in X even if X is wildly unlikely to be true.

But the thing is, X could be any belief at all, and once you assume that the consequences of not believing are infinitely bad, it doesn't matter at all how likely it is that X is true. So, should I believe that the moon is made of cheese? Well, there's some infinitesimal probability that not believing the moon is made of cheese will get me condemned to an eternity of suffering after I die, so, by the argument of Pascal's wager, I should believe the moon is made of cheese.

And, of course, there's some infinitesimal chance that believing the moon is made of cheese will get me sent to Hell, so by the argument of Pascal's Wager I should not believe the moon is made of cheese.

Pascal's Wager proves you should believe in, and not believe in, literally everything. So it ultimately fails to prove you should believe in anything.

- Tony

FVThinker said...

You, of course, make an excellent point (and one that I have made myslef). I limited my essay to the two bullet points that,in my mind, get too little attention.

Harlequin said...

Something that Pascal missed out... what if you choose the wrong one?
The pious Christian find he was mostly right, but, as drinking songs reverberate from Valhalla, they're confronted by a pissed off Odin... who would be in for a bumpier ride, the guy who made the wrong bet, or the one who never placed his chips at all?

FVThinker said...

Thanks for commenting Harlequin. Indeed, PW fails in innumerable ways. After reading Pascal's own writings; I get the distinct impression that he didn't really buy into his assertion either. It was more of an exercise than anything.

Harlequin said...

Old Grandpa Blaise did get one thing pretty much correct

"Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction"

I've yet to see him lose that bet...

FVThinker said...

Exactly. With quotes like what you related and this [from his writing on the 'wager' itself]:

[to make yourself believe...]Follow the way by which [other believers] began; by acting as if they believed, bless yourself with holy water, have Masses said, and so on; by a simple and natural process this will make you believe, and will dull you—will quiet your proudly critical intellect...I find it hard to imagine that this brilliant mind would find any merit in willfully 'dulling' ones own intellect. Intellect, after all, is primarily what distinguishes us as a species. Yet [some] theists seem to trot it out as a face card in their deck of arguments. It would seem that there is definitely some dulled intellect in that mix.

Harlequin said...

Newton spent his final years trying break the numerological significance of the book of Revelations.
Never underestimate the power of the meme.

Ryan Jennings said...

I agree with your sentiment here...I hate Pascal's wager...I hate the flip-a-coin idea it creates.

I believe God is real enough that if people seek after HIM they will find HIM (Jer 29:13).

Harlequin's comments are a bit misleading here too...he quotes Blaise on evil but forgets that history records that far and away the worst atrocities (especially numerically) were performed by non-believing leaders.

FVThinker said...

The issue with non-theistic regimes being the most 'successful' killers is arguably the most difficult anecdotal fact that we non-believers must address...but it is anecdotal.

To properly make the argument that atheism leads to mass murder; one must first demonstrate none of the other core characteristics of those regimes were the catalyst for their atrocities. Religion was violently suppressed in those regimes because it competed for allegiance and devotion to other Marxist/Communist ideologies.

And let us not forget that Hitler received regular correspondence from the Pope and he used religious rhetoric to achieve his ends. (Whether he believed or not it is somewhat immaterial.)

One must also look at deaths as a matter of percentage of world population at the time. This alone narrows the gap

One must also imagine the war machines that made contemporary atrocities so much more 'efficient'. If the weapons, communications, and transportation were available during the Crusades, might we guess the results would have been a tad 'messier'.

I also think that one Iron Age killing correlates with many many contemporary killings. Back then; we couldn't drop a few cans of gas into a sealed room and take out 800 individuals...or carpet bomb a city from 5000 feet. One Iron Age killing generally meant one hand, one sword and one victim...face to face. "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction. – [Blaise Pascal]"

Ryan Jennings said...

I track with you here and agree it is a tough issue for non-believers and I'm glad you don't avoid it altogether.

There is a lot of evil done in the world...some in the name of God or Allah or _________.

The biblical position though is not that atheism leads to mass murder, but depravity does. James, Jesus' brother writes, "sin, when it is full-grown leads to death"

Show me who the best sinners are and I'll show you who to be scared of. And as far as Hitler goes I do disagree with you...what he believed is not immaterial...he was a deceiver through and through...he was certainly depraved.

Also, you may have a great point here about comparative percentages based upon population figures and technological development...let's hope Islamic Terrorists don't get a nuke or dirty might totally skew the


FVThinker said...

"Let's hope Islamic Terrorists don't get a nuke or dirty might totally skew the"You got that right!! Possibly the single greatest threat to civilization right there...and no atheists involved.