The Sucker’s Bet – Pascal’s Wager Revisited

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I know I didn’t actually sign up for this argument but since no one, as of yet, had added a file on this topic I decided to upload a copy of an article I wrote few years ago for supportatheism.com

The first third or so is historical in nature but thereafter I run through the various counters to Pascal and offer my own twist on his argument it at the end.

The Sucker’s Bet – Pascal’s Wager Revisited

“Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”

Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Peter Carr, 1787

In the summer of 1776 a committee of five statesmen were appointed by Congress and tasked with writing a document that would serve as a Declaration of Independence, thereby notifying the British Empire that the thirteen North American colonies were no longer subject to British rule. Although he was but one member of this committee which included such luminaries as John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson is widely viewed as the primary author of, what we consider to be, the seminal document in United States history. For it was he who wrote the first draft and it was he who was responsible for subsequently incorporating any revisions made by the committee into the final declaration.

In penning America’s formal declaration, Jefferson was by all accounts greatly influenced by the words of 17th century philosopher John Locke, a man Jefferson described along with Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton as “…one of the three greatest men that ever lived…”. Indeed, echoes of Locke’s views on the role of government and the concept of liberty clearly resonate not only in Jefferson’s writings, but also in the works of many of our other enlightened American forefathers, as well as in the United States Constitution itself. But assuredly, there was no dearth of 17th century enlightenment philosophies from which our country’s framers may have derived inspiration. In fact, it’s quite probable that such intellectual giants as Descartes, Hobbes, Leibniz and Spinoza played no small role in influencing the sort of radical free thinking that was, at the time, emanating from within the esrtwhile British colonies. But of all that century’s greatest philosophers, perhaps the most brilliant with respect to pure science and mathematics, was a French child prodigy named Blaise Pascal. In all likelihood, when Thomas Jefferson wrote the lines quoted in the epigraph above, it was inspired at least in part, by one of the French scientist’s philosophical dalliances and in particular, ‘Pascal’s Wager’, his less than successful attempt to employ decision theory in an effort to justify belief in God. In rationalizing this famous (or I’d rather say infamous) idea, Pascal happened upon a line of reasoning that, to this day for all its faults, seems to strike a chord among even casual religious believers. I intend to show incontrovertibly that, even for the pious, this sort of ‘cosmic bet hedging’ may prove a very dangerous gamble indeed.

The incredibly precocious Pascal was born in 1623 and by the time he was 12 it was apparent that he possessed a rare intellect. It was at that age that he’d independently proven Pythagoras’ Theorem and just four years later, at the age of 16, he’d caught the attention of Rene Descartes by, among other things, writing his “Essai pour les coniques” (“Essay on Conics”) in which Pascal developed what we refer to today as Pascal’s Theorem . Just three years later he invented the ‘Pascaline’ which was the world’s first mechanical calculator and at age 23 he began making significant contributions to the study of hydrodynamics and vacuums. Out of this period of experimentation grew Pascal’s Law which relates to measuring pressure in an incompressible fluid and he’s even credited with inventing the syringe. Pascal was further immortalized posthumously by the adoption of his surname as the SI unit of pressure.

But Pascal’s life was not all science and experimentation. On the night of November 23rd 1654, possibly spurred on by chronic poor health or his near-death experience just one month prior, when a carriage he was riding nearly plunged off the Neuilly Bridge into the River Seine, he had a profound religious experience in which he claimed to have been visited by the “…God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob…”. This vision led him to begin ruminating on philosophical matters regarding religion. As a result, in 1656 he published “Lettres provinciales” (“The Provincial Letters”) in which Pascal attacked, what he perceived to be, the Jesuit Church’s willingness to sacrifice moral laxity for political expediency. And just four years later he published his “Pensees” (“Thoughts”) an apologia for Christianity. It is within the pages of Pensees, in Part III, note 233, that we find Pascal’s Wager. Although it has, in the ensuing centuries, been panned by most philosophers as lacking in even a shred of redeeming value, Pascal’s Wager remains an argument that many ‘believers’ somehow find intuitively agreeable. I can only guess that such people have neither the time nor the inclination to ponder such questions in great detail.

In Pascal’s own words ‘The Wager’ can be summed up rather neatly in the following two quotes from Pensees :

“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.”

“Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. “

In other words, if you believe in God and you’re proven right, you’ll spend a blissful eternity in heaven. If you’re wrong and God doesn’t exist, you’ll wind up no worse for wear. On the other hand, if you doubt His existence and you’re wrong, you’ll burn in hell for eternity; while if you’re skepticism is proven correct, you again wind up simply dead and no worse off. To his credit, Pascal being the rational scientist he was, immediately realized a glaring deficiency in his argument. In fact, he addresses it midway through the note by creating a skeptical character who wonders aloud: “I am …so made that I cannot believe. Well, then, what would you have me do?” At this point there’s a glimmer of hope for Pascal when he prefaces the answer to his fictional skeptic by acknowledging that “…reason brings you to this…” But then, incredibly, he goes ‘completely off the rails’ by making the bizarre claim that it’s entirely reasonable to expect that a rational person can be capable of consciously deluding themselves! Pascal advises his character – “…at least learn your inability to believe, since reason brings you to this, and yet you cannot believe. Endeavor, then, to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God but by the abatement of your passions.”

This is tantamount to him imploring a person who has just learned that they are terminally ill to make a conscious decision that they should choose to believe that they are actually healthy, thereby making their last days on earth happier and more carefree. But while it is certainly true that a person may prove quite adept at carrying out this charade as far as fooling others goes, were they actually successful in deluding themselves to the degree Pascal seems to think possible, we’d in all likelihood classify it as being symptomatic of some mental illness. If Pascal’s lack of insight into basic human psychology here wasn’t bad enough, consider also the fact that the god that he was writing about is the omniscient Abrahamic God of his Catholic faith. This naturally begs the question – If there is indeed an omniscient God, wouldn’t He be able to tell the difference between true faith and self serving deception? Obviously, there is indeed much still to be said in response to Pascal’s seemingly rhetorical question – “…, what harm will befall you in taking this side? “

As noted ethologist and religion critic Richard Dawkins puts it, “Pascal’s Wager could only ever be an argument for feigning belief in God.” At this time I won’t even begin to address Pascal’s baseless supposition that professing such belief (be it sincere or not) will naturally result in a person being more “…faithful, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. “ That would be a lengthy article for another day.

So what are some of the other historical criticisms of Pascal’s Wager, which might imperil the gambler who’d actually consider pushing their proverbial chips to the middle of the table in favor of Pascal? And why is Pascal’s Wager considered, quite conceivably, the sucker’s bet?

First, there’s the ’argument from inconsistent revelations’. This tack raises the specter of mistakenly professing a belief in the wrong god. Many argue that a believer who propitiates the wrong god may actually end up being worse off than the non-believer who chooses no god at all, especially if the one true god doling out judgement just happens to be of the jealous variety. Then there’s the aforementioned Professor Dawkins’ espousal of an argument he dubs the ‘Anti-Pascal Wager’, in which he concludes that a person who bets correctly that there is no god is actually rewarded by leading a “better, fuller” life not having wasted time “worshipping him, sacrificing to him, fighting and dying for him, etc.” But perhaps the most compelling argument for my (and apparently Jefferson’s) taste is the one that asks whether God might actually favor the rational skeptic over the dogmatic adherent. In this regard, writer and historian Richard Carrier expounds:

“Suppose there is a god who is watching us and choosing which souls of the deceased to bring to heaven, and this god really does want only the morally good to populate heaven. He will probably select from only those who made a significant and responsible effort to discover the truth. For all others are untrustworthy, being cognitively or morally inferior, or both.”

Again, remember Pascal’s god is not just any god. In particular, He’s the God of the Christian faithful and the deity with whom most Americans have wagered their eternal salvation . So bearing that in mind, I will now attempt to expand on Carrier’s hypothetical reason-rewarding God by setting forth the following premises. Granted, as with all religions there are indeed departures from standard tenets (as evidenced by the aforementioned pantheon of denominations) but I’m fairly sure that any reasonable Christian should have little problem with seriously considering the following. The fact that these premises presuppose the existence of a God is purely for the sake of this argument.

God is omniscient. That one’s a no brainer. Can there even exist a Christian who doesn’t think that God is all-knowing?

God is apt to testing one’s faith. Examples include Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah; the tribulations of Job; the creationist argument that the entire fossil record can be explained away as a simple test of God’s faith; and many a theologian’s rationalization as to why there is indeed suffering in the world.

The Bible is rife with inconsistency and ambiguity Chronological contradictions and contradictory statements abound within both the Old and the New Testaments. Indeed, volumes have been written by theologians regarding those found within the four ‘Gospels’ alone. These include such details as Jesus’ birthplace and eventual resurrection.

Ambiguity within The Bible is self evident as there are literally thousands of Christian denominations who derive their differences purely as a result of their particular idiosyncratic parsings of its text.

In addition, there are questions of moral ambiguities (to say the least!) regarding slavery, genocide and the treatment of women that many critics charge have yet to be answered satisfactorily.

The power of reason stands as mankind’s greatest attribute. Simply put, it’s the unique characteristic that sets us apart from all other living things. For the self- acclaimed believer, this trait would naturally be considered to be of God-given origin.

If one considers the preceding four premises reasonable, would it not then follow naturally that an alternative “Anti-Pascal Wager” could be postulated? Suppose that a God who knows our deepest most inner thoughts does indeed cherish, beyond all else, the unique gift of the faculty of reason that He’s bestowed upon us all. Might not The Holy Bible itself, with all its apparent contradictions and ambiguities, actually serve as an indicator of the value that we each place upon the greatest of His gifts, thereby further serving as the grandest of all His tests? As Jefferson alludes, in a delicious twist of irony, could it be that the people who are faithfully employing that ‘God-given’ gift by questioning “with boldness even the existence of a god” may actually turn out to be the ones who, by paying homage to His precious gift of reason, are passing God’s ultimate test, while those who arrogantly (or through “blindfolded fear”?) claim the ability to parse ‘His truth as revealed’ might, in the end, actually wind up taking one exceedingly long vacation by a lake of fire?

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