Simple Liberty  



God is an Anarchist

Pascal’s Wager

Written by Darrell Anderson.

Many people who study philosophy or religion eventually become familiar with Pascal’s Wager, a simple argument about whether an individual should consider believing in God. The argument is straightforward: God exists or does not exist and people believe that God exists or believe that God does not exist. Those four statements create a simple four-element matrix of where an individual might stand on that issue.

The elements themselves are mere statements and are not intended to prove the existence of God. The entire Wager is based upon the premise that proving God’s existence is impossible, therefore people must wager. The Wager only declares that if an individual is unsure about the existence of God, which of the four elements provides the best possible chance for an enjoyable outcome? What are the advantages and disadvantages to the possible decisions?

I believe Blaise Pascal made an error in his analysis and his reasoning is flawed.

Pascal argued that of the four elements of the matrix, only one provided negative repercussions. The argument goes something like this:

  1. If God does not exist and I believe that God exists, I lose nothing in the end but possibly deprive myself of enjoying certain elements of life. If I live a quiet and peaceable life I likely contribute morally to a better world while I am here, but in the end I die and that is that.
  2. If God does not exist and I believe that God does not exist, I lose nothing and possibly gain something because I enjoy certain elements of life I might otherwise have foregone. Yet, in the end I die and that is that.
  3. If God exists and I believe that God exists, then I have nothing to fear and I gain everything. I more or less receive what I thought I would receive. I receive certain rewards.
  4. If God exists and I believe God does not exist, then I have everything to fear and would lose everything. I receive infinite misery.

I agree that Pascal’s Wager is pragmatic and utilitarian. According to the Wager, there are only four possibilities so pick one. A rather straightforward approach.

One flaw in the argument is Pascal presumes he knows the nature of God, despite admitting and establishing the premise that nobody can prove God’s existence.

A second flaw is if there is a God then Pascal, like many deists and theists, 1) presumes he knows the difference between this life and the next, 2) presumes there is a literal Heaven of rewards and a Hell of eternal punishment, and 3) that rejecting God automatically induces eternal condemnation.

For many people the concept of God certainly implies some sort of judgment. A natural sense of justice reasonably requires that if God exists then some sort of final judgment should be in order. So acute is this overall sense of justice that even atheists and agnostics desire justice in this world.

Undisclosed in the Wager is Pascal presuming the next life includes a final judgment, and that presumption automatically creates the boundaries of the question. Such an error is called a false dilemma.

What if salvation is provided to all people? If there is a final judgement, what if that judgment serves another purpose other than determining eternal existence? What if that judgment serves only to distinguish those works that should be acknowledged and those that should be forgotten?

Remove the presumptions about the next life and Pascal’s Wager changes character. Without the presumptions some additional rows could be added to the matrix. Consider just two:

  1. God exists, I accept universal salvation, thus I will do my best in this world despite my deficiencies so that my beneficial works will survive and I will be rewarded accordingly.
  2. God exists, I accept that condemnation is possible, but I believe a God of grace will provide a way for the condemned to repent and be blessed.

There are other possibilities that could expand the matrix. Pascal’s conception of God is strictly a Christian interpretation. What if, say, that concept is incorrect and the Muslim concept is correct? If so, then to wager on the Christian concept of God would be to place a wrong bet.

What if God exists, but atheists are granted their wish and upon death simply stop existing — there is no after-life for such people, no judgment, and consciousness stops completely forever.

As written the Wager creates a system with limited boundaries and presumes all the boundaries of that system are known. Yet, because no human can prove the existence of God, or ever hope to identify God’s nature, the Wager problem very well could be an incomplete system with incomplete or even false boundaries. Pascal’s Wager presents a system of finite boundaries to deal with an unknowable and arguably infinite God.

Further, because nobody can prove those elements, there is no place in the matrix for the rational person who believes the evidence is insufficient to even begin entertaining the idea of wagering. An individual might bet on a horse race without knowing any of the horses, or might bet without knowing the location of the track, but would any rational person place a bet not knowing if there was even a race? Pascal’s Wager presumes that an individual must decide in an either-or black-and-white fashion whether God exists, but presumes the reasons for wanting to make such a wager. There is no square or row in this matrix for the agnostic.

Pascal admitted that proving God’s existence is impossible — that is the essence and foundation of the Wager. However, humans must have some kind of foundation from which to create and support beliefs. If there is no evidence to substantiate a foundation, then how can an individual rationally believe in something? Rational people do not believe in just anything. At best such a bare act would be nothing more than the power of positive thinking, and at worst superstition — not reasonable belief.

Although flawed, Pascal’s Wager is hardly useless. As a simple and straightforward thought problem, the Wager proposes that an individual should at least consider the ramifications of the question of God’s existence.

The Wager is more like the statement found in the stories about Jesus. When Jesus asked an individual if he believed Jesus possessed power to heal, the individual replied, “Yes, I believe, but help my unbelief!” If anything, Pascal’s Wager illustrates that same response. Nobody knows, so perhaps some thought should be applied to the problem, despite the lack of evidence.

Perhaps the worst aspect of Pascal’s Wager is that many people believe the Wager is sound logically and that people should be pressured into choosing. The Wager is used by many people as an intimidation tactic rather than as a tool of rational thinking. Pascal did not cause this secondary problem, he likely is innocent of any such wrong doing. Pascal likely was only trying to provide a reasonable argument for why people should consider a belief in God — based upon his own perceptions and interpretations. Unfortunately, many people have distorted his argument into some sort of infallible polemic to justify their actions to pressure other people into belief. Pascal did not argue that people must choose a belief in God, only that they should. Yet, as many credible people have noted, even that assertion is debatable.


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