When chatting with some friends this week, Pascal’s Wager came up. For some reason (probably the greasy burger) at the time I was having trouble recalling the problems inherent in this idea, but since then it’s come back to me. So, I feel like writing about it.
To ensure we’re all on the same page, this is essentially Pascal’s Wager:
Christianity[i] is either true or false. We don’t know. In the event Christianity is true, living as a Christian leads to heaven, while living otherwise leads to hell. I would think many could make (and have made) their decision after only going that far. But Pascal goes farther in his analysis. Pascal recognizes that heaven and hell represent positive and negative infinities, respectively. Furthermore, he recognized that if Christianity is false, the loss one experiences by living it is finite (you don’t get to sleep in on Sundays, for instance), and the gain experienced by not living it is similarly finite (you do get to sleep in on Sundays). From this, one would seem to determine that a reasonable person (interested in logic, risk reward, etc.) should choose to live as a Christian because doing so offers infinite potential benefit with finite potential loss, while not doing so offers finite potential benefit and infinite potential loss.
Sounds simple, right? It even sounds logical. Infinite good balanced by finite loss, vs. infinite loss balanced by finite good? That’s an easy choice. Thanks, Blaise. You’ve solved our dilemma.
But wait, what if we’re not interested in risk and reward, but rather in truth? Does Pascal help us? Doesn’t seem to. Pascal’s Wager certainly doesn’t help us decide that Christianity is true.[ii] And introducing the element of truth brings up potential risks that Pascal’s Wager does not consider. The foolish mistake the Wager makes is assuming that if Christianity is not true there is no alternative religious truth. In my experience, Pascal is not alone in that folly; I’ve heard many Christians, atheists, and those in between talk as if it’s either Christianity or nothing.
So the real problem with Pascal’s Wager is one that seems to be so common in so much of Christian (apologetic) thought: the False Dilemma Fallacy. The premise of Pascal’s Wager is a false dilemma. Christianity is either true or false. Really? Some might argue with this, but it is possible from some parts of Christianity to be true while others are false in any variety of combinations. Alternatively, Christianity might be true now, but be untrue by the time we might experience our potential benefit or loss. It’s also possible that our entire definition of truth relative to religious systems is incorrect. But the problem in Pascal’s false dilemma goes deeper – part of his premise is actually unstated. The analysis that Pascal follows in developing his Wager indicates that there are actually two parts of his premise. What he is really saying is this: Christianity is either true or false, and if Christianity is false then there is no religious truth. The second half of the premise – the if/then component – is also unsupported. We simply have no reason to assume that God does not exist in the absence of Christian truth.
Thus, the entire premise of Pascal’s Wager is useless. So, what then are some of the other risk/reward scenarios Pascal has forgotten about? Well, my favorite scenario is one in which not practicing Christianity leads to infinite benefit, while practicing it leads to infinite loss. That could easily be the case. Any number of other alternatives could be possible as well. And that is ultimately where the Wager fails – it flat ignores the virtually infinite variety of potential benefit and loss associated with practicing Christianity.
There is still another element to Pascal’s Wager that should turn people off: it is a childish way to approach religion and the divine. Any apologetic or other explanation that appeals to the fear of punishment of the possibility of reward comes from one who is grasping for the final emergency ripcord in his/her theological parachute. As with similar illogical attempts at explaining one’s faith, this argument ultimately does more harm than good. Anyone who accepts Pascal’s Wager as logical, never needed logical support for their religious convictions in the first place (that is, they were already convinced) so they receive no real benefit from it, while the person who does need logical support will find none in the Wager, and likely be turned off by what appears to be either deceptive tactics or simple stupidity (possibly ignorance) on the part of the apologist.
It may be difficult to determine Pascal’s true motives for this slight of logic (although I don’t suspect he was necessarily trying to win converts or something similar).[iii] It seems he may simply have been attempting a justification for a certain belief or practice that was not supported by evidence. Whatever he was trying to accomplish,[iv] the possibility that many may have used such a scheme as a basis for their own decision to live as Christians is most certainly not one of their many mysteries.
If one can apply Pascal’s Wager without fallacy, it may very well be a useful tool. But please, keep this sort of thing away from God. It does no good.
[i] It might be more accurate to say that Pascal’s Wager addressed God, and not necessarily Christianity. But, without applying a specific religious scheme, the Wager seems meaningless. Given that Pascal was a Christian proselyte, it seems to makes sense that he would most likely have applied it to Christianity.
[ii] I’m not really sure that Pascal was trying to use this idea as proof of the truth of Christianity. However, the existence of this argument does help me at least a bit in determining that Christianity is not true. This is because it is further evidence of my thesis that fear tactics contrasted with a childish idea of eternal bliss in the clouds of heaven – something which is not indicative of divine inspiration – lie at the core of Christianity. I mention this to a certain extent in my post: The Purpose of Eternal Hell.
[iii] Indeed, from what I can tell this is more of an intellectual exercise than anything else. Please let me know if I’m wrong and this played a more central role in his religious life, theology, etc.
[iv] The link above seems to indicate this played a significant role in the development of probability theory and other cool things