Pascal’s Wager…A Sucker’s Bet.

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“Why not believe in god? If you’re wrong and he’s real you go to hell whereas if you believe and he’s not you lose nothing.” Does this sound familiar? How about “I’d rather believe and go to heaven then chance eternity in hell.”? Ever heard that one before? I bet you have. These are modern variations on a principal of theological philosophy called “Pascal’s Wager” and variations on the wager have been kicking around since Blaise Pascal’s “Pensées” was published in 1669.

The wager as written by Pascal is a little over five hundred words so I won’t share the whole thing but at it’s core Pascal’s principal is this: God is unknowable, reason can tell us nothing of the existence of god and so one is forced to make a wager, a coin flip one way or another. If you pick belief and you’re right you get the ultimate reward: Heaven. If you pick belief and you’re wrong you lose nothing. Conversely if you choose disbelief and you’re right nothing happens but if you’re wrong you get eternal damnation and torment. So according to Pascal’s treatment the best thing to do is to choose to believe. (Or even to feign belief in order to prevent the possibility of eternal damnation, but I’ll come back to that.)
There are a great many flaws with the position of Mr. Pascal and his latter-day adherents. I would like to hope that is obvious from the outset, yet I know for some that is not at all the case. I will attempt to lay out some of the more glaring problems with the kind of thinking advocated by Monsieur Pascal here in the hopes of clarifying the issues. The first problem I see, by no means the most glaring problem, just the first that occurs to me, is that this kind of thinking seems to imply that we are free to choose what we believe and don’t.

Our belief is not entirely subject to our will. Belief is “Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion or conviction.” You do not choose what to believe, what you believe is a combination of your mental capabilities, education, social environment and psychological needs. Either a given precept is plausible to you or it’s not. If this were not the case you wouldn’t hear “de-conversion” stories where the subject says they were no longer capable of believing despite their wish that that was not the case. Nor would you hear testimony from Atheists and Agnostics who say they wish they could believe but just cannot.

Mr. Pascal’s advice to these people is, in effect, “fake it til you make it”. That one should feign belief in order to avoid hell:

“You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it…. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.” Pensées Section III note 233, Translation by W. F. Trotter

Here it would seem that Pascal is either a) trying to dupe his own All-powerful all knowing deity or b) simply trying to devise a way of making the disbeliever quiet and docile. Regardless of which option you choose this line of thought is inherently dishonest. It also completely dismisses the idea of a creator who rewards intellectual integrity and honesty. I think this demonstrates the character (or lack thereof) of Pascal’s god. That such an entity would prefer feigned devotion to honest doubt is very telling about this supposed entity.

Also this presents an oversimplified version of the choice in question. It pretends that the choices are limited to belief or disbelief, as if there is only a single conception of “god”. There have been thousands of religions and tens of thousands of gods. A great many of them are jealous and demanding gods who require complete and exactly proper shows of devotion and who punish failure with grisly (and often eternal) punishments. How is one to choose which god, goddess etc to worship? The simple truth of the matter is that if the god hypothesis is true there is still not enough reliable information out there to make your “coin flip” a sure thing. As Homer Simpson famously put it:

“What if we picked the wrong religion? Every week we’re just making God madder and madder.”

Taken into account these simple facts make it no safer to be a professed believer in ANY one faith than to be a disbeliever in all of them. Yes you may believe in Yahweh with all your heart but what if Olympus is watching? You’re already signed over your afterlife to eternity in Tartarus. Also when you note that even Jesus himself did not preach of an eternally torturing hell, only a permanent death for the unrighteous, and that the idea of an eternal “Hell” is a later addition to one specific mythology, the whole absurdity of Pascal’s Wager truly reveals itself.

Perhaps the largest problem with this “wager” and its modern offshoots is the idea that belief is free, a zero cost proposition; this is quite simply not true. We have only one life that we can be certain of, spending any of its finite amount of time in contemplation or discussion of this being is a cost, giving of your money to this being’s organizations is a cost. Most importantly though the disagreements between the various sects of believers and between believers and disbelievers, the conflicts, struggles wars, and social problems these disagreements lead to are most assuredly a cost. Belief costs lives; it costs quality of life, freedom and unity. The price of belief is the suspension of self determination, the abdication of personal responsibility, and the subornation of intellect. The cost put simply is that we must prostrate ourselves before an entity that there is no reason to believe exists in order to stave off a punishment there is no good reason to expect.

Pascal’s Wager is a not so cleverly veiled threat. It demands belief (or at least conformity and the miming of belief) in order to stave off eternal torment. It is an effort to silence dissenting opinions, theological bullying. More than that it is a blatant oversimplification of a much more complex issue, propaganda for a being that Pascal himself admits is unknowable, before going on to say quite certainly who and how that being is.

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Posted on March 18, 2013, in Editorial, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. It’s funny how Blaise Pascal has been associated with Jansenism – an ideology that is based on predestination. I would have thought predestination precludes the ability to make a fair wager based on back the existence of God.

    I wonder how many many people who invoked the name of God, whom the present-day Christians claim as their own in an effort to win you over, were actually pantheists.

    Still, you must not blame Pascal too much. Based on his mathematical research, this makes perfect sense that he would make such a wager. One of his main interests was probability. As was the case back then, mathematicians and scientists were also philosophers and artists – hence the term Renaissance Man. Since Atheism wasn’t really on offer on the register of religions and philosophies at the time, most non-zealous people of note would push God and the supernatural to the back burner, as he did for most of his career. I don’t think that the philosophical implications of the Wager that you criticize him on were really apparent to a great mind of the 17th century. Still, I have to wonder about Pascal’s sincerity. Pensées is laden with questions without real answers. I took it as just deep questioning. His answers are shaky, though. I would rather think of Paul McCartney’s work with the Beatles rather than his lasted release..

    • I think it’s terribly sad that such an accomplished scientist and mathematician should have his name attached to such an erroneous and ill conceived bit of philosophy. I think that the logical inconsistencies of the wager would have been clear a mind that gave them any consideration even in the 17th century but i also recognize that Pascal’s conception of religion was likely very simplistic as the Church fostered that “our god or nothing” attitude. As for the question of Pascal’s sincerity I certainly hope that the man didn’t truly ascribe to, for instance, the idea of feigning belief to avoid damnation but regardless I don’t judge the man himself. Just as I don’t judge ancient man for prostrating themselves to the volcano. The people who need judging, in my humble opinion, are those keeping idiotic arguments like those laid out in the Wager alive today as though they haven’t been comprehensively exploded long since. The article was meant to demonstrate the flaws in the type of thinking, not to assault the character of the man himself. Thank You very much for the comment.

  2. In your previous post you make the statement that certain “groups pick & choose what to believe”; yet in this post you make the blanket statement, & back it up with a quote (I assume) to make the point that belief is not a choice as much as it is a product of ones environment. In still earlier posts you’ve shared stories of devout Christian (emergency responders) that have “exchanged” belief for disbelief merely by the experience of witnessing the death of a young person. This all becomes very confusing when one is read against the other. I think to apply such broad theology to a “mathematicians” attempt at “apologetic philosophy” is the beginning of yet another, circular argument. Your a great writer & a brilliant thinker, keep at it !

    • In this post I was talking about whether a person can choose to believe a proposition like religion if they do not. I contend that you cannot. In the previous post I was talking about those people who profess a belief but are selective in which aspects of those beliefs they adopt. These are interrelated but separate ideas. I don’t remember your third example but given what you wrote about it I don’t see how it is inconsistent or contradictory to the others either.

      In one I’m talking about whether a person can choose to believe a position they don’t. In the other I’m talking about intellectual inconsistency (or dishonesty) in a specific group of believers and in the third I am talking about belief not surviving contact with the reality of suffering. In each case I’m exploring different aspects of choice and belief. There is no circular argument. As for applying “such broad theology to a “mathematicians” attempt at “apologetic philosophy”.” The man was more than a mathematician, he was a famous apologist whose argument has been trotted out by 300 years worth of fellow apologists.

      The Wager is a central point of modern Christian apologetics, and variations on this line of thought exist in all forms of religious apologetics. What I’ve done is broken down the arguments and refuted them. Is there some problem with my refutation I’m unaware of? Some flaw in my logic? If so correct me but it’s not as though I’m picking on a novice. I’m analyzing a classic tenet of a position I oppose in order to point out glaring flaws and fallacies. Where is the problem with that? Thanks for the comment.

  3. If I was a God, I’d be more likely to reward those who try to understand reality on reality’s terms rather then assume the supernatural. Which, kinda reverses the wager in the atheists favor. It would kinda be funny if God only let atheists into heaven.

    • Absolutely, one would think that any god who gave us the ability to reason and think and who went to such great lengths to hide it’s existence would understand and reward those individuals with the conviction to say simply “you didn’t give me enough to get me there.” “I couldn’t square your existence with what I saw around me” or even “wtf have you been doing god?” Thanks for the comment

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