Continuing with the introductions to the arguments for the existence of God, we’ll now look at one of the most common arguments for God – the basic idea that the possibility of eternal bliss of paradise as a reward for belief or the possibility of terrors that can result as a consequence of non-belief is good reason to believe. In essence, the average person’s version of the argument says that we should believe, just in case there is a God. It’s just safer.
Please note that, as with other similar introductory posts, like Anselm’s ontological argument, introduction to a cosmological argument or teleological argument, this post is not the alpha and omega of everything. It represents a superficial introduction to the argument and basic objections one might provide. There are certainly deeper interpretations of Pascal’s argument and there are also objections to them. We’ll come back to these in a future post so stay tuned.
Pascal’s wager is an argument by Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher. The argument (wager) says that our goal should be to believe God exists because if we believe we can gain infinite rewards – an eternity in heaven and avoid infinite losses – an eternity in hell.
The basis of the wager is that we don’t know whether God exists or not. He also states that this is not something we can know, so we must wager.
„If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is […] Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. “Pensées /via Wikipedia contributors. “Pascal’s wager.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 Apr. 2019. Web. 25 May. 2019.
So, we cannot know and we must wager. We stand to gain everything or lose everything.
|God exists (G)
|God does not exist (¬G)
|+∞ (infinite gain)
|−1 (finite loss)
|−∞ (infinite loss)
|+1 (finite gain)
– “Pascal’s wager.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 Apr. 2019. Web. 25 May. 2019.
So, the argument goes to say that clearly, it is better to believe because if you’re right you will enjoy eternal happiness and if you’re wrong you might have suffered some minor inconvenience by having to go to church or the like. And if you do not believe and you’re right, you have only gained some finite resources like free time so your potential gains are smaller if you’re right but if you’re wrong you will suffer eternal torment. Therefore the rational choice is to believe.
I have seen the Wager misrepresented or misunderstood by some atheists who argue that God would see through what you’re pretending to believe. But Pascal doesn’t argue that we pretend. He argues that belief should be your goal. So, he does not try to argue deception. That idea is simply wrong.
The next thing that is often misunderstood about the argument is that Pascal tells us what to believe and that we can simply choose our own beliefs. People go on to say that we cannot simply tell ourselves – „from tomorrow I believe in God“ – against all of the beliefs we held so far. Those criticisms seem correct but they are irrelevant to the wager. Pascal does not say – „it’s better for me to believe in God, so I choose to believe in God.“ Instead, he says:
„Endeavour then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. […] 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 /via Wikipedia contributors. “Pascal’s wager.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 Apr. 2019. Web. 25 May. 2019.
So, Pascal does not say that you try to deceive God or simply decide to believe and you’ll believe. No. He instead suggests that you take steps to ensure you’ll gradually acquire belief – to take the holy water, go to mass, hang out with religious people etc. Doing this will make you believe.
The argument doesn’t suffer as much as some atheists thought and when properly understood it does not look useless. Let’s see where the problems might be.
The first thing that might be said – and I think this seems fairly obvious to all – is that we might wonder why is the wager used exactly to argue for a Christian God. It gives us no reason to do so, except for the presupposition of Christianity. It can be equally well used to argue for Islam. No single religion can say that only they ever had an idea of a God who rewards with infinity in heaven and punishes with infinite suffering. Any religion that can do that can be argued for using the wager. Even this should tell us immediately that there’s something fishy. If you think about it, it seems there’s nothing in the wager that would persuade an atheist to choose a Christian God above any other god who behaves in a similar fashion – the wager seems to only be able to reinforce the existing psychological belief in a specific god and unable to argue that we should choose this exact one. So when this is taken into consideration, it does not seem correct to state that the person’s chance of getting it right is 50:50. You still have to choose the correct God.
The value of belief when determining who to reward?
So, WHY would God value belief so much? This to me is one of the most important questions when talking with people about the possibility of going to Hell. If we’re to think that God cares only about if we believe in him and not about what kind of life we lead, we would be arguing and praising – forgive me for saying so, but – one weird and jealous god.
To paraphrase Bertie from the image above – what kind of a God do we really imagine when we think that we’ll suffer for eternity simply because we did not blindly believe but instead thought about it for ourselves and decided that arguments are more on the side of a lack of belief? We were good, gentle and kind but did not believe, so we deserve to go to Hell? Is it possible that a supposedly infinitely good and benevolent creator would behave that way?
So, in short, the argument would have us believe that from Non-belief hell must inevitably follow. Doesn’t this God should incredibly shallow and worse than humans? Doesn’t it seem more reasonable that a god who cares about humans would look at our lives before deciding whether we are tormented or rewarded?
If belief were to play any role in that decision, it seems more likely that God would not give or reduce infinity ‘points’ simply for belief. That description seems much closer to a benevolent god than one of an utterly jealous and immoral god.
Imagining different Gods?
If we go back to the previous table, we can see that the possible benefit of belief is plus infinite gain and the possible consequence of disbelief is negative infinity – infinite suffering. Well, philosopher Michael Martin in his brilliant book “Atheism: A Philosophical Justification” argues that an atheist can easily imagine a different type of God – the one which punishes with eternal torment anyone who believes in any kind of God and reward those who do not believe.
But more than that, he is the author of the so-called Atheist’s wager – the idea that not a god of the bible exists, but either a god who values good deeds or atheism is true. These are the 50:50 chances. God, if exists, would reward good deeds and if no gods exist, good deeds would leave a positive legacy, you should be an atheist who does good deeds.
You may live a good life without believing in a god, and a benevolent god exists, in which case you go to heaven: your gain is infinite. – Atheist’s Wager on Wikipedia.
Arguing from ignorance but wait, we do know some things?
Pascal starts from the idea that we do not know and cannot know if God exists, so we must wager. “If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is….”Pensée #272 /via Wikipedia contributors. “Pascal’s wager.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 Apr. 2019. Web. 25 May. 2019.
So, the argument goes that we do not know anything except the rewards and punishments. But isn’t the entire idea that we do not know? Then how do we know about the rewards and punishments? How do we know that God has those characteristics? Remember, he wrote that “We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is”. So, on what grounds do we even set up the probabilities of the wager to begin the argument? See Pascal’s wager: Begging the question on Religions Wiki.
If you say that we know from the Bible – well then you might as well say that we know about God from the Bible and be done with it. You don’t need any other arguments or wagers, do you?
This was an introductory post where we skipped all the analysis of the decision theory and what have you and went straight to some objections.
- Why is it used to argue for Christian God? Other gods might be equally eligible.
- Continuing the previous objection, a God can be imagined who behaves almost completely opposite of the traditional theist God and that possibility raises additional problems for those arguing that the possibilities laid out in the wager are the only ones.
- How likely is it that the belief has such high importance on whether you go to heaven or hell? It is easy to imagine a more moral god that looks upon the totality of our lives and not only matters of belief.
- The argument uses special pleading to first argue that we cannot know God but that we do know what rewards for belief or lack of belief are. What is argued is that we do not know but we do know.
There is more to be said on this topic by theists as they try to escape some criticisms here and there are additional atheist questions to those theist arguments, so there is more for me to read, explore and cover here. Stay tuned.
- For a quick overview and some problems visit RationalWiki
- Wikipedia is also a good, not too complicated resource.
- ReligionsWiki has a quick overview of the Wager as well.
- Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy by Simon Blackburn
- The Non-Existence of God by Nicholas Everitt
- Arguing about Gods by Graham Oppy
- Atheism: A Philosophical Justification by Michael Martin