On Pascal’s Wager

Always Bet On Black

Blaise Pascal was a genius.  In the course of his brief 17th Century life, he made significant contributions to the field of mathematics, sussed out the nature of vacuums and air pressure, prefigured Existentialism, and, alongside Al Gore, invented the computer (or at least the calculator).  Also, his name, Blaze Pascal, would be a great porn moniker or super-hero alias.  It therefore comes as somewhat of a surprise that his most well-known philosophical contribution, namely his famous eponymous wager, does not match the intellectual rigour of his other contributions to civilization.

Briefly stated, Pascal’s Wager is an argument for religious faith based on the principle of “why the Hell not?”   Basically, one has nothing to lose by believing in God even if no such god exists, whereas the atheist has everything to lose by not believing if it turns out that God does in fact exist.  That God would necessarily punish disbelief is a rather spurious assumption to make which easily kills the wager (all bets are off!), so we’ll leave that point be for now as it makes what follows kinda redundant.  The point being for now that the gist of the Wager is that it is prudent to affirm faith (even if no such faith exists) rather than run the risk of eternal hellfire.

Right off the bat, there are some obvious objections to be made to this reasoning.  First, any omnipotent deity, by definition, must be able to see through such transparent theological hedging: faith is not something that can be feigned; in order to be considered “faith”, it must be sincere.  It’s not simply a matter of suspending disbelief, since suspension of disbelief doesn’t eradicate disbelief and replace it with belief; it merely temporarily holds the disbelief at arm’s-length so you can enjoy a diverting tale of Orcs, Hobbits and whathaveyou.  When you’re done reading, the mantle of disbelief is donned once more and the reader returns to the real world with the safe assumption that Orcs and Hobbits don’t exist and that one need not live in fear of the machinations of the Dark Lord Sauron and his minions.  In other words, suspension of disbelief comes with an a priori assumption that what is being “believed” is not actually so.  That said, there is persuasive photographic evidence in favour of the existence of Gollum, so perhaps I should offer a sacrifice to Melkor just in case…

But even if you are able to acquire sincere faith, there’s another problem.  Most of the gods posited by the assorted and sundry bronze age death cults around the world require more than the simple belief in a god; it had better the One True God.  Not only that, you must also follow the various ordinances and rituals set out in their respective dogmas.  For example, if the Christian god does in fact exist, taking the prudent side of Pascal’s Wager would be insufficient if one does not follow the prescribed behaviour: ie. accepting Jesus Christ as saviour, not taking the Lord’s name in vain, not wearing clothes made from mixed fibres, not going to church (menstruating women only), not killing anyone (infidels and abortion providers excepted), etc, etc.  While it’s one thing to use Pascal’s Wager as an argument for some sort of theism or even, if one would rather a more particular -ism, Deism, its prevalence in specifically Christian apologetics seems a little off since it doesn’t even pretend to make the case for any one belief system over another (except, of course, for theism over atheism).

Nonetheless, leaving these admittedly nitpicking arguments aside, there is a more fundamental problem with Pascal’s Wager: What if it turns out that God chooses to reward disbelief?   Pascal begins his argument with the premise that God’s existence is not provable by reason, for the essence of God is “infinitely incomprehensible”.  Is it not possible, therefore, that there is a reason for this?

For the sake of argument, let us assume that the cosmology of the the Christian Bible is 100% correct.  Following from this assumption, the incongruities between the reports of scripture and the observations of science can be explained away as design features of Creation.  For example, the vast distances that the light of distant stars has to travel in order to reach us seems to contradict the time scale given in Genesis, but some Creationists have accounted for this apparent discrepancy by theorizing that the light was created en route.  Similarly, though Adam was created in the form of an adult and never spent any time in a womb, he still has a belly button.  These theories can be lumped together in the Omphalos Hypothesis (omphalos is the Greek word for navel) from Philip Henry Gosse’s 1857 work, Omphalos, which posited that in order for the world to be functional from day one (October 23rd, 4004 BC, a Wednesday I believe), it had to be created “mature”.  For example, the freshly made trees in the Garden of Eden all had growth rings indicating an age much beyond their actual, Scripturally derived lifespan.

It therefore seems that the god of the Bible, modest chap that he is, has gone to a fair amount trouble to hide his own handiwork.  What other explanation can there be for “old” rocks, dinosaur bones, plate tectonics, and whatever incomprehensible batshittery is being currently promoted by quantum physics?  The argument has been put forth that such things are designed to “test our faith” which, let’s face it, doesn’t exactly seem out of character for Judeo-Christian God and noted misogynist, Yahweh.  This is, after all, the same character who let Satan torment Job for decades as some sort of extreme loyalty test, and who asked Abraham to kill his son just for shits and giggles.  After intervening on Isaac’s behalf at the last minute, Yahweh turned to Vishnu and laughed: “Did you see that?  He was actually gonna do it!  Now gimme my five bucks.”  Jackass.  Anyway, the end result of all these shenanigans is that they also open up the possibility of a trickster god not wanting to be believed in (leaving aside, for the sake of argument of course, any Manichaean implications here).

Furthermore, on top of this, and moreover, there is a moral argument for opting for disbelief.  In fact, the argument could be made that disbelief in an omnipotent guarantor of morality is the necessary precondition for morality.

Dostoevsky famously stated:

If you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up.  Moreover, nothing then would be immoral; everything would be lawful, even cannibalism.

This is often paraphrased as “If God does not exist, everything is permissable” and is often used by the religious as an attack on atheism.  Of course, each time a theist asks (one can only presume sincerely) what prevents an atheist with no fear of divine posthumous retribution from murdering, raping, and stealing, one wonders if they themselves really want to do these things, but simply opt not to since their ostensible desire to kill and maim is outweighed only be their desire for a comfortable eternity at Jesus’ right hand side.

It seems therefore that only a disbelief in the gods allows for doing good solely for goodness’ sake.  Towards the end of his life, the great Kurt Vonnegut wrote that “We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife.”   He also provided what is probably the best agnostic formulation of morality (by quoting his son): “We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”  Kurt is up in heaven now.

And perhaps this is the very “test of faith” the Omphalists inadvertently point to.  We’re supposed to think the dinosaur bones really are that old because we’re not supposed to know* that this whole thing was whipped up in less than a week, 6005 years ago, by (a) God who will judge us when we die.

Anyway, the point is that the paradisical velvet rope will only be drawn aside for those who so fully internalized “The Good” as to not require an “or else” to follow their “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.  Either way, Pascal cannot simply assume that the atheist has nothing to lose from living as if God exists; rather, the theist has everything to gain by living as if God does not exist.

[I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but in the course of writing this, I came across the expected revelation that others have come before me.  What I have proposed is basically the Atheist’s Wager. The American philosopher and noted person not noted enough to merit a noted joke Richard Carrier offered a much better account than mine in a 2002 essay (ie. he makes a sincere attempt to philosophically argue the point rather than using it as a jumping off point for mean-spirited and sophomoric anti-religious riffing) and both Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, among others, have made similar arguments.  So this is a rather unoriginal idea.  Alas, such is the curse of these epigonal times!]

* Unfortunately, Loki went off the reservation a whiles back, went rogue and got Himself nailed up in johnny Palestine.  Trumped up torts in kangaroo courts to cover their sports, you dig?  A snow job; Judas cheesed him, but Joe greased the skids. Then Saul got wind of the whole operation, ate the biscuit, and The Word got out.

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~ by Isaac Bickerstaff on June 27, 2009.

2 Responses to “On Pascal’s Wager”

  1. Enjoyable read.

    Total originality is hardly the precondition for a good read. I’d wager total originality and good reading are probably mutually exclusive.

    Here is my version of the argument:

    If God exists and is the creator, he gave me the ability to reason. If, after exercising my reason in good faith, I conclude there is insufficient evidence to support the god-hypothesis, God has to be a pretty big dick to punish me for using what he gave me to the best of my ability.

    Any God who is that big of a dick can go fuck himself. I will burn in hell forever with a clear conscience thank you very much.

  2. Thanks, Sterling.

    I’m now convinced that moral codes themselves (whether of divine origin or not) are inherently immoral (or at least amoral) as, by proscribeing behaviour, they preclude the use of reason in determining “the good”, nebulous term though that is.

    William Blake has a pretty good riff on this in The Marriage Of Heaven and Hell where he demolishes the Ten Commandments by pointing out (somewhat speciously in some cases) that Jesus (whom he identifies with Satan) broke every single one.

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