Is Pascal’s Wager a Good Argument? Part I

Blaise Pascal’s infamous “wager” doesn’t get a lot of credit for being a rigorous philosophical argument for the existence of God, and with good reason. It is not a rigorous philosophical argument for the existence of God; nor is it meant to be. It is, however, a pragmatic argument for the belief in the existence of God; and I think it deserves to be taken more seriously than it often is.

So what exactly is the wager? Most caricatures present it something like this:

  • If you believe in God, and you’re right, you get rewarded with eternal life
  • If you believe in God, and you’re wrong, you die and nothing happens
  • If you don’t believe in God, and you’re wrong, you receive eternal punishment
  • If you don’t believe in God, and you’re right, you die and nothing happens

Hence, the caricature goes, you ought to believe in God, because the risk of being wrong if you don’t far outweighs any possible temporal benefits you might receive from a life of nonbelief.

When presented like this, the wager seems somewhat misguided and even perhaps intellectually dishonest, almost as if you are “tricking” yourself into believing something just out of fear of possible reprecussions if you don’t.

This concern for the wager’s potential intellectual dishonesty is expressed even towards philosophically serious defenses of the wager, such as this critique given in a short article by philosopher Randal Rauser, who suggests that the wager perhaps threatens to “undermine epistemic virtue,” which is defined as an obligation to “always seek truth above all” and which includes qualities such as the belief “that I ought always to consider my own cognitive biases, that I ought to devote substantial time to the problems with my own beliefs and to weighing the evidence for beliefs contrary to my own” [1].

So are these fair accusations leveled against the wager? It’s important to keep in mind, as we begin to examine the wager itself, that it was born in a very specific historical and philosophical context, that of the enlightenment and the birth of modern philosophy. Pascal’s thought was in many ways a reaction to the pure rationalism of some of his near contemporaries, such as Rene Descartes. The project of modern philosophy was defined in large part by the optimistic attempt to “mathematize” philosophy. Pascal likewise mathematized philosophy, in his own way. But his mathematization focused more on the applicative and pragmatic aspects, rather than on the purely abstract and rationalized.

Pascal rightly noticed that some of our beliefs really are purely rational (e.g., such as the belief that two and two is four); but that many, if not most, of our beliefs are not purely rational, and instead involve a large number of highly complex decision making factors. When you decide to walk out your door in the morning, or go to work, or live in a certain community, etc., you are hardly ever making these decisions on wholly abstract, rationalized principles. You are instead pragmatically weighing a large variety of factors, risks, benefits, probabilities, etc. As Hume would put it, you cannot have any sort of absolute, demonstrative certainty that the sun will rise in the morning; but you must still make decisions vital to living out a functioning life about whether or not you believe the sun will rise in the morning.

So whereas Descartes treats the question of God’s existence like a geometrical proof, Pascal approaches it as a practical, life-influencing decision. Granted that we have to live our lives, and granted that our beliefs about the existence or non-existence of God can significantly impact how we live our lives, what is the best way to go about making a decision about this belief?

For Pascal, the answer is to weigh potential risks and benefits; but it is not merely to weigh potential risks and benefits. This is, rather, more of a final step in the process. It’s important to realize this point, because it provides an answer to a potential critique of the wager.

Suppose that instead of deciding between Christian theism and unbelief, you’re trying to decide between Christian theism and some never before heard of religion (let’s call it religion X). The benefit for believing in religion X is likewise eternal reward; and the punishment for not believing it is eternal suffering. But, religion X makes the claim that the eternal reward they are offered is qualtiatively infinitely superior than that offered by the Christian idea of heaven; and the eternal punishment they are threatened with is qualitatively infinitely more painful than that offered by the Christian idea of hell. Though in both worldviews you are offered either an eternity of reward or punishment, the stakes are infinitely higher for religion x. Accordingly, if one were to make a decision entirely on weighing risks and benefits, it seems like one would be compelled to believe in religion x for no other reason than that happens to believe in a more extreme afterlife.  Indeed, someone could intentionally invent a new religion with these qualities for precisely the reason of getting people to believe in it, despite knowing the whole time that it has been completely fabricated.

Something doesn’t seem right about this; and I think it’s fair to assume that most Christians will have a similar reaction to the proposal of “religion x” as most unbelievers usually have towards Pascal’s wager.

But, in fact, this drastically misunderstands the wager. Pascal does intend the wager as a kind of pragmatic calculus which weighs potentials risks and benefits and makes a decision accordingly, but he only intends the wager to be used under certain conditions. If these prior conditions are not met, the whole wager becomes meaningless.

What are these prior conditions? Pascal writes:

“God is, or is not. But towards which side will we lean? Reason cannot decide anything. There is an infinite chaos separating us. At the far end of this infinite distance a game is being played and the coin will come down heads or tails. How will you wager? Reason cannot make you choose one way or the other, reason cannot make you defend either of the two choices” [2].

Here is the point that is most often missed in discussion of the wager: it is only meant to be taken, and indeed only can be taken, in those situations wherein “reason cannot decide . . .  reason cannot make you defend either of the two choices.”

Now, for Pascal, reason can never make this ultimate decision, because God is infinitely beyond reason. He makes the following case for thinking reason cannot decide:

  1. If there is a God, He is infinitely beyond the capacities of human reason
  2. What is infinitely beyond the capacities of human reason cannot be known by reason
  3. Therefore, if there is a God, God cannot be known by human reason

In other words, even if there is a God, God cannot in principle be known by our reason; so something other than reason must make a choice about whether or not to believe in the existence of God.

We must be clear, however, about what Pascal is and is not saying when he claims God cannot in principle be known by reason. What he is not saying is that belief in God is unreasonable or irrational or can never have epistemic support. Again, we must remember the historical and philosophical context in which Pascal is writing. When Pascal says God cannot be known by reason, he is responding to the position of those like Descartes who thought that God can be defined and demonstrated by pure reason alone, like a mathematical proof. God cannot be known in this way, Pascal is contending. But he is not denying that one can have “reasons” for believing in God; indeed part of his whole project is to show that one can have reasons for believing in God. What he is denying is that pure reason alone can ever give us an absolute, definitive demonstration of God’s existence.

Though Pascal does not explicitly address this, it is easy to think that the principle of the wager’s conditions could be applied to various other situations wherein reason alone is incapable of making a final decision. In particular, if we take “reason” to be something less than the absolute rationalism which Pascal is responding to in the wager, and something more akin to probabilistic evidence, then we could imagine a situation in which one genuinely seeks the truth and comes to a point where they think the existence of God has exactly a 50% probability. In this case, pure reason is unable to make a decision about the existence of God, and there must be some other determining factor.

Pascal’s image of a coin flip is a nice illustration here. Suppose someone flips a coin and you, for some reason, are bound by necessity to make an estimation — heads or tails. But, for all intents and purposes, there is a 50/50 chance for either. You thus cannot “reason” your way to a choice of one or the other, and so something besides reason must determine your answer.

But why think, one might respond, that we are in a position where we are “bound by necessity” to make a choice between one or the other? If reason cannot decide, is it not completely appropriate to refrain from making a decision altogether, maintaining a healthy agnosticism?

Pascal thinks not: “You have to wager. It is not up to you, you are already committed. Which then will you choose?” [3]. My read of this assertion is that Pascal holds that we are all, by virtue of existing as rational agents, are automatically committed to making a decision. Agnosticism, then, is still a choice. The wager then seems to be not between choosing to believe and choosing not to believe, but rather between choosing to believe and not choosing to believe. The latter is an umbrella which covers a plethora of epistemic stances, including atheism and agnosticism. It is hence impossible not to choose, because not choosing is itself a choice. Not choosing has equal pragmatic ramifications.

Let us, then, recount all of those to whom the wager cannot apply:

  • The wager cannot apply to those who think absolute, demonstrative reason can decide about the existence of God (whether affirmatively or negatively)
  • The wager cannot apply to those who think probabilistic reason in general points strongly in one direction over the other (i.e. one who thinks there are good reasons to believe in the existence of God or not to believe in the existence of God)

The wager can apply to those who find that the question of the existence of God either in principle or in fact cannot be determined by reason alone, and hence must have some other principle of determination (Pascal technically only refers the argument to those who find reason in principle incapable, but I have extended it in application to those who also find reason in fact incapable).

What should be taken away from this discussion is that if you are someone who thinks there are good reasons to not believe in God, then the wager is not meant for you. Pascal is not suggesting that you should contradict your own rationality by forcing a worldview upon yourself which conflicts with your perception of the evidence. If that is your situation, then the wager is not relevant for you.

When this is realized, I think that the wager becomes much more plausible than it is usually held to be. I happen to disagree with Pascal’s epistemology: I think reason is in principle capable of demonstrating the existence of God. But I do believe that there might be people who find themselves at a point on their intellectual journeys where they are in fact unable to make a decision based on reason alone, in which case the wager might very well be an entirely justified option.

In a future post, I will lay out the actual wager itself, to see whether it does the job that Pascal thinks it can.

 

 

Sources

[1]. See Rauser’s article here: https://randalrauser.com/2016/09/rotas-wager-pascal-epistemic-virtue/

[2]. Blaise Pascal. Pensees and other writings. Translated by Honor Levi. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Page 153.

[3]. Ibid. 154.

 

 

 

15 thoughts on “Is Pascal’s Wager a Good Argument? Part I

  1. Another outcome of the wager that is sometimes missed is:
    If you don’t believe in God, and you’re right then you haven’t wasted hours of your week on pointless rituals and other religious activities.
    On a point later in the piece;
    If a god were infinitely sophisticated, that doesn’t mean that at least some part of God’s activities are not knowable. Some of God’s realm could be reasonable to people. This argument for me, precludes the ‘god works in mysterious ways’ argument used by believers sometimes.

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    1. Regarding the first point, Pascal in his wager actually includes calculations based on what “sacrifices” a life of belief might require, but since such sacrifices are always finite, and the potential reward is infinite, he concludes that one still ought to take the wager (I’ll be writing more on this in the next post).
      On your second point, I actually agree with you over Pascal here. I think God can be known by reason, even if he infinitely transcends our reason

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  2. 1) If the wager is supposed to lead to belief in God, what does that profit? Don’t demons believe in God, yet what does it profit them?

    2) Not choosing has equal pragmatic ramifications? How can that assumption be proven? For instance, how certain can we be that an infinite Being, especially one beyond mere human reason, would need or desire that others must believe in s/he/its/their existence, or have a special need that folks who don’t should simply die and remain dead?

    3) The avoidance of any mention of the threat of “eternal punishment” in the wager still sounds like a coercive passive-aggressive threat, because isn’t the loss of a chance at eternal life and happiness a relatively hellish loss to contemplate given the infinitesimally brief span of human life and the sadness, suffering and/or decrepitude that is experienced therein? Therefore it still sounds like a manipulative way of saying, “Choose, or you’ll really regret it.”

    4) Have the advocates of this wager taken rival religions and their gods seriously enough? Have they tried their best to view peculiar beliefs and practices of their own religion with a similar sense of incredulity that they exhibit when viewing religions and gods they don’t believe in?

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    1. 1) “Belief” does not have to mean mere intellectual assent (which is what demons have), but also commitment of the will to what is believed (which is more in line with what Christians have in mind by “faith”). The latter necessitates the former.

      2) Pascal intends the wager to be a choice between unbelief and Christian theism, and Christian theism has traditionally held that those who don’t believe most likely do not receive eternal life. (Why the choice is between Christian theism specifically will be addressed below).

      3) This might be a valid criticism for something like that Religion X case, but the wager asssumes that belief in Christian theism is at least plausibly reasonable, or not obviously unreasonable. The wager is much less of a “force yourself to believe this with absolutely no reasons just because of the off chance that if you’re wrong, you’ll really regret it,” and much more of a “it is quite plausibly reasonable to believe this thing, but I’m currently not able to know for sure/decide with pure reason alone, but I have to make some decision so I ought to weight the potential risks/benefits and decide accordingly.”

      4) Pascal intends the wager to be about specifically Christian theism, because he’s working on the belief that Christian theism is the most reasonable option amongst religions/theistic worldviews. In other words, he thinks we have reason to believe that Christianity is more likely to be true than any other form of theism

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      1. YOU WROTE: 1) “Belief” does not have to mean mere intellectual assent (which is what demons have), but also commitment of the will to what is believed (which is more in line with what Christians have in mind by “faith”). The latter necessitates the former.

        MY RESPONSE: The Wager fails in the case of those who leave the fold because they demonstrate that one cannot simply “will” one’s self to believe things that your studies and experience have led one to no longer find believable. I tried to maintain Christian belief via prayer but at some point in my studies and experience it seemed more honest to admit I no longer believed the doctrines and dogmas I once did. Even a Catholic convert who became an authorized Ph.D. theologian of Catholic doctrine later left the fold: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uta_Ranke-Heinemann

        —————

        YOU WROTE: 2) & 3) Pascal intends the wager to be a choice between unbelief and Christian theism, and Christian theism has traditionally held that those who don’t believe most likely do not receive eternal life… The wager is much less of a “force yourself to believe this with absolutely no reasons just because of the off chance that if you’re wrong, you’ll really regret it,” and much more of a “it is quite plausibly reasonable to believe this thing, but I’m currently not able to know for sure/decide with pure reason alone, but I have to make some decision so I ought to weight the potential risks/benefits and decide accordingly.”

        MY RESPONSE: You admit it is Christian doctrine, the very thing in question, that claims one HAS to make a definitive decision for Christianity belief and worship or the Christian God will condemn one to mortal existence instead of granting eternal life. So this is circular and also coercive, as in several other religions.

        —————

        YOU WROTE: 4) Pascal intends the wager to be about specifically Christian theism, because he’s working on the belief that Christian theism is the most reasonable option amongst religions/theistic worldviews. In other words, he thinks we have reason to believe that Christianity is more likely to be true than any other form of theism.

        MY RESPONSE: No doubt those were Pascal’s beliefs. But many religions, denominations, sects, can pose similar Wagers. So one is left living in a world of meta-Wagers. And there are even universalists in various religions, including Christianity.

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      2. YOU WROTE: The Wager fails in the case of those who leave the fold because they demonstrate that one cannot simply “will” one’s self to believe things that your studies and experience have led one to no longer find believable. I tried to maintain Christian belief via prayer but at some point in my studies and experience it seemed more honest to admit I no longer believed the doctrines and dogmas I once did.

        MY RESPONSE: I don’t think you’re quite getting what my point about the wager is. The wager *cannot be taken* by those who think there are good reasons for thinking Christianity is false. Those who “leave the fold” as you say generally come to have reasons for thinking Christianity is probably false.

        YOU WROTE: You admit it is Christian doctrine, the very thing in question, that claims one HAS to make a definitive decision for Christianity belief and worship or the Christian God will condemn one to mortal existence instead of granting eternal life. So this is circular and also coercive, as in several other religions.

        MY RESPONSE: I’m not quite following here. Yes, it is generally accepted as Christian doctrine that those who do not believe do not receive eternal life. But that’s not the thing in question, the thing in question is whether one ought to believe that this is true or not. I can’t see the circularity here? As for being coercive, well I don’t see it as any more particularly coercive than telling someone they ought to wear a seatbelt because if they don’t they risk being thrown out a windshield in case of a wreck.

        YOU WROTE: No doubt those were Pascal’s beliefs. But many religions, denominations, sects, can pose similar Wagers. So one is left living in a world of meta-Wagers. And there are even universalists in various religions, including Christianity.

        MY RESPONSE: Sure, other religions could set up similar wagers. But remember the precondition for the wager, that one is in a position where reason has gotten one so far but cannot take the final steps. So long as one has reason to think one religion is more likely to be true than another, one wouldn’t be able to take the wager for the latter religion.

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  3. Philosophical discussions of God in such a broad and general manner as one is doing leaves many assumptions unspoken. One also needs to study history, science, cognitive science, sociology, anthropology, even primatology, etc., and compare that with the contents of writings one considers divinely authoritative. Personally, I grew disheartened upon learning how fast and loosely Paul and the Gospel writers played with OT passages. How prescientifically and mythically the cosmos and many other aspects of nature were portrayed in both testaments. And how wrong Paul and Jesus were concerning their predictions of soon coming final judgment. Further questions include the synoptic problem, evidence of literary dependence, and trajectories of miracle stories.

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    1. Yes, studying history, science, and other fields in conjuncton with philosophy is a good thing. But I’m not sure exactly how that relates here. The issues you bring up (NT writers’ use/interpretation of OT, prescientific worldviews, predictions of Paul and Christ, synoptic problem, etc.) are significant but I think they ought to be considered on a secondary level. The first questions which one should ask are about the existence of God and (for Christianity specifically) the resurrection of Christ. If one has good reasons to believe that Christ really rose from the dead, then one has a foundation for Christian belief from which they can then work on other questions such as those that you raise here.

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      1. No, it doesn’t work in only one direction from belief in God to Christianity. I believed in God, the Christian God, The Trinity, the resurrection and ascension, but studying the Bible, reading apologetics and historical biblical studies and learning about additional questions in philosophy, theology, history, biology, my belief and faith grew less certain.

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      2. I didn’t say that it only works in one direction from belief in God to Christianity. My point is that there are certain central, foundational issues, and then there are more secondary, less fundamental issues. Having questions or doubts about the latter doesn’t necessitate having questions/doubts about the former. For example, suppose one seriously doubts that the historical Jesus ever did some of the things recorded about him in the gospel narratives, and yet one is convinced on historical evidence that the historical Jesus really did rise from the dead. It seems like one would be in a position to accept a kind of basic, general Christian theism, without committing to any sort of doctrine of inerrancy. Or, suppose someone seriously doubts that anything recorded in Scripture is even remotely historically plausible, and yet one is absolute convinced via independent arguments that the God of classical theism exists. Then one would be in a position to accept general theism but not Christianity specifically. My point then is that the specific questions you raise (NT writers’ use/interpretation of OT, prescientific worldviews, predictions of Paul and Christ, synoptic problem, etc) while significant, are secondary to the questions of the existence of God and the truth of some general Christian theism.

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    1. I actually meant to add another paragraph explaining that. The point is that it is not *merely* a measure of benefits and risks that factors into the wager. For Pascal, Christianity has powerful reasons for it, knowledge of which one brings to the wager. Religion X, however, has no such supporting reasons.

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      1. So the intent was that Religion X is irrelevant to the wager because reason can eliminate it from contention and the wager only applies where reason is insufficient to choose between contenders?

        What if instead of Religion X we talk about Doctrine X – the most extreme doctrine regarding the relation between belief and eternity within a religious tradition. Does the wager then entail that all religious adherents should hold to Doctrine X because it is compatible with the body of reasons for the tradition as a whole, and reason cannot adjudicate whether it is also possibly implicated in the manifestation of the doctrine (i.e., the doctrine itself is possibly relevant in the relation between beliefs and eternity)?

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      2. Hm that’s an interesting question that I hadn’t thought about before. I guess it somewhat depends on what one thinks the source for knowledge of doctrine’s is. If you’re Catholic, then you believe that whatever the Church definitively teaches is authoritative and binding. If you think there are good reasons to choose Catholicism over other strands of Christianity, then choosing Catholicism in the wager means choosing all of the doctrines taught by the Catholic church. It becomes more complicated for non-Catholic Christians. Although, it is worth noting that the wager only weighs the possibility of eternal life, and doesn’t make reference to eternal punishment, and nearly all strands of Christianity that I’m aware of teach that there is some form of eternal life.

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