Monday, January 25, 2010

The Cynicism Of Pascal’s Wager

During a recent debate between my atheist self and a nominative Christian, he mentioned Pascal’s wager as a justification for why I should cast my lot with the churchgoing crowd.

In a nutshell, the wager says that the existence of God can’t be proved or disproved, but you may as well act as though God exists because the payoff’s so great if He does (and so awful if you’re wrong about it).

This makes sense if you think “behave as though God exists” is synonymous with “behave morally” (however you define that). It still suggests a low opinion of human nature – I refrain from harming people not because I fear God or even the cops, but because my own conscience won’t allow me to do harm – but I take a dim view of human nature myself, so I don’t fault Pascal for that.

But whenever I – an average American who came of age in the late twentieth century and is now well into the twenty-first – hear anyone mention Pascal’s wager it’s always in the context of why I should be a Christian.

And that’s where the wager falls apart. Christianity doesn’t promise heaven, or even hell-avoidance, based on what people do but on what they believe. How can Pascal’s wager cover that? Threats or bribes can alter people's words or actions, but not their beliefs. Consider: suppose I’m invested with the supernatural power to give you anything you desire – up to and including eternal life and youth. In addition, or instead, I can also inflict great suffering, up to and including eternal torment. The one thing I can’t magically do is force you to believe or disbelieve anything; I can only try to persuade.

Whether I offer you the carrot or the stick – happiness eternal or torment everlasting – here’s what I want you to believe, with true sincerity and all your heart: that our world is flat.

“The world is flat.” You can easily make yourself say this, write it or announce it to the world, if you think the payoff's worth it. But can you make yourself truly believe it? Ignore everything you know about geography, geology, gravity, physics and history until you sincerely believe Earth is flat, and when your friend goes on a round-the-world cruise you’re worried he’ll fall off the edge?

Not without copious use of mind-altering drugs powerful enough to fry your brain forever, and that’s not what Pascal was talking about.


Anonymous Thoreau said...

Another problem with Pascal's Wager is that there are multiple religions with different paths to heaven, and they often prescribe incompatible paths. The price of disobeying any of them is steep (if they are right) and the reward is great (if they are right). So if you take the logic of the wager seriously, picking the wrong religion can be just as costly as picking no religion at all.

9:00 PM  
Blogger Warren said...

And another problem with it: The wager gets you to believe not because you WANT to believe, but rather out of fear. What the hell?!?!?!? I do like Pascal --- I think he did some fantastic things for the mathematical world and therefore for science as a whole, but I have a feeling that he might be put off just a little bit if he heard how people are 'using his name in vain' nowadays.

3:52 AM  
Anonymous Cap'n NoStar said...

The other problem with Pascal's wager is the GIGO effect: If you program your brain with unsupported facts, the conclusions you make will be highly suspect.

I understood that back in my atheist days, and despite having an experience that showed me God does indeed exist, I know the wager is a bogus argument.

Shout out to Thoreau: Good to see you. Are you on facebook?

Having God in my life hasn't made my problems go away, but it has made the problems easier to endure. I know there is no argument that can prove God; all I can do is live my life in such a way that inspires others to desire the same comfort, calm, and love that I have been given.

6:05 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Plus, assuming god exists and is not a psychopath, I'd think he'd respect "honest doubt" more than "dishonest faith."

9:08 AM  
Blogger rhhardin said...

No God and take the points.

4:27 AM  
Blogger KevinBBG said...

As Jefferson said:

"Shake off all the fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear."

[Thomas Jefferson, letter to Peter Carr, Aug. 10, 1787]

4:12 PM  

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