Pascal’s Wager – Why It Doesn’t Work

Posted by on December 8, 2011 in Thoughts | 25 comments

One of the simplest concepts used by deists and theists alike to try to refute the idea of atheism and agnosticism is the concept of Pascal’s Wager. In a nutshell, the wager says that it is better to believe in god and be wrong, as you’ve lost nothing, than to not believe and be wrong, thereby going to hell. I recently was presented with such an argument, in answer to my post about Deepak Chopra, where the person presenting it was trying to appeal to my logic in order for me to see why belief is better than atheism in the scheme of things. It has been presented to me using the idea of “odds of possibility” as it’s main driving force. But possibility alone is not enough to sway me, because many things are “possible”. What I am interested in I probability and likelihoods. This changes the game somewhat.

So, why is Pascal’s Wager fraught with problems? Let’s have a look.

The wager starts to break down under any kind of concerted “real world” scrutiny with the inclusion of multiple religions, and denominational differences therein. Many will use Pascal’s Wager as a way to back their own religion, but as you will see, if applied to the many flavours of god, is ceases to be compelling. Secondly, the wager breaks because it comes from a presupposed premise, that the soul exists. Since we have no proof either way that the soul exists, except in anecdotal and experiental examples, this further compounds the difficulty in backing the position.

In other words, we are now supposing that there is a soul, in order to suppose that this soul is eternal, in order to suppose there is a reason to believe in god, then to suppose that the god has an interest in those souls, in order to then believe in that god, and that simple belief in that god is compelling enough for that god to take a personal interest in your eternal soul, and therefore reward you with eternal life in Heaven. Everything else leads you to Hell.

But let’s leave that to the side for one moment. Let’s suppose there first is a soul, and that souls is eternal, and that this is indisputable fact. (Exactly how we go about proving this I am not sure, but bear with me a minute.) We then have grounds to entertain the idea of god. But which god?

If you believe in a god with the “knowledge” that god offers eternal salvation, how can you be sure it is the right god? There are thousands to choose from, and in the two most prevalent religions, Christianity and Islam, both differ in their requirements for you to attain heaven. Do you simply place your faith in the religion that has the most followers (read: the best at evangelising followers) or do you follow the version of god that seems more likeable. Or is it the god that offers you more? Or the one who punishes you less? What is the likelihood that one or the other is wrong? Well it’s 50/50 if we use these two choices. If you discount Islam then you discount a whole society of people who claim as strongly as you do that they are right.

Which brings me to another point. If you truly follow Pascal’s Wager, in only a Christian sense, then there are a lot of requirements in the bible which you must fulfil in prefer to meet your God’s wants in order to attain heaven, and these are all spelled out in detail. The Koran has the same thing, but the demands are different. Do you think that by simply believing in god that you will attain heaven? Pascal’s wager does not even begin to touch on the differences in doctrines. It quickly becomes a false dichotomy, there is no way to possibly choose one or the other based on probability of being given the correct information, as the information itself is obviously equally as compelling from both sides, or there wouldn’t be so many people in both religions. So it’s not 50/50, it’s 1/4000 (if there are 4000 possible gods in human history). This doesn’t even begin to talk about denominational differences between the Christian or Islamic faiths, many which would damn you for not praying every day or even 5 times a day in the case of Islam.

Aside from Pascal, if not knowing the answer, but having enough evidence to think the likelihood of god is an unreasonable proposition, then how can one even begin to believe in it? Would a person have to wake up daily and brainwash themselves into this improbable situation in order to attain salvation, or does this sound a bit like someone trying to convince themselves, even if doubt is in the background? Not only is it difficult to do, but would not an omnipotent god see through the charade of apparent belief? It is an unreasonable assumption that just saying you believe in god, the omnipotent and omnipresent is enough for you to attain salvation. But we’re not dealing here with reason, are we, because faith itself is belief in face of the absence of evidence and despite doubts to the contrary.

The most compelling thing about adherence to Pascal’s Wager is the avoidance of possible punishment or the possibility of reward, but the odds of picking the right god/s and religion and religious variation are really poor, and the risk-versus-cost is that you waste your time not using electricity on Saturdays, or sacrificing human lives, or sitting in a church when you could be helping the poor and needy. It’s unfortunately not a very compelling argument when you realise it’s no longer a choice between Jesus and Atheism, but rather a choice between Quetzalcoatl, Zeus, and so forth. Of course I understand that people, in general don’t worship the Greek, Roman or Aztec gods, but I’m sure they followed these gods with much the same fervour that people today follow Yahweh.

One final point, if we assume that god exists, how can be be sure it is an interventionist god, or one that even cares for the eternal wellbeing of a human soul. It is just as likely that god could be ignorant of the goings on of humanity, or that the creator of the universe died long ago, or as in Douglas Adams’ humorous account, is a clueless hippy with a cat on a remote beach in space somewhere.

So where does that leave us? With a pile of assumptions about humankind’s nature an of the universe in general. Pascal’s wager is nothing more than a tool for proselytising, using people’s ignorance of the complexity of the situation, as outlined briefly above, to try and further the cause of the Christian doctrine (or any other flavour of religious doctrine), and once you start peeling away at the layers, you see how flimsy an argument it really is. What is likely and probable is very different from what is possible, and hedging your bets in favour of a possible favourable outcome, however remote, is all that Pascal’s Wager talks about.

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