Pascal’s Wager

Blaise Pascal was a seventeenth century polymath, a master of French prose, who contributed to the advance of physics (especially hydraulics), laid the foundations for the modern theory of probability, discovered that air gets thinner as we ascend from Earth’s surface, and invented one of the world’s first mechanical computers. Pascal achieved most of these feats before age 30. He died in 1662, at age 39, while writing a philosophical defense of Christianity that would posthumously be published under the title Pensées.

After years of scientific and religious meditations, Pascal lamented the futility of all attempts to rationally demonstrate the truth of religion. He nonetheless remained devoutly religious. It was he who made the famous statement, “The heart hath reasons that Reason knows not of.” This statement is anatomically inaccurate. The heart is a senseless muscle, not an organ of cognizance. The heart hath no reasons whatsoever.

Pascal was of course speaking metaphorically. Speaking metaphorically is a thoroughly nasty habit that obscurantists cannot shake. Their lissome locutions, being equally useful for defensive and offensive purposes, are both their cloak and dagger, metaphorically speaking.

If we translate Pascal’s metaphorical utterings into plain English, we find that he was saying, “If it feels good, believe it.” As a religious ascetic, Pascal could never admit to doing something just because it felt good. He therefore sought a logical warrant for heeding his pious impulses. He tried to construct a reasonable argument to justify discarding reason, a task that only a lover of paradox would undertake.

The colonial patriot Ethan Allen voiced the following objection to all attempts to use logic to subvert logic:

Those who invalidate reason ought seriously to consider whether they argue against reason with or without reason; if with reason, then they establish the principle that they are laboring to dethrone: but if they argue without reason (which, in order to be consistent with themselves they must do), they are out of reach of rational conviction, nor do they deserve a rational argument.

Pascal’s wager represents an effort to argue against reason with reason. This makes Pascal vulnerable to Ethan Allen’s charge that he is establishing the principle he is trying to dethrone. In Pascal’s behalf, let me submit that Pascal, while guilty of reasoning, is barely so.

Peter Kreeft, in his Pocket Handbook of Christian Apologetics, offered the following paraphrase of Pascal’s wager:

If you place [your bet] with God, you lose nothing, even if it turns out that God does not exist. But if you place it against God, and you are wrong and God does exist, you lose everything.

Pascal and those modern Christians who endorse his argument conveniently overlook the fact that Pascal’s wager, if it were a legitimate way to approach belief, would justify believing in every god, not just one particular god. Once you grant yourself permission to believe in a single god contrary to reason, solely on the prospect of some benefit the belief bestows, what’s to stop you from believing in a second god, and a third, and as many as you please? You have already dispensed with all rational objections to belief, so all you need to know about any god is whether belief in that god promises some reward. Facts, logic, and all measures of truth are out the window. Now all you care about is the payback. Pascal failed to see this logical extrapolation of his argument.

Pascal did not explicitly say we should believe what is contrary to reason, but he did implicitly argue as much by insisting that when the evidence is ambiguous we need not suspend judgment, as reason demands. In other words, what reason dictates is not obligatory if it goes against what one dearly wishes for. This, I hold, is a mistaken principle and a dangerous one.

Pascal’s next mistake lies in his assertion that if you believe in God and that belief turns out to be wrong, you have lost nothing. In some circumstances that might, indeed, be true. Even a thoroughly false belief might by chance deliver a big payoff. That would be pure happenstance, however, and the odds are probably against a thoroughly false belief having good consequences that outweigh its bad consequences.

One inescapable cost of believing something that is false is that you have, at a minimum, lost a piece of the truth, not a trivial concern for those who actually value truth. There are practical costs as well. If your misplaced belief leads you to behave in a way that you would not otherwise behave, you have misspent part of your life. Economists call this the opportunity cost.

I wonder whether Pascal would have argued that nothing is lost by believing that a fleet of guardian angels will provide protection if one should choose to undertake some risky endeavor, like getting drunk and playing catch with a rattlesnake, as was done by the late Joe Buddy Caine of Anniston, Alabama, may he rest in peace. A cost is associated with every false belief, especially a false belief on a topic that really matters.

The belief in God is perhaps the prime example of a belief that influences one’s behavior, so a wrong belief about the existence of God must rank among life’s most expensive mistakes. I sometimes imagine an encounter between Pascal and the terrified children about to be bound and sacrificed to the Incan sun god Inti. Would Pascal have consoled them with his armchair insight that the belief in a nonexistent god is risk-free?

Pascal’s wager operates on the principle that we need to deter-mine the consequences of a belief before judging whether that belief is correct. I don’t think Pascal thought this through. Determining the consequences of a belief means determining particular facts. Yet, by Pascal’s own logic, we can’t judge any alleged fact as true or false until we trace out its consequences. Pascal’s wager thus traps us in a self-referential mire of indecision.

Pascal was wrong to assert that the consequences of our beliefs are pertinent to what we should believe. We should believe what the facts tell us, no more and no less. Note that I am not saying that our actions should not reflect our appraisal of risks and rewards. That’s perfectly fine. But those risks and rewards do not alter what we should believe to be the case. Pascal was arguing that our beliefs themselves should be influenced by the potential consequences. That is where his fallacy lies.

Suppose a poor blind man chose to believe he can successfully operate a bulldozer. That belief is certainly not well founded, but applying Pascal’s logic, all the man needs to consider is whether that belief, if true, would have good consequences. In this case the consequence would likely be that he can earn a respectable income, a good consequence for any poor blind man. According to Pascal’s logic, he should believe that it is true that he is an excellent bulldozer operator. He should ignore any contrary evidence, such as the fact that his friends abandon him after he demolishes their homes, and that later the police arrest him and he gets beaten and raped in prison. Pascal argued that we should opt for belief in God as a practical strategy, never mind the pertinent facts. But, as the poor incarcerated blind man would surely interject, if he had time between rape sessions, no strategy that ignores the facts is ultimately practical.

Earnest Christians scorn the notion that we should believe in God as a means to get to heaven or as “fire insurance” against hell. Pascal’s Wager, in their view, applies a cost-benefit calculation more appropriate to business school than Sunday school. Earnest Christians hold that one’s belief must be sincere, not contrived for personal advantage. Moreover, to suggest that God could not see through such a charade amounts to blasphemy.

This brings us to the most basic fallacy in Pascal’s wager, its presumption that we can choose our beliefs. Pascal recommended training ourselves through ritual and practice to deliberately channel and manipulate our beliefs. He’s not alone in arguing thusly.

William James, father of American psychology, took an even more outlandish approach. In 1896, James published an essay titled The Will to Believe, in which he argued that, even lacking evidence, we can legitimately believe “any hypothesis that is live enough to tempt our will.” James suggested that, if we have been heretofore unwilling or unable to gather enough facts to decide an important issue, so that we are left wavering, we can switch our beliefs on or off as we would a bedside lamp. Instead of urging us to gather more information or think harder about our decision, and in the meantime withhold judgment, James encouraged us to flip a mental circuit breaker to energize our belief in the Christian scheme of salvation. He would have us believe as a matter of choice or sheer will rather than as mandated by evidence.

I don’t know how your mind works, but I myself cannot consciously choose my beliefs. As I read a book about insects, for instance, I can’t actually believe that I am a flea jumping across the page. I can imagine it, I can daydream about it, but owing no doubt to my unshakable sanity, I cannot actually believe whatever I might choose to believe. Even on topics that are not so clear-cut, topics on which my opinion is unsettled, I cannot consciously select what to believe.

Suppose that Pascal and James were correct in their claim that it is psychologically possible to consciously manipulate our beliefs to elicit a state of bliss. Embracing the Christian scheme of salvation would be an inefficient way to exercise such a faculty. After all, we could instantly secure happiness by choosing to believe that we are already in heaven and skip all the intermediate steps.

If our belief that we’re in heaven is correct, our bliss will be eternal. If our belief is incorrect, our bliss will last until we die. If, after death, we end up in heaven, our bliss will promptly resume. If we end up in hell, that’s no problem; we can just ignore the evidence that we’re in hell and continue to believe that we’re in heaven and, again, our bliss will last throughout eternity. So even if Pascal and James were correct in thinking that we can switch on our belief in God, they can’t rationally justify doing so.

I suspect that Pascal’s wager is widely accepted across America for three reasons. First, it makes a crass appeal to the profit motive. That always works in America. Second, it urges us to take decisive action. Americans pride themselves in taking decisive action. Third, it discourages thinking. Nobody is better at not thinking than Americans.

Edwin Way Teale got it right when, in Circle of the Seasons, he re-marked, “It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care how you got your money so long as you have got it.” As for those philosophers who encourage us to believe as we will, Bertrand Russell offers a similar admonition, “Morally, a philosopher who uses his professional competence for anything except a disinterested search for truth is guilty of a kind of treachery.”  Any religious advocate who appeals to Pascal’s wager is wearing a thin veneer of logic to coax his unsuspecting target in the direction of irrational superstition much as the rapist acts superficially polite to coax his victim toward the back alley.

When I encounter a fishy line of reasoning (and Pascal’s wager is as fishy as they come), I like to try, just for fun, to use the same fishy logic to defend radically different or even diametrically opposed conclusions. I also enjoy reformulating the argument to re-move all the logical fallacies, as in the following example:

Suppose that, after careful reasoning, you decide that no god exists. If your belief is correct and there is no god, you avoid squandering your life attending church and praying and so forth. If you are mistaken and there is a god, the consequences of your nonbelief depend on the nature of God. If God is indifferent to human activities, then, as a product of your nonbelief, you avoid squandering your life on inconsequential worshipful practices. If God is unjust or sadistic, you avoid squandering your life trying to please a god who is going to fry you anyway. If God is fair, reasonable, and loving, you needn’t worry that you will be punished for earnestly examining the evidence and arriving at a reasonable, albeit mistaken, conclusion.

The paragraph above describes the possible consequences of atheism, not in false Pascalian terms, but in realistic terms. Still, I do not recommend that anyone adopt beliefs (or disbeliefs) on the basis of their consequences. One ought to base one’s judgment on a careful evaluation of the facts rather than on a “what’s in it for me” calculation.

For that reason I also reject Homer Simpson’s version of Pascal’s wager: “Suppose we’ve chosen the wrong god. Every time we go to church we’re just making him madder and madder.”

I also reject Monte Hall’s wager, my own application of the Monte Hall dilemma to religious belief. The Monte Hall dilemma is a math puzzle named after the television game show host. In this game the player is shown three doors and told that behind one of the doors is a car and behind each of the other two doors is a goat. To win the car the player must select the correct door.

Suppose you are a contestant playing this game and you pick door number 1. Then the host opens door number 2, revealing a goat, and asks whether you wish to switch your selection to door 3. Are your odds of winning the car increased by keeping your current selection? Or would you have a higher probability of winning the car if you switched your selection? Or are the odds the same either way?

When confronted with this dilemma, I, like most people, presumed that it made no difference. I didn’t know which of the two closed doors hid the car, so I figured I had a fifty-fifty chance of winning.

That’s wrong. But I was so convinced that my logic was correct that I wrote a computer program to demonstrate so. I was surprised to learn that someone who sticks with his original selection wins the car a third of the time, whereas someone who switches his selection wins two thirds of the time. The explanation as to why this is true would lead us too far off topic. You may wish to research the Monte Hall dilemma on your own.

My point in bringing this up is that we can apply the logic of this math puzzle to religion, not in a serious sense but in a playful sense. Suppose a deep, resonate voice from the clouds informs you that one and only one of the three Abrahamic religions is true and that you must make a selection. So you select Christianity. Then the voice from above booms, “There is no god but me and Muhammad was NOT my prophet.” So Islam is off the table. Should you remain a faithful Christian or convert to Judaism? Can you say Shalom?

Monte Hall’s wager is obviously not a proper way to decide which religion to adopt. Yet, Monte Hall’s wager is less screwball than Pascal’s wager. At least Monte Hall’s wager has a statistical argument on its side.

Reminiscent of Pascal’s Wager is the proposition put forth by the theologian John Hick that we are justified in accepting religion, or at least we are not barred from belief, because the proof of religion will (or may) eventually arrive. Hick trusts that belief will be verified on Judgment Day. This is known as eschatological verification.

When I hear this religious argument, I imagine a parallel argument being used in a courtroom. Picture a man appearing in court on rape charges. The prosecuting attorney urges the court to convict the man on the basis of DNA evidence. The judge asks, “Where is the DNA evidence?”

The prosecuting attorney replies, “We don’t have it yet.”

“When are you going to have it? This afternoon?”

“No, your honor, I can’t tell you when we will have the evidence. It might arrive any minute or any millennium. But when it arrives, I am sure it will prove the defendant’s guilt, so we should go ahead and convict him now.”

In the context of a courtroom, or in any context other than religion, the notion of eschatological verification would never get a serious hearing. It, like Pascal’s Wager, reeks of utter desperation.

One more point about Pascal’s wager. We discussed the fact that we don’t have the capacity to switch our beliefs on and off as we would a bedside lamp. In other words, if we perceive that the evidence favors a particular conclusion, we are ineluctably drawn to that conclusion.

A Christian apologist who agrees on this point might go on to say that compelling evidence for God’s existence would compel us to believe, thereby violating our God-given free will. Therefore, God provides no compelling evidence and leaves the decision up to us.

For the record, I didn’t just make up this argument to make Christian apologists sound dumb. The atheist Eddie Tabash asked William Lane Craig, “Why can’t God give us miracles today so we’d know he exists?” In the course of his reply, Craig suggested that the lack of compelling evidence for God is itself evidence for a god who cherishes our free will.

There’s something ingeniously moronic in an argument that starts with the premise that we can’t believe as we will and ends with the conclusion that we are to believe as we will. Such an argument is truly a work of art. Really shitty art. A Poocasso.

A key premise of this argument is that God does not provide compelling evidence for belief. That premise is correct, but if you believe the Bible, it hasn’t always been so. Jehovah spoke directly to Adam and Eve and walked around in the Garden of Eden. He appeared to Moses. And again to Paul on the road to Damascus. And when he walked around as Jesus, he worked all kinds of miracles in front of tens of thousands of people. He even came back from the dead, exposing his identity to upwards of 500 people. God showed no respect whatsoever for their free will. The argument that God withholds evidence out of respect for human free will fails when applied to ancient times.

It is telling that the argument that a lack of evidence counts as evidence is applied only to the modern era, where we confront a conspicuous lack of evidence. This argument, like Pascal’s wager, embraces the premise that we lack evidence for a reasonable belief in God. Unfortunately, that premise is the only thing these arguments get right.

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