Pascals Bull

A little background; Blaise Pascal was a French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist who lived in the 17th century. Considered a child prodigy he invented the mechanical calculator. He wrote extensively on projective geometry and corresponded with Pierre de Fermat on probability theory, influencing economics and social science. Later in life he had what he called a second conversion and abandoned scientific work and devoted himself to philosophy and theology. He wrote the Pensees but died before he finished. Within it we find the in/famous Pascals Wager.

Back in my first year of college our philosophy class taught us Pascals Wager. The idea that if one was unsure of the existence of God you can simply treat the question like a bet and decide depending on the possible rewards and losses if you were to pick the correct or incorrect choice.

In a nutshell Pascals Wager states that: (1) If you chose to believe in God and he doesn’t exist you lose nothing. But, if you chose not to believe in God and he does exist then you will lose everything by burning for all eternity in hell.

(2) Conversely, if you chose to not to believe in God and he doesn’t exist then nothing happens. But, if you chose to believe in God and he does exist then you will be rewarded for all eternity in heaven.

So, by gauging the possible rewards and losses of the four different scenarios Pascal concludes that the better bet would be the one that favors Gods existence.

This was an intriguing argument that reinforced my Catholicism with apparent reason and logic before even greater reason and logic caused it all to crash and burn after I searched for the wagers rebuttals. For in my mind Pascals Wager must have flaws and rebuttals for non-believers to continue to exist despite this seemingly strong argument. And rebuttals it had indeed.

I feel it would be petty to fault our former professors for providing us with only one side of a flawed system. But in trying to see it from their point of view they were working for a highly religious institution however, this still struck me as a little dishonest regardless of the situation.

Pascal described the Wager in the Pensees in this way;

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….

…”God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.

Before we dive into it I hope you will all humor me in being a smartass. Pascal described God as being infinitely incomprehensible which means we will never understand the nature or essence of God no matter what we do but in being able to describe God as being infinitely incomprehensible we understand that God is beyond our understanding which means that he is not. Because comprehending that he is incomprehensible is comprehension in itself.

As well as to contest the point that God has no limits. If we point to the argument “can God make a stone so heavy that even he can’t lift it?” either way we can see that God is limited. Being all knowing he cannot not know something, being all powerful he cannot not do something etc.

Here he states that both proving and disproving the existence of God are equally impossible given the “infinite chaos” that lies between him and our reason and that he is infinitely incomprehensible. In an earlier post entitled Proving a negative (1999) I transcribed an essay which explains that not only is the burden of proof on those that make a positive claim (ie there is a God) but that the negative claim (ie no there isn’t) is vindicated and does not need to do anything more to prove their side if the positive side provides no satisfactory evidence.

This system is used by all people when discussing dragons and unicorns. If there is no evidence for the existence of dragons and unicorns then they do not exist and there is no reason to suppose that they do. Everyone agrees on this but suddenly shift their perspective when the discussion turns to God.

Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. “No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all.”

Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? 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.

Here he criticizes agnostics. Those that neither believe nor disbelieve in the existence of God. Agnostics are sometimes described as people who do not wish to chose any side of the argument. Pascal argues that agnostics cannot exist in this case and all must make a wager and refusing to participate is impossible because whatever we do we are “living the choice”. In other words there is a certain degree of theism and atheism in all of us, even agnostics must acknowledge that. There is no absolute middle ground. Some agnostics will lean more towards theism and some to atheism in the way they live their lives or in how they think, whether its by degrees of 1% or less does not matter, one side is greater (no matter how slightly) than the other. In this vein I agree.

“That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much.” Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.

And this is the wager itself which I described earlier except for the part about hell which he did not mention because he thought that arguing on the basis of reward alone was sufficient reason to bet on the “I believe” option. And I’d also like to add that the idea that “if one believes and God does not exist then nothing is lost” is not entirely accurate since people dedicate large amounts of their time and money and in some cases their entire lives for the religion (even died for it) and if found that there is indeed no God then all sacrifices made for the religions would have been in vain.

The proposition did not live long before it was criticized by Voltaire who described it as “indecent and childish”. But since then, there have been two dominant arguments against Pascals wager that could not be addressed fully since Pascal died before the Pensees were even published but at least one was anticipated nonetheless.

The first is called the Argument of inconsistent revelations. Since there are countless religions with even more countless gods throughout human history they all indeed need to be factored into the wager. This assertion is based in the argument that since Pascal is trying to prove the greater chance of infinite reward by believing in a God that begs the question “which God?”

The “which God?” question is a valid point considering that no God of the modern era has more evidence to his existence than those of the ancient ones. The only reason that modern religions still persist is through sheer number of believers, but that is hardly evidence for existence since the truth of any topic is not subject by the number of people who believe in them. Therefore Ra, Zeus, Thor, and Quetzatcoatl are all eligible to become part of the wager.

If all these supernatural deities were to be considered then the simple coin toss Pascal proposed suddenly turns into a roulette wheel. With greater chances of betting wrong (choosing the wrong god to believe in) and thus not gaining any reward while simultaneously suffering whatever punishment is decreed by the “correct” choice (if one is provided). Utterly destroying the mathematical advantage the wager claimed in believing in God.

To illustrate:

If it were between Christianity and Atheism the odds of getting it right or wrong are 50% each.

If we were then to add Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Greek mythology, Egyptian mythology, Roman mythology, Norse mythology, and Paganism (not to mention all the different sects that disagree within each religion); the chance of your choosing right are drastically reduced to 8% and the chances of being wrong is 97%.

Pascal anticipated this argument in the Pensees saying:

What say [the unbelievers] then? “Do we not see,” say they, “that the brutes live and die like men, and Turks like Christians? They have their ceremonies, their prophets, their doctors, their saints, their monks, like us,” etc. If you care but little to know the truth, that is enough to leave you in repose. But if you desire with all your heart to know it, it is not enough; look at it in detail. That would be sufficient for a question in philosophy; but not here, where everything is at stake. And yet, after a superficial reflection of this kind, we go to amuse ourselves, etc. Let us inquire of this same religion whether it does not give a reason for this obscurity; perhaps it will teach it to us.

A lot of people have a lot of opinions on this short and confusing passage. Basically he’s saying that people who are satisfied with the many gods counter are lazy and are not interested in the truth of whether or not Christianity is like every other religion and that this argument may suffice in other questions of philosophy but not here where “everything is at stake”.

Pascal scholars note that when Pascal said “look at it in detail” he was referring them to his chapter “on other religions”. Thankfully, Pascals views on other religions is summarized.

As far as Pascal is concerned, the demise of the pagan religions of antiquity speaks for itself. Those pagan religions which still exist in the New World, in India, and in Africa are not even worth a second glance. They are obviously the work of superstition and ignorance and have nothing in them which might interest ‘les gens habiles’ (‘clever men’) Islam warrants more attention, being distinguished from paganism (which for Pascal presumably includes all the other non-Christian religions) by its claim to be a revealed religion. Nevertheless, Pascal concludes that the religion founded by Mohammed can on several counts be shown to be devoid of divine authority, and that therefore, as a path to the knowledge of God, it is as much a dead end as paganism. Judaism, in view of its close links to Christianity, he deals with elsewhere.”

As you can see, Pascal does not even take the counter argument seriously and dismisses it outright without considering it. A combination of arrogance and ignorance on the part of Pascal drastically reducing the credibility of the wager.

The second argument against the wager is called the “argument from inauthentic belief”. Some people argue that merely believing in a God just to be safe is not true beleif and is therefore dishonest and unacceptable to God. This arguments works under the assumption that God does exist.

What critics are objecting to is Pascal’s subsequent advice to an unbeliever who, having concluded that the only rational way to wager is in favor of God’s existence, points out, reasonably enough, that this by no means makes him a believer.

Pascal argues that if the wager is valid, the inability to believe is irrational, and therefore must be caused by feelings: “your inability to believe, because reason compels you to [believe] and yet you cannot, [comes] from your passions.” This inability, therefore, can be overcome by diminishing these irrational sentiments: “Learn from those who were bound like you. . . . Follow the way by which they began: that is by doing everything as if they believed, by taking holy water, by having Masses said, etc. Naturally, even this will make you believe and will dull you. -‘But this is what I am afraid of.’- And why? What have you to lose?

But we find that the wager is invalid and non-belief in anything unsupported by evidence (therefore unjustified to be believed) is the height of rationality. Pascal argues that if you act as if you believe for long enough then pretty soon you will. If you’ll notice his exact words were “this will make you believe and will dull you” How appropriate.

However belief alone would not be enough to gain access to heaven. According to the Bible, more is required for salvation than mere belief in God. One also needs to believe in God’s son (Mark 16:16; John 3:18,36, 8:21-25, 14:6; Acts 4:10-12; I John 5:12), repent (Luke 13:3,5), be born again (John 3:3), be born of the water and of the Spirit (John 3:5), believe everything in the gospel (Mark 16:16), eat the flesh of Jesus and drink his blood (John 6:53), be like a child (Mark 10:15), and do good deeds, esp. for needy people (Matt. 25:41-46; Rom. 2:5-10; John 5:28-29; James 2:14-26).

No doubt Pascal and the wager were formidable lines of thinking however because of his untimely death Pascal never had the chance to fully regard its criticisms and was unable to refine it to the level in which it would have been nearly irrefutable. Today however it is seen only as an outdated argument in theological debates and not even considered as valid because even modern apologetics fail to cover the gaps left by the wager. Instead what we have is a genius’ greatest legacy is at the same time his greatest failure.

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