What is the Value of Pascal’s Wager? (Defending Pascal)

 

To win you must pick, and pick wisely

 

“You can bet your life,” so the saying goes.  We are all forced to place this bet when it comes to matters of faith and expectations of what goes on beyond the grave.  It doesn’t matter which side of the “God debate” you are on; you must play this hand. Atheism rolls snake eyes

 

The Wager 

Blaise Pascal, mathematical genius, and Wager winner. Blaise Pascal was a philosopher and mathematician in 17th century France.  His famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) Wager is contained in Pensées, a collection of his writings published after he died. 

Typically, people tend to view Pascal’s Wager as a “last ditch” argument to defend Christianity, and admittedly Pascal himself seemed to frame it in this fashion.  I wish to offer a different perspective in that I think it beneficial to consider the Wager first.   Of course the Wager would still be available for reconsideration if one is still not persuaded outright by the weight of numerous arguments, evidence and testimony for God.

Simply put, Pascal argued that belief in God leads to infinite reward in the long run if true, and costs the believer little (or nothing) in the short run whether true or false—and surely costs nothing in the long run if false. (After death the fate would be the same for atheist and believer)  The non-believer is observed to have nothing to gain in the end if his worldview is true and would suffer infinite loss (missing out on Heaven) if he has chosen incorrectly.  Hence, the better bet is to believe in God.

Some discussions of the Wager note the potential “hell factor” in the theistic worldview as additional risk of infinite negative consequences awaiting the skeptic.  However, Pascal himself made no reference to hell in the Wager.  Perhaps he thought the positive reward of infinite good for the Christian was sufficient to make his point.

Pascal assumed Christian faith as the sole theistic choice, and skeptics commonly exploit this simplification to declare his analysis invalid.  We will inspect this criticism among others to see if the reports of Pascal’s Wager’s demise aren’t a bit premature.

:D LOL, a Google search for “Pascal’s Wager defended” yields a deluge of skeptics offering rebuttal and less than a handful of pro-Wager sites.  Skeptics would surely spin the low ratio of supporting articles to mean “insupportable”, but perhaps apologists pay scant attention to the Wager because they consider available evidence and arguments sufficient to affirm our faith.

The purported refutations of Pascal are little more than hanging curves begging to be whacked into the bleachers. Notably, in the all the cacophony no one offers a realistic and compelling argument depicting atheism as a good bet. 

 

Criticism of the Wager Evaluated

1.  Pascal could be picking the wrong god because there are many different religions to choose from.  Thus the chance for positive payoff is said to be less the 50-50 proposition Pascal stated. 

But when the reward is extremely high or actually infinite, the Wager does not need to be 50-50 or even nearly so to make it a good bet.  Btw, Christians do not concede low probability of winning.  Quite the contrary–we are convinced that the odds are way greater than 50% that Jesus did conquer the grave.  (I digress beyond the scope of Pascal’s Wager)

Some skeptics say that there are infinite possibilities of gods–which would bring the effective probability to zero that you would pick the right god.  This calculation ignores that we have ability to reasonably evaluate contending revelations already presented to us.  The point of believing isn’t about blindly guessing the correct name and micro-description for God.  Surely gods that are too small (finite) to have created the universe or are too impersonal to have created man can be passed over in favor of those who satisfy such criteria.  Further elimination results when you list only those that account for both unity and plurality in the Eternal First Cause.  Unitarian only and polytheism need not apply.  Voila!

Many atheists claim that picking the wrong god would be punished more severely than unbelief.  They interpret many religions to condemn blasphemy more than unbelief.  Really?  Scoffers expect to gain an advantage by blaspheming them all?  This assures that they will blaspheme the true God by treating Him as if He were like the false gods which don’t even exist.  Don’t try this at home—or anywhere else for that matter.

The truth is that everyone either worships God or idols of their own choosing—the creation or creature rather than the Creator.  Even one’s own intellect becomes an idol of worship. 

Internet atheists increase their risk, because they actively attempt to erode the true faith of many.  It’s bad enough to choose a path that leads to one’s own destruction, but it’s much worse to persuade others to follow.  Jesus gave stern warning against those who cause the “little ones” to stumble. (Matthew 18:5-7)

2.  More possibilities exist than the two presented by Pascal.  Some critics suggest that  atheists might still enjoy a blissful afterlife (win the bet) in some paradise without God.  Alternately, they hope that a possible god will reward their goodness or will actually reward people who only believe things that are proven according to skeptics’ standards.  Various atheists incorporate some version of this concept into their own counter wager they term The Atheist’s Wager.  What can I say?  No one can accuse them of lacking sense of humor.  :)

Should the possibility of [no-god + afterlife] be given the same weight as either [God + afterlife] or [no god + no afterlife] ?   Surely not.  Belief in afterlife is relatively rare among atheists and seems to lack any evidence or testimony that skeptics normally insist upon.  How many reports are there of people who died for a short time; then came back saying, “I saw Heaven, but I’m still an atheist?” 

Expecting a god who is indifferent toward unbelief is nearly as unrealistic as belief in the godless heaven.  Such a notion misunderstands the Christian concept of belief.  It’s not about simply accepting that God exists and walked the earth as Jesus.  It’s about personal relationship between the believer and God involving love, trust, obedience, and worship.

Good works?  Many atheists do comparatively well at obeying the 2nd greatest commandment (love your neighbor as your yourself) and consider themselves worthy of heaven.  They discount that they ignore completely the greatest commandment (love God with all your heart, mind and soul).  Why would they think dwelling with God would possibly be “heaven” for them?  Being good is not the criteria for dwelling together in the same home, being family is.  You can’t love your family and treat them as if they don’t exist.

If you are serious about the joy of Heaven, then answer the call of the Holy Spirit and enter into a relationship with the Father through His Son.  If God cares how we relate to our fellow humans (and surely He does), it follows that He would also care how we relate to Him.

3.  Pascal understated the present cost to believers for believing.  This is a fair point to raise that even Christians note in opposition to Pascal.  Jesus himself said to “count the cost,”  but Jesus would also teach that the reward is worth whatever the cost and that it should be sought as one would seek a pearl of great price. (Matthew 13:45-46)  Certainly the apostles and many other martyrs paid a serious price for their faith.  Obviously they were fully convinced that their faith was worth even the loss of their lives.  Paul wrote:

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18)

Note also that God promises comfort and joy for the believer to experience even while undergoing intense suffering—a peace that surpasses all understanding that is unattainable without a relationship with Him.  (See Philippians Chapter 4)  Volumes of inspirational testimony are available from people like Joni Eareckson Tada  and Nick Vujicic who receive grace from God to enjoy difficult circumstances most of us can barely imagine.

Whatever the cost, God offers a greater return in this life well in advance of the eternal reward beyond.  But, the majority of Christians in Western culture have a reasonable expectation that their cost for belief will be comparatively small.  Some skeptics argue that society loses resources that are directed toward faith activities, but there is no evidence that faith in God impedes positive contribution to our society whether it be science, technology, economics, or the arts.

4.  One can’t feign or force belief on utilitarian grounds.  God would see through it, and it would be immoral to reward phony faith motivated by pure self interest. 

Some people object to the idea that any moral decision might be motivated by self interest—reward to be gained or punishment to be avoided, but there is no shame in choosing an option that results in a win-win.  God, who desires that all should be saved and know the truth (1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9) will enjoy your presence in Heaven even more than you will. 

I agree that merely faking it is insufficient, but there is no harm in asking God for the desire to be made genuine:  “I believe, help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)  Jesus promised not to reject those who come to Him, (John 6:37) and the thief on the cross who turned could only muster up a feeble, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  (Luke 23:42)  Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (v43)

 

Atheism is Still a Bad BetDon't let atheism spin your wheels.  It's Russian roulette on your soul with a fully loaded gun!

The criticisms of Pascal succeed in showing that the true cost/benefit analysis might not be so simple as that presented by Pascal, but the skeptics fail to explain how atheism has anything to offer in the ultimate scheme of things.  They offer no realistic or compelling payoff for unbelief after you draw your last breath–certainly not after those who could remember you have expired. . .or in the void after the end of human history. 

Betting on atheism is a wager that in the end, nothing will matter.  Permanent gain from this is impossible.  No matter how you dress it up, atheism winds up stark naked.

I consider Pascal’s Wager not so much as an argument for belief in God but as an exhortation to make an honest assessment of the stakes while you weigh the facts and evaluate the witnesses.  Skeptics are fond of saying, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” before deeming everything ordinary and trashing all testimony as “hearsay”.  But, the Wager strikes back—and exposes the hazard of blindly rejecting all claims because they appear to be extraordinary to man possessing finite knowledge.  Perhaps, from God’s perspective miracles are quite ordinary—even if employed sparingly.

The great value of Pascal’s Wager is that it turns the tables when considering the burden of proof.  The rational mind should demand that a bankrupt premise be proven conclusively if it is to be the cornerstone of your worldview. That’s why I recommend considering the Wager first.

David wrote, “The fool says in his heart ‘there is no God.’”  (Ps 14:1 and  Ps 53:1)  A corollary might be, “It is utter folly to give short shrift to the testimony of the saints.”

Gary Plavidal Gary Plavidal, your uncommonly common, Common Sense Drummer

 

P.S.  I also recommend “The Argument from Pascal’s Wager” by Peter Kreeft

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22 Responses to What is the Value of Pascal’s Wager? (Defending Pascal)

  1. Brian Westley says:

    Sorry, Pascal’s Wager is worthless, because it creates false information out of nothing.

    All I need to do is posit a god that prizes, say, skepticism and human intellect over all else, and rewards atheism (optional: has a heaven that is better than any other god’s heaven) and punishes belief (optional: has a hell worse than any other god’s hell), and suddenly, being an atheist is the best choice.

    Of course, I can do this with any sort of beliefs.

    • Hi Brian,

      Congratulations and thanks for participating. You are the 1st commenter on my blog! (not counting spam [or my wife on the Hello post]) Sorry, I can’t afford a worthy prize to give you, but will be better able to provide that to my millionth commenter who wouldn’t deserve it nearly so much :)

      Yes, one can posit a god and let the imagination run wild. A job applicant can posit that he is the best man for the job, but if he has no resume, no job history, no diploma, no portfolio, and no references, the HR pro wisely screens him out without even granting an interview. In this particular case the applicant doesn’t even believe his own story, because he is admitting a mere supposition–not even what he believes.

      Your suggestion of the heaven that is better than any other god’s heaven is quite interesting. (The worse hell is also interesting but far less appealing) Actually, Allah (a leading contender) provides more details to sell the Islamic heaven, and the hedonistic depiction is certainly more tantalizing than we find in the Bible. OTOH this (among numerous other things) makes me suspect that Mohamed was making it up or that the spirit he claimed to be getting his stuff from was not a good angel and thus using man’s fleshly desires to decoy them away from God. Jesus said that there will be no marrying in heaven and you can bet that verse doesn’t get many “amens,” leastwise from the single guys on the hunt–not the heaven that men would be inclined to invent.

      Pascal’s Wager can’t be worthless, because millions of people do value it–perhaps to the consternation of many others who deem it of no value for themselves. Meat lovers will pay for a steak, but vegans will not. And actually the Wager is not in a vacuum. There is plenty of information to deal with–but how to weigh it is the question. Wouldn’t considering the stakes make sense for a first step? –Gary

      • Brian Westley says:

        Yes, one can posit a god and let the imagination run wild. A job applicant can posit that he is the best man for the job, but if he has no resume, no job history, no diploma, no portfolio, and no references, the HR pro wisely screens him out without even granting an interview.

        But now you’re special pleading. You’re discounting an infinite number of possible gods and only giving credibility to a few.

        Pascal’s Wager can’t be worthless, because millions of people do value it

        Millions of people value astrology. This doesn’t make it a valid method of getting answers.

        There is plenty of information to deal with–but how to weigh it is the question. Wouldn’t considering the stakes make sense for a first step?

        No, the first step would be to examine the validity of the wager. It’s an invalid argument.

        • Hi Brian,

          Thanks for continuing the discussion. How did you find this article so quickly after I posted? I have not earnestly attempted to promote this site–pending more content.

          The principle of “relevant differences” validates the HR director’s actions. Actually, the unqualified job applicant wanting the same consideration as the qualified applicants is”special pleading”. Would you suggest that companies can save money by firing the HR department and should simply hire randomly?

          The analogy also applies to contending notions of God. There is good reason to discount all unspecified notions (blank resumes), and once the specifications are stated the pool is finite–not infinite. We have basis for comparison and further elimination, because existing resumes are not equal.

          Your comeback about the value of astrology is quite clever given that astrology is forbidden by the Bible, so it would actually be of negative value to Christians. I was perhaps hijacking the economic definition of “value” which is separate from the term “valid”. Astrology does provide income for the tabloids–which may also carry little value for most of us. :)

          That said, declaring the Wager invalid isn’t the same as demonstrating it invalid. Pascal still lives because atheism doesn’t demonstrate a realistic payoff in the end–not without “special pleading” of its own.

          Gary

          • Intan says:

            There’s a few problems I have with this. First, asehitm would have no trap door, because we do not expect an afterlife. Second, the trap doors would be invisible, because there is no proof that any afterlife actually exists. If I am stuck in a burning house, and I am convinced there is no way out, I am not going to trust some crazy guy telling me that if I stand next to him we will be saved by the invisible trap door, and that everyone else’s invisible trap door is not real. No you’ve answered your own question you prefer to BURN.

    • Amonite says:

      I take it you haven’t read through Pensees, or the complete version of the conversation between skeptic and believer.

      The conversation is far more involved than most summaries of the wager let on.

      You demand “proof” of God inside the wager for the wager to be “valid”. However, Pascal specifically calls out that the (conversation, as he calls it) will -not- include proof for its purposes at the beginning of his argument. Not because he “could not deduce proofs enough from nature sufficient enough to convince hardened Athiests” but because “this knowledge, without the knowledge of Jesus Christ, is barren and useless.” Pascal is not trying to prove “God” – he is trying to prove why it is nescessary to commit to ‘wagering on God’, so to speak. He uses a more fundamental proof (the principal of numbers) to show how there are fundamental laws in the universe, etc. He does actually point to the “Scriptures, and all the multifarious proofs of our religion” later on in the wager, when the skeptic asks where he can go to learn more. (Which would add an extreme amount of support to the argument). He also discusses many of these proofs and evidences himself, later in his book.

      The skeptic makes a claim that “not to wager at all” would be most proper, as he does not believe that finite man can comprehend the infinite. After laying out what there is to gain, and what is on the line, Pascal makes the point that reason will not be shocked choosing one over the other, since a choice must be made (and as the skeptic has mentioned prior, he himself cannot determine either way whether an infinite God exists).
      Pascal further uses a gambling metaphor to point out that the small, finite risk of one’s own life, so to speak, was not a barrier when compared with the infinite reward (even if uncertain) of heaven – as gamblers risk finite goods for small, finite rewards that are also uncertain.

      The conversation/wager continues with a bit on hell – and Pascal’s point that the person who doubts hell exists is the one sure of damnation, not the one who firmly believes in it and enjoys the hope of salvation from it. Following a discussion on the moral benefits of conversion, the skeptic points out his inability to simply ‘choose’ to believe even though he might wish to.

      Pascal concludes with one of the more interesting thoughts: Because the skeptic cannot believe, yet reason dictates him too, he should endeavor to attain conviction – not by accumulating evidence, but by reducing the violence of his passions. (And study others who have converted in the past and how they achieved this end)

      And, before the comment is made that Pascal didn’t care about intellectual proofs, or coming to God through evidence/persuasion – he respected it very highly. He discusses that in Pensees as well, that it is very commendable to come to know God based on facts/knowledge/proof and thus were led to aknowledge their sin – but that those who have come to God via the innate recognition they were sinners and trusted God without vetting him were no less Christian. Also, Pascal speaks how in the Christian religion, men of low education are encouraged to grow in knowledge (such as studying the Bible), while men of intellect are subjected to ritual (such as taking communion), which aids in equality/humility/fellowship/etc. He always respected facts and evidence, but understood that (as the Bible says repeatedly), unless he is seeking God, a man can have all the facts in the world and still be blind to what they say.

      • Thank you Amonite for reviving this discussion with your well informed and perfectly targeted comment. You lay out perfectly how the Wager (and Pascal’s work as a whole) fulfills its role in the cumulative case for Christ. –Gary

    • Grace says:

      Would we as parents ever, ever, ever dream of whitholding that kind of information from our own children? Something that important. I mean, man, think about it. I would never tell my children, oh by the way, for your whole life before you die, I’m not going to tell you proof positive if there is an afterlife or not, you’ll just have to wait and see. And you won’t know if you’re going to burn in hell forever or go to heaven forever.Oh wait, that’s the torah, koran, and bible. I guess that’s already being done to many of us as kids. Head games.That’s kind of immature of god to do that if you ask me. Just lay your damn cards on the table god dammit, quit screwing around and be honest for once in your miserable existence, god. Are you real or not? Is there an afterlife or not? Jesus Christ get over yourself ya nacissistic creep. (I’m flipping the bird toward the sky now.)It baffles me how faithheads can mentally live in that world. That’s mental torture.

  2. Brian Westley says:

    The principle of “relevant differences” validates the HR director’s actions.

    I have no problem with your hypothetical HR director.

    The analogy also applies to contending notions of God.

    I disagree.

    There is good reason to discount all unspecified notions (blank resumes), and once the specifications are stated the pool is finite–not infinite.

    I disagree again. I see NO reason to discount all unspecified notions, because in order to do that, you must assume (on no grounds whatsoever that I can see) that, somewhere in human history, at least one description of “god” is correct.

    In fact, in my estimation, if there IS a god of some sort, I think it is vastly more likely that no existing description of “god” is anything close to correct.

    However, I don’t think any sort of gods exist.

    That said, declaring the Wager invalid isn’t the same as demonstrating it invalid.

    You haven’t demonstrated that it’s valid, for that matter. Even if you think it IS valid, all you need is a religion with a worse hell and a better heaven compared to whichever religion you currently subscribe to, to jump ship. That isn’t valid decision-making, it’s just following whoever claims they have the biggest carrot and biggest stick.

    • Hi Brian,

      The reason to discount the unspecified notions is that you can’t choose what you don’t specify. Only a fool would invest money in a business that has no plan. That’s not saying that it must be one already specified, but the Wager is about God who would be concerned about people knowing Him. If a decision matters then it’s reasonable to expect that He would have already revealed Himself to someone in recorded history. Given that no existing description works for you, what attributes would you expect in God who truly exists?

      Actually, a good number of people accept some form of Pascal’s Wager intuitively–and that includes many atheists too. Some atheists attempt to ridicule believers as cowards compensating for fear of death by hoping in Heaven. Those atheists see that God offers something in the afterlife department that atheism does not.

      If you’ve got something specific to add to my decision matrix that you think would appeal to me (a bigger carrot and stick) then please offer details. Let’s see what kind of ship you think is worth a jump, but it won’t be persuasive without genuine testimonials. It’s not enough to say my analysis is invalid. Can you show me a better decision concerning afterlife?

      Gary

    • Amonite says:

      The error in trying to “refute” Pascal’s wager ususlly comes from trying to refute the summaries of Pascal’s wager, such as

      “If you believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you have lost nothing–but if you don’t believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you will go to hell. Therefore it is foolish to be an atheist.”

      If Plato’s arguments were reduced to Twitter comments, similar errors might also be involved. Both Christians (for the reason of simplicity), and athiests (for reasons of bias) have made this error in reducing the long proof down to a short form which does not accurately encompass the flow of argument. The short form itself has merit, but if critiques are to be made against it, the supporting claims and proofs of the original must be examined.

      The argument was not made to convert an athiest to wager on God. It was made for an agnostic.

      It is important to remember this point. The skeptic of Pascal’s wager was as equally committed to -not- denying the existence of God as he was to accepting his existence. At one point, the skeptic calls out the Athiests for being as equally wrong as the Christians.

      Furthermore, the skeptic was not applying this indetermination to all gods/pantheon in general.

      His very first statement:

      “On the principles of reason, it appears that if there be a God, he must be totally incomprehensible; for, having neither parts nor limits, he can bear no relation to finite beings. We are therefore incapable for knowing what he is, or even whether he exists. And this being the case, who can undertake to even determine the question?”

      His later comments also support that this was his view – that any possible God would -have- to be infinite and divine, therefore finite man could not comprehend him.

      As such, finite gods that were mere caricatures of man, or represented mere aspects of elements, would not be on the table for discussion (such as Zeus or the Oh god of Hangovers, etc).

      Example: In the Caananite belief there were many ‘water gods’. Tiamut (Sea dragon), Baal (storm god), Yaam (god of the sea), etc. All these gods were finite, having control over specific areas, often needing permission from other gods to act, and even able to ‘kill’ each other.

      Yet in Job (the oldest book of the Bible) God made the sea, set the bounds of the sea, controls the sea, created the creatures of the sea including leviathan, has power over the storms, tramples the sea, etc. God is subject to no other being in his actions, and is not limited in his power or the nuances of his power. (The sea here is merely used as an example, it is merely one aspect of creation subject to God).

      Pascal’s wager cannot support persuasion to convert to Judiasm, even though they follow God. Conversion would provide no further benefit to heaven (jews consider gentiles that follow the Noahic code as as likely to have a place in the afterlife as them), but a much higher cost (over 600 ritual codes to follow). It would be counterintuitive to betting, so much so that even jews discourage non-jews from converting, and merely encourage them to follow the code.

      Islam also does not fit into the wager, most notably as Allah’ capricious nature could send even the most pious believer to heaven or hell (such as described in Sahih Bukhari 5.266). Allah also does not meet the skeptics description of being both infinite and incomprehensible, nor Pascal’s criteria of standing up to multifarious proofs (these both would take many pages to get through, and the first point is more pertinent to the wager).

      Pensees was meant as a defense for Christianity, and the argument with a skeptic was due to the skeptic’s assertion that it would be better “not to wager at all” on the existence of God. The skeptic was not concerned with the existence of other minor gods across the globe.

      As to your last point: The wager does not lead to an endless cycle of new religions pitting heavens vs. heavens and hells vs. hells, as it still relies on a) what the religion asks of you b) the infinite nature of God c) that the religion has support and evidence for it, d) that nature reveals evidence of this God, and e) that others have converted to it and shown a positive change and can testify as to the worth of the change/bet, and a few other factors. It’s a long and involved proof.

  3. Brian Westley says:

    The reason to discount the unspecified notions is that you can’t choose what you don’t specify.

    But you can’t go on from there and assume that, somewhere among all the specified notions you DO have contain the “correct” solution; you always have to allow for unknowns, which derails the wager.

    If a decision matters then it’s reasonable to expect that He would have already revealed Himself to someone in recorded history.

    But you can’t assume that; you may as well cut out the fallacious wager “reasoning” and assume your god is correct. Adding the wager only gives you the illusion that your conclusion was arrived at through reason, which is actually detrimental.

    Can you show me a better decision concerning afterlife?

    What afterlife? Again, you’re just making assumptions and pretending you got there by reasoning.

    • Brian,

      So, because there are unknowns it is impossible to make reasonable assumptions? Suppose you are given some money to invest with the instructions to get the best return you can. How would you choose from infinite possibilities? (existing market funds, stocks, bonds, etc + infinite possibilities of businesses one could start) Your line of reasoning leads to decision paralysis because there would always be the possibility of a better return with another idea.

      Pascal’s Wager doesn’t assume that its notion of God is true. It merely states that either it is true, or it is not true–and notes the consequences. Is there a better description of God that what is available to us? I’m certain that there is, but that doesn’t mean that the best description available isn’t sufficient to act upon.

      I gave at least one reason for my expectation that God would have already revealed Himself. You assert that I can’t make that assumption, but ignored my reason and offered nothing to support your own assertion. Note that I didn’t require you to adopt my assumption. Instead I offered you an opportunity to submit your own suggestion–which you have not done.

      OK, you believe that there is no afterlife. Can you prove that? If not, can you comment on the consequences of your belief and show how it is beneficial in the long run.

      Gary

  4. Brian Westley says:

    So, because there are unknowns it is impossible to make reasonable assumptions?

    No, because there are unknowns, you can’t validly draw the conclusions you are trying to draw. You are essentially assuming that there ARE no unknowns, and you can’t assume that.

    Pascal’s Wager doesn’t assume that its notion of God is true. It merely states that either it is true, or it is not true–and notes the consequences.

    No, it assumes ONE set of POSSIBLE consequences. And you can’t assume that.

    If, for example, Judaism is true, atheists aren’t violating any of the 7 Noachide laws, but Christians are violating the one against idolatry (since, if the Jews are right, Jesus isn’t a god, and worshipping a human as god is idolatry).

    OK, you believe that there is no afterlife. Can you prove that? If not, can you comment on the consequences of your belief and show how it is beneficial in the long run.

    Sure; some people who believe in an afterlife kill themselves or their loved ones thinking that the afterlife will be better.

    • Brian,

      Your assertion that I am assuming that there are no unknowns is incorrect. I’ve acknowledged that there are unknowns, but all boasts that there is “someone out there” who can beat the champ do not impress the champ, nor his fans. If you’ve got someone who can beat the champ, then bring him on.

      OK, Judaism is a worthy alternative to consider. Actually, majority Jewish interpretation holds that Christians and Muslims are not guilty of idolatry. In fact they seem unconcerned with other religions so long as people live good lives. It is also true that the atheist who leads a good life can hope to fare better under the Jewish system than he should expect from Christianity, but the atheist gains no advantage over the Christian if Judaism proves true. Though it could be possible that the atheist might receive equal reward relative to Christians, I would still give the Christian the edge for at least 2 reasons that come to mind.

      1) Christians (particularly evangelicals) are usually highly supportive of Israel–hence are in line to be blessed for being among those who bless Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

      2) Christians believe in and revere Yahweh. Perhaps the atheist who keeps his doubt pretty much to himself may do well, but it would seem to me that those who purposely attempt to persuade others to deny His existence will find that this does not sit well with Yahweh. Those who describe Yahweh as “the angry sky god” and trash Him as immoral may find themselves guilty of blasphemy.

      Viewed from a “Pascalian” perspective I note that the exclusivity of Christian theology vs inclusiveness of Judaism means that choosing Christianity covers both bases (so to speak), but the choice of Judaism does not accomplish that as clearly. That said, I still think Judaism is a better bet than atheism.

      “Sure; some people who believe in an afterlife kill themselves or their loved ones thinking that the afterlife will be better.”

      LOL, I was thinking a bit more long term–perhaps a billion years or two. Christians who take seriously the biblical prohibition of murder/suicide refrain from that. So you still haven’t offered anything positive.

      Gary

  5. Mike Foed says:

    Hi Gary

    The problem with Pascal’s Wager is that it gives you vague, and possibly contradictory conclusions.

    Yes, the wager suggests that we believe in a god that rewards belief and worship with a blissful eternity, while punishing non-believers for eternity. But it can’t tell us which god to believe in. All of your arguments to dismiss other possible gods fall flat. You think the evidence for your god is airtight, but consider the skeptical person approaching this wager without previous spirituality.

    That guy is going to see legions of faithful followers pointing out the evidence for their god and conclude they’re all likely possible. Remember, whatever you say to conclude that your god is the only reasonable choice, a follower of Zeus or some other god could also say with equal fervor. In the end, you would both be using faith to support your claims. And faith is, by definition, independent of verifiable evidence.

    But that’s not the only problem with the wager. I can also think up another possible conclusion that is mutually exclusive from that first one. The wager would also suggest that we don’t believe in a god that rewards skepticism and materialistic thinking with eternal salvation, while punishing the pious and faithful for all of eternity. Does anyone on this planet believe in such a god? I have no idea. But the fact that I can put in this general description of a god and one that fits your god’s description and come up with completely opposite conclusions suggests that the wager’s foundation is suspect.

    And the reason for that shaking foundation is that the wager neglects one important factor: evidence. Yes I know that with infinite rewards and punishment, a minuscule, but finite probability still pushes us to belief. But you can’t just blindly follow math. You have to make sure you set up meaningful equations.

    This hypothetical situation illustrates my point. A man approaches you in the park. He says he is a wizard and has the power to change the constitution of matter. He’d like to demonstrate his magic for you. With nothing better to do, you oblige him. The man pulls out a bottle of Clorox bleach and has you smell it. When the bottle hovers under your nose, your eyes water and you jump back–it’s definitely bleach. The man then pours the bleach into a small glass. He tells you that when he utters the magical words he will turn that bleach into a potion that will grant you immortality and eternal happiness. You will no longer get sick or injured, and you’ll stop aging. You will never know sadness and only encounter love and acceptance wherever you go.

    You, of course, are skeptical. He reassures you by pointing out that he has brought a team of doctors, just in case his magic doesn’t work. They’d be able to treat any damage immediately, so you’d only suffer minor harm from the non-transformed bleach. So what’s your choice?

    On the one hand, if you don’t drink it, you just go on with your life–nothing changes. If you do drink it and he’s a huckster, you suffer harm, albeit minor and finite in nature. But if you sip the liquid and he’s a real magician, then you will receive an infinite reward–immortality and eternal happiness.

    By the logic of Pascal’s wager, no matter how low the probability that the man is a magician, you should drink, because the payout if it’s true is infinite. Of course, no one would drink, because the man shows no evidence that he’s a magician and most people don’t believe in magic.

    You wouldn’t consider drinking an option, because there is no evidence to suggest that the man’s claims are true. Pascal’s wager suggests we act without evidence when someone claims infinite rewards are possible. But by that reasoning, I can insert any claim and make you believe it without providing sufficient evidence.

    So in the end, us non-believers are left back at the beginning, asking for evidence for the existence of god. We’ll consider the wager more seriously when you pony up more evidence for your claim.

    • Hi Mike,

      Thanks for participating and submitting a rather imaginative, thought-provoking reply. Sorry it took a while to get back to you on this. There were some technical (web) items I wanted to deal with before adding content to the site and I also got sidetracked with discussions on other sites.

      I agree that the Wager in and of itself is not proof of God and is not going to persuade the kind of skeptic who has determined that there is no evidence for God. Pascal was primarily directing the Wager to folks for whom the evidence has brought near to a decision; so given that context, his simple 50-50 formulation makes sense. The straw that breaks the camel’s back does so only when there is already a heavy load on the camel.

      You ask for more evidence for the existence of God and perhaps more specifically God as presented to us via the Bible. That’s not the point of this article. Note the comment above from Amonite, who addresses this eloquently. Actually, there already volumes of books, blogs and multimedia discussing the evidence and arguments for God, and in due time I will discuss them in additional articles; but consider the Wager as a conversation starter–surely there is value in that.

      Your scenario with the potentially magical Clorox drink reminds me of the scene in the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” where the table was full of decoy cups and the knight warned, “Choose wisely.” Then we saw the horrible fate of the bad guy who chose “poorly”. Indy had to make the choice in order to save his father, but did not choose blindly. You say that my arguments to “dismiss” other gods all “fell flat”, but you didn’t address any of them specifically.

      Although the Wager tends to focus on personal gain vs. personal loss, the truth is that there is much more to Christianity than this. In addition to “fire insurance” and a ticket to Heaven, it is about transformation from sinner to saint–sanctification. Your wizard in the park scenario seems to have stripped this aspect out–but perhaps you intended that for simplicity.

      I can reason that a guy in the park (who may have a dozen stolen watches up his sleeve) doesn’t have the chops to offer anyone eternal life. But a God who transcends time, material, and space and created the universe (and us) would have that power. Do you really suggest that the skeptic lacks ability to conduct comparative analysis between Zeus and Jesus? Given your rejection of both Zeus and Jesus, what gain is there in atheism?

      Gary

      • Jhimmy says:

        when we die, okay all you faithheads who blinldy believed whatever you were told, you all are out of here. You sheep, baa, baaa. Because frankly, I like the ones that needed proof, the thinkers, the ones that were brave, that weren’t daunted by the threat of hell and stuck to their freethinking guns. Those are the ones I want to hang out with forever.

  6. Benjamin says:

    Well said. Many people don’t seem to understand the mathematical genius of this argument, it has everything covered.

    Good job.

    • Thanks Benjamin for your kind comment. Sorry that I did not notice it sooner. Either my email notification failed or I did not see it in my in box. Pascal was indeed a mathematical genius, but I see the Wager as transcending even math. Surely one article isn’t enough to cover everything per se about the argument, but perhaps it covered sufficient ground to make the modest point I intended. Blessings!

      Gary

  7. miK says:

    Pascal’s wager assumes one loses nothing or very little if one is wrong in choosing to believe. But if one believes there is NO afterlife, then penalty of any effort wasted on believing invalidity is infinite (hell). The reward (heaven) is every day lived to the fullest without waste. In effect, belief in no afterlife leads one to live in heaven everyday not wasted.

    Pascal’s wager is not a complete scenario. Since “infinite” is what’s available to that person, be it the time alive or afterlife, here’s the analysis.
    There is no afterlife, atheist: infinite reward
    There is no afterlife, theist: infinite penalty
    There is afterlife, atheist: infinite penalty
    There is afterlife, theist who chose the wrong deity: infinite penalty
    There is afterlife, theist who chose the right deity: infinite reward
    There are only two ways to reward. Choosing any religion and non at all have the same probability of infinite reward / penalty. That’s why his wager is invalid.

    You went off in tangent in many things. I couldn’t address them all, but here are few.

    Best return on stocks is any stock, one could rationalize best was picking by random. But it forces one to choose a stock. What if all stocks are doing poorly at the time? Then best return is not putting the money in the market at all. That’s what agnostics and many (maybe all) atheists are. The stock market is terrible, and returns promised by them are all bunk.

    As for no afterlife, it is proven there is no afterlife by anyone who died if one does not believe in any religion. But if you believe in religion with afterlife, there is “evidence” via Jesus or what not. Unless you can reason outside of religion of afterlife, this has no meaning.

    Why is western Christian support of Israel a good thing? Shouldn’t Christians support the Muslims instead? After all, Jews see Jesus as a criminal, but Muslims see as a prophet. In atheists view, support of Israel or Muslim nations based on religious belief leads to more deaths and destruction caused by religion.

    Result of murder/suicide prohibition is not from the bible. Even if there is no religion, people will shun them. In fact, people will be more likely to avoid deaths and suffering, especially senseless ones, as they know that there is no after life and they must make best of it while they are here. Religion makes it easier to kill and continue the suffering in this world. How many atheists go around saying I’ll kill you because you believe in your god? Even Hitler didn’t like atheists; he clearly said in his speech(es) that he’ll turn Germany around from atheist ways.

    • Hi miK,

      Thank you for participating and keeping the discussion going. Admittedly, Pascal’s version of the Wager is simplified, and I acknowledge this in the article; but the concept behind it lends itself to an expanded matrix—such as the one you suggested. Regarding your 1st two outcomes I would disagree that there is any infinite reward or penalty if there is no afterlife. We know that mortal life is finite and if there is nothing after death then that eliminates all penalties or rewards. Therefore only temporal, finite gains (or losses) would be available. There is one additional possibility to your matrix you could add:

      There is afterlife, atheists (and everybody) infinite reward (Universalism)

      I consider this highly unlikely, but it is reasonable to suggest for consideration. It does at least allow some theoretical possibility of decent afterlife for non-believers, but the payoff is no better than what it would be for believers. Therefore there is no marginal gain (in eternity) for having chosen atheism—especially when compared to the risk.

      You can argue that there is a marginal cost in this life for being a believer and I have granted that. However, I just don’t see the price tag as very high—particularly in Western society. Relative to the eternal gain it is an incredible bargain. There are also sizable gains in this life for believers—such as peace of mind and purpose being grounded in something bigger than life.

      You have suggested that there is a time (or efficiency) cost to being a believer. Is there any evidence to support this? Do scientific studies show that being a believer is drag against one’s professional performance? Does believing in God and afterlife measurably reduce one’s functionality as an engineer, accountant, writer, construction worker, soldier, police officer, farmer, doctor or any other vital service?

      You’re straying into the moral argument (and away from Pascal’s Wager) in your last paragraph (or two), so that should be discussed in more detail in an article on that topic. Yes I see the practical connection you are making (erroneously) regarding the costs to society, but the Wager is more about personal gains/losses. Given that I’m interested in saving you from hell and not sending you to hell, murder is an illogical tactic—let alone immoral and displeasing to God. If an atheist were considering murder as a means to some end and reasoned that he could escape discovery by the police (or thought he owned the police), then he would also lack the deterrent of an omniscient Judge, such as the One who would stay my hand. Hitler may not have been an atheist per se, but he was no Christian in good standing. Whatever he said regarding faith was mere exploitation of the population for his own evil purposes. Stalin was an atheist, and killed even more than Hitler, so history does not prove that atheism is the cure for murder. Need more names? Mao, Pol Pot, Eric Harris & Dylan Klebold—the numbers of their dead do not make a good case for atheism at all.

      Gary

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