Pascal's Wager - A Child's Argument

Introduction

Most believers and non-believers alike are more than familiar with the argument known as Pascal's Wager. This argument was first formulated by mathematician Blaise Pascal though most forms of it touted around these days are paraphrased versions of the actual argument.

Normally I wouldn't even bother bringing up this argument because, honestly, it's been refuted over and over again by people far more intelligent and eloquent than I am. However recently I receieved a comment on my hub: Jesus Saves? From What? Apparently written by a young Christian. In it, probably without realizing it, she utilizes a version of Pascal's Wager.

Pascal's Triangle

Pascal's math skills were far better than his argument for the existence of God
Pascal's math skills were far better than his argument for the existence of God

Hannah's Wager

"It's better to live like there is a God, and come to find out their is not one, then to live like theirs not a God and come to find out their is one."

This is her version of Pascal's famous wager. It's funny because as I read her comment I found myself reminded very much of my own self when I was a teenage Christian. I can even remembering being fourteen or so and attempting to use Pascal's Wager on my best friend. I hadn't thought of the argument on my own, or even worked out something similar all by myself, I, like everyone else, heard the argument from someone else. In my case it was at a youth group in my local Church.

Pascal's Wager makes sense, but only if you already believe in Christianity or a God and only if you believe your particular religion is the only TRUE religion and your God is the only REAL god. This is because, even in its most elaborate versions, Pascal's Wager relies on their being a 50/50 COIN FLIP decision between there being a God and there being no God -indeed that is why it's called a Wager.

Nuances

The thing that most easily brings this argument crashing down is the fact that there are many different beliefs regarding gods and regarding the salvation or assistance provided by those gods. Even within Christianity there are conflicting ideas about what you must do in order to be saved. In some scriptures it is suggested that all you have to do is BELIEVE to be saved, while in others you must also do WORKS to be saved. Some sects if Christianity believe you must be Baptized both in water and in the fire of the Holy Spirit, while others don't see any such requirement. Some believe you are judged by what you DID in life rather than what you BELIEVED.

Even the version of the wager in her comment disagrees with Pascal's version, as it stipulates that one is to live their life like there is a God rather than merely BELIEVE. Exactly HOW one lives their life - or is meant to - when there's a God is an issue that people disagree on, which brings me to the next can of worms:

The next can of worms is opened when you present the idea of other gods and other religions. There are thousands of versions of Christianity alone and yet that only scratches the surface when it comes to beliefs about the supernatural. What about a Muslim? Certainly Muslims believe in God right? Are they saved under Pascal's Wager? What if the Christian God isn't the same as the Muslim one, and the Muslim is wrong? What if a Christian believes in the Christian God but Zeus, Ares and Aphrodite, and the other Greek gods, turn out to be real?

There are thousands of gods and thousands of ways to believe in those gods. Pascal's coin would likely have HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF SIDES. In the end it'd be more like picking a Scratch Off Lottery ticket than flipping a coin.

Still image from God Checker

Over 3,700 sides to the coin
Over 3,700 sides to the coin | Source

The Edges of the Coin

Pascal's Wager includes the assertion that you have to play the game, you literally HAVE TO place a bet. In other words it's an all or nothing scenario, you either believe or you don't. In a broader sense this is correct but we live in a far more nuanced world. So even if we grant Pascal his coin he is still ignoring the edge of the coin. Those that sit on the edge identify themselves by various names but most prefer the term Agnostic.

There are also ignostics, those who believe that the question of whether a God exists depends solely on how the God is defined. Some ignostics refuse to take sides on the atheist versus theist issue.

Then there are those who simply don't care in regards to the question, apatheists.

Truth and Consequences

Another commonly raised criticism of this commonly used argument is the idea that one can simply convince oneself to begin believing in God. This goes hand in hand with the complaint that, essentially, you are believing in God for artificial reasons. You are believing not because you love God, not because God has called you, but merely because you're afraid of the CONSEQUENCES of being wrong.

This implies that something bad will happen to you for the simple act of doubting God's existence. The argument inserts fear and dread. You better watch out, better not cry, better not doubt, I'm telling you why! Apparently it does not occur to believers that a God who punishes people for doubt and disbelief is wrong for doing so.

Let's imagine for a moment that I have a child, and I take that child and give them up for adoption. I have the child's adoptive parents write a book with all the rules that I want my child to follow. The child must believe everything in the book is true or else I am going to punish them severely for the rest of their life. Also, I offer no evidence that I actually exist and the book itself is obviously in the adoptive parent's hand-writing. The only thing the child has to go in is the authority and constant reinforcement of the adoptive parents (authority figures) and the words of the book that are supposedly my own.

Is it fair in that hypothetical situation to punish the child if that child question the things in the book or even questions my very existence? Is what I did in this scenario loving? Is it merciful? Is it GOOD?

Video Sums it Up Nicely

Gaming the System

Still another issue with Pascal's Wager is the idea that you are believing in God for completely selfish reasons. You are not a sincere believer who is actually convinced of God's existence, you are merely attempting to avoid Hell. In essence you are lying to yourself merely to avoid a POSSIBLE bad outcome. Do you honestly think that when you are standing before God, a being that knows everything you know and can feel everything you feel, that you're deception won't be found out? Or is this artificial belief for the sake of saving your own backside good enough for God?

Pascal's Wager is a cheat of self-deception, a bluff in gambling terms. Do Christians honestly believe a good poker face is all it takes to get past the Pearly Gates? The argument essentially states that it is better to lie to yourself and be wrong than to be honest with yourself and be wrong.

If this God fellow is actually real wouldn't you prefer to stand before Him/Her/It with your honesty and intellectual integrity intact? Pascal's Wager only works if you admit to yourself that there are no good reasons to believe in God. Re-read that sentence and think about it for a moment, especially if you're a believer. This is why Pascal's Wager is such a poor argument from the stance of those who do not already believe in your particular deity. If you had reasons to believe in God, if there was evidence for God's existence, would you need Pascal's Wager to convince you? Would you need to be reminded that it's beneficial to believe and that questioning will get you burned in the unquenchable fires of Hell?

Conclusions

I can't help the person who wrote that comment and honestly I can't imagine where I'd begin. At that age I was a passionate young Christian myself and would have had a similar knee-jerk anger reaction to the one she had. In fact just five or six years ago you would have caught me arguing against Evolution like Darwin was the anti-Christ and defending Christianity whenever I could. The issue was I didn't REASON, I merely REACTED, and that reaction was just a defense mechanism. I was masking my own doubts and my own inability to answer the questions I had with anger and smug certainty.

There is much more grace and humility in admitting when you don't know and truth cannot be found by declaring you already possess it.

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Comments 14 comments

Marie Brannon profile image

Marie Brannon 4 years ago from Pearland, Texas

Congratulations on a well-written and interesting hub!!


Paladin_ profile image

Paladin_ 4 years ago from Michigan, USA

An excellent hub, Titen! One of the most thorough refutations of Pascal's wager that I've seen. Bravo!


adonisalexander profile image

adonisalexander 4 years ago from Miramar, Florida

yes, the thing about believing and disbelieving, you do not know rather or not there is such a thing as God. Then, in the religions, they proclaim there is such a thing as God and entice you to their rituals, worshiping and so on. Yet, you still do not know. What is necessary is that you must discover if there is God within you. Go beyond all religions, philosophies and skepticism and see for yourself.

www.spiritual-awakening-now.com


Ore N. Mavro 4 years ago

I love the bumpersticker that lots of people have on their cars: "Coexist" and it has a bunch of the popular religious symbols lined up together.

The funny thing about the people who drive these cars is that most of them are people whom I know sit around their dinner tables with their friends making fun of or simply lecturing the un-present "dogmatic" people. Basically, their whole "acceptance" spiel is about them being accepted by the most prevalent religions, and not vice versa.

The problem with the "God" or "Gods" question is whether it does need to be asked, or whether it was already answered. The question is what the (fuck) are you going to do other than bitch and moan about someone else finding their answer (yes/no)? And why bother fighting over it?

Coexistence is pretty easy. I mean, if we're actually trying to do so. My mother is a christian in a devout sect, particularly a cult-like one. I tell her not to talk about it with me when we get together--that is, specifically don't preach and when we get into debates I try to drop or avoid them.

Theists version of coexistence: I know (or am pretty sure/don't wanna go to hell) God/Yahweh/Buddha exists, and I pity you for not knowing, but I love you [grits teeth]

Atheist version: how droll....poor theists. if only they were smarter and knew God couldn't POSSIBLY exist.

Agnostic version: I'm not really sure...and neither do you, dude [hits joint]...why are you so sure? Man, you guys are lame.

The only approach I can see as sensible is the Ignostic or even Pantheist approach. Ignostics, knowing that the question needs more questions answered before that question itself means anything.

Pantheists, really--actually, trying to coexist because they see "God" as "God" and "Gods" all at once (because, and this is one of my theories, if there was a "conscious" "God", he/she/it wouldn't be limited by human convention and would be as vast if not vaster than the human imagination)

But instead, I see articles like this all the time. From those sides mentioned. And it's just you all preaching to your various choirs, patting each other on the back, and being extremely pretentious hypocrites.

And to be frank, I'm tired of trying to "coexist" with people who won't genuinely try to coexist with each other. It's old.

Here's a question you should all ask yourselves and be honest: do you want to coexist or prove that you're right?


Titen-Sxull profile image

Titen-Sxull 4 years ago from back in the lab again Author

Is there a reason why we cannot both coexist and debate and discuss and argue? I don't know if I'm right or not, but unless I engage with both believers and non-believers, unless I question every possibility and actually value truth, I can never progress.

The way I see it I managed to escape religion, it's the least I can do to try to help those who are like I used to be.

Coexistence, if anything, means we can exchange and debate ideas openly and thus move closer to the truth.


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 4 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

I cannot even discuss a wager where you have to die to collect a 'possible' reward or a 'possible' loss. You have settled the matter here in this hub. Thank you!


Paladin_ profile image

Paladin_ 4 years ago from Michigan, USA

Titen, in your reply to Ore, you've once again hit the nail directly on the head (yes, I'm patting you on the back, and deservedly so).

You obviously recognize the value of intellectual and philosophical intercourse, and especially the necessity of engaging those with whom we disagree.

As for me, my target audience is consistently those who DON'T agree with me, and I EXPECT to be challenged. Judging from your other hubs and previous comments you've made, I think it's safe to say your approach is the same. Which makes the accusation of "preaching to the choir" patently absurd.


Titen-Sxull profile image

Titen-Sxull 4 years ago from back in the lab again Author

Thanks Paladin, I completely agree, I look forward to the replies and discussions with those that disagree as much as, if not more, than I do with those that already agree with me.

I sympathize with believers because I was once there too and if I can help some other people question their beliefs the way I did, even if they remain believers, than I've done some good in the world. When we question, discuss and debate openly we have a much better chance at progressing toward actual truth than if we decided to clam up and keep these issues to ourselves.


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 4 years ago from The English Midlands

Hi :)

I agree with you.

My friend came up with this 'wager' in conversation with me one day and I couldn't believe it.

Do I lie ~ to myself and others (and God)? ~ No!

Do I ~ indeed can I ~ force myself to believe something? ~ No!

Do I, therefore, deserve eternal damnation? ~ Not in my opinion :)


f_hruz profile image

f_hruz 4 years ago from Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Very good hub - congratulation!

Let me add a great video presentation which advances the discussion quite a bit ...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YUe0_4rdj0U&feature...

Franto in Toronto


Carneades-Georgia 4 years ago

The race redounds to horse reason when faith horse declines to appear! So much for Pascal's 'dementia." So many brain-wash themselves with that and with William James's will to believe!


Guest 4 years ago

Titen,

You do know that Christianity does not discount evolution, right? I think you have a blury perception of what your faith was and what Christianity actually is. And in regards to your conclusion on Pascals Wager, you couldn't have paraphrased it worse. You tuned the simplest apologetic into the something that fits your needs.


Titen-Sxull profile image

Titen-Sxull 4 years ago from back in the lab again Author

I'm well aware that some versions of Christianity are compatible with evolutionary science however if you read my other hubs they explain a lot about my upbringing. I was raised by creationist parents and was an old earth creationist until about age 19.

I was responding to a version of Pascal's wager that was posted on one of my hubs but I feel that much of my criticism applies even to more "sophisticated" versions of the argument,


writersandwich 3 years ago

This is an AMAZING analysis of Pascal's Wager. I'd only ever really considered it from the perspective of "Gaming the System," as you put it (or as I put it, "Pascal Hedging his Bets"). Really excellent stuff here! You're a very concise and thoughtful writer.

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