Does Pascal’s Wager make sense?

Blaise Pascal was a 17th century French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist. He invented a mechanical calculator, and a modern computer programming language is named after him. His contributions had long-lasting impact in the fields of gambling theory, economics, and actuarial science. He was also a deeply religious man. His Pensées, an ambitious work meant to provide a thorough defense of Christianity, were unfinished at the time of his death. The most famous idea to emerge from his draft has been called Pascal’s Wager.

The basic idea is that either God exists, or He does not, and the matter cannot be proven one way or the other. If He does exist, you have everything to gain by believing that He does, and living your life accordingly, and everything to lose by rejecting or ignoring Him. If He does not exist, you have nothing to lose either way. Regardless of what probability you assign to his existence, the rational “wager” is to live as if He does exist.

Critics of Pascal’s Wager attack not the mathematics of it but the various underlying assumptions. The earliest criticism, attributed to Voltaire, is “the interest I have to believe a thing is no proof that such a thing exists”. Another problem is that there are not just two possible realities (God and no God), but a wide range of possible gods. Furthermore, it is hardly clear that a “belief ” that is the result of a self-interested calculation is something God would want, or that infinite reward and infinite punishment are the only two outcomes (as an aside, this is not actually what I believe about the afterlife, see here).

All of these criticisms are clearly valid, and it is likely that an intellect such as Pascal’s would have addressed them thoroughly, had he finished his book. I don’t think Pascal’s draft should be interpreted as attempting any kind of proof; the whole exercise assumes we can’t prove anything. Nor should it be thought to presume that there are really only two possible realities; everyone with a background in those mathematical specialties that Pascal pioneered has seen how a simplified “2 x 2” case is a common way to introduce subject matter that in its fullness is really “n x n”, or continuous rather than discrete. Where there are multiple possible “rules of the game” (what the consequences are for our choices) as well as the different possible variations of what exists, the problem of maximizing self-interest becomes too complicated to describe, let alone put into practice.

I think the point Pascal was making was not so much an argument for Christianity, but an argument against atheism. The wager offers no help in deciding between competing infinities offering equally large bribes (for example, Christian fundamentalism vs. Muslim fundamentalism).  It does, however, suggest that if there is uncertainty, and if one system offers you at best a finite amount of gain or loss (e.g. whatever time you would save by not praying), and many others offer something of infinite value, the “dead-end” system should be discarded, and you would be well-advised to give the others careful study, as well as the benefit of the doubt.

It is likely that in Pascal’s time and place, the only options taken seriously by most thinking people were Christianity and atheism (or its close cousin, apatheism). A rebuttal of atheism usually leads to Christianity either by default (in a predominantly Christian country), or by a more thoughtful process of comparison (see here).

Pascal’s logic attacks atheism on what appears to be its home turf: rational self-interest. The maximization of pleasure and minimization of pain, for its own sake, have always played a central role in man’s natural thought. All high-minded ideas about altruism for its own sake, or the unbiased dedication to truth, rest on philosophical foundations just as unscientific, unproven, and ancient as those of any religion. The thoroughly consistent skeptic would disdain all of them (except to whatever extent they promote self-interest) equally, although very few atheists do so in practice.

Perhaps by presenting the cold, brute logic of the wager, Pascal was trying to arouse the very objections he got. When people react badly on a gut (or soul?) level to the suggestion that God would be honored by someone applying naked self-interest to life’s ultimate question, this can provoke fruitful discomfort within the heart of the critic. First, they may feel discomfort in realizing that self-interest is the only consistent worldview left to the man skeptical of everything. Second, they may realize that the argument’s superficial appeal is so strong because almost all men, almost all the time, focus on their self-interest, even if they espouse a high-minded idea of some sort. Third, the reaction that “what kind of God would want THAT kind of worship” could point a man to the possibility that deep inside himself he might have some innate knowledge of God (and maybe even of what kind of religion God does want).

Making people feel uncomfortable about the moral status quo is the first step in presentation of the Christian Gospel.  Before salvation can be understood as “good news”, one has to recognize the serious difficulty posed by the gap between what we all are and what we feel we ought to be. I suspect Pascal understood that, and I can see how Pascal’s wager could play a supporting role in what might have turned out to be a persuasive book had it been finished.

Other than as a crude defense against backsliding into pure selfishness, I would say that Pascal’s wager has no role to play in the daily life of a fully mature Christian. It may, however, be a useful rhetorical technique in waking people up.

(The U2 song referenced in the video above can be found here.)

7 thoughts on “Does Pascal’s Wager make sense?”

  1. Without, hopefully, resorting to high minded logic, I think an easy answer to “what do you have to loose” is: My Integrity.
    If I do not believe in something that can be as meaningful as the existence of God (whatever everform) but decide to act as if and numb myself into living as if, I loose my integrity.

    Reminds me of women who were given to marriages that they did not aspire to and were told to let themselves into it… I am sure many surrendered (since there was no way out) and found a way to genuinely “love” their husband… could work.. 🙂

    1. That is a very human and in some regards healthy response to the “wager”. I would agree that the calculating self-interested approach posited in the wager is not a model for a healthy relationship (or “marriage” as you commented) with God. However, the wager is not directed at the healthy, but at the sick. The fastest growing belief system at the present time is a belief in nothing, a universe with no real values, no souls, no free will, and no such thing as “integrity”. Just the laws of physics and the matter/energy they govern – full stop. Those in this state of mind often demand “proof” before believing in God. The wager points them back towards a couple of truths. First, that in life we have to make decisions under conditions of uncertainty, and the rational approach to one’s self-interest demands consideration of alternatives that can neither be proven nor disproven, and often cannot be accurately quantified. Second, that the worldviews that follow most logically from atheism (Epicurean, Randian, etc..) offer little to nothing of lasting value. Furthermore, if naturalism is true, one does not ultimately make any real choices anyways. It is to this mindset that Pascal’s “what do you have to lose” speaks most effectively. If a reaction such as yours, appealing to something as spiritual-sounding as “integrity”, can be provoked, a crack might emerge in the listener’s system of thinking, and if so the wager has done its job (and opened the door to more full-bodied kinds of faith). The other useful response to provoke is along the lines of “I don’t think God would want that…”, which is the awakening of whatever intuitive knowledge of God we possess (and of course is foreign to atheism, within which it is nonsense to talk about one kind of God being more likely than another).

      I’d caution against stopping there of course. While the idea of “integrity” is useful in breaking out of a mechanical/scientific view of life, I think it can also be a stumbling block along the path towards mature faith. It is all well and good to question whether any man speaks for (or spoke for) God, and to maintain independence of thought vs. any human religious institution. But it is another thing entirely to insist on independence or “integrity” in terms of one’s relationship with God. If the reality is that we are not independent of God, but His creations, dependent on Him for every breath we draw, then any relationship (or lack thereof) that fails to recognize that reality is not going to bear much fruit. To return to your example of the woman surrendering to a marriage because of lack of any viable alternative, it may be that she has no choice as to the fact of the marriage, but she does retain a choice of whether to love or not. And ultimately the choice of love/humility might bring her (and her husband) a lot more joy than the choice of pride/resistance. It also may be the case (as we extend the marriage analogy back to the person & God…. as the New Testament often does) that the groom isn’t some big bully forcing the bride into the marriage. What if God is capable of anything except creating another one like Himself? Perhaps what we are – creations of His and in some sense in a dependent relationship – is just the way things have to be. We are given the freedom to choose to love or not, but not the freedom to be what we are not. Food for thought, anyways.

      Thanks very much for commenting.

  2. All of that pre-supposes that the only alternative to Godlessness is essentially either nihilism or barbarism… neither of these are necessarily true.

    My take is that it seems that our desires and environment has placed before us one or more false choices. A bit like a debt collector who is pressing you so hard you can only see “Pay now” or “face unbearable eternal damnation in credit hell”.

    Pascal’s wager is a bit of the same thing. For it to make sense one would have to already buy into the fact that there is a real chance that God exists… but that precondition, I think is only due to the ages of darkness that human kind has come through…

    I won’t develop but there are plenty of evidence from everyday life where notions are so ingrained into the popular consciousness that even after the issue has been disproven through and through or that is no longer an issue people will not take the chance that they are wrong about that phenomenon.

    I think that for it not for our primitive ideas that have so much power over us, pascal’s wager would exactly the same as:

    “Licking this rock will cure you” why don’t you take a chance?

    Guess what? some some people will lick and be cured 🙂

    1. Thanks for the further comments.

      I agree that not all atheists must necessarily live as nihilists or hedonists. Most atheists I know personally behave (or, like all of us, at least aspire to behave) “as if” they accepted pretty much the same Golden Rule type of morality that Jesus and figures from other major religions preached. The difference is that theists believe that such a rule is objectively true, while the atheist in principle believes that the universe is indifferent and meaningless, and that if any “rule” can be gleaned from it, it’s survival of the fittest, dog eat dog, certainly nothing like the Golden Rule. I’ve never heard a convincing case for any sort of compelling moral system *logically* co-existing with atheism other than nihilism, even though many ideas can *practically* co-exist in our lives (I know my own life has its contradictions, although I’m working on them!). One may have his or her own personal philosophy, but to be consistent with the axiom of atheism, it must be admitted to be arbitrary (since there is no God to endow any one system with authority) and accidental (a product of one’s nature or nurture, with no real choice in the matter). One can have no such thing as inalienable rights, etc., and certainly no one can convincingly argue that someone else conform to such a moral code. And the conscience, in the atheistic view, is something that emerged by chance and stuck around simply for its evolutionary survival value. The strange thing though is that believers in this sort of system will readily try to train themselves against or “trick the body” regarding any other arbitrary product of evolution (our preference for sugary foods for example) that is found to stand in the way of our purposes. But most atheists (for now, anyways) are unwilling to let go of conscience or develop a plan to fight it or trick it, even though a healthy conscience often restrains our pride, sets itself up in opposition to our self-interest, our careers, and our “normal” way of life (in a rich country, especially). I’m glad this is the case, but it just goes to show how conscience is something qualitatively different from the animal instincts we inherited from the natural world.

      I’m sympathetic to your criticism of “false choices”. One reason I built this website is to provide some kind of response to the “false choice” of atheism vs fundamentalism that both sides have a vested interest in turning into a religious form of the two-party system, and I want to do what I can to help people see a third way. As for Pascal, I don’t think he meant his “wager” to be interpreted as simplistically as it usually is. The wager was part of an unfinished manuscript of his, and he’s not around to explain where he was going with it, so all we can do is speculate. He was clearly a man of colossal genius (in addition to his theological work, he was pioneer of modern statistics, and inventor of the mechanical calculator), so I tend to think he was using a common technique that one uses in communicating mathematical insights. Simplify something to a 2 x 2 case, make some assumptions that are not entirely accurate but make the communication easier. In fields like game theory, actuarial science, option pricing, etc (fields close to my own heart), this approach is much more productive than asking someone right off the bat to imagine n x n x n cases of possibilities.

      I agree with you that for the wager to lead anyone towards God, one would have to buy into the real chance that God exists. There are uncountable numbers of ideas that could be thrown into the model (e.g., licking rocks, as you point out); no one can practically evaluate all of them. Asking someone (rhetorically) to take a chance on a pink elephant circling Venus (something in favor of which no one, to my knowledge, has advanced a serious non-satirical argument) is the equivalent of a denial-of-service attack. But if a sufficiently large enough group over a long enough period of time were to testify on behalf of, or present thoughtful arguments in favor of, or give their lives to (or for), a particular claim, it wouldn’t prove the truth of their view, but it would earn it a place in the necessarily short list of ideas worth careful consideration. I won’t go over all of the arguments in this comment, but see here for more.

      As for people being capable of believing something even after it has been (at least to the satisfaction of most of us) conclusively disproven, I agree this is often the case. We should go easy on our fellow man in this regard, whether his particular poison is some kind of lottery-betting system, fad diet, or young-earth creationism; not everyone has the benefit of a good education or a strong mind, and hopefully we could agree that the most important aspects of a person’s character lie elsewhere. But the existence of God is a very long way from being disproven. I’ve heard people make that claim, and even dress it up as being scientific. However, all science can ever do is continue to demonstrate that a particular entity – who is claimed by His followers to exist in non-physical form, save a unique event in Roman-era Palestine – has never been corroborated by physical evidence in four centuries of scientific-era research. I don’t see how any of it speaks directly to God’s existence. One can pile up experiment after experiment and never disprove God.

      Nonetheless, the piling up of scientific data will admittedly have a way of wearing down a population that (as the advertising execs well know) responds well to repetition. I wonder if your suggestion that religion persists because of notions ingrained in “ages of darkness” could be turned on its head. Perhaps the modern educated person is predisposed to reject faith because either (a) prior ages were not as scientifically advanced as our own and that therefore their philosophical ideas must also be worse than anything more “modern” in style, or (b) faith appeals disproportionately to the less well-educated, the poor, the sick – and therefore should be rejected by the educated, the well-off, and the healthy (see here for thoughts on how this could be a self-fulfilling trend).

      I appreciate your having contributed to the discussion on the blog, and I always welcome the chance to go deeper on these questions. Feel free to check out any of the other posts on this blog; I would appreciate any insights you could offer. Have a good day, and peace be with you.

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