Since writing my first article on Pascal’s Wager I haven’t come across any significant criticisms, but the fallacies abound. This isn’t as much a revision of my first article as much as it is a second edition—expanding and elaborating on some key points, proofreading, and sharing newer criticisms of the Wager.
It isn’t often that I hear an appeal to Pascal’s Wager explicitly but I still hear his famous idea echoed when people ask me in regards to belief, “What have you got to lose? Why not believe?” and “Don’t you see how beneficial belief in a God would be?” Pascal’s Wager, while a fine contribution to the archives of philosophical thought-experiments, is a poor reason for believing in a god, much less the Christian God.
In this article, I will explain some of the flaws in this wager—especially those arguments that would propose that this wager is somehow evidence for God.
Introduction to Pascal’s Wager
Pascal’s Wager was first formulated in Blaise Pascal’s book, Pensées, primarily taken from part III, §233. Though he never explicitly formulates his wager in the way it is commonly described, here is what the text says, very much shortened, on the matter:
“God is, or He is not” but to which side shall we recline?…A Game is being played…where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason…you can defend neither of the propositions…But you must wager. It’s not optional. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing…Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.
Pascal, not being a hypocrite, tells us at the end of this discourse which decision he has made, imploring us to do the same.
[K]now that it is made by a man who has knelt…in prayer to that Being, infinite and without parts, before whom he lays all he has, for you also to lay before Him all you have for your own good and for His glory, that so strength may be given to lowliness.
Because the argument is commonly proposed by Christians, and Pascal himself was a Christian, the formulation of the wager tells us that if one is a Christian and correct, he has everything to gain. If one is a Christian and wrong, he loses nothing. Likewise, if one is an Atheist and correct, he gains nothing. If one is an Atheist and wrong, he suffers eternally.
So if we were to chart it out, it would look something like this:
|Wager on God’s Existence (Theism)||Don’t Wager on God’s Existence (Atheism)|
|God Exists||Eternal Gain (Heaven)
||Eternal Loss (Hell)
|God Does Not Exist||No Gain/No Loss||No Gain/No Loss|
Clearly, being an atheist or non-believer is a surefire way to lose this gamble for eternal loss and eternal gain.
Surely, one can’t win if he doesn’t play but it is important that we understand what game it is we are playing when we decide on our wager.
Problem I: The Problem of Other Religions
The first problem seems to arise when we assume that our only options are the Christian God or no god. Christian’s have their revelations and their holy books on which they base their faith — as do the adherents of other faiths. Muslims have the Qur’an and the majority of Jews entirely ignore the New Testament, which makes them advocates of claims incompatible with those of the Christians (the rejection of Jesus as the son of God being the biggest deal-breaker). Outside of the Abrahamic faiths we have myriad others which profess an entirely different god (sometimes even more than one) each with their own unique punishment for sinners.
So if we want to make a variation of Pascal’s Wager to factor in these other faiths, we realize that even without factoring in atheism as an option, the odds will be highly stacked against us. Imagining that one can only place his bet on the belief in one of these religions he runs the risk of suffering one of the other punishments.
Luckily, we can narrow down this list of possible rewards and punishments because not all religions require belief. For example, in some strains of Buddhism, one is judged on his merits rather than the beliefs he holds. This being the case, in my variation I have selected a few religions which, when ascribed to fundamentally, can conceivably promise reward or punishment based on belief (though works do play a part in many of them as well!).
|Christianity is true||Islam is true||Judaism is true||Sikhism is true||Zoroastrianism is true|
|Wager on Christianity||Eternal Gain
|Eternal Loss (Hell)||No Gain/No Loss (Sheol)||Limited Loss (Naraka)||Limited Loss (Suffering until the Day of Judgement)|
|Wager on Islam||Eternal Loss (Hell)||Eternal Gain
|No Gain/No Loss (Sheol)||Limited Loss (Naraka)||Limited Loss (Suffering until the Day of Judgement)|
|Wager on Judaism||Eternal Loss (Hell)||Eternal Loss (Hell)||Eternal Gain
|Limited Loss (Naraka)||Limited Loss (Suffering until the Day of Judgement)|
|Wager on Sikhism||Eternal Loss (Hell)||Eternal Loss (Hell)||No Gain/No Loss (Sheol)||Eternal Gain (Unity with God)||Limited Loss (Suffering until the Day of Judgement)|
|Wager on Zoroastrianism||Eternal Loss (Hell)||Eternal Loss (Hell)||No Gain/No Loss (Sheol)||Limited Loss (Naraka)||Eternal Gain (Heaven)|
If we are to take such a wager, it seems the most practical mode of thought would be to adhere to the faith with the worst punishment — thereby removing it as a possible repercussion for one’s belief. Therefore, we can rule out Sikhism and Zoroastrianism because their punishments are finite (however long — 8.4 million life cycles in Naraka in the case of Sikhism) and Judaism because there is no harsh punishment.
Unfortunately, a further problem arises still when we consider that there are different variations of each faith. Some Jews profess there is a hell while others hold to a more Buddhist-like notion of reincarnation. Some Christians believe that God won’t punish someone for their sins if they repent even after death while others believe that God has already elected those who will enter into heaven rendering one’s belief as arbitrary.
In Christianity alone it seems that the existence of all the different denominations (that make mutually exclusive claims as to what precedes salvation) would already illustrate the high improbability that one places his or her bet on the correct option. This is to say that if one adheres to the tenets prescribed as a Roman Catholic he may have very well lost favor in the sight of the Southern Baptist’s god or Lutheran’s god. If one is a Mormon he will have committed sin in the eyes of the Jehovah’s Witness’s god by his heretical beliefs. If one is a non-denominationalist his beliefs may have damned him from the moment he started reading this article on his computer in the eyes of the Amish Mennonite’s god.
Problem II: The Nature of God
The second problem is much in line with the first in that we cannot know the nature of the god in our wager. Before contemplating how exactly we would worship this God (or Goddess; or God-like entity; or plurality of beings, etc.) through a life of religious fervor, we must be sure of what His (Her, Its, Their, etc.) nature is.
Blaise himself seems to have run into this wall as he scripted his famous 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. This being so, who will dare to undertake the decision of the question? Not we, who have no affinity to Him.
Who then will blame Christians for not being able to give a reason for their belief, since they profess a religion for which they cannot give a reason?
Blaise’s admission of uncertainty is the core premise of his wager, but seems to be poorly represented. The reason we wager, in his view, is because we do not know the nature of God. But is a God who rewards the believer and punishes the wicked the only God we can conceive of? In my view, this conception is very unimaginative and below I will compile a new chart to list possible “natures” which a God could conceivably have. I’m sure others have compiled even more comprehensive lists, but I think mine illustrates the point.
|Wager on God’s Existence||Don’t Wager on God’s Existence|
|God exists and rewards believers of all faiths and punishes non-believers||Eternal Gain||Eternal Loss|
|God exists and rewards non-believers and punishes believers of all faiths||Eternal Loss||Eternal Gain|
|God is infinitely just and rewards people based on merit and not belief||Possible Eternal Gain/Possible Eternal Loss||Possible Eternal Gain/Possible Eternal Loss|
|God did not create an afterlife||Finite Loss||Finite Gain|
|God is infinitely merciful and understanding||Eternal Gain||Eternal Gain|
|God only punishes people who believe in false gods||Possible Eternal Gain/Probable Eternal Loss||Eternal Gain|
|God only rewards people who believe in the correct god||Possible Eternal Gain/Probable Eternal Loss||Eternal Loss|
|God does not exist||Finite Loss||Finite Gain|
As mentioned in my introduction, being an atheist or non-believer is a surefire way to lose this gamble for eternal loss and eternal gain — but those who are on Blaise’s side of the wager do not factor in that if we believe in a God who doesn’t exist and fashion all aspects of our lives around fallacious tenets and make sacrifices accordingly, we will have wasted the only life we know we have for something only speculative.
It is for this reason of a definite life versus a possible afterlife that I am in disagreement with those who say that if God does not exist then our only option, whether believing or disbelieving, is No Gain/No Loss. We need not be a nihilist to be an atheist.
Problem III: Truth, Utility, and Futility
There appears to be another problem with Pascal’s Wager when it is used as a form of evidence in that it merely discusses the utility of a belief if that belief were to be true. This, however, does not lend any credence to the proposition that the belief is actually true.
Simply seeing something as a safer belief is not an argument for the truth of the belief, it merely shows how the belief is useful. I’m sure that there are many beliefs that would lead us to all to live happier lives, but the question boils down to a matter of values: do we value truth?
Are we philosophers or mere hedonists?
Problem IV: Choosing to Believe
There is a false premise at the core of this wager: we cannot choose what we believe. We are lead to believe by that which we understand to be the truth (i.e. what is evident).
I cannot choose to believe something because it is convenient or makes me happy. I may want to believe I am a millionaire, but without the millions of dollars that would constitute the evidence, I will not be able to convince myself. Of course, it could be the case that I have become delusional and believe I am a millionaire without evidence, but even so — I haven’t selected my delusion. Furthermore, if I knew it to be a delusion I would know it is false and would therefore be unable to believe it.
The philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris addresses this idea directly and humorously:
Reason is a compulsion, not a choice. Just as one cannot intentionally startle oneself, one cannot knowingly believe a proposition on bad evidence. If you doubt this, imagine hearing the following account of a failed New Year’s resolution:
“This year, I vowed to be more rational, but by the end of January, I found that I had fallen back into my old ways, believing things for bad reasons. Currently, I believe that smoking is harmless, that my dead brother will return to life in the near future, and that I am destined to marry Angelina Jolie, just because these beliefs make me feel good and give my life meaning.”
This is not how our minds work. To believe a proposition, we must also believe that we believe it because it is true.
Note that there are people who are faced with scientific evidence and maintain beliefs that oppose it. The evidence supplied by science does not sway them, but this is not because they are choosing not to change their mind, it is because they are not swayed — having a round planet is just hard to fathom and billions of years of variation in life is hard for many people to wrap their minds around. They have been previously convinced of something else due to indoctrination, misplaced trust, incompetence, or ignorance — none of which were their choice. Unless that something else is uprooted and then weighed honestly against the evidence their mind will not be changed.
Being slaves to the evidence is what it means to be reasonable. If we do not have good reasons for believing then we are unreasonable and the discussion cannot proceed. Understanding that a belief may be favorable or unfavorable will not sway a reasonable person into believing it — therefore, Pascal’s Wager — especially when pressed into the function of evidence — is a sham from the start.
Problem V: A God Worthy of Worship
Ultimately, this wager hinges on a deity who takes account of an incredibly arbitrary factor, belief, while ignoring something much more important, merit.
If it is truly by faith alone that we are to receive salvation and not by works, then faith is empty — the epitome of unreason. A god who would deem faith in himself necessary for the works of man to play any role in salvation or damnation is a prideful, arrogant, and jealous god — a god who never got beyond the egocentric phase of toddler-hood. Shame on those who expect us to be delighted at the prospect of singing “hosannas” to such a pitiful being for eternity.
If a deity were to hinge salvation on belief and didn’t provide evidence, then such a deity would be either sadistic or incompetent. Furthermore, if this deity were to care more about belief in himself instead of merit, he would be forgoing justice. The only rectification I can imagine of this extreme injustice would be through some form of mercy in which the deity would allow those who did not believe to withdraw their disbelief when faced with his reality — not doing this would further stack “unmerciful” onto this deity’s résumé.
Prideful, arrogant, jealous, sadistic, incompetent, unjust, and unmerciful; not a single one of these appears to be a trait that a good god would share, therefore the god of this wager is not a god worthy of worship.
Before Blaise formulated his famous wager, the problem of belief and its divine corollary was considered by many philosophers. The philosopher for who has influenced me the most on the matter is the ancient Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius.
Although a polytheist himself, in the second book of his Meditations, Marcus writes millennia earlier,
Since it is possible that thou mayest depart from life this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly…[I]f there are gods, [it] is not a thing to be afraid of, for the gods will not involve thee in evil; but if indeed they do not exist, or if they have no concern about human affairs, what is it to me to live in a universe devoid of gods or devoid of Providence?
We see then that whether or not a deity exists, one should live a virtuous life. If the deity is just, then it is not a thing to be afraid of. If it is unjust, one should not wish to worship it. If the deity doesn’t care or doesn’t exist, then what does it matter? One would have lived a worthwhile life — with the people who survive him able to benefit as a consequence of his living.
Let us revisit that question of belief: what have we got to lose in structuring our lives around an unsubstantiated belief? We have our only life, which consists of everything we know we have—this is what we are wagering; this is what we have to lose.
The only reasonable choice is to not take part in this silly wager on belief and to wager instead on virtue.