PASCAL'S WAGER


#1

PASCAL’S WAGER ARGUMENT

None of the traditional arguments for the existence of God have compelling force, though they may strongly suggest the existence of God. Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher, mathematician, and inventor, knew this.

He therefore developed a new argument which did not so much prove the existence of God, as prove the saying in the Psalms, that the fool in his heart would say there is no God.

Here follows the main text of Pascal’s argument:

*… let us say: ‘Either God is or he is not.’ But to which view shall we be inclined? Reason cannot decide this question. Infinite chaos separates us. At the far end of this infinite distance a coin is being spun which will come down heads or tails. How will you wager? Reason cannot make you choose either, reason cannot prove either wrong. . . Yes, but you must wager. There is no choice, you are already committed. Which will you choose then? . . . Let us weigh up the gain and the loss involved in calling heads that God exists. Let us assess the two cases: if you win you win everything, if you lose you lose nothing. Do not hesitate then; wager that he does exist. . . . And thus, since you are obliged to play, you must be renouncing reason if you hoard your life rather than risk it for an infinite gain, just as likely to occur as a loss amounting to nothing… Thus our argument carries infinite weight, when the stakes are finite in a game where there are even chances of winning and losing and an infinite prize to be won.*I

I have yet to hear a successful refutation of Pascal’s argument, though many have been offered. Even the great agnostic logician Bertrand Russell, so far as I have been able to determine, leaves the argument alone. One would have thought he would try his hand at it if he thought it was refutable.

Any comments?


#2

Perhaps I could illustrate Pascal’s wager with a personal observation.

My uncle was an atheist until the day of his death. Up until the day of his death he never asked for a priest. Yet he accepted a medal to wear around his neck and did not object when others offered to pray for him. Still, he never went to Church or asked for a priest. On the day of his death, he was taken to hospice. His wife discovered that in the room next to his a priest was dying. She told the priest my uncle was likely to die that day, and would he come over to visit. He did. My uncle did not object, as he would most certainly have objected a year before the onset of his illness. I do not know how he died, what state of mind he was in. Was he in doubt? I think so. Was he repentent? I hope so. And for the simple reason that, as Pascal says, he had nothing to lose and everything to gain.


#3

while paschal’s wager is rational and true, we shouldn’t regard god as an insurance policy.


#4

You are voicing a common objection to the wager argument. God should not be viewed as an insurance policy. Yet, once we commit to God realizing we have nothing to lose and everything to gain, we might start to enjoy paying the premiums with faith and good works.

My uncle never had that opportunity. He bought his policy at the last minute. I hope it paid off, but I worry that he waited too long. Yet God’s mercy is boundless to a truly repentent heart.


#5

I don’t like Pascal’s Wager. Let’s say this… there are two gods: Bob and Baboo. Either you believe in them or you don’t. If you don’t, you might go to hell. If you do and there is no Bob and Baboo, then you have nothing to lose. Should I then believe in two gods?


#6

Should I then believe in two gods?

I think Pascal would say yes. Then he would ask why there are grounds for believing in two or more rather than one.


#7

I use this argument all the time for the existence of God. One person asked me one time why should he should waste his time believing and regretting it. I simply told him that if there is no God, then there is no afterlife. So therefore how could he regret it. He no longer exists to regret. I suspect there is an inkling of a belief in an afterlife somewhere in the back burners of his mind.


#8

carl,

I usually give three objections to Pascal’s Wager.

The first is the “Insurance Policy” argument, as mentioned by Brain, which I feel has more power than you seem to think. Is a God who is fooled by such transparently selfish motives really worth following?

Secondly the choice is not God v no-God. The choice is no-God v YHWH v Jesus v Allah v Shiva v Vishnu v Zeus v Wotan etc. That changes the odds in the wager considerably. Given the number of Gods in the Hindu pantheon I would probably pick Hinduism - worship one, get 999,999 free. Much better odds than in a synagogue, church or mosque with only a single God in each.

Thirdly, do you yourself think that the wager is a good argument? How about visiting a mosque on Fridays? There is a chance that “There is no God but God and Mohammed is His Prophet.” All you are risking is a few hours on Friday for the potential gain of entry to Paradise - sounds like good odds to me. Does Pascal’s Wager look quite the same to you when rephrased in terms of Allah?

rossum


#9

I think Pascal would say yes. Then he would ask why there are grounds for believing in two or more rather than one.

Response:
Yes, but once you ask why there are grounds for believing in two or more, I can just ask you what are the grounds for believing in one God. At this point, you are now “reasoning”, something which Pascal did not want to do (his approach is more psychological than philosophical).


#10

At this point, you are now “reasoning”, something which Pascal did not want to do (his approach is more psychological than philosophical).

His approach is certainly psychological, but it does not exclude rationality. Once you agree that the wager is worth making, you have to know which cards to play. The gambler does not rely entirely on luck. He also watches the field of cards that have been played, and if the card he needs (in seven card stud, for example)is visible in someone else’s hand, he has to reason that he will not be able to draw that card, and so plays his other cards accordingly, looking for another suit strong enough to win.

Likewise, having decided that he must engage in a wager, the theist must reason his way toward deciding which gods and how many gods are to be worshipped. That is to say, which is the winning hand? A survey of all the religions of the world may well lead the theist to the Bible and the religion of Christ, the God of love, as the God most likely to beat out all the others. In any case, he must reason his way to God(s) once he has decided for God(s) against Nothingness.


#11

rossum

Allah over Christ? I don’t think so.


#12

rossum

Is a God who is fooled by such transparently selfish motives really worth following?

The wager argument does not imply that God is fooled by anything. It may well be that some who indulge the wager argument fool themselves. In those cases you would be right. But it may well be that others do not fool themselves, especially if they grow beyong the “wager” mentality into true faith and good works. We should keep in mind that God gave us egos for a reason. We are created to care about our own welfare, to do what is in our own best interest. Then God leads us to worship Him, which is in our own best interest. We are free to worship or not to worship. If we worship, we do so not only in our own interest, but in God’s interest (as well as in the interests of others whom God wants us to serve).

However, if we choose not to worship, we are acting only in our own self interest as we mistakenly see it (to live by own own rules rather than God’s). God will see that we have not fooled Him, but that we have fooled ourselves.


#13

Carl,

[quote=Carl]Allah over Christ? I don’t think so.
[/quote]

So if you don’t believe that Pascal’s Wager is a good argument then why do you propose it? Remember that the Wager is deity-neutral, it can be applied to any deity you choose. Look again at the argument you gave in the opening post:

… let us say: 'Either [Allah] is or he is not.’ But to which view shall we be inclined? Reason cannot decide this question. Infinite chaos separates us. At the far end of this infinite distance a coin is being spun which will come down heads or tails. How will you wager? Reason cannot make you choose either, reason cannot prove either wrong. . . Yes, but you must wager. There is no choice, you are already committed. Which will you choose then? . . . Let us weigh up the gain and the loss involved in calling heads that [Allah] exists. Let us assess the two cases: if you win you win everything, if you lose you lose nothing. Do not hesitate then; wager that he does exist. . . . And thus, since you are obliged to play, you must be renouncing reason if you hoard your life rather than risk it for an infinite gain, just as likely to occur as a loss amounting to nothing… Thus our argument carries infinite weight, when the stakes are finite in a game where there are even chances of winning and losing and an infinite prize to be won.

Pascal’s Wager works in the same way whether you insert Allah, Christ or the Jewish YHWH, in all three cases the potential gains are infinite. If you reject the wager when Allah is used why should I accept exactly the same wager when Christ is used instead? If you are justified in rejecting the wager then I am also justified in rejecting it. It is inconsistent of you to expect me to accept the Wager for Christ while you reject the Wager for Allah. Since you yourself are rejecting the wager, perhaps it is not as strong an argument as you thought?

[quote=Carl]We should keep in mind that God gave us egos for a reason. We are created to care about our own welfare, to do what is in our own best interest. Then God leads us to worship Him, which is in our own best interest.
[/quote]

I do not follow any of the three Abrahamic religions, so this line of argument is completely irrelevant to me. The point of Pascal’s Wager is to try to get a non-believer to become a believer. You cannot justify the argument by assuming that God exists. I am the kind of person you want to convince, and arguments assuming the existence of God do not convince me. The existence of God has to be shown, not just assumed.

rossum


#14

Pascal’s Wager is meant only as a logical test in the nature of simple game theory. Two possible bets, two possible outcomes, four possible combinations. Its proof is through game theory, not faith. It is neither proof of God nor a substitute for actual belief and faith in God. Accordingly, it should be given no theological weight and little weight in evangelization*.

  • I say “little weight in evangelization” because it is sometimes useful as a way to break the ice with atheists and agnostics. But it is not and cannot be used as a reason to believe in God.

#15

[quote=The Barrister]Pascal’s Wager is meant only as a logical test in the nature of simple game theory. Two possible bets, two possible outcomes, four possible combinations. Its proof is through game theory, not faith. It is neither proof of God nor a substitute for actual belief and faith in God. Accordingly, it should be given no theological weight and little weight in evangelization*.

  • I say “little weight in evangelization” because it is sometimes useful as a way to break the ice with atheists and agnostics. But it is not and cannot be used as a reason to believe in God.
    [/quote]

Hi Barrister,

Are you familiar with the ‘hamburger’ objection from basic decision theory?


#16

[quote=rossum]

You cannot justify the argument by assuming that God exists. I am the kind of person you want to convince, and arguments assuming the existence of God do not convince me. The existence of God has to be shown, not just assumed.

rossum
[/quote]

Then you will not be shown proof through Pascal’s Wager. Pascal’s Wager is only a justification for faith, not proof of God.

If you are looking for proof of God’s existence, then you should look into Intelligent Design and the many books written by its adherents and its detractors. Do a search on Amazon. You should also note that no scientist has ever proved that God does not exist.


#17

[quote=squirt]Hi Barrister,

Are you familiar with the ‘hamburger’ objection from basic decision theory?
[/quote]

Yes, having to do with infinite expectations. But it still does nothing to prove or disprove the existence of God. I can’t *think * God into exist by a wager or an expectation of an outcome, anymore than I can think him out of existence. From my perspective, that’s the core mistake made by Neitzsche.


#18

[quote=The Barrister]Yes, having to do with infinite expectations. But it still does nothing to prove or disprove the existence of God. I can’t *think * God into exist by a wager or an expectation of an outcome, anymore than I can think him out of existence. From my perspective, that’s the core mistake made by Neitzsche.
[/quote]

Basically, but in the context of a 2-part sequential decision.

Anyway, although I’m not a big fan of the ‘mathematics’ or the usual exposition of Pascal’s wager, an excellent book that puts the wager in a positive light is that of Nicholas Rescher.


#19

I see, rossum, that you are an atheist. Not all atheists think alike. Some will find merit in Pascal’s argument, especially the ones who are soft atheists and ready to confront God.

You want absolute, incontrovertible proof of God. Sorry, that isn’t part of God’s plan. God wants us to be free to accept Him or reject Him. If absolute proof were available, we would not be free to reject … we would be coerced by logic into believing. God is the ultimate liberal as well as the ultimate conservative.

The ultimate truth is that there is no Ultimate Truth.

This kind of logic paints itself into a corner. If there can be one ultimate truth, you automatically open the door to other possible truths. And by the way, what proof do you have that the *ultimate truth you proclaim * is really the ultimate truth. Is that “truth” not just an assumption without proof? What you allow yourself you deny to Pascal?


#20

Pascal made no proof for the existence of God. All he offered was that it is in our interest to believe in God. This point resonates only with those who have an open mind regarding their own interests. To the atheist who sees God as something to be intellectually proved or disproved, the argument has no relevance. To the atheist on or near his deathbed, it often does.

And perhaps that is God’s last offer.


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