Pascal’s Wager, Atheist’s Wager

Blaise Pascal, aside from having a genuinely fantastic name, proposed one of the world’s most famous wagers: the 420 wager. ‘How often to partake of the weed’ was the question for Mr. Blaze, and so terribly did this notion vex him that the man threw his life’s fire and fuel at the dilemma that faces every man, woman and child.

In seriousness, Pascal’s wager forms an interesting point of theological philosophy. Modernised, the Wager seems quite familiar to most of us: why not choose to believe in God and receive eternal life when the alternative is just death? What have you got to lose? Pascal’s classic wager, fleshed out, goes like this:

Assume God exists. You must wager whether he exists or not.  Let’s weigh up the outcomes of belief:

1a – God exists, you believe, you gain infinitely (heaven)

1b – God exists, you don’t believe, you lose infinitely

2a – God doesn’t exist, you believe, you lose finitely

2b – God doesn’t exist, you don’t believe, you gain finitely.

Assume all four choices are equally valid. As 1a proposes an infinite gain (eternal life) over the finite and infinite losses (just death, or hell), it is better to believe in that which proposes the best reward. Therefore, 1a is the best choice. 

And there you have it. Pascal’s wager concludes that it is better to believe that God exists.

Not so, cries the slightly overweight but generally misunderstood, quirky agnostic atheist. For there are numerous factors that have not been considered. A person on the other side of the theological spectrum would be quick to counter with the following points:

  1. This wager assumes that ‘belief in God’ conforms to a religion, or to a God that simply takes ‘belief in his existence’ to be the qualifying factor for eternal gain. So, which religion are we talking about?
  2. What happens to those who believe in God, yet do not believe in the right God? This forms part of the ‘malevolence’ criticism to Pascal’s wager.

So the atheist brings up their own wager:

Assume God exists. Assume God is not malevolent, but benevolent. This means he will show compassion to people in the form of reward: if you are ‘good’, you will benefit, and if you are ‘bad’ you will lose.  You must wager whether he exists or not.  Let’s weigh up the outcomes of belief:

1a – God exists, you are good and you believe in him = infinite gain

1b – God exists, you are good and you don’t believe in him = infinite gain

1c – God exists, you are bad and you believe in him = infinite loss

1d – God exists, you are bad and you don’t believe in him = infinite loss

2a – God doesn’t exist, you are good and you believe in him = finite gain < 2b*

2b – God doesn’t exist, you are good and you don’t believe in him = finite gain

2c – God doesn’t exist, you are bad and you believe in him = finite loss > 2d*

2d – God doesn’t exist, you are bad and you don’t believe in him = finite loss 

*This takes into account ‘time wasting’, as belief is seen to be a total waste of time.

Thus the wager concludes that belief in God is a waste of time and the most likely route to eventuate infinite gain is to not believe but instead be ‘good’ because a ‘good’ God won’t sent people to hell if they are deemed ‘good’.

And I’m here to criticise everybody’s position because I like being in the middle.

BlazeIt420: you’re up first.

Perhaps the most glaring problem with Mr. Smokeiteveryday’s wager is that it assumes a God’s sole requisite for infinite gain is belief in God. This isn’t right according to, well…Judaism, Christianity, some strands of Deism or Islam. Most (but not all) religions do not assume or provide any evidence to suggest that God warrants nothing but belief in exchange for eternal gain. While some Deists might believe that God will judge people based on their morality, a lot of Deists don’t believe in a personal God. Further, the Christian God does not reward people with eternal life solely for believing in Him. James 2:19: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder”.

So Pascal’s run into a problem in that, at best, his wager is an argument for some Deistic God.

Secondly, there’s the problem of ‘what if I have believed in the wrong God,’ to which the wager has no answer. Presumably, you’d lose infinitely. So pure belief in ‘God’ can actually fall into two different camps – infinite gain and infinite loss. I’ll touch on this later.

Ok atheists, you’re up:

Your wager is nonsensical. Again, the assumption that God must reward you based solely on an arbitrary level of ‘good’ is not grounded in reasoning. God’s ‘benevolence’ does not automatically have to conform to human standards of morality; a Deistic God could judge us as good people or bad people based purely on how we treat ants or seamonkeys or how many atoms we cycle in and out of our lungs per minute. Atheists can’t posit only one type of God – the ‘benevolent’ God – and forget to include any other incarnation of God for comparison. Although other Gods may not be worth worshiping, it’s dishonest to exclude them from consideration. Further, in the case of the Christian God (let’s face it, most atheists are in opposition to Christianity), Yahweh is outright vile in his stance on human morality. Romans 3:23 “For all have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God.” Bam. Christianity says everybody is a sinner and unable to be reconciled based solely on their ethics. That was the entire point of the Old Testament, when God chose to screw a tribe of people over for a couple of thousand years to hone home exactly how sinful people are and how much God cannot forgive them for their sins. So you cannot wager that your level of ‘goodness’ will see you gain infinitely.

Second, the assumption that belief in God constitutes a waste in time is purely subjective as what constitutes time-wasting cannot be objectively verified. Time spent in church and worship has value in-and-of itself whether communal, spiritual or for mental health reasons, friendships, learning, etc. As an Absurdist, I believe nobody can ever truly waste their time but I will agree that some pursuits have more consensus meaning than others. That’s for you to decide, not me.

So. Here’s my take on the wager. I’ve called it Dave’s stupidly long wager that you’re more than welcome to stop reading at any time and skip to the conclusion because it’s supposed to be long-winded so don’t feel bad for giving up:

Assume God exists. God’s conditional reward constitutes infinite gain (eternal life), and his passing constitutes infinite loss (eternal death). Annihilation exists as a third, neutral option. You must wager if God exists or not because that’s the whole reason why we’re doing this. Let’s weigh up the outcomes of belief:

1a – God exists, God has no involvement in human dealings (impartial Deistic). Belief or no – neutral outcome. Moral stance – neutral outcome.

1b – God exists, God has involvement in human dealings but does not judge our ‘goodness’ or promise eternal life (again, Deistic). Belief or no – neutral outcome.

1c1 – God exists, God has involvement in human dealings and judges us based on humanity’s consensus morality but not a belief in him (a really nice Deistic God). Belief:  neutral outcome. Morally good: infinite gain, morally bad: infinite loss

1c2 – God exists, God has involvement in human dealings and judges us based on humanity’s consensus morality AND a belief in him (a personal Deistic God). Belief: yes – infinite gain only when combined with morally good. Morally good: infinite gain only when combined with belief; morally bad: infinite loss

1c3 – God exists, God has involvement in human dealings and judges us based ONLY on a belief in him (a Deistic God who doesn’t care about morals). Belief: yes, infinite gain; no, infinite loss. Morally good: neutral outcome.

1d – God exists, God has no involvement in human dealings but judges us based on humanity’s consensus morality and not a belief in him (some form of Deism). Belief or no – neutral outcome. Morally good: infinite gain, morally bad: infinite loss

1d2- God exists, God has no involvement in human dealings but judges us based on humanity’s consensus morality AND a belief in him (some form of Deism). Belief: yes – infinite gain only when combined with morally good. Morally good: infinite gain, morally bad: infinite loss

1d3 – God exists, God has no involvement in human dealings and judges us based ONLY on a belief in him (a Deistic God who doesn’t care about morals). Belief: yes, infinite gain; no, infinite loss. Morally good: neutral outcome.

1e – God exists. God is Deistic and will grant everybody eternal life regardless of their belief or morality. Automatic infinite gain

2a – God exists, God is the God of the bible. God is Protestantly inclined. Belief in existence of God: yes – infinite gain, no – infinite loss. Moral: choice irrelevant. Having Jesus as personal saviour: yes – infinite gain; no – infinite loss

2a1 – God exists, God is the God of the bible. God is Protestantly inclined but does not require strict belief in his existence (liberal open theism, Christian humanism, non-trinitarian). Belief in existence of ‘God': neutral. Moral: good- infinite gain; bad – infinite loss. Having Jesus as personal saviour: yes – infinite gain; no – infinite loss

2a1.a – God exists, God is the God of the bible but his character is more in line with a Deistic God (Christian Deism). Belief in existence of God: yes – infinite gain; no – infinite loss. Moral: yes – infinite gain; no – infinite loss. Having Jesus as personal saviour: neutral outcome.

2a2 – God exists, God is the God of the bible. God will universally reconcile all of humanity to salvation (Universalism).  Belief in existence of God: irrelevant. Moral: choice irrelevant. Having Jesus as personal saviour: irrelevant. Automatic infinite gain.

2a3 – God exists, God is the God of the bible. God follows Catholic progression and dogma. Belief in existence of God: yes – infinite gain; no -infinite loss. Moral: yes – infinite gain; no – infinite loss. Having Jesus as personal saviour: yes – infinite gain; no – infinite loss

3 – God exists. God is evil and will arbitrarily choose people to save. No gain unless selected. Possible infinite gain, possible infinite loss

3a – God exists. God is evil and will condemn everybody to hell. Infinite loss

3b – God exists. God is evil and requires you to be a bad person for eternal gain. Belief: irrelevant. Moral: yes – infinite loss, no – infinite gain.

3b1 – God exists. God is evil, needs you to believe in him and requires you to be a bad person for eternal gain. etc

4 – God exists. He belongs to a specific religion that you do not worship. God requires you to worship him for eternal gain. Belief: yes – infinite gain; no – infinite loss. Moral choice irrelevant

4a. God exists. He belongs to a specific religion that you do not worship. God requires you to worship him for eternal gain AND be moral. Belief: yes – infinite gain; no – infinite loss. Moral choice: yes – infinite gain, moral choice – infinite loss.

4b. God exists. He belongs to a specific religion that you do not worship. God doesn’t require you to worship him for eternal gain BUT requires you to be normal. Belief: neutral outcome. Moral choice: yes – infinite gain, no – infinite loss. Note this religion may not exist.

4c. God exists. He belongs to a specific religion that you do not worship. God doesn’t require you to worship him for eternal gain and doesn’t require you to be moral. Belief: irrelevant. Moral choice irrelevant. Automatic infinite gain. This religion, too, may not exist.

5 – You don’t believe in 1c2, 1d2, 2a, 2a1.a 2a3 and 4 [All God's that require exclusive belief in them]. You lose infinitely, irrespective of moral choice.

6 – This is getting too complicated.

All possibilities are considered equally likely.

Consideration: The more sub-clauses applied to a specific group (Deism, Christianity, Other Religions), the more statistically likely that group is to be right by virtue of sheer numbers. The largest category, then, appears to be 4 – dealing with other religions. There are many, many religions and denominations and sects. Thus, it is statistically impossible for one to choose the right religion based solely on guesswork.

Even if more options exist for eternal gain and believing in God over the alternative of eternal loss (because of the diversity of religions), actually selecting the right option to reward you with eternal gain is too difficult and you are more likely to choose incorrectly, thus offending God and doomed to suffer eternal loss. Remember: eternal gain is conditional on the correct, specific choice, not a correct categorical choice. Even if you believe in a God that saves all, God may still exist but he won’t allow you into heaven because you weren’t moral, didn’t do X, etc.

Conclusion: This type of wager isn’t an effective way to choose whether or not you should believe in God. 

*

My criticism forms part of a larger criticism of Pascal’s wager, summaried here in the green pathway (taken from the Agnostic Atheist Wager. Yeah that exists too). It’s called the logic of religious worship, and while I don’t necessarily agree with the progression of the argument to the conclusion, the green pathway is valid UNTIL you hit the Christian concept of Grace. Grace makes it a little murkier.

One of the reasons why these wagers don’t work is that we have to assume each and every facet holds equal value. For example, there is nothing to stop us from entertaining the thought that God will lie to us or is evil. But here’s the main the problem I have with this wager: it confuses Deism with Christianity. Positing some God exists and then sneakily saying, ‘Well, Christianity is the most convenient religion near you…so…’ is a very bad tactic to use, as I’ve demonstrated in my disgustingly long wager that I didn’t get to finish because I got bored listing all the possibilities. This is the same dilemma that comes from the ‘Argument from Design’ – seeing God in nature doesn’t mean we see the Christian God, even if the bible [and every other religious text] claims this as an argument for their God. What we’re seeing, at most, is a form of Deism.

So what’s the take home message from this? Maybe we should live our lives for the benefit of other people, not for our own infinite gain.

And blaze it everyday, just quietly. No, but seriously don’t because weed is psychoactive and not entirely harmless if you have a history of mental illness.

I implore you, emphatically, to partake of the weed and smoke it liberally

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 70 other followers

%d bloggers like this: