Pascal’s Wager…Redux

If you want to get a large segment of fundamentalist atheists stirred up when you are dialoguing with them, mention good ol’ Pascal and his wager; it works almost every time. Quite frankly, I can’t blame them really, I used to react in a similar fashion as a believer, albeit with humor rather then mocking disdain. When I first read about and studied Pascal’s idea, I laughed. I completely understood what Pascal was getting at, but my first thought was that I could not believe that anyone would come to faith by it, and my second was; what faith would they come to?  Many of my college students ask the same thing in my Intro to Philosophy course.

However, over time, I’ve changed my mind. Why? Interestingly enough, I “met” someone online who came to believe in God because of the wager. And, the person is a well known (not extremely famous) actor from Hollywood. (He’s a full fledged and post-happy member of one of the smaller message boards I used to frequent daily, if not hourly.) He’s a “good” man; smart, witty, nice, great sense of humor, and very into politics…and happens to have come to belief via the wager.  So, if it turns out that there is but even one soul that winds up being saved because of the wager, it is worth it.

The second reason I no longer laugh good naturedly at the wager, is that I finally looked at it for what it was, and only as what it claimed to be within the limits of Pascal’s own philosophy (which I don’t entirely agree with). The key is remembering that it is supposed to be a wager…it is placing a bet. When placing a bet, it is logical to look at all known possible outcomes, factor in known variables, and then place your bet. Here’s a quote from Blaise himself,

“God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? …You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose… But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is… If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.”

So, to avoid Pascal’s fallacy of begging the question; you basically have two main splits: the side that says the world is purely materialistic; naturalistic philosophies come under this heading.  The other side says there is indeed something beyond the mere physical.  The first choice, or cut, is clear…if you believe something exists and nothing really does, you haven’t lost a thing.  So, you might as well come down on the side of “something.”

Once you are there, it is a logical matter of exclusivity.  Out of known religions (it doesn’t make logical sense to entertain unknown ones) which ones have deity/deities that desire acknowledgment, or perhaps worship, or else you get a bad ending?  We can cross many religions/spiritual beliefs off the list right off the bat; for example, Hinduism, Buddhism, Baha’i, many of your native/aboriginal peoples’ beliefs…even Judaism, for Gentiles at least, etc…

Then, if I’m going to place my bet (which is basically one’s soul), then I’m probably going to do some research and see which faiths are still viable.  If God is God, you’d want to wager on one that can keep a religion going, or at least I’d logically rather bet on one that could… and the list gets narrowed down quite a bit.  Which religion has the most evidence for the truth of it?  Many claim to have sacred scripture; which of those has reliable, historical documents, if prophecies are contained therein, which have come true, etc…  Blaise Pascal, from all appearances, would have been betting on the Christian God, this is one of the reasons that many criticize Pascal’s wager, but I believe if people do the logical reasoning, it does come down to a clear choice.

Now, I don’t believe in God based upon Pascal’s wager, and I don’t recommend anyone else place all of their eggs just in that basket as Pascal left it; though if the logic works for you, by all means do!  But, his basic idea of betting on an outcome, does have logical grounds, if looked at as an actual gamble.  I don’t believe that Pascal’s wager, in and of itself, offers an airtight basis for believing, but I do think it is enough to make people think, at least it should; I think it is an interesting way to get people to at least contemplate the afterlife.  From there it is a matter of research, study, and yes, perhaps a bit of prayer.

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6 Comments

Filed under Apologetics, Atheism, Logic, Philosophy

6 responses to “Pascal’s Wager…Redux

  1. Hi

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  2. kliska

    While I appreciate the tone of your post, what you propose simply did not happen. Christ was indeed dead when they laid him in the tomb. Since you believe the book of Matthew that the sign is:

    Matthew 12:40 For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

    Then perhaps you will believe Matthew as well, when he talks about Jesus’ death: Matthew 16:21 From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.

    The sign of Jonas is a metaphor. You look to Jesus as a mere prophet alongside Muhammad, but in fact, He is so much more. God loved the world so much that He sent His Son. You see, no one can lead a sinless life, compared to the holiness of God, our righteousness is as filthy rags. It takes One to live a completely sinless life, a spotless Lamb to atone for all the sin of mankind. Jesus, the Son of God did indeed die for all of us, I hope you come to put your full trust on Him; He deserves it, and it is the only way to God’s presence.

    Here is a link you might like to check out: http://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/deathjesus.pdf

    Kliska

  3. Chris Lawrence

    ‘The first choice, or cut, is clear…if you believes omething exists and nothing really does, you haven’t lost a thing…’:

    Unfortunately you have. You have lost the integrity of critical thinking. The word to describe someone prepared to believe something on insufficient justification is ‘gullible’. Pascal’s wager is circular. A god is posited with a set of attributes designed to align with the terms of the wager and yield a ‘best bet’ outcome.

    If I really found myself crediting Pascal’s wager as a sound argument I hope I would realise I had lost something – but sadly by then it would be too late!

  4. Kliska

    Actually you haven’t; as long as the thinking is not irrational then it does not affect the integrity of critical thinking. In this case, it is actually quite rational and logical.

    I’ve already explained how it isn’t circular in the least. Again; it’s placing a bet. If you really want to get at the argument I’m putting forth, try not to let your preconceived notions get in the way of critical thinking, and really mull it over.

  5. Chris Lawrence

    Thanks for taking the time to respond. I appreciate it.

    But (surprise) I stand by what I said.

    Selecting a god to apply Pascal’s Wager to out of the many on offer is, to an outsider at least, hard to distinguish from predefining a god with just the attributes required to fit the terms of the wager (rewarding faith, punishing disbelief, turning a blind eye to gambling). That’s why I think it’s circular.

    For an insider who already, for other reasons, believes in a specific, singular god similar enough to the one Pascal believed in, the argument might appear sound. (You yourself said you don’t believe in God based upon Pascal’s wager.) I think I can understand how the argument might make sense to an insider who already believes appropriately.

    I’m not implying that the outsider’s rationality is superior or inferior to that of the insider, but I am looking at it from the outsider’s perspective. An outsider would, I still think, be gullible to have been convinced to believe something on the basis of such an argument. And I see that gullibility as a loss.

    I also do not see how breaking the argument into two steps fundamentally changes things. The two steps are either independent or they are not. If they are independent, as you have presented it, then, for an outsider (an agnostic, say) to make that first step (to believe that ‘something’ exists – for no other reason than the terms of the wager, and without any preconception about the type of ‘something’ which will feature in the second step) is not rational. So a fully rational outsider/agnostic would not get to the second step of selecting the best ‘something’. If the two steps are not independent, then the ‘something’ already comes predefined with attributes designed to make the wager appear attractive.

    The only preconceived notion I think I’m using here is that I do not think it is right to believe something without good reason. Do you see any others?

    Thanks again,
    Chris
    thinkingmakesitso.wordpress.com

  6. Kliska

    Here’s the problem, from my perspective, with what you have presented. Pascal’s Wager isn’t meant to be a firm logical “proof” of God. He never claimed it was, to my knowledge. It is actually exactly what he states it; a wager, a bet. It’s similar to betting on a horse race…Pascal never claim a 100% assurance that he was right, just that it is a logical bet, not a logical “proof.”

    Now, as you pointed out, I don’t believe that faith in Christ and God requires betting at all, nor wagering. Faith in Christ rests on evidence; experiential, logical, historical, objective, subjective, etc… So for me, I see no need of Pascal’s wager and originally mocked it as well. However, when applying logic to it, and approaching it from a “placing a bet” POV, I still say it could work; and I define “work” as bringing someone to God through Christ. It is indeed a rational position, from the POV of the bet, is to place your bet that “something” does indeed exist, because of the potential outcome, and go from there. There are connected steps for sure.

    As I said, I used to see it in a very similar manner to what you are saying; however, when I actually met an “outsider” who came to believe because of the bet, I took another, more serious and logical look at it. When placed in a wager context, I completely believe that the smart bet is on the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; because that is where the evidence points.

    Thanks for the conversation,
    Kliska

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