The Pascal's Wager reference article from the English Wikipedia on 24-Apr-2004
(provided by Fixed Reference: snapshots of Wikipedia from wikipedia.org)

Pascal's Wager

Videos from a children's charity on sponsorship
Pascal's Wager (also known as Pascal's Gambit) is Blaise Pascal's famous argument for the belief in God. Pascal argues that it is always a better "bet" to believe in God, because the expected value to be gained from believing in God is always greater than the expected value resulting from non-belief. Note that this is not an argument for the existence of God, but rather one for the belief in God. Pascal specifically aimed the argument at such persons that were not convinced by traditional arguments for the existence of God. With his wager he sought to demonstrate that believing in God is advantageous to not believing, and hoped that this would convert those that rejected previous theological arguments.

It states that if you were to analyse your options in regard to belief in Pascal's God carefully (or belief in any other religious system with a similar reward and punishment scheme), you would come out with the following possibilities:

From these possibilities, and the principles of statistics, Pascal deduced that it would be better to believe in God unconditionally. It is a classic application of game theory to itemize options and payoffs and is valid within its assumptions.

The following table shows the values that Pascal assigned to each possible outcome:

God exists (G)God does not exist (~G)
Belief in God (B)+ ∞ (heaven)
0
Non-belief in God (~B)  − ∞ (hell)
0

Given the values that Pascal proposes, the option of believing in God (B) dominates the option of not believing in God (~B). In other words, the value gained by choosing B is always greater than or equal to that of choosing ~B.

Pascal assigned equal probability to each of the two possibilities. He argued that "reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other," due to our ignorance. Later writers have pointed out that the probabilities make no difference to the argument, since any non-zero chance multiplied by infinity yields an infinite expected value.

Arguments regarding Pascal's Wager

Pascal's wager can be said to suffer from the logical fallacy of false dilemma, relying on the assumption that the only possibilities are:

  1. the Christian God exists and punishes or rewards as stated in the Bible, or
  2. no God exists.

The wager cannot rule out the possibility that there is a God who instead rewards skepticism and punishes blind faith, or rewards honest reasoning and punishes feigned faith. In societies where faith is often rewarded by economic and social benefit, its potential moral significance is dubious. It also assumes faith costs nothing, but there may be both direct (time, health, wealth) costs and opportunity costs: those who choose to believe in, say, scientific theories that may contradict scripture may be able to discover things and accomplish things the believer could not.

The "many-gods" argument points out that we can find indefinitely many other possibilities offering eternal bliss and threatening eternal torment. For example, non-Christian gods might exist, and punish Christian believers for their failure to believe in them. Or some powerful entity might decide to punish those who believe in a god while rewarding non-believers. Even if (contrary to Pascal's original argument) we can assign greater probability to one of the possible outcomes, it makes no mathematical difference. As the previous section mentions, any non-zero probability multiplied by infinity yields an infinite expected value.

In this way, Pascal's Wager could be used to deduce that it would be advisable to believe in any or all of a variety of gods; however the belief systems of some religions are exclusive, leading to theoretical contradictions with Pascal's Wager for those practicing an exclusive faith. This is the argument from inconsistent revelations. Those who have an all encompassing religion (Sanathana Dharma or Pantheism for example) do not suffer from such a criticism. There is also the Jewish faith to consider, which expects a non-Jew only to obey the Noachide Laws in order to receive reward in afterlife. In addition, some religions do not require a focus on a deity, such as Buddhism.

The wager fails to mention any costs relating to belief. It is argued that there may be both direct costs (time, health, wealth) and opportunity costs. There may be opportunity costs for those who choose to believe: for example, scientific theories such as evolution that appear to some to contradict scripture could theoretically enable a non-believer to discover things and accomplish things the creationist could not. It is also argued that belief incurs a cost by not allowing the believing person to participate in and enjoy actions forbidden by dogma. This of course assumes that an unrestricted lifestyle is in someway preferred, and dismisses research suggesting there might be medical or socio-cultural benefits of belief and prayer.

The wager may also be criticised for requiring one to choose one's beliefs. Advocates of certain views of the nature of free will would claim that beliefs are not something that we can choose. A person who accepted the tenets of the wager might act in a pious and believing way throughout their life, but without some better reason than their own self-interest, they might not have the option to choose to believe in God.

There is also the argument that one could "game" the wager in a scenario where the deathbed conversion is possible — as is the case in some streams of Christianity. The person who converts on their deathbed could have failed to have been dutiful in fulfilling their doctrinal obligations, and still gain the happiness associated with the Christian concept of "heaven". The danger here is well known to most Christians, as this is a common theme of sermons in a variety of denominations. The risk of taking this gamble only to die suddenly, and without warning, or to experience the time of tribulation is often portrayed as too great a risk to take. There are also no small number of Christians who feel that God rewards good works, rather than repentance alone.

Variations of this argument can be found in other religious philosophies, such as Hinduism. Pascal was severely criticized by Voltaire.

See also: Religion, Philosophy, arguments for the existence of God, arguments against the existence of God

External links