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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25 Comments

  1. I agree with what you’re saying re Pascal’s Wager. It is a fundamentally flawed argument. It’s too basic for starters but I can see how its simplicity might appeal to the religious masses.

    I’m not a fan of religion but I do hope that consciousness can exist outside the physical body. That doesn’t mean that I am assuming there’s a creator, i’m just suggesting or hoping that there’s “something else”.

    I’m at work & haven’t got much time to even think or get into the complexity of this, but as I said to you it’s more of a “coping mechanism” that I have in place for a day when times might get tough. Don’t you think that’s why religion came about in the first place? To try & make sense of the cruelty that exists in the world? That perhaps there’s something better out there?

    I’m not believing in any sort of utopia as some religions might, i’m not even believing in a religion, i’m just holding a glimmer of hope that there’s something beyond the physical because one day, when your mum & dad are gone, or something unspeakably tragic happens I might need that bit of glimmer to get through.

    Maybe that’s ignorance i’m not sure. I’m not betting on it mind you, I just see no harm in using thoughts like that to deal with grief.

    Good post though. Well done. You picked it to shreds.

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  2. What if, assuming a deity exists, it hates bloggers?

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    • yes, what if? Colour me converted. And in that case, both you and I are SCREWED Steve!

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  3. Pascal’s wager applies to every single god that ever was thought of. If you grant it (which I do not) you have to grant it for every single god which means you have to convert to every religion, and good luck reconciling the whole “no gods before me” in the monotheistic religions. DERP!

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  4. I’ve noticed a logical inconsistency in the Wager, in that among other assumptions, it presumes knowing some things about the mind of god — that god wants to be believed in, and further is willing to punish those who do not believe — when Pascal himself allegedly held the position that the mind of god is unknowable, defeating his own reasoning.

    I’ve always wondered why, as such a smart fellow, he could have missed such an obvious fallacy, then again we’re talking about someone who had a conversion experience, and that’s enough to blind anyone to flaws in their reasoning, especially when that reasoning concerns the object of fervent passions.

    It’s too bad he never heard of a being like Lovecraft’s Azathoth, who was too mindless to give a poo about being worshiped, often being annoyed enough by it to lash out and destroy the would-be worshiper for their troubles! ;-)

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  5. I’m one of those people who believe that when my brain is no more functioning I’ll be dead.After being dead for awhile there’s nothing but bones left.Is it these bones that are going to heaven or hell?Interesting thought.

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  6. Good work Martin.

    In addition to all the points you make there’s also the assumption within the wager that you “lose nothing” by believing in god. I’d argue that you can lose a lot (e.g., time spent in worship, enjoyment of life due to worry about adherence to rules, etc.) Full examination of that aspect of the argument could be a whole other blog post.

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  7. Do you think that by simply believing in god that you will attain heaven?

    Trivially expect a yes, that’s the basic idea to defenders of monotheism. But profoundly no, all monothiestic gods and afterlives are unbelievable except the character and afterlife they already have in mind.

    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

    Again expect most monothiests to reason backwards (as per Pascal) that IF gods exist, then we know there’s exactly one god, and we know he’s the god of the Hebrew bible, and we know he personally lets us know how to live without us needing to rely on the contemporary understanding of biblical scholars.

    Would a person have to wake up daily and [faith] themselves into this improbable situation in order to attain salvation

    Yes, I think this exactly explains the Abrahamic religions.

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  8. Another good post Marty. I understand Pascal’s Wager to actually say that you should go read up on the religion and hope you come to believe. Sorry I may have missed that in the post or comments but thought I would bring it up. Still means you spend forever reading about every religion.

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  9. Great post, Marty. Pascal’s wager, or something like it, is frequently one of the first things the faithful bring up when attempting to sway me toward belief in their particular deity. To the truly faithful, the logical inconsistencies and false assumptions don’t matter.

    I do not own rhinoceros repellant. Though I concede that a rhinoceros stampede would heavily damage my dwelling, and injure or kill me if I happened to be there at the time, I feel it safe to assume that the risk is minimal, at best.

    Anon said:

    I’m not a fan of religion but I do hope that consciousness can exist outside the physical body. That doesn’t mean that I am assuming there’s a creator, i’m just suggesting or hoping that there’s “something else”.

    Many atheists, myself among them, would agree with this to a certain point. I would like for there to be a way for my consciousness to survive the death of my body. There is so much about our Universe that I will never know, but would like to. An existence outside of our physical being would be an interesting way to explore that Universe. Until the time when I’m presented with evidence to support the existence of what the religious like to call a soul, however, I must simply assume (quite safely) that such an existence doesn’t happen.

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  10. I’m the one who brought up Pascal’s Wager in the other post, so I’ll reiterate my argument here — glutton for punishment that I am. Let me say at the outset that I disagree completely with Martin’s description of the wager. The wager is primarily a powerful rational argument against putting atheistic beliefs into practice. To ignore this and to focus instead on the quantity of choice that religion offers is to miss the point completely.

    To understand the wager, you must first understand the concept of “expected value”, which is one of the contributions that Pascal (and others) made to mathematics. If a gamble has known odds and a known payoff, we can ascribe an “expected value” to that gamble by multiplying the two. Most real-world gambles have an expected value which is slightly less than the initial outlay — the “house advantage” which makes it more profitable to be on the lottery-ticket-seller side of the deal than the lottery-ticket-buyer side.

    Let’s look at atheism as a gamble. Let us assume that it has a very high probability of being right. We multiply that probability by the payoff. What is the payoff if atheism is a true belief? You get to live life as you please for as long as you can, and then you’re annihilated, without so much as the memory of your life to take with you. That’s potentially attractive in the short term, but average it out over the next million or so years, and it bears little difference to never having existed at all. Multiply that by “slightly less than one” to get your expected value.

    If non-existence happens to be your bag, then atheism has lots of it to offer: just off yourself and get on with it. However, because you exist and are reading this, I suspect that you may prefer existence over non-existence. That being so, atheism has very little to offer you: just a teaser — a mere sample pack of existence, with no actual product to follow.

    Atheism is not alone in having lots of nothing to offer. Some Eastern religions seem to think that non-existence is a worthy goal, but that it doesn’t come for free. I surmise that nobody here is interested in buying what those Eastern religions are selling (since you probably either don’t want it, or think you can get it for free), so I won’t analyse it any deeper than that. Just note that atheism isn’t alone in its low expected value, and Pascal’s wager is an argument against betting on low expected values in general rather than against atheism in particular.

    If you are absolutely 100% certain that there is no possibility of anything better than eternal non-existence after death, then read no further, because Pascal’s wager does not apply to you. Contrary, however, to what Martin said, you don’t need to believe in an eternal soul, or a God, or Heaven, or Hell, or any of those things. All you need to do is grant a non-zero possibility that they might exist. I’m of the understanding that lack of absolute certainty is a hallmark of New Atheist Scientific Rationalism, so this should be pretty much a given for most folks here, barring pseudo-uncertainties like “infinity to one against”. (There’s a Douglas Adams reference for you.)

    If you grant a small but finite probability that some sort of worthwhile life after death might be possible, then you have another expected value to calculate. This time the odds are low, but the payoff is potentially high. The expected value could easily exceed that of atheism, and if it does, then it is a better bet than atheism, and it would be more rational to pursue it even if atheism is more probable. Rationality isn’t about the probability alone, but the expected value, which is a product of probability and payoff.

    First, however, let us consider the cost of choosing something other than atheism, because “risk-versus-cost” is one of the factors that Martin would have us consider. The fact of the matter is that there is no cost: the only “cost” which is relevant here is the difference in expected values, which is a factor of projected quality and quantity of life, and the probability that you will actually attain it. On that front, however, there is an interesting factor to consider: the reward of atheism is its offer to live life as you please for as long as you can, but as you read this, you’ve received a portion of that reward already. You’re only gambling your future, not your past. So, if you choose something other than atheism, and atheism turns out to be right, you’ll lose whatever the quality-of-life difference is for your remaining years, but you’ll still receive exactly the same eternal annihilation, so the short term difference may be appreciable, but the long term difference is infinitesimal.

    In short, there is no immediate cost in choosing something other than atheism, and, if atheism is true, there is basically no long-term cost either.

    It’s obvious that an eternity in paradise is an outcome much to be desired by anyone who values quality and quantity of existence. I have seen no attempt at refuting that concept in and of itself, so I assume it is obvious. Instead, Martin emphasises the many possible variations in what kind of God might exist if there is one, the possible variations in the attitude of such a God to people like us, and so on. Even if I grant Martin’s mathematics, the odds against choosing a successful combination must be infinite before they diminish the expected value of eternity in paradise down below the level of atheism. Zillion to one odds? No problem: I’ll take that bet over atheism, and consider myself rational in the rigorously mathematical sense.

    Pascal’s Wager stands: regardless of any confusion as to which alternative offers the best expected value, it’s clear that atheism is among the worst. Any finite possibility with a sufficiently good payoff beats the expected value of atheism. Atheism is great for nihilists, but if you think it might be possible to do better than annihilation, you have nothing to gain by embracing it, and nothing to lose (in the long term) by rejecting it if it’s true.

    Still, I find it hard to believe that the same science which assures some people that there is no God can not be brought to bear on this problem. The combination of Pascal’s Wager and scientifically-grounded atheism should motivate all such atheists (other than the nihilists) to hope that they are wrong about atheism and attempt to falsify it. It has to be falsifiable in principle to be science, right? Better still, scientific atheists should come up with some testable theories on the nature of God, so that we can improve our odds of attaining a good afterlife. Theology should be a branch of science — or rather, science already contains a branch called “Theology” if there is a proper scientific argument on the existence of God.

    Mind you, I don’t recall any classic scientific experiments being performed to test the existence of God. Could the “lack of evidence” for God be related to the lack of experiments? A subject to ponder in a different blog post, perhaps.

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    • tl:dr

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    • Except…that if you don’t believe, you just don’t believe…making “belief” mere patronizing lip service and disingenuous. I can’t “make” myself believe in something I find to be woefully inadequate on evidence and highly improbable both scientifically and mathematically.

      Pascal’s Wager is based on the assumption of choice, but most…no, all, of the atheists and non-believers I know either never believed in the first place or came to the realization they no longer did and choice wasn’t a concept involved at all.

      There are no classic experiments because science doesn’t test metaphysical/supernatural concepts. By its very nature those things are outside its realm. Many experiments have been done on ” the power of prayer”, pro-social behavior affects and health and well-being, including mortality and morbidity, all with conflicting results and from many disciplines.

      But. You know. Researching the research can be really annoying. I know.

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    • Brett, I can see where you are coming from, but the underlying issue is much greater than the idea of whether there’s a god, or whether you will yourself to believe in afterlife. The issue is “Does the soul exist?”

      I know you can probably come up with tons of examples for why you believe the human soul exists, but of course they are ALL anecdotal and have no substance to them other than the “experiences” of people. This is simply not enough. The human brain is a hugely powerful thing, and in times when there was less than the obvious issues of survival for it to contemplate, it started on a journey of self questioning. This is where the souls made its first appearance, inside the mind of men. There is no evidence that the soul exists at all. In fact the latest studies have shown that ALL the world is interpreted by our senses and our brains. I consider the idea of the soul to be on of the most presumptuous ideas in human history, and all this navel gazing has done nothing but make people like you insist that there must be more than this wonderfully rich and special life we have.

      Of course you could say that experience is all we have, based on the idea that the brain is the interpreter, but let’s not forget that there are experiences WITHIN the brain, and then there are experiences OUTSIDE the brain. One is more real than the other, as it has an effect on the real world. I’ll let you choose which.

      Until you can show me that the human soul exists, that it is eternal, and that it is special, I’m sorry but none of your ideas about an interventionist god that cares about the well-being of humans hold any water.

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      • Why didn’t you just stop at, “Let’s look at atheism as a gamble.”

        A gamble implies some sense of risk. When there is no evidence (that you value) to anything of the contrary, there is no risk. Just shut it down right there. You’ve already made a ridiculous assumption that has no merit as the foundation for your entire argument.

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        • When there is no evidence (that you value) to anything of the contrary, there is no risk.

          You are assuming that your values in relation to evidence correlate to actual risk. That’s a pretty major assumption. Presumptuous, even.

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          • When there is no evidence (that you value) to anything of the contrary, there is no risk.

            You are assuming that your values in relation to evidence correlate to actual risk. That’s a pretty major assumption. Presumptuous, even.

            I think it’s very safe to assume that any risk associated with something that has never had a shred of credible evidence to support its existence is negligible, at best. It’s not a major assumption at all, and certainly not presumptuous.

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      • Hey, Martin — thanks for the reply. As it happens, I’ve already said all that I feel needs to be said about the “soul” for now in a previous comment. In short, a “soul” could well be just “information”. After all, if “you” can exist now, what are “you” but a machine of some sort which can be described in a finite set of states? That’s 100% compatible with a naturalist view, after all. So if a sufficiently powerful (and knowledgeable) being were to re-create you based on that information, would not that new thing also be “you”? My position isn’t based on the existence of some non-physical, indestructible substance that might be called a “soul”, but only on information — a “backup copy” of your physical being, if you like.

        Of course, it may be the case that a non-physical “soul” actually exists, in which case a copy of “you” would be exactly that: a copy. If we say that a “soul” is merely information, however, then a copy is completely indistinguishable from the original, in the same way that a copy of a binary file is indistinguishable from the original file. If you think that there is a distinction to be made here, then please describe it.

        In short, I see no reason to argue that there is such a thing as a “soul”, except to the extent that it is information representing an abstraction of a person, in the same sense that an MP3 or WAV file is information representing the abstraction of a sound. To be frank, I find that description of a “soul” slightly insufficient, but that’s because I don’t believe that a collection of atoms could experience “consciousness”. If you sincerely believe that a human being is nothing more than a collection of atoms, however, that explanation of “soul” should be quite sufficient. Let me know if it isn’t.

        … let’s not forget that there are experiences WITHIN the brain, and then there are experiences OUTSIDE the brain.

        I’m not sure I understand what you mean by this distinction. Surely if something is completely outside the brain, then it is, by definition, not an experience?

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        • As it happens, I’ve already said all that I feel needs to be said about the “soul” for now in a previous comment.

          Obviously untrue, since you continue to blather on and on about it.

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  11. Pardon, experiments on effects of prayer on health, studies on pro-social behaviors and well-being.

    Small edit, big difference.

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  12. My consciousness will survive my body in the work I produce as a social scientist and as a human. I’m okay with that.

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  13. My limited understanding of the matter boils down to this: Any discussion or debate regarding the benefits of a highly unlikely afterlife only serves to cheapen and trivialize the here and now. If one hopes or expects to be rewarded or punished in the afterlife, it makes it exceedingly easy to put less value on our precious, fleeting, and even at times, painful current existence. Then, the rationalization of all sorts of atrocious behavior can be done to secure that coveted afterlife position.

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  14. I sometimes wonder what god/gods mankind will be worshiping in the distant future, if any. As our short history seems to show, we’ve gone through thousands of gods believing that they were the “right one” to worship in order to get into paradise. I think we’ll either blow ourselves to oblivion, be destroyed by some catastrophe of nature, or be visited by the “real” gods from a distant galaxy telling us to worship them if we are actually in need of being “on bended knee.” Or, they could just tell us to “GROW A BRAIN.” Maybe that’s what we need to tell ourselves!

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  15. Good analysis.  Just wrote on this topic, too, and I’d like to point out yet another flaw.  Pascal’s Wager assumes that belief is something you can consciously chose to change.  See, in particular, the discussion of the “special pony”:
    http://talk.faseidl.com/religion/2013/06/21/pascals-wager-a-pony-and-belief/

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  16. Good analysis.  I also recently wrote on this topic and would like to suggest another basic flaw:  Pascal assumes that belief is a conscious choice.  In particular, see my discussion about the special pony:
    http://talk.faseidl.com/religion/2013/06/21/pascals-wager-a-pony-and-belief/

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