Why I don’t talk about Pascal’s Wager

Recently, I thought about why I haven’t really written about Pascal’s Wager. One might expect me to talk about it because I talk about belief in God (a lot) on this blog.

The reason I haven’t talked about the Wager is because Pascal’s Wager is more concerned with pragmatic reasons for believing that God exists. That is, Pascal is claiming that it would be good to believe that God exists. However, what would be good for one to believe isn’t the same thing as having evidence for what one believes.

On this blog, I am concerned with epistemic justification/warrant for belief in God, whether the “warrant” be some personal experience or the “justification” be publicly available…. like an argument (e.g. the moral argument for God’s existence).

Pascal seemed to be aware that we can’t just choose on a whim to believe something directly. Try believing right now that you can fly, or try believing that you have 1 trillion dollars in your bank account. That’s right, you can’t do it. However, Pascal’s answer was that one should engage in practices that tend to produce belief in God’s existence.

My answer to Pascal is that many people have engaged in practices to try and produce belief in God’s existence. In fact, many people’s nonbelief started in the context of them already having a relationship with God. Not to mention, it’s hard to see how there’s not a level of dishonesty here. If one is looking at the world and thinks, “Gee, it sure looks like God doesn’t exist, given all this suffering” one can’t simply handwave this by saying it would be better to believe that God exists. The simple fact is that people can’t just shake intellectual objections. And even if we could, it would be intellectually irresponsible to not try and look for answers.

The upshot is that what Pascal is proposing is just plain self-deception. Pascal is asking us to knowingly engage in practices that will produce belief, while at the same time, we are aware that the mechanisms that produce the belief in God aren’t based on the evidence available to us. Would God really prefer us to form a belief in God like this? In fact, would God want us to form any belief in this manner?

Objections
Someone might object by saying something like, “Look, engaging in practices that are good for us is rational. Believing in God is good for us; therefore, it is rational to believe that God exists.”

The problem with this objection is that even if it is true, the belief in question can still be irrational in other senses. But the further problem is that what is true in reality correlates heavily with what is good for us. Why do we bother believing anything that’s true? Because having an accurate model of reality helps us survive and thrive.

Conclusion

There are many other problems with Pascal’s Wager, and you are probably aware of some of the objections. I, for one, just don’t buy what Pascal is trying to sell. At best, we might agree that there are some benefits to believing that God exists, but that isn’t granting much. The lesson here is that we can’t ignore the question of evidence* when it comes to God’s existence. And, if we can’t ignore the evidence, then what use does Pascal’s Wager have? [1].

Notes:

[1] For more on Pascal’s Wager, see here: https://perfectchaos.org/2018/01/18/pascals-wager-discussed/

*A common complaint I’ve been hearing lately is that “arguments aren’t evidence”. I’m planning to make a whole blog post about this, but I just want to comment real quick. First, a good argument should have premises that are supported by evidence. So, we need to distinguish between good arguments and bad arguments. Secondly, it’s not clear what this objection is even supposed to be, or what it would entail….even if it were true. Is this objection saying that arguments can’t make a belief in some proposition rational? If so, we know that’s not true. Is it saying that arguments can’t demonstrate something? This is a misunderstanding. A good argument IS a demonstration of something. It takes premises that are known to be true/evidenced in order to form a conclusion.

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36 thoughts on “Why I don’t talk about Pascal’s Wager

  1. Interesting little bit on Pascal’s wager. I have to admit that it is difficult for me to consider the question of God through strictly analytical mode. I find it nearly impossible to consider various arguments or discussions about god on the superficial level of what people are saying about it. I always have to bring in the reflection of the other person to the discussion. I always have to challenge exactly what they are saying not from an argumentative standpoint but from the simple fact that they are saying something and how they might relate to that in whatever fashion.

    So similarly it is interesting to me that you would say that Pasco‘s wager is a kind of self deception.

    I say this because my question about God always comes or always goes to the end, and the end for me would be if my devout Catholic grandmother was sitting on her deathbed waiting to die and she asked me if Jesus would be there for her when she passes. My answer would be unequivocably “yes”.

    Whatever sort of intellectual and analytical postures and activities I’m a take of philosophy and of the various ideas of God or not God or Christian or Islam or anything like that, when it comes down to interacting with a human being I interact with them at whatever level that they are interacting with me at despite what philosophical ideas I may hold for myself. Some people have pointed out that that is dishonest, and I would have to admit yes OK but so what. But I would not say it is self deceptive; I would say it is the most honest that a person could live, or at least that I am able to live.

      1. I guess I kind of turn it on it’s head a little bit. I know pascals wager is about whether not one should believe in God, if I’m not mistaken, that one is better off to believe in God because the odds are better. Lol. But I’m kind of sand it doesn’t matter what I believe, that when it comes to God it is manifest in with the other person needs to believe or needs to hear for me, how I am able to be for them. So if they are an atheist and in time of need I would try to approach them in some sort of compassionate manner that corresponds with their atheist believe. But if they really want to have a discussion about it then I bite be a little bit more harsh . Similarly with someone who believes in God.

      2. …. oh
        But what does it really say about God’s existence if it doesn’t matter what I believe Beyond what other people need to hear. ?

      3. …What I mean to say is there is no belief that I have concerning God in itself or the existence of God and so I’m not sure how I would qualify being open about my believe in God.

  2. …as to evidence: The mind, reason, experience and perception can only be reduced to a stable playing field through force.

    I say this because of the capacity and indeed real experience that is denial. What this means is that there are some types of evidence that a person simply will not be able to perceive as evidence, no matter what the argument, and often no matter what consequences are being shifted. And this kind of occurrence is more prominent than many would like to believe — as, if I might poke a little 😄 , some analytical and ‘rational believers’ would deny.

    We must, of course, believe that most people are or can be rational and reasonable, Even if we don’t want to believe it.

      1. And he could be wagering wrong again by betting on Christianity if God is a Muslim or a Jew or something else! Pascal is an idiot! 🤔

      2. There may or may not be many Gods but this variety of choice only implies more insecurity for his wager! If he was smart, he wouldn’t be gambling!

  3. Dr. Peter Kreeft has a book on Pascal’s Pensees called Christanity for Modern Pagans-Pascal’s Peenees. I personally like the Wager argument for believing in God and from what I’ve read about Pascal, he was a very rational and ordered thinking person. I mean this guy was a jack of all trades..scientist, ardent apologist, inventor, child prodigy. I have read many objections on the Wager and I do see some minor flaws with it, but nonetheless I believe it’s an approach to confronting why belief in the Christian God is worth while. Peter Kreft succinctly makes that point in his book. Would I argue from it as a main argument for belief in God? Probably not, but it’s still an interesting idea to explore considering Blaise Pascal wrote it in a time of rationalism, and the growing movement toward scientific enlightenment.

    Great post!

  4. I freely admit to ignorance about Pascal’s wager, other than what is casually mentioned from time to time. The little bit that I understand seems more like faith in faith rather than faith is God. God is a person who offers claims about Himself, His work in the world, and His relationship with people. That is either true or it isn’t true. Thinking that it might be beneficial if it were true, so I’ll believe it is true, seem disingenuous, I think.

    It’s like saying, I believe in Abraham Lincoln because it would be better for the US to do away with slavery. Yes, it would, but does that have any bearing on whether or not Abraham Lincoln actually existed as a person? None whatsoever.

    But perhaps I’m missing too much to be correct about this objection.

    Anyway, as always, you make me think, Jonathan. Thank you.

    Becky

    1. Hey this a good question,

      In a practical form of the Wager Argument, think about this:

      For someone who patterns their life toward Christian virtues, accepts objective morality from God, is pretty much an authentic Christian in every way possible, but has trouble believing in the Incarnation of the Christian God, do you think that person will be condemned due to their lack of faith?

      Ultimately, no one comes to the Father except through Christ (John 14:6), so it would be Christ saving this person. I think this would be a good example of God’s grace reaching down. This person’s faith, maybe not an explicit confession of Christian faith, but they have a desire to know, live, and believe in God. This leaves the question of whether this person’s faith is disingenuous. Ultimately, God will be the judge of that person’s faith if it was genuine or fraud.

      Perhaps God in his abounding grace will save this person for their attempt to seek God and the truth He has revealed even though they had trouble in believing key truths about his ultimate revelation, Jesus Christ. I’d like to think I’d have more culpability if I knew something was true and ignored it vs. Me wanting to know truth, but having a hard time believing.

      This is just a way to conceptualize it. Not everyone sees this approach as valid, but I believe it’s a viable part to consider in the great question you raised.

      1. Thanks for the thoughtful response. I have this basic problem with the idea that you posit—that it’s possible to be “an authentic Christian in every way possible,” but have trouble believing in Jesus. A couple things come to mind. First, Jesus re-iterated what the Old Testament says is the greatest commandment: to love God. Is it possible to love God and to reject Jesus, who was God in the flesh?

        A second thing regarding God saving a person “for their attempt to seek God and the truth.” Jesus said those who seek find and those who knock, the door will open. James said pretty clearly, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” So if Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life,” if no one comes to the Father but through the Son, wouldn’t it follow that anyone who is sincerely drawing near to God, God will bring him to a place of belief?

        Becky

  5. “Believing in God is good for us; therefore, it is rational to believe that God exists.” Again, this is a pragmatic argument that you were not going to consider. So, not only is the argument pragmatic, but the solution to not being able to belief things you don’t believe in is pragmatic, too.

    Pascal’s Wager makes a great many assumptions which undermine it and the main one is whether or not Pascal’s god exists. I the Hindu gods are real, but Pascal’s god is not, his wager is a lose-lose proposition.

  6. As a Roman Polytheist, what struck me about Pascal’s wager is the assumption that if you don’t believe, that you will be punished somehow for your non-belief. I think that Christianity has a subtle catch-22 to it where you are supposed to have free will not to believe but if you exercise that free will, you get zapped.

    As for me, since I believe in many Gods, it doesn’t matter if I believe or not believe in the Monotheistic Gods (each religion of Monotheism has a different God based on culture and theology).

    1. Not to mention, Pascal assumes that Yahweh would reward this type of practice. If Yahweh were all-knowing and all-good, it seems he would reward those who based their religious beliefs on the evidence available to them.

      It’s also not clear why one has to have outright belief in some proposition in order to reap some benefits. One could simply imagine what the world would be like with God or have hope.

  7. I really want to thank you for taking the time to make a comment on my blog, which drew my attention to your blog. I think you have a blog that shall occupy many hours of my time!

      1. Jonathan, of course as we get older (i’m approaching 65) we all ponder death and the implications it implies. Unlike you, I don’t have a degree in philosophy but I do have experience in life. That being said, would you kindly take a look at an article I posted a long time ago and give me your feedback. It would be personally appreciated. Please forgive me if the link is inappropriate for you blog. It is a sincere request. https://rationalthinking101.com/2017/02/28/the-ghost-in-the-machine-is-it-us/

  8. Hi Jonathan, “If Yahweh were all-knowing and all-good, it seems he would reward those who based their religious beliefs on the evidence available to them.”

    How can you, a finite human being, presume to know what God, infinitely more wise and benevolent than you, should or could do? Do you not see the utter absurdity in your thinking here?

    Note: My comment is addressed to Jonathan only. So everybody else do not jump on me here. It makes me nervous if many people attack me together. 😉

    1. I’m saying that IF anything, the opposite of what Pascal proposed is true. And what you said only goes to support what I was originally arguing: Pascal was wrong. If we don’t know what God would prefer at all, not only is Pascal wrong, but it’s also the case that theism would be a silly hypothesis.

      It would be silly because theism would then be unfalsifiable.

      1. I was not giving an argument against you, what I said only goes to support what you were originally arguing.

        You wrote, “If we don’t know what God would prefer at all, ———-”

        Do you think that we do know somewhat what God would prefer? If yes, then how?

  9. I’m delighted that you found my blog, because it enabled me to find yours. As for Pascal’s wager, I do not recall if it refers implicitly to what we might call “William James’s wager:” that if a question cannot be decided on logical grounds, it is reasonable to decide it on pragmatic grounds.

    Belief in God as a non-transcendent Being is unproblematic: that seems to be how the early Israelites believed in God when they still practiced monolatry instead of monotheism. But belief in a transcendent God is quite another thing. Plantinga and others have wrestled with the difficulty of even being able to *talk* about such a Being, and though they come up with various answers, none of them denies the difficulty.

    I hope you will forgive me if I haven’t yet read something you explained elsewhere, since I just found your blog and momentarily must get to work. But to me there is no obvious mundane (i.e., non-transcendent) explanation of concepts such as omniscience and omnipotence, so it might be impossible to prove or disprove the existence of God by appeals to logic alone. A transcendent dimension of reality is almost by definition beyond the scope of normal logic; if it weren’t, we might be inclined to deny its transcendence.

    Since belief in God can be discussed both logically and pragmatically, I’d be inclined to think that Pascal’s wager is one inconclusive argument among many, pointing to a conclusion that we can’t fully define because it exceeds both our intelligence and our logical methods. IMHO.

    1. Thanks for the response. I do find William James’ case to be more persuasive than what Pascal is saying. That’s because belief in God (for James) is pragmatic even if God does not exist.

      I certainly don’t think God can be shown to exist by logic alone, if by ‘logic alone’ one means that God exists by definition.

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