The Great Big Arguments #6: Pascal’s Wager

“What if you’re wrong?”

While Pascal’s own Pensees is more in-depth, this is the basic version presented by most evangelists: If God exists and you live as if He does, your reward is infinite. If God does not exist and you live as if He does, you lose nothing. If God does not exist and you live as if He doesn’t, you gain nothing. If God exists and you live as if He doesn’t, your punishment is infinite. Therefore if there is the slightest chance that God exists, by any analysis of benefit it is better to live as if He does, in other words believe in and worship Him.

The same argument is often expressed in shorter form: “What if you’re wrong?”

This is an argument I’ve been answering constantly ever since I started on the original ATA. No matter how many times it comes up, there are always those who think it’s a brand new, ingenious zinger which will take us by surprise. I’ll refer back to here in future.

There are five main issues with the Wager, any one of which would render it nonsensical or inadequate.

1. It presents a false dilemma: that either God exists or no god does.

There is an obvious third option, namely that any deity besides the expected god exists. If the real deity is Thor, for example, the punishment for Christians is infinite (possibly worse than for atheists, who at least do not worship a rival god).

Humans have imagined something like 20,000 different major deities or equivalents so far. Together with the countless ones we haven’t thought of yet, there are an infinite number of possible gods. Without evidence for any particular god, all gods share equal probability of practically zero, and the probability of a particular god existing is infinitesimal compared to the probability of one or more rival gods, so worshipping any god is a hugely bad bet.

The response to this, I know, is to argue that there is evidence for your particular god and not for any of the others. That’s a valid response, if true. However, if you have proof positive that your god is the one and only there’s no need to mess around with probabilities, so you don’t need to use Pascal’s Wager in the first place. Just push your evidence instead.

2. If there are no gods, you don’t lose nothing by living as if there is one. You lose plenty.

You spend hundreds or thousands of hours attending religious services. You give money to organisations whose primary purpose is not to help people but to convert them. You prevent yourself from doing some things you enjoy, not because they hurt anyone but because a book told you to. And so on.

3. Belief in gods is not a choice.

A person either believes there’s a god or doesn’t. This may change, but it’s not a conscious decision by the person. Her or she has to be convinced, or else no longer convinced, one way or the other. The idea that it’s beneficial to believe in a god does not support the idea that there is one. They’re two independent issues.

4. Any decent god would spot a faker.

This is related to the third point. If an atheist were convinced that it’s beneficial to believe in and worship God, he or she could certainly worship, but would still not believe. The worship would therefore be insincere on a fundamental level. It’d be a farce, maintained to give the appearance of belief. Would the Christian god, for example, accept this lip service?

It’s said by some religious folks that if you pray with doubt, but pray with sincerity, belief will come. I don’t doubt it; if you pray as if there’s a god there for long enough, you may manage to forget that there isn’t. If brainwashing yourself like this is the only way to believe, however, are you really doing the right thing?

5. Is belief really the key?

What if one specific god does exist, but the important thing is not that one believes in Him/Her? Counter to the evangelist perspective, but what if works trump grace/faith/being “saved” in terms of brownie points in the real Heaven?

In short, Pascal’s Wager uses an incomplete and incorrect premise, and is useless to nonbelievers even if they agree with it. Blaise Pascal himself supports it in the Pensees by arguing separately for the existence of the specific Christian god from several angles, which is exactly the response to issue 1 I’ve described which makes the Wager redundant. By itself, it’s just pointless.


12 thoughts on “The Great Big Arguments #6: Pascal’s Wager”

  1. Dear SmartLX,

    Thankyou for your thoughtful and rigorous post. I agree with you that Pascal’s wager does not support belief in any particular religion, but was wondering if it does locate the central problem of existence as that of religion? Should not the task be then to discover the authentic religion amongst the numerous specious belief systems? Any reply would be appreciated. Thanks again.

  2. It is certainly important to find out all we possibly can in this area, given the possible consequences of being wrong. I disagree with your specific emphasis, however, because you seem to assume that there is an authentic religion, that is, one whose claims about the natural and supernatural worlds are true.

    There are two alternatives to the idea that the “correct” religion is already out there, waiting to be selected. First, and most likely from an atheist perspective, is that there are no gods or equivalent beings worthy of their own religions. (If you see atheism as a religion as well, I disagree with that but I apologise for misunderstanding your original emphasis.)

    Secondly, as I mentioned above, there may be an unknown god who is not represented by any religion on the planet. If that god exists and is jealous, all believers are screwed. The infinite number of possible unknown gods, compared with the ~20,000 major gods humans have worshipped, makes this uncomfortably likely.

    With no assurances that there is any empirical truth to be found in any religion (aside from the earthly benefits and drawbacks of being religious, which are another issue) how are we to proceed? By examining all the known religions we can get our hands on, seeking sufficient evidence (the definition of which is another issue) to establish each one’s deity or deities as more probable than all other known and unknown gods put together, plus the absence of gods. Anything less, and it’s not worth backing a particular horse, so to speak.

    My approach to this endeavour is to publicly adopt what I see in statistical terms as the null hypothesis: that because there’s no available substantive evidence for any god, and a god by definition is the sort of being which would likely be very evident, there probably aren’t any gods.

    Taking this position in a public forum attracts apologetic from everyone who sees it and thinks they can persuade me and the online audience to reject the null hypothesis and adopt an alternative. All the best and most famous arguments come straight here. If you had seen the old site, you would know how hard folks try. In time you’ll see it here too.

  3. Dear SmartLX,

    Thanks for your gracious and comprehensive reply. Just to clarify: I agree that atheism is not a religion, but the denial of all religious truth-claims. I found your point concerning the nature, or impossibility, of evidence for religious belief rather thought provoking. Sorry for my ignorance, but have you posted a piece on miracles? I have only just started following your blog, I’m sorry to say. I would love to hear your thoughts on this matter.

    I think Pascal’s wager has long been misunderstood, (not to suggest that you have, because I regard your post as a perspicacious treatment of it); that is, it has been misconstrued as a claim of proof for the existence of the supernatural. I think of it not as a truth-claim, but a pragmatic observation that one’s efforts should be directed towards one’s best interests. Expressed another way: I believe Pascal is trying to say that even if atheism is far more likely to be true, or more rational, what good would it serve? Personally, I would rather trade a mere lifetime of self-deception for an eternity of punishment.

    Finally, I would like to a few questions I had about your reply:

    ‘My approach to this endeavour is to publicly adopt what I see in statistical terms as the null hypothesis: that because there’s no available substantive evidence for any god, and a god by definition is the sort of being which would likely be very evident, there probably aren’t any gods.’

    What would you define as substantive evidence for any god? And don’t you think your assertion that ‘a god by definition is the sort of being which would be likely to be very evident’ is rather arbitrary and unfounded?

    Any response would be appreciated.

    Thanks again.

    P. S. I have the feeling I am one of those annoying and misguided apologists.

    Best wishes.

    1. You’re in the same boat as the long-time followers, Steve, because we just lost the bulk of our material in the move to WordPress. I’ll happily repeat myself if the old questions are asked.

      I never did a piece specifically on miracles, though I had some long discussions with Christians over some particular ones, including the Resurrection (usually their first choice). I don’t think that evidence for them is impossible, it could turn up tomorrow. I just think that right now, there is no available substantive evidence for any particular miracle. That could mean that it’s present but not known, or it’s known but not very effective as evidence, or there’s really none there. I deal with claims of new or ignored evidence as they come in.

      I understand your take on the Wager, and I’d agree with you if there were only one possible god. Believing in any god takes a lot of work, so it’s not without cost, and it might actually get you closer to that eternity of punishment, so it’s not without risk. Let me explain: if you die and appear before a god you’ve never even heard of, or one you know but didn’t follow, would you want to have allied yourself in life with a rival – and now obviously false – god, or would you like to come to the real god having worshipped no other?

      That’s why you need to be pretty darn sure about your god if you’re going to throw in with Him – if you have a soul, you’re playing the lottery with it. Atheism could well be the safest bet – not that we really have a choice, as I explained in points 3 and 4.

      As for substantive evidence, use your imagination. Say God appears in the skies and says to the whole planet at once, “Hi down there, just thought I’d put in an appearance.” That, for example, would be evidence. It’s pretty extreme, but somewhere between that and nothing there’s got to be a threshold of evidence quality beyond which the vast majority of people will accept that a god is real.

      For less extravagant examples in, say, the field of biology: a creationist could point out God’s literal signature encrypted in the human genome (not just infer design from its complexity). DNA from an ancient wooden cup could reveal that the person who left it had no biological father, and was therefore the product of parthenogenesis. An amputee could grow his arm back in ten seconds after bathing at the shrine in Lourdes, as well as other amputees who went there as a result. There might still be whacked-out alternative scientific explanations for any of these, but heck, I’d be convinced.

      My assertion about evident gods is very general, but it’s not unfounded. Hypothetically, a theistic god like the God of Abraham created the universe and either controls or has the ability to control the whole thing. Its metaphorical fingerprints are supposedly everywhere, according to some apologists. To a few, everything is evidence. Such a powerful entity, which supposedly has a desire for human belief, would need to have a pretty good reason for completely hiding itself and its actions from unambiguous detection. (Christian theology alone has suggested several such reasons, which means nobody really knows.)

      I do think you’re misguided to some extent simply because I don’t agree with you, and you think I’m misguided too, but that’s hardly an insult in either direction. And if I thought questions from believers were annoying, I wouldn’t be running a site like this.

  4. I would say you need to be a bit more “certain” about point 4… as the Bible does say that those who just give an outward show of belief (as an Atheist in that position would) will be punished just as those who are Heretics. (paraphrased… I can’t remember the exact book:verse)

    I also recall somewhere, probably the same book of the Bible as the above, that God punishes those who try to convince people to believe “just in case”

    Would it be irony that the very people who try to terrorise us into believing “just in case” to avoid eternal damnation are in fact condemning themselves to that very damnation by doing so?

  5. Here are my comments on the issues you raise about Pascal’s Wager.

    “1. It presents a false dilemma: that either God exists or no god does.”

    You say it is false because you can posit a third option of another deity of your choice from the multitude available. Thor, for example. If Pascal intended to say something along the lines of ‘Either Zeus exists or no god exists’, we could immediately contradict him and respond ‘False dilemma. You’ve forgotten about Thor, and also about the other gods.’ But of course Pascal is not referring to Zeus in his Wager, but to the Unique Supreme Being of Pascal’s Catholic theology. Let’s now substitute the phrase ‘Unique Supreme Being’ for “God” and the awkward “gods” in the above. We now get:

    It presents a false dilemma: that either a Unique Supreme Being exists, or no Unique Supreme Being exists.

    And we can do this, because we are now following Pascal’s original intention, but without your deliberately introduced ambiguity. By returning to the original intention we see that the claimed false dilemma has vanished. You cannot put up Thor (or any other ‘deity’) as a third option because all such already fall within the second clause. And without a third option the criticism of this part of Pascal’s Wager fails.

    “2. If there are no gods, you don’t lose nothing by living as if there is one. You lose plenty.”

    But, this is scarcely a criticism. It does in fact simply restate the Wager! That is a possible consequence of the bet – that you might be mistaken, live your life in a certain way and ultimately lose out. Or, you might win, and gain everything.

    “3. Belief in gods is not a choice.” And – “4. A person either believes there’s a god or doesn’t.” You allow for a change of mind then add “it’s not a conscious decision by the person.” I think you mean that a person could not act according to the suggestion of Pascal’s Wager to save their soul and still not believe – this would not work. But, a real conversion would work – in fact they happen regularly – and it’s hard to see how such a conversion would occur without much thinking followed by an act of conscious choice to follow that path. So one’s belief can change.

    “4. Any decent god would spot a faker.” Fair enough; going through the motions of worship without sincere belief gains you nothing.

    “5. Is belief really the key?” You posit a god who does not want anyone to believe in it, but to perform some other action. But a person would then have to believe that that other action was to gain their salvation, and they could bet that it would be more beneficial to do it. Pascal just needs to reword his Wager to make it still apply.

    Finally, you say that Pascal’s Wager is “redundant” because Pascal elsewhere in his philosophical writings presents other arguments for the existence of God. But numerical redundancy does not disprove an argument; it merely says there are several ways of reaching the same conclusion. Hence you mention “arguing…from several angles.” Anyway, Pascal’s Wager does not prove the existence of God. That is not its purpose. It’s a wager about the benefits or otherwise of holding to certain beliefs.

  6. Good choice commenting here rather than replying elsewhere, Malperdy. Keeps it all in one place.

    1. As I said, I’m addressing Pascal’s Wager as presented by modern apologists and evangelists, and if they can help it they tend not to draw attention to the fact that the true god (if any) might not be the God of Abraham. That leaves it as a false dilemma.

    If you amend it to Pascal’s terminology, it ceases to be useful. “…either a Unique Supreme Being exists, or no Unique Supreme Being exists” is a true dilemma because it’s a simple “A or not A” with no third option, but it’s trivial. Of course there either is a single god or there isn’t. Unless one knows its identity and nature, one cannot confidently act as if it exists because one doesn’t know how to serve or please it. For the Wager to actually inform one’s behaviour, one must decide that the Unique Supreme Being is as described in a particular religion/theology, essentially choosing one kind of god from the infinite possibilities. And that is a very long shot indeed.

    2. Many statements of the Wager state plainly that “you lose nothing” by living as if there is one. Try Googling that phrase in quotes followed by “Pascal” outside the quotes to see for yourself. I’m just showing that these versions are mistaken.

    3. I did mention near the end of point 4 above that it may be possible for a person to convince oneself to believe, if one thinks it beneficial. I also said it’s not a good idea given what one would effectively be doing to oneself.

    5. Again, apologists and evangelists who present the Wager often assume for its purposes that belief is the key. It’s my opinion that the assumptions they get non-believers to make for the sake of argument can be as effective as the big arguments themselves, which is why I challenge even these by bringing attention to them.

    I never said that Pascal’s Wager is an attempted proof of God. It isn’t. Rather, it’s a way to motivate people to accept other arguments which are attempted proofs. Redundancy in itself is not a flaw (ask an engineer) but the fact that Pascal’s Wager needs the support of other apologetic to be effective is worth pointing out.

  7. Maybe we should flip the question around for fun; what if belief IS the key? Now let’s make a supposition, if God wants just pure faith, just belief, is He going to leave unambiguous evidence to say “Here I am!”?

    See faith takes a funny spin when evidence comes into play. We all have confidence in gravity and thermodynamics, but these aren’t things we BELIEVE in and given a scientist saying the right words backed up with the right formula that picture of the world will be gone relatively quickly.

    Let me put it another way; say I want to make a friend. Should I wow this person with all the perks of being MY friend? Should I shower him/her with money and nice things? Should I explain that they could really only benefit from being in contact with me? That I would take them to all the best places, give them all the best things, give them the promise of a lifetime of pleasure and happiness? Would that be the ideal way to make a friend? Would that friend truly want a relationship with me for that sake alone? Unlikely. In the rare case perhaps, but we know human nature this much at least.

    This is analogous to PROOF of GOD in THIS LIFE. It would sway BILLIONS. The fundamentals of life would be altered and it wouldn’t be that we BELIEVE… It would be that we’re doing it because we’re selfish and want those things and whoever that person, that God is? Who would care? No one.

    Now maybe it’s not a 1:1 analogy, because in this case those things ARE promised… perhaps… and that may very well be the point. Maybe it’s not about knowledge of which denomination or religion is right or not? The point is if BELIEF is KEY then PROOF is both redundant and perhaps even dangerous, because the creator does not want us to know Him through material evidence, but spiritual faith.

    What am I trying to say? Just that if we go on the assumption that belief is key, making pascal’s wager or any other proof to a non-believer is the same as attempting to STEAL THEIR FAITH. To those of Faith who spread such ‘proof’, I warn you, it plants a seed in the minds of others that grows into doubt and contempt. Trust me, I’ve heard every one and seen what they later manifest as, you do no favors through such mental acrobatics and sophistry.

    I’m not an atheist myself, though I used to identify as such. I know one thing though about faith, that to have it, you may not possess proof. That is not called faith, that is called expectation.

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