Quantcast

«

»

Feb 22 2011

Why It’s Not a “Safer Bet” to Believe In God, or, Why Pascal’s Wager Sucks

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Believing in God because it’s a safer bet makes no logical or practical sense, trivializes both faith and reality, and concedes your argument before it’s begun.

Red dice “Why not believe in God? If you believe and you turn out to be wrong, you haven’t lost anything. But if you don’t believe and you turn out to be wrong, you lose everything. Isn’t believing the safer bet?”

In debates about religion, this argument keeps coming up. Over, and over, and over again. In almost any debate about religion, if the debate lasts long enough, someone is almost guaranteed to bring it up. The argument even has a name: Pascal’s Wager, after Blaise Pascal, the philosopher who most famously formulated it.

And it makes atheists want to tear our hair out.

Not because it’s a great argument… but because it’s such a manifestly lousy one. It doesn’t make logical sense. It doesn’t make practical sense. It trivializes the whole idea of both belief and non-belief. It trivializes reality. In fact, it concedes the argument before it’s even begun. Demolishing Pascal’s Wager is like shooting fish in a barrel. Unusually slow fish, in a tiny, tiny barrel. I almost feel guilty writing an entire piece about it. It’s such low-hanging fruit.

But alas, it’s a ridiculously common argument. In fact, it’s one of the most common arguments made in favor of religion. So today, I’m going to take a deep breath, and put on a hat so I don’t tear my hair out, and spend a little time annihilating it.

God 1 Which God? The first and most obvious problem with Pascal’s Wager? It assumes that there’s only one religion, and only one version of God.

Pascal’s Wager assumes that the choice between religion and atheism is simple. You pick either religion, or no religion. Belief in God, or no belief in God. One, or the other.

But as anyone knows who’s read even a little history — or who’s turned on a TV in the last ten years — there are hundreds upon hundreds of different religions, and different gods these religions believe in. Thousands, if you count all the little sub-sects separately. Tens of thousands or more, if you count every religion throughout history that anyone’s ever believed in. Even among today’s Big Five, there are hundreds of variations: sects of Christianity, for instance, include Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran, Mormon, United Church of Christ, Jehovah’s Witness, etc. etc. etc. And sub-sects of these sects include Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Southern Baptist, American Baptist, Mormonism (mainstream LDS version), Mormonism (cultish polygamous version), Mormonism (repulsive infant-torturing version), Church of England, American Episcopalian, Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod…

How do you know which one to wager on?

Religious symbols The differences between these gods and religions aren’t trivial. If you obey the rules of one, you’re guaranteed to be violating the rules of another. If you worship Jesus, and Islam turns out to right — you’re screwed. If you worship Allah, and Judaism turns out to be right — you’re screwed. If you worship Jehovah, and Jainism turns out to be right — you’re screwed. Even if you get the broad strokes right, you could be getting the finer points wrong. And in many religions, the finer points matter a lot. Taking Communion or not taking Communion? Baptizing at birth or at the age of reason? Ordaining women as priests or not? Any of these could get you sent straight to hell. No matter if you’re Catholic, or Baptist, or Mormon, or Anglican, or whatever… there are a whole bunch of other Christians out there who are absolutely convinced that you’ve gotten Christianity totally wrong, and that you’re just pissing God off more and more every day.

So how on Earth is religion a safer bet?

You’re just as likely to be angering God with your belief as atheists are with our lack of it.

To many believers, the answer to the “Which god?” question seems obvious. It’s their god, of course. Like, duh. But to someone who doesn’t believe — to someone being presented with Pascal’s Wager as a reason to believe — the answer to “Which god?” is anything but obvious. To someone who doesn’t believe, the question is both baffling and crucial. And without some decent evidence supporting one god hypothesis over another, the “Which god?” question renders Pascal’s Wager utterly useless.

Unless you have some actual good evidence that your particular religion is the right one and all the others are wrong, your bet on God is just as shaky as the atheist’s bet on no God.

And if you had some good evidence that your religion was right, you wouldn’t be resorting to Pascal’s Wager to make your case.

The_Last_Judgement._Jean_Cousin. Does God even care? Pascal’s Wager doesn’t just assume that there’s only one god and one religion. It assumes that God cares whether you believe in him. It assumes that God will reward belief with a heavenly eternal afterlife… and punish disbelief with a hellish one.

But why should we assume that?

According to many religions — the more progressive ecumenical ones leap to mind — God doesn’t care whether we worship him in exactly the right way. Or indeed whether we worship him at all. In these religions, as long as we treat each other well, according to our best understanding of right and wrong, God will be happy with us, and reward us in the afterlife. These believers are totally fine with atheists — well, as long as we keep our mouths shut and don’t disturb anyone with our annoying arguments — and they certainly don’t think we’re going to burn in hell.

In fact, according to many of these progressive religionists, God has more respect for sincere atheists who fearlessly proclaim their non-belief than he does for insincere “believers” who pretend to have faith because it’s easier and safer and they don’t want to rock the boat. According to these progressives, honest atheism is actually the safer bet. The weaselly hypocrisy of Pascal’s Wager is more likely to get up God’s nose.

So even if you think the god hypothesis is plausible and coherent… why would it automatically follow that belief in said god is an essential part of this afterlife insurance you’re supposedly buying with your “safer bet”?

Just+be+good+for+goodness+sake In fact, I’ve seen (and written about) an atheist version of Pascal’s Wager that takes this conundrum into account. In the Atheist’s Wager, you might as well just be as good a person as you can in this life, and not worry about God or the afterlife. If (a) God is good, he won’t care if you believe in him, as long as you were the best person you could be. If (b) God is a capricious, egoistic, insecure jackass whose lessons on how to act are so unclear we’re still fighting about them after thousands of years… then we have no way of knowing what behavior he’s going to punish or reward, and we might as well just be good according to our own understanding. And if (c) there is no god, then it’s worth being good for its own sake: because we have compassion for other people, and because being good makes our world a better place, for ourselves and everyone else.

Now, to be perfectly clear: I don’t, in fact, think the Atheist’s Wager is a good argument for atheism. I think the best arguments for atheism are based, not on what kind of behavior is a safer bet for a better afterlife, but on whether religion is, you know, true. The Atheist’s Wager is funny, and it makes some valid points… but it’s not a sensible argument for why we shouldn’t believe in God.

But it makes a hell of a lot more sense than Pascal’s Wager.

Unless you have some good evidence that God cares about our religious belief, your bet on God is just as shaky as the atheists’ bet on no God.

And if you had some good evidence that God cares about our religious belief, you wouldn’t be resorting to Pascal’s Wager to make your case.

I_m_with_stupid Is God that easily fooled? And speaking of whether God cares about our religion: If God does care whether we believe in him… do you really think he’s going to be fooled by this sort of bet-hedging?

Let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that God is real. And for the moment, let’s also pretend that God cares whether we believe in him. Let’s pretend, in fact, that he cares so much about whether we believe in him that, when he’s deciding what kind of afterlife we’re going to spend eternity in, this belief or lack thereof is the make-or-break factor.

Is God going to be fooled by Pascal’s Wager?

When you’re lining up at the gates to the afterlife and God is looking deep into your soul — and when he sees that your belief consisted of, “Hey, why not believe, it’s not like I’ve got anything to lose, and I’ve got a whole afterlife of good times to gain, so sure, I [airquote] ‘believe’ [end airquote] in God, wink wink” — do you really think God’s going to be impressed? Do you really think he’s going to say, “Oo, that’s sly, that’s some ingenious dodging of the question you got there, we just love a slippery weasel here in Heaven, come on in”? Is he going to be flattered by being seen, not as the creator of all existence who breathed life into you and everyone you loved, but as the “safer bet”?

I don’t believe in God. Obviously. I think the god hypothesis is implausible at best, incoherent at worst. But of all the implausible, incoherent gods I’ve seen hypothesized, the one who punishes honest atheists who take the question of his existence seriously enough to reject it when they don’t see it supported, and at the same time rewards insincere, bet-hedging religionists who profess belief as part of a self-centered attempt to hit the jackpot at the end of their life… that is easily among the battiest.

Unless you have some actual good evidence that God (a) exists, (b) cares passionately about our religious belief, and yet (c) is dumb enough to be fooled by Pascal’s Wager, your bet on God is just as shaky as the atheists’ bet on no God.

And if you had some good evidence for any of this, you wouldn’t be resorting to Pascal’s Wager to make your case.

All of which brings me to:

Truth has no agenda Does this even count as “belief”? This is one of the things that drives me most nuts about Pascal’s Wager. Whenever anyone proposes it, I want to just tear my hair out and yell, “Do you really not care whether the things you believe are true?”

Believers who propose Pascal’s Wager apparently think that you can just choose what to believe, as easily as you choose what pair of shoes to buy. They seem to think that “believing” means “professing an allegiance to an opinion, regardless of whether you think it’s true.” And I am both infuriated and baffled by this notion. I literally have no idea what it means to “believe” something based entirely on what would be most convenient, without any concern for whether it’s actually true. To paraphrase Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word “believe.” I do not think it means what you think it means.

Unless you have a good argument for why insincere, bet-hedging “belief” qualifies as actual belief, your bet on God is just as shaky as the atheists’ bet on no God.

And if you had a good argument for this insincere version of “belief,” you wouldn’t be resorting to Pascal’s Wager to make your case.

Money_in_hand Is the cost of belief really nothing? And, of course, we have one of the core foundational premises of Pascal’s Wager. It doesn’t just assume that the rewards of belief are infinite. It assumes that the costs of belief are non-existent.

And that is just flatly not true.

Flying spaghetti monster Let’s take an example. Let’s say that I tell you that the Flying Spaghetti Monster will reward you with strippers and beer in heaven when you die — and to receive this reward, you simply have to say the words, “I believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, bless his noodly appendage,” one time and one time only. You might think I was off my rocker. Okay, you’d almost certainly think I was off my rocker. But because the sacrifice of time and energy would be so tiny, you might, for the sake of hedging your bets, go ahead and say the words. (For the entertainment value, if nothing else.)

But if I tell you that the Flying Spaghetti Monster will reward you with strippers and beer in heaven when you die — and that to receive this reward, you have to send me a box of Godiva truffles every Saturday, get a full-color image of the Monster tattooed on the back of your right hand, be unfailingly rude to anyone who comes from Detroit, and say the words “I believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, bless his noodly appendage” every hour on the hour for the rest of your life… it’s very, very unlikely that you’re going to comply. You’re going to think I’m off my rocker — and you’re going to ignore my pleading request to save your eternal soul from a beerless, stripper-less eternity. You’re going to think that following the sacred customs of the FSM faith would be a ridiculous waste of time, energy, and resources. You’re definitely not going to think that it’s a safer bet.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Collection plate Most religions don’t simply require you to believe that God exists. They require you to make sacrifices, and adhere to rules. Not just the ordinary ones needed to be a moral/ successful/ happy person in everyday life, either. Religions typically require significant sacrifices, and obedience to strict rules, that can seriously interfere with happiness, success, even morality. Religions require people to donate money; participate in rituals; spend time in houses of worship; follow rules about what to eat, what to wear, what drugs to avoid, who to have sex with and how. Religions require people to cut off their foreskins. Cut off their clitorises. Cut off ties with their gay children. Dress modestly. Suppress their sexuality. Reject evolution. Reject blood transfusions. (For themselves, and their children.) Refuse to consider interfaith marriage. Refuse to consider interfaith friendship. Memorize a long stretch of religious text and recite it in public at age thirteen. Spend their weekends knocking on strangers’ doors, pestering them to join the faith. Donate money to fix the church roof. Donate money to send bibles to Nicaragua. Donate money so the preacher can buy a Cadillac. Have as many children as they physically can. Disown their children if they leave the faith. Obey their husbands without question. Not eat pork. Not get tattoos. Get up early to sit in church once a week, on one of only two days a week they have off. Cover their bodies from head to toe. Treat people as unclean who were born into different castes. Treat women as sinners if they have sex outside marriage. Beat or kill their wives and daughters if they have sex outside marriage. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Religion typically requires sacrifice.

And this simple fact, all by itself, completely demolishes the foundational assumption of Pascal’s wager.

The assumption of Pascal’s Wager is that any other wager is a sucker’s bet. Pascal’s Wager doesn’t just assume that the payoff for winning the bet is infinite bliss, or that the cost of losing is infinite suffering. It assumes that the stakes for the bet are zero.

But the stakes are not zero.

Hazing reader It’s even been argued — correctly, I think — that the sacrifices religion requires are an essential part of what keep it going. (Think of fraternity hazing. Once you’ve sacrificed and suffered for a belief or project or group affiliation, you’re more likely to stick with it… to convince yourself that the sacrifice was worth it. That’s how the rationalizing human mind works.)

And if religion requires sacrifice… then Pascal’s Wager collapses. A bet with an infinite payoff and zero stakes? Sure, that’s an obvious bet. But a bet with infinite payoff and real stakes? That’s a lot less obvious. Especially when there are, as I said before, thousands of competing bets, all with contradictory demands for the specific stakes you’re supposed to place. And double especially when there’s no good evidence that any one of these competing bets is more likely to pay off than any other… or that any of them at all have any plausible chance whatsoever of paying off. Again: If you wouldn’t bet on my Flying Spaghetti Monster religion, with its entirely reasonable demands for chocolate and tattoos and hourly prayer and fanatical Detroit-phobia… then why on Earth are you betting on your own religion?

If this short life is the only one we have, then contorting our lives into narrow and arbitrary restrictions, and following rules that grotesquely distort our moral compass, and giving things up that are harmless and ethical and could make ourselves and others profoundly happy, all for no good reason… that’s the sucker bet.

Besides… even if none of this were true? Even if belief in God required absolutely no sacrifice in any practical matters? No rules, no rituals, no circumcision, no sexual guilt, no execution of adulterers, no gay children shamed and abandoned, no dead children who would have lived if they’d gotten blood transfusions, no money in the collection plate? Nothing except belief?

It would still have costs.

And those costs would be significant.

Faith The idea of religious faith? The idea that it makes sense to believe in invisible beings, undetectable forces, events that happen after we die? The idea that it makes sense to believe in a hypothesis that’s either entirely untestable… or that’s been tested thousands of times and consistently been proven wrong? The idea that we can rely entirely on our personal intuition to tell us what is and isn’t true about the world… and ignore hard evidence that contradicts that intuition? The idea that it’s not only acceptable, but a positive good, to believe in things for which you have not one single shred of good evidence?

This idea has costs. This idea undermines our critical thinking skills. It closes our minds to new ideas. It bolsters our prejudices and preconceptions. It leaves us vulnerable to bad ideas. It leaves us vulnerable to frauds and charlatans. It leaves us vulnerable to manipulative political leaders. It leads us to devalue evidence and reason. It leads us to trivialize reality.

So all by itself, even without any obvious sacrifices of time or money or restricted lifestyle or screwed-up ethical choices, religious faith shapes the way we live our lives. And it does so in a way that can do a tremendous amount of harm.

Unless you have some actual good evidence that the sacrifice of time/ money/ happiness/ goodness/ etc. required by religion — and the sacrifice of healthy skepticism and critical thinking and passion for truth — will actually pay off with the reward of a blissful eternal afterlife, your bet on God is just as shaky as the atheists’ bet on no God.

And if you had some good evidence that God exists, and that these sacrifices had a good chance of paying off, you wouldn’t be resorting to Pascal’s Wager to make your case.

Loser capConceding Your Argument Before You’ve Even Started It. If you take nothing else from this piece, take this:

The moment you propose Pascal’s Wager is the moment you’ve conceded the argument.

Pascal’s Wager isn’t an argument for why God exists and is really real. Pascal’s Wager is, in fact, 100% disconnected from the question of whether God exists and is really real. Pascal’s Wager offers no evidence for God’s existence — not even the shaky “evidence” of the the appearance of design or the supposed fine-tuning of the universe or the feelings in your heart. It offers no logical argument for why God must exist or probably exists — not even the paper-thin “logic” of the First Cause argument. It does not offer one scrap of a positive reason for thinking that God is real.

Magic thurstonPascal’s Wager is misdirection. Distraction. It’s a way of drawing attention away from how crummy the arguments for God actually are. It’s an evasion: a slippery, dodgy, wanna-be clever trick to avoid the actual argument. It’s a way of making the debater feel wily and ingenious, while ignoring the actual question on the table.

It isn’t an argument. It’s an excuse for why you don’t have an argument. And it’s a completely pathetic excuse.

If you’re relying on Pascal’s Wager for your faith, you might as well believe in unicorns or elves, Zoroaster or Zeus, the invisible dragon in Carl Sagan’s garage or the Flying Spaghetti Monster who brought the world into being through his blessed noodly appendage. Pascal’s Wager is every bit as good an argument for these beliefs as it is for any religion that people currently believe in.

If you had a better argument for God, you’d be making it. You’d be offering some good evidence for why God exists; some logical explanation for why God has to exist. You wouldn’t be resorting to this lazy, slippery, bet-hedging, shot-full-of-holes excuse for why you don’t have to actually think about the question.

Pascal’s Wager isn’t an argument.

It’s an admission that you’ve got nothing.

45 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. 1
    mouse

    THe “I’m with Stupid” and “Does God Care” angles are the aspects of the wager that have always driven me the battiest. I think they are where the real value of the Atheist Wager lies – it’s not that it’s a good argument for atheism so much as it’s a good counterpoint to Pascal.

  2. 2
    Mike Haubrich

    I first encountered Pascal’s wager in 1985, and have been amused by it ever since then. As you point out, Pascal limits the choice to “red” or “black,” but people shouldn’t forget that Pascal invented the Roulette wheel and there are more than two choices.
    Except for pagans and buddhists, most religions say you have to pick a number and not a color.
    Excellent takedown of an argument, Greta.

  3. 3
    Dark

    Most of your points are reasonable, and I agree with most of them, except for the section “Is the cost of belief really nothing?”
    Pascal’s wager does not rely on the costs of religious belief being zero. The important part of Pascal’s wager is that the payoff if you believe and are correct is infinite, and the costs of believing are finite(which we would expect they would be, since life is limited).
    http://www.iep.utm.edu/pasc-wag/
    That site explains it pretty well.
    As long as the reward is infinite and the costs are finite(and the probability that god exists is not 0), the bet should be made.
    Your other points are valid. It is still a very poor argument for believing.

  4. 4
    DSimon

    As long as the reward is infinite and the costs are finite(and the probability that god exists is not 0), the bet should be made.

    Okay, how about this:
    I’ve invented a technology that allows a person to become immortal. It’s amazing and totally foolproof, and there are no downsides. However, I’m really eccentric, so I won’t explain any further than that. However, I promise I’ll give it to you, if you PayPal me $5 right now.
    Should you send me the five bucks?

  5. 5
    Dark

    “I’ve invented a technology that allows a person to become immortal. It’s amazing and totally foolproof, and there are no downsides. However, I’m really eccentric, so I won’t explain any further than that. However, I promise I’ll give it to you, if you PayPal me $5 right now.
    Should you send me the five bucks?”
    Assuming that you believe immortality to be a good thing, and that you enjoy life and will forever enjoy life, and that nothing horrible will happen to the universe to make you stop enjoying life and that the universe won’t end (there’s probably something I’m missing there), and that the probability that you have actually invented such a device is not 0, then yes, I should send you the five bucks, since the expected value of sending you $5 would be greater than the expected value of not sending you $5.
    As I don’t believe any of those assumptions, I won’t be sending you $5 any time soon.

  6. 6
    DSimon

    Assume that the device grants immortality without any downsides, and that the laws of physics happen to imply a universe that will never end (AIUI this is still an open question).
    Are you saying the probability of such a device is literally zero? That seems silly. The probability is certainly incredibly tiny, but in order for it to be at zero, it would have to imply something physically impossible, which I don’t think it does.

  7. 7
    Dark

    No, I’m not implying that the probability is zero. You’re right, it’s probably not.
    I believe that the probability that you have invented such a device, are willing to give it away for $5, and there has been no news or preceding discoveries leading up to this is 0.
    Effectively, I don’t believe it’s possible for you to have done this without me having found out that you might some other way before you propose it to me, which hasn’t happened.

  8. 8
    DSimon

    I believe that the probability that you have invented such a device, are willing to give it away for $5, and there has been no news or preceding discoveries leading up to this is 0.

    Again, impossible? It seems to me that that’s overstating it; these events aren’t impossible, just ludicrously unlikely.
    Inventing the device: Perhaps I was incredibly lucky and managed to figure out all the necessary principles very rapidly. Perhaps my cat helped by jumping on the keyboard and randomly typing out some crucial equation or algorithm that otherwise would’ve taken decades to discover.
    You not hearing about it: Perhaps you just, by coincidence, happen to have never heard of the development happening, even though other people have. Or perhaps the developers did a really good job of keeping it secret; conspiracies don’t usually work that well, but maybe this one was lucky.
    Giving it away for $5: this one is the least implausible. It doesn’t require any new scientific discoveries, it only requires that I have some weird motivation other than profit. Humans do that all the time.
    Since each of these events, considered independently, has a non-zero probability, then the composite probability of all of them happening is also non-zero.

  9. 9
    Dark

    Ok, true.
    Your point?

  10. 10
    DSimon

    My goal in this whole discussion has been to explain why I disagree with your earlier statement:

    As long as the reward is infinite and the costs are finite(and the probability that god exists is not 0), the bet should be made.

    If the probability of the whole “immortality machine” story being true is non-zero, and the potential benefit is large enough (which if you assume a long enough age of the universe, like say infinite, it certainly is), then a regular expected utility calculation says that strongly outweighs the cost of five dollars, and therefore you should give me five dollars.
    However, if you actually gave me five dollars right now, we both know what would really happen: you’d be slightly poorer, I would go buy a milkshake, and nobody would be any more immortal than before. :-)
    So my point is: expected utility calculations are not always a rational way to make decisions, especially at border cases with very large potential benefits and very small probabilities (i.e. lotteries).

  11. 11
    Dark

    You do put forth a convincing argument.
    So why is expected value good at finite cases with reasonable probabilities, but not good at this?
    Or is it actually good at those cases?

  12. 12
    DSimon

    Honestly, I’m not sure. :-)
    It’s pretty easy to find scenarios that break simple decision theories like Pascal’s expected value. But, I’m not very familiar with the more modern incarnations of decision theory, so I don’t think I can talk very usefully about how to go about building a good decision-making algorithm, or why exactly a given system doesn’t meet that mark.

  13. 13
    viatia

    What is the difference between a “true” believer and an insincere believer? Is there always one? Could someone act like a true believer thinking they are and still be insincere in their belief, or be a true believer without acting much like one? I sometimes wonder about the difference.

  14. 14
    Taxorgian

    Dark:
    It’s a lousy method of determining value even with finite values of both. The main reason is that (using financial expectation value as a proxy) it is not generally true that benefits or decrements scale properly. If the Invisible Pink Unicorn gave me $100 million or $1 billion it would make absolutely no difference to me which one (if you can buy anything you want, who cares, right?); in contrast, the difference between $10000 and $100000 would be enormous. But each is a factor of ten difference.

  15. 15
    Locutus7

    Taxorgian,
    That is a good example of scaling issues.
    Until Pascal (or anyone), could demonstrate an actual infinite (which eternity would be), I would not waste a second on the proposition. It would be like buying a flying pig in a poke. Unless you can show that a flying pig can exist, I’m passing.

  16. 16
    Greta Christina

    Dark and DSimon: I’m also not familiar with modern decision theory or game theory. But it seems to me that the moment the stakes go from “zero” to “above zero” — even if the “above zero” stakes are very small — then cost/ benefit analysis becomes important, and the question of how plausible the payoff is suddenly comes into play. An infinite payoff isn’t any good if it the plausibility of it happening is nil or next to nil.
    And when you combine this problem with the other problems of Pascal’s Wager — such as the fact that the stakes are actually pretty substantial, and the fact that wagering on one god means wagering against thousands of others (and in theory an infinitude of others) — the weakness becomes more apparent. That’s the beautiful thing about Pascal’s Wager: the different reasons it’s bad all interconnect so beautifully. The “Which god?” question dovetails into the “Does God even care?” question; the “Is this even belief?” question blends in seamlessly with the “Just how stupid do you think God is?” question. It’s like a magnificent tapestry of fail.

  17. 17
    Ttch

    Since Pascal was Roman Catholic his argument was for Roman Catholicism, not for Christianity in general and certainly not for god-belief in general.
    Why confuse the issue by mentioning all the Podunk Bible-College-and-Bait-Shop churches, when you have the one true Church founded by God Himself, come to Earth in the person of His Son, Jesus, called the Christ?
    Pascal’s argument supports Roman Catholicism, nothing else. No confusion is possible.

  18. 18
    Meagen

    The thing is, Pascal’s Wager is not only ever brought up by Roman Catholics, it’s also brought up by all sorts of other flavours of Christian (some of which claim Catholics are going to Hell, or vice versa). I don’t think when a Methodist or a Baptist or a Mormon says “Either you believe in the True God, or you don’t…” they think of the Roman Catholic approach to belief in God.

  19. 19
    Maria

    I sometimes wonder about the difference.
    I think the point is that a god should be able to tell the difference.

  20. 20
    Eclectic

    Another thing about utility functions is that you have to discount future utility. Infinite reward over infinite time is equivalent to finite reward right now.
    You just sum the geometric series. If I discount 1% per month, then the value of an infinite number of months is 100x the monthly reward.
    Not to mention that, if you actually follow the theology, heaven isn’t eternal: there’s supposedly a “Last judgment” coming along one of these days to stir things up. I’m a little fuzzy on what happens after, but it needs to be made clear.

  21. 21
    julie

    My mom says I have to believe in god, otherwise I’ll become a hare krishna. I think this argument might be just a little dumber than Pascals.

  22. 22
    DSimon

    Eclectic, how do you decide how much to discount?

  23. 23
    lectroid

    My biggest problem with this article is the idea of heaven being strippers and beer.
    I don’t *like* beer.

  24. 24
    viatia

    Maria, “god should be able to tell the difference”
    Yes, presumably God could tell the difference but that doesn’t help a believer. Is there an identifiable difference? How could believers identify an insincere belief inside themselves? It wouldn’t make sense to “ask God” if your belief were insincere?

  25. 25
    themann1086

    lectroid: I’m more of a mixed drinks guy myself. Substitute your substance of choice! :)

  26. 26
    Maria

    Where are you going with all this, viatia?

  27. 27
    viatia

    Maria, I’m not sure where. I find it hard to nail down. I’m starting with the counter argument to Pascal’s wager that a bet-hedging belief can’t be sincere. But it seems believers who present the wager wouldn’t care, at least not in others. But if a believer did care, what would make them think their own belief couldn’t be insincere, by bet-hedging or something else?

  28. 28
    gabe

    Pascal’s Wager: If God is infinite, we cannot logically prove God’s existence. Because we can’t prove his existence we might as well believe he exists because if we’re wrong we’re fucked, and if we’re right we’re set for eternity.
    Could someone tell me in laymen terms why that’s such a fallacy? It seems to make quite some sense to me.
    I like Pascal’s Wager because it reminds us that we cannot and can never fully prove that God does not exist. Knowing that we can never prove if God exists or not, it seems perfectly normal to me that some would like to play it on the safe side and choose to believe in God and all the wonderful things that believing in God is said to entail.
    Pascal states on the purpose of man: “For after all what is man in nature? A nothing in relation to infinity, all in relation to nothing, a central point between nothing and all and infinitely far from understanding either”
    That paragraph, written almost 250 years prior to Camus’ The Stranger is seen by many as the birth of existential thought. The difference though between Pascal and the other modern and post-modern existentialists is that he offers a light at the end of the nihilistic tunnel: The belief in God.
    Pascal’s Wager is fascinating because it uses existentialism (a fiercely anti-religious mode of thought) as a rationale to believe in God. The simple eloquence of such a clever argument seems to be lost on Greta as well as most of the commenters here.
    The snarky tone of this article really disappointed me. Pascal was a brilliant and massively influential thinker who I believe was more in-tune with man’s quest for meaning than many secular thinkers are today. It would be nice if you separated his argument from those who in contemporary times have bastardized it.

  29. 29
    Locutus7

    Gabe, don’t you mean disprove rather than prove in your first para?

  30. 30
    Doug

    Gabe, did you read the article? There is very little anyone can say in response to that that isn’t in there, but I’ll go ahead and just ask which God? Because there are currently thousands of known, completely contradictory Gods; none of whom have any more or less evidence in their favor to weed out the right one and all of whom will punish me severely for believing in a different one. So which of the thousands of known gods and the infite Gods I could just make up off the top of my head should be the one I hedge my bets with? Oh, and let us not forget all the Gods that exist (and all the infinitely possible Gods that can exist) that don’t promise an infinite reward or anything resembling heaven; what should I do with those?

  31. 31
    DSimon

    I like Pascal’s Wager because it reminds us that we cannot and can never fully prove that God does not exist.

    Indeed! In fact, that’s true of any God you can come up with, including some that are silly.
    For example: I happen to know for a fact that God will let you into heaven if and only if you PayPal me five dollars.
    Now, of course, I could be wrong… in fact, chances are very high that I’m wrong! But when considering such a low cost, and a potentially infinite reward, doesn’t it make the most sense to send me the $5?

  32. 32
    Greta Christina

    Could someone tell me in laymen terms why that’s such a fallacy?

    ???
    Gabe, I’m puzzled by your request. That’s exactly what this entire piece does. I’ll summarize in a moment, but I’m going to assume that your objections don’t actually have anything to do with Pascal’s Wager, but instead lie somewhere else. And I’m guessing they have to do with what you consider to be the “nihilistic” view of life without God.
    I can assure you that nothing is further from the truth. Atheism is not nihilism. Most atheists experience a great sense of meaning and value in life. In fact, for many of us, our sense of the value of life has gone up since becoming atheists, not down: we value this life more now that we think it’s the only one we have.
    I’ve written elsewhere about how atheists experience value and meaning and joy in life. Here are just a few of those pieces:
    Dancing Molecules: An Atheist Moment of Transcendence
    For No Good Reason: Atheist Transcendence at the Black and White Tour
    Atheist Meaning in a Small, Brief Life, Or, On Not Being a Size Queen
    Part of the Show: Atheist Transcendence at the Edwardian Ball
    As for Pascal’s Wager: Here, once again, in layperson’s terms, is why it’s a fallacy. Pascal’s Wager begs a number of serious questions: How do you decide which of the thousands of gods people believe in, and the tens of thousands of gods people have ever believed in, and the infinitude of gods that are hypothetically possible, are you going to worship? Why should you assume that God even cares whether we believe: that not believing means “we’re fucked,” and that believing means “we’re set for eternity”? Assuming God does care whether we believe, why would we assume that this “believing because it’s a safer bet” would satisfy him? How does pretending to believe in God simply because it’s a safer bet qualify as real belief? And given that belief in gods requires real-world sacrifices — the sacrifice of our reason, if nothing else — wouldn’t we want some evidence that these sacrifices weren’t a total waste? Especially since — as outlined in my first point — we have no way of knowing which god we should be worshipping, and which sacrifices we should be making?
    No, we can’t be 100% certain that there are no gods — but doesn’t that equally apply to Allah and Zeus and Vishnu and Thor and the Goddess and every other god you presumably don’t worship?
    In other words: Without any good, solid evidence to believe in God in the first place, Pascal’s Wager collapses. And if there were good, solid evidence to believe in God, Pascal’s Wager would be unnecessary.
    If you’re going to defend Pascal’s Wager, you need to come up with answers to these questions.

  33. 33
    gabe

    Thanks for all the responses, but wow, where do I even start?!
    In response to Greta:
    “Atheism is not nihilism. Most atheists experience a great sense of meaning and value in life. In fact, for many of us, our sense of the value of life has gone up since becoming atheists, not down: we value this life more now that we think it’s the only one we have.”
    Meaning and value are subjective. I don’t mean to sound patronizing but what you find beautiful or transcendental may to me seem pedestrian and boring. For example, as per one of the posts you linked to, you were amazed that the phenomena of joy and commitment could be produced by the biological structures that comprise us. That’s an interesting observation, and I don’t think any less of you because of it, but frankly that’s just not really the way I see the world and it doesn’t move me much. To equate that with Nihilism though was unfair and a tad ignorant, so I apologize for that.
    “How do you decide which of the thousands of gods people believe in, and the tens of thousands of gods people have ever believed in, and the infinitude of gods that are hypothetically possible, are you going to worship”
    That’s an entirely unrelated issue. How one comes to believe in a religion has to do with upbrining, philosophical and spiritual outlook and other issues that Pascal doesn’t even remotely touch on. Pascal’s Wager assumes that one has arrived or has always possessed a specific religious tendency.
    Furthermore, Pascal’s Wager could really be applied to almost any monotheistic as well as polytheistic religion (and it has*). Pascal, as a Roman Catholic, believed in one God, and he believed in the supremacy of this God. Pascal might’ve thought that there are many Wagers one could make on the many different Gods that people believe in. He would say that one Wager (the one that has to do with the roman catholic god) is correct while the others are wrong, blasphemous, whatever…a Pascal Wager hierarchy if you will. Other religions could use the same logic to prove that their God’s exist.
    Again, the argument of ‘if my God exists how can yours also exist’ is a simplistic one. The belief that the existence of God is a zero-sum game is not ubiquitous in religious thought.
    “And given that belief in gods requires real-world sacrifices — the sacrifice of our reason, if nothing else — wouldn’t we want some evidence that these sacrifices weren’t a total waste? Especially since — as outlined in my first point — we have no way of knowing which god we should be worshipping, and which sacrifices we should be making?”
    You’re using the royal We quite carelessly. Maybe you would like more evidence that god exists, but for some the proof of God’s existence are as simple and obvious as the wind or the emotion of Love.
    “Why should you assume that God even cares whether we believe: that not believing means “we’re fucked,” and that believing means “we’re set for eternity”?”
    (Excuse my original vulgarity) Because that’s the doctrine taught by most religions. I suppose the assumption is where the issue lies – but that again is an unrelated discussion to Pascal’s Wager.
    “Assuming God does care whether we believe, why would we assume that this “believing because it’s a safer bet” would satisfy him” “How does pretending to believe in God simply because it’s a safer bet qualify as real belief?”
    I wouldn’t say that this as well is part of conventional religious doctrine, but there are many widely followed interpretations of religious text in which God is said to be ambivalent to the process of how one comes to believe in Him. The use of the word “pretending” is highly debatable, and religions deal with purity of belief in various ways – some taking a strict position while others are more inclusive and flexible.
    Your first post takes a very simplistic and caricatured view of religion and religious thought. The often competing variations and interpretations of religion offer various answers to what your supposedly religionut-proof questions.
    In response to DSimon: What do you mean when you say “silly”? It’s a weasel word – what is silly to you may not be silly to me. What is silly to a Muslim may be silly to a Jew, what is silly to an Atheist may be silly to a Christian. The way we decipher what is truly silly (see: not grounded in rational logic) is by use of reason. Pascal’s Wager (like I’ve said before) is meant to be conducted in a post-reason mode of thought.
    As you might realize by now, I’m playing the role of devils advocate here because I’ve seen the wager been put down with such simplistic vehemence by many-a-atheist (I’m agnostic myself) that I thought I’d try and play the other side of the coin and see where it gets me.
    Ultimately though, religious people do not like to defend their religion based on science or logic but on faith. I believe that can be harmful but also wonderful – Atheism has always bothered me because it’s so beholden to science, logic, and rationality, leaving no room for faith, miracle, and hope. Faith and hope unbeholden to the dogmatic pursuit of science and “enlightenment reason” can be a tremendous human quality that allow us to imbue meaning on a world that can often seem utterly absurd and meaningless. As long as one group does not try to impose their religion forcefully on others, I don’t think its fair to chastise people for choosing to see the world through such a lens.
    I think there is a great misunderstanding between the 90% of the world who believes in religion and the 5 or 10% who don’t. I think many religious people don’t necessarily believe in some grey-haired guy sitting atop a cloud commanding, smiting, and worrying about us and our every insignificant action. Religion has been involved in society, political economy, and human thought for millennia – the reasons behind one believing in religion are often more complex and understandable than I think most of you would be willing to admit.
    (I realize I’ve veered way off-topic, but I thought the rambling was pertinent)
    Anyways, thank you all for your responses, this discussion has been dare I say, enlightening.
    *Vararuci, a Hindu scholar used a similar argument to Pascal’s Wager to prove the existence of the multiple Hindu deities.

  34. 34
    Greta Christina

    “How do you decide which of the thousands of gods people believe in, and the tens of thousands of gods people have ever believed in, and the infinitude of gods that are hypothetically possible, are you going to worship”
    That’s an entirely unrelated issue.

    No. It is exactly the crux of the issue. If I don’t already believe in a religion, and someone is using Pascal’s Wager to persuade me, then why should I pick their god and their religion to worship out of thousands?

    Furthermore, Pascal’s Wager could really be applied to almost any monotheistic as well as polytheistic religion (and it has*).

    Yes. That’s exactly my point. And those religions differ significantly, in many cases to the point of holding completely opposing doctrines. An an outsider to religion, who is being offered Pascal’s Wager as a reason to believe, how am I to decide which one to believe in?

    Maybe you would like more evidence that god exists, but for some the proof of God’s existence are as simple and obvious as the wind or the emotion of Love.

    Ummm… With all due respect, do you understand that the wind is motion of air molecules, and that love is an emotion created by brains and hormones and bodies? They are wonderful things, but gods are not necessary to explain them.
    “God is just obvious” is one of the worst arguments for God’s existence around. Lots of things seem obvious that aren’t true. Especially things we already believe, and that we’ve been taught to believe since we were children, and that we have strong motivation to believe.
    In any case, you once again miss the point. If your evidence for your god was sufficient, why would you resort to Pascal’s Wager to persuade someone of it — or indeed, to persuade yourself?

    “Why should you assume that God even cares whether we believe: that not believing means “we’re fucked,” and that believing means “we’re set for eternity”?”
    (Excuse my original vulgarity) Because that’s the doctrine taught by most religions. I suppose the assumption is where the issue lies – but that again is an unrelated discussion to Pascal’s Wager.

    And yet again, this begs the question. Yes, I understand that the doctrine that God cares whether we believe in him is widespread. What reason do I have to think it’s correct?
    (And you don’t have to apologize for using the word “fuck” in this blog.)

    there are many widely followed interpretations of religious text in which God is said to be ambivalent to the process of how one comes to believe in Him.

    You’re missing the point. The question isn’t “how does one come to believe?” The question is, “does a Pascal’s Wager ‘belief’ even qualify as belief? Does is qualify as ‘belief’ to adhere to a doctrine regardless of whether you actually think it’s, you know, true?”

    Atheism has always bothered me because it’s so beholden to science, logic, and rationality, leaving no room for faith, miracle, and hope. Faith and hope unbeholden to the dogmatic pursuit of science and “enlightenment reason” can be a tremendous human quality that allow us to imbue meaning on a world that can often seem utterly absurd and meaningless.

    ???
    First of all, atheism is not devoid of hope or meaning. We already covered that when we talked about nihilism, which you already conceded you were mistaken about. It is not devoid of faith, unless you specifically mean religious faith, or faith in things we have no good reason to think are true — and I see no reason why that’s a good thing. Ditto miracles: atheists believe in everyday miracles of human beings transcending our normal abilities, just not in supernatural miracles — and again, I see no reason why that’s a good thing. And I see no reason why it’s a good thing to imbue life with meaning that’s based on unreality. I, for one, care whether the things I believe are true — and I care whether the meaning I’m basing my life on is based on ideas and perceptions that are true. If you don’t… then I’m not going to be very interested in pursuing this conversation further.
    And in any case, you’re falling back on the argument from utility. “I really want my religion to be true, therefore it’s true.” Another of the worst arguments ever. It’s basically conceding the argument: it entirely disconnects your argument from the realm of reality, and places it squarely in the realm of wishful thinking.

    Religion has been involved in society, political economy, and human thought for millennia – the reasons behind one believing in religion are often more complex and understandable than I think most of you would be willing to admit.

    None of which makes it true.
    I am aware of the complex reasons behind religious faith. (I used to have it myself.) And I am all too aware of religion’s connections with human history — it’s one of the reasons I spend so much time speaking out against it. But “lots of people have believed this, and they have really psychologically interesting reasons to believe it” is not an argument for why something is true.

  35. 35
    Makyui

    And I see no reason why it’s a good thing to imbue life with meaning that’s based on unreality.

    I’m going to butt in for a moment (and to apologize ahead of time for it) to vent about this, because it’s been stuck in my crop for a while, and I am so, so sick and tired of hearing theists say that atheism means life has no meaning and value, and the next time I hear one say it, I’m going to throw a brick*.
    Out of all the people I know personally and am close to, only one of them is a fellow atheist. He is the ONLY one of the group who hasn’t either considered throwing their life away–as in suicide, folks–for entirely petty reasons, who doesn’t assume that religion is what gives people value, or who doesn’t partake in reckless risk-taking on the assumption that if it kills them, it will “be [their] time to go” and they’ll be going to a “better place”.
    Over and over again, I hear theists talk about how humans are disgusting and worthless things fit to be thrown in a firepit to burn forever, or how if we aren’t the personal meat puppets to a magic sky man, then our lives have no meaning because we’d just be “chemicals”, otherwise.
    And then atheists are accused of wanting to take meaning out of people’s lives, or of reducing humans to universal accidents no better than shitpiles, even though atheists are usually the ones saying that life is too precious to waste, and even though one of the aforementioned friends chose not to off himself not because God makes him precious or because the bible said no, but for the same completely secular reasons that I and many other atheists are glad to be alive for.
    It’s absolutely infuriating.
    *No, before someone accuses me of being violent, I’m not really going to throw a brick.

  36. 36
    gabe

    All fair points Greta. I think this video will summarize by philosophical qualms with your takedown of Pascal’s Wager, as well as with Atheism in general:
    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=701615010247647606#
    We could continue this discussion but the differences we seem to have are not empirical or logical but rather deeply philosophical.

  37. 37
    gabe

    Addendum: While the video is long it is beyond fascinating and remains cogent throughout – I do urge everyone here to take a look at it,

  38. 38
    Snoof

    gabe, I watched the video you linked to. It didn’t anywhere mention Pascal’s wager. It didn’t even address the existence of any metaphysical entities, merely the possible causes and ramifications of _beliefs_ in metaphysical entities, which he acknowledged were constructed and which he explicitly placed in a different category to empirical knowledge.
    Or maybe I’m just not perceptive enough. Can you explain how anything in that video actually justifies Pascal’s wager?
    Also, the video wasn’t _about_ atheism. It was about secularism which, despite what certain religious authorities may claim, is different.

  39. 39
    Mark Manning

    Greta,
    My thanks! I commend you for some great thought offered in clear and clever writing. Your “Athiest’s Wager” is priceless! I have tried to put such insight into words, but your style far surpasses my own abilities.
    And though you don’t often follow your own advice about brevity, I have enjoyed your blog for a few weeks now.
    As to the very term, “atheist,” I have coined something that works better for me. I know you care nothing for the “passionless” middle ground, but I firmly believe in standing above the fray, living a life of meaning without self-identifying as a member of any side of an argument.
    My new term for myself is, “theo-neutralist.” Unlike an “atheist” who is now seen as, “a believer in no god,” or “agnostic” who says, “I don’t know,” my theo-neutral stance is, “I can’t know and I don’t care!” This present life deserves all our attention as opposed to wasting time trying to qualify for some ethereal, possible future life.
    I am a believer in humanity.

  40. 40
    Mark Manning

    And a poor proof-reader! Sorry, AthEIsts!

  41. 41
    Eclectic

    DSimon, the discount depends on about a zillion factors, particularly including how much you are suffering from the lack right now. I’d happily trade $1000 now for $1100 tomorrow, but I wouldn’t trade 1000 breaths now for 1000000 breaths 30 minutes from now.
    There’s a whole lot of psychology and economics research into the matter. My brief blog-comment point was just that under reasonable assumptions, the present value is finite, without worrying about the exact numbers involved.

  42. 42
    Kevinsky

    I usually turn back Pascal’s wager by saying that’s like telling me I can either bet on horses or not bet on horses. If I bet on horses I have to hang around horsetracks and choose a horse, and probably lose money. If I don’t bet on horses I can spend my time doing something else, and keep my money in my pocket.

  43. 43
    Andy

    I think I’ve identified yet another flaw in Pascal’s wager, by thinking about DSimon’s “give me $5 for my immortality machine” example.
    Since the cost of belief is nonzero (as you argue eloquently), the Pascal’s wager argument only works if the reward for belief is sufficiently high to balance out the small probability of a “God that will grant you the reward only if you pretend to believe in him”. The usual form of the argument sweeps this under the rug with “the value of eternal life is infinite”.
    But that’s not true. Economists are familiar with the concept of “decreasing marginal utility of money”. Having money is nice, but having twice as much money is not twice as nice. If I gave you the choice of 10 million dollars, or a 50% chance (or even a 40% chance!) of 20 million dollars, you’d be a fool not to take the sure thing.
    The same applies to time of life. I’d take an extra 10 years over a 50% chance of an extra 20 years. And I’d take an extra billion years over a 50% chance of eternal life and a 50% chance of death right now (that’s permanent, no-afterlife, death).
    So if eternal life is worth less than twice as much as a billion-year life, then it has finite value. And if it has finite value, it’s not obvious (and IMNSFHO, not true) that it’s large enough to balance the tiny, tiny probability that any one particular religion that includes the “God is so petty that an insincere belief in him will make the difference between him granting you eternal life and not” belief is true.

  44. 44
    Dub2001

    I do agree that pascals wager is stupid for the simple fact that if you truly have faith its not a wager…..you can’t say I believe just to cover your ass. I do believe in God myself and I love hearing arguments from atheist and all beliefs to help me better understand my own faith. You can’t defend your own faith and teach it without understand all aspects of others beliefs…….I don’t think you follow the same concept. There are not thousands of Christian gods just because there are variations of Christian religion. GOD was not religious, if you are Christian you believe in the same God, you just have different interpretations. Do they matter? For the most part I don’t believe so…..so long as you have faith in God and follow his law which in its simplest form is simply unconditional love. No matter what religion you are if we all had unconditionalove for each other nearly all of our problems would vanish. Common sense would help anyone decide which faith is correct, look at the history of them and you will see which one is the only one with proveable proficy and predictions. As far as which version…..well just study the original text and don’t twist it around to mean what u want it to……think about it.

  45. 45
    Greta Christina

    so long as you have faith in God and follow his law which in its simplest form is simply unconditional love.

    Dub2001: And how do you know that “unconditional love” is God’s law in its simplest form? Lots of Christians — and believers in other religions — strongly disagree with you about that. How do you know that you’re right and they’re wrong?
    Besides, there are plenty of teachings in the Bible — even in the New Testament, even in the Four Gospels — that are hateful and morally abhorrent, that teach anything but unconditional love. How do you reconcile these with your idea that “unconditional love” is God’s law in its simplest form?

    Common sense would help anyone decide which faith is correct…

    Really? Common sense seems to have done nothing of the kind. Pretty much every believer has a different idea of which faith is correct — and their “common sense” all tells them that theirs is correct. “Common sense” all too often tells us what we already believe, or what we most want to believe. How do you know that your “common sense” is telling you the truth, and that the “common sense” of Christians and other believers who totally disagree with you is telling them falsehood?

    and you will see which one is the only one with proveable proficy and predictions.

    Really. Which one is that? I am not aware of any religious tradition with a proven track record of reliable prophecy and predictions that are any more accurate than educated guessing. (Except for the ones where the “history” was deliberately written after the prophecies and predictions to make it seems as if they had been fulfilled.)

    As far as which version…..well just study the original text and don’t twist it around to mean what u want it to.

    And how am I to do that? The original text is shot full of internal contradictions. The original text is ridiculously unclear. It’s one of the reasons people have come up with so many interpretations.
    And even if that weren’t true… why should I believe this particular text? There are lots of religious texts, in lots of religious traditions. Why should I believe the Bible, as opposed to the Koran, or the Bhagavad Ghita, or the Book of Mormon? Given that the Bible is not only internally contradictory but also wildly inaccurate… why should I trust it any more than any other book?

Leave a Reply