Even if you’re not familiar with the name, you’ve probably heard this argument a few times before. In fact, if you’re like me, you may even have independently come up with something similar during your adolescent years of pseudo-philosophising, along with many other rather dreary insights you discovered and felt proud of at the time, without realising that people who’ve been dead for centuries have actually already thought about all of this in much greater detail. (Or, maybe you’re not that much like me, but you’ve still probably heard this before.)
17th century French mathematician Blaise Pascal is one of very few people to have had a triangle named after him. This led to a bitter rivalry with a contemporary of his, the English aristocrat Sir Benjamin St. John Equilateral, which spilled out into the public arena and cast a damaging blow to Anglo-French relations. (Pascal was actually the original target of the notorious slur, “Cheese-eating geometry monkey”, when it was first coined by Sir Benjamin .)
Anyway, when he wasn’t feuding with implausibly named Englishmen, or being all kinds of awesome in ways I’ll save for the next Happy Funtime Maths Hour, he also earned a reputation as God’s most widely quoted bookie. His most famous argument for believing in God, based on his analysis of the odds and outcomes of belief versus disbelief, is repeated more often than any twelve episodes of Friends on late-night satellite TV channels, and judging by the way it’s often used, has shown as little progress or development in the three centuries or so since it was first proposed, as Ross did over ten seasons.
It goes – to finally get to the point – a little something like this.
God may or may not exist. We can’t tell. At least, we can’t be anything close to certain, the claims of some recent bus advertisements notwithstanding. Even if we think we’ve philosophised ourselves some clever ideas, God’s all ineffable and stuff, so we can never really do any better than guesswork. But if we’re going to guess, why not hedge our bets? If we do believe in God, then what’s the worst that can happen if we turn out to be wrong? The blissful afterlife we were hoping for doesn’t show up, our soul-less, material selves will be simply snuffed out, and that’ll be the end of it. But if there is a God, and we bet the wrong way, we risk missing out on eternal rewards beyond imagining. So, on balance, surely it’s worth believing anyway, to be on the safe side. That way, what’s the worst that can happen?
Of course, there’s the odd snag.
Snag 1: YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!
Or rather, this argument doesn’t handle the truth, or address it in any way. Nothing about it does anything to support the assertion that God actually exists, and in Pascal’s own formulation it relies on God’s existence (or lack thereof) being a completely unknowable proposition. He never intended to imply the conclusion “Therefore God exists”, and yet that seems to be where a lot of people want to go with it. It’s used to scare people into faithful conformity, to point out what they could be risking, but it’s an emotional appeal with no bearing on the facts. Maybe the Easter Bunny only brings chocolate ovoids to the kids who believe in him, but this doesn’t make it any more likely that he’s real. It just suggests that, if he is real, things will turn out better for you if you believe it.
So, if you’re interested in truth or reality, then the argument’s dead in the water. But even if you accept its conclusion, and do want to act in a way that’s most likely to turn out best for you:
Snag 2: You can’t choose what you think.
Well, I certainly can’t. I don’t believe in God. Any god. I can conceive of an all-powerful deity who provides everlasting splendours for anyone who reckoned he was up there somewhere while they were alive – and if it turns out that those people are right, then I want to get in on that action. But I can’t change how unconvinced I am. I just don’t think that this deity exists. I could go around acting like I do, saying the right words and going through the prescribed rigmarole to worship him as directed, but surely that’s not the same. He’d see right through that, wouldn’t he? Maybe if he had a sufficiently brainwashy following for me to sign up to, I’d eventually start to buy into it, but in general I can’t choose to change my beliefs just because it’d be useful to, any more than I could simply decide to love Michael Bay films or enjoy Limp Bizkit albums. (Also, just like some people can’t choose to be attracted to members of the opposite sex, but that’s a whole
nother kettle of worms.)
And even if I could somehow don a suitable belief as it suits me, I think I’d still stumble at:
Snag 3: You presume to know the mind of GOD??
Pascal’s whole point was that there’s no way for us to apply reason and logic to deduce any facts about God’s existence. None at all. We really can’t work him out. It’s that ineffable thing again. And probably something about mysterious ways. So in a simple wager, he says, the smart bet is that God does exist, because the reward for placing your chips on that side of the coin is potentially infinite, and the risk is negligible in comparison.
But this seems to make an important assumption about God’s nature, of exactly the sort which Pascal says we can’t make. It only works at all, if you assume that God is an entity who wants us to believe in him – or at least, that this is the most likely option, and thus the most sensible one to gamble on. It depends on the idea that believing in God will endear you to him, or otherwise provide a potentially infinite reward, but that atheism closes off any such possibility. But if God is as mysterious and unfathomable as all that, and reason is truly of no use in assessing claims made on his behalf, why are we still okay with this assumption? Why is it any less likely that God will grant an infinite reward exclusively to those who don’t believe in him? Or that it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you’re nice to kittens?
It can only be a meaningful bet if you make assumptions about the likely personality traits of God – say, that he’s egotistical, or that he values skepticism and rational thinking and disapproves of mindless obedience to doctrine, or that he’s a cat person. If you want to argue that some of these characteristics are more likely to be found in God than others, and start citing scripture or the like to make your point, then you’ve got to lift the embargo on logic and reason, and we’re not talking about Pascal’s Wager anymore. If you start trying to actually construct a case – for a god who gets angry when people don’t heap sufficient praise on him, for instance – then this sidesteps the “just in case” element that makes the wager what it is, and turns the discussion into a run-of-the-mill religious one.
Pascal had the Christian God in mind, as do most proponents of modern versions of his argument, and this particular god does have something of a reputation for rewarding the faithful and punishing the rest. But then, Allah has a similar philosophy to our post-mortem fates. If I suck up to one, I’m just going to piss off the other. What to do?
Pascal decided, according to an uncited and thus highly dubious Wikipedia quote, that “if any faith is correct, it would be the Christian faith”. This would be one way of resolving things, and turning the Wager into an effective argument for Christianity, except for the fact that it doesn’t actually do any of that. A conclusion such as “if any faith is correct, it would be the Christian faith” must either be reached by some form of reasoning, or through blind faith. If you’ve reasoned your way there, then it’s clear that I’ve similarly reasoned my way to deciding that every god you can name is unlikely to the point of being negligible. If you think I’m wrong there, then we’re back to the familar arguments about evidence for God’s existence, and once again we’re no longer talking about the wager. If it’s faith, then it’s an arbitrary decision, and saying “if any faith is correct, it would be the Scientology faith” (or any other substitute) can have no less merit.
Because I can’t completely rule out the possibility of magical Jesus, who prefers that we worship him, it’s supposed to be less of a risk to gamble that he exists – but if you’re going to be that picky about my insufficiently astounding talents at disproving stuff, I can’t completely rule out anything else, either. Maybe the little model hula-dancer on my desk is actually God, and after I die she’ll judge me based solely on my foot hygeine. I can’t prove that won’t happen (I just know that if it does I’m in trouble), but if we truly cannot hope to understand God with logic or reason, then there can be no grounds for suggesting that this is any less likely than Christianity – and if reason is given any ground at all in helping us make this decision, then I can only judge for myself the plausibility of an all-powerful creator capricious enough to penalise me for not having blind, arbitrary faith in some unclear and demonstrably flawed set of principles. I’m happy with my judgment on that: it’s just as irrational and easily ignored as every other religion that disagrees with it.
– Pascal’s Wager does not argue in favour of God’s existence.
– Even if it did, it’s not going to convert anyone without actually being persuasive; the fact that believing would be better for you won’t grant you the ability to believe.
– Even if it did, what to believe is an unanswerable question. Suggesting that any particular option (of the infinitely many available) is worth wagering on, just starts off a generic argument over whether there’s any good reason to believe any one religion over any other. If Yahweh is really any more credible than my hula-girl cult, surely this can be argued on its own right, without resorting to the scare tactics of “Ah, but what if you’re wrong?”
So, that’s where I stand on Pascal. Nice triangle; shame about the philosophy.