31 October 2009

Pascal's Wager: An argument that should never have been convincing.

As an atheist (a six on the Dawkins scale) I get to hear about Pascal's wager more often than anyone really needs to hear about it. If you find yourself in the unbelieving crowd, no doubt you hear it too often as well. This post isn't for you (well it is for you too, but I am really interested in exposing the flaws of Pascal here). This post is for those, often well meaning folks, who continue to tirelessly wheel out Pascal's rotting corpse in an effort to affect a religious conversion. I don't honestly think they've given Pascal's Wager the review it deserves. This may not be so. However, the abruptness with which the wager falls apart makes me think those who fancy it haven't thought too deeply about it. Either that or they think I'm none to bright. No doubt a few have thought the latter.

Before pressing on, let me spell out Pascal's Wager. Blaise Pascal, was a brilliant mathematician, philosopher and theologian of the 17th century. He was an innovator in mathematics and physics. He was also, perhaps not surprisingly, sick much of his life. And I don't mean mildly sick either. Much of Pascal's life seemed to involve some kind of pain. Whether this unduly influeced his theology, is not, for our purposes, germane to the argument contained in his infamous wager. It was a decidedly Christian wager, by the way, but probably has applicablity for all the Abrahamic traditions. Pascal thought all people should wager thusly: While no evidence for God exists, and proving his existance through reason was impossible (a part modern users of this argument like to leave out) one should wager as if God did exist because the costs for being wrong so outweighed the costs of being correct. That is to say, winning the wager (by believing in God) gets you heaven and whatever other poorly described rewards heave has to offer while you also avoid the eternal torments of hell (failing to believe in God if said being exists). There are no real rewards for winning the bet the other way. If the unbeliever is correct both believer and non-believer get the same reward. Nothing.

Wikipedia has a nice framing, "even though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should wager as though God exists, because so living has everything to gain, and nothing to lose." So if you believe, and are correct you win the lottery, and if you are wrong you have, so Pascal claims, lost nothing.

For some reason this seems like a very brilliant gambit for many believers, but they really ought to note its many pitfalls. Lets look at what I think are three of the most obvious.

1. Pascal's Wager assumes we can choose which beliefs we adopt
I can only speak for myself here, but it seems like there are very few of our beliefs we can control. If we believe something, it is likely because we think the reasons for holding that a position is consistent with reality are strong. Not because it makes us feel good. No doubt some beliefs are better at making people feel happy than others, but that says nothing about how true they may be. For instance children believe in Santa Clause for very rational reasons. Authorities, whom they trust tell them Santa is real. For a child of a suitably young age, this kind of trust makes complete sense and constitutes reasonable evidence. But no matter where you find yourself in the belief or unbelief question you look for evidence of the veracity of position. It isn't apparent that one can choose to believe anything. They have to be compelled by evidence to adopt a position. That doesn't mean of course they will arrive at the correct position, just that some body of evidence (experience, research, etc) will have been enough to convince them that an idea (God, Aliens, Bigfoot) is consistent with reality. Whether people notice it or not they speak in terms of evidence no matter how much they use the word faith. At most all an unbeliever could do was act as if they believed if evidence didn't compel belief. Lets leave that aside for the moment.

2. Pascals Wager assumes that adopting religious belief carries no costs.
In every framing of this argument that I've heard, and indeed the way it was phrased by Pascal himself, it is assumed that faith is a cheap investment for the believer, as cheap as unbelief (hence the extreme difference in payoffs at the end of earthly life). One wonders how that part of the argument can be made with a straight face. Religious belief has obvious costs (these can vary of course, but they exist in every sect of the Abrahamic traditions). Religious faith makes its cost felt in obvious places like one's bank account (tithing, other religious donations), but also in terms of family relationships, and mental health, and simple time. The costs of religion can be felt in all these areas. Why Pascal didn't count these things as costs I don't know. Perhaps he was simply trying to bolster his case that the investment of both unbeliever and believer was equal in an effort to underscore the difference in payoffs. But think about all the time believers spend doing things for their faiths, the money spent, the relationships avoided, or broken off, and it becomes apparent that belief has costs, and sometimes they are quite serious. From here we see that these costs amount to serious, indeed utterly substantial investment. This seems like a profoundly obvious thing to have missed. Set against eternity in heaven I suppose a life time of this isn't much of an investment, but if it is the only life you get it, the wastefulness of it becomes apparent. Think about someone you know (it might be you reading this) who spends time, and considerable amounts of money on their faith, maybe they have also shunned a child for some religious infraction, or have all their life avoided same sex encounters that they deeply desire. What if that believer is wrong? Such a scenario certainly ruins Pascal's hypothesis that cost was a non-issue for the believer, but even mild costs would work to ruin the notion.

3.Pascal's Wager assumes that God will accept a lie.
I cannot make myself believe something that I think is patently false. All I can do is act like I believe something that I already believe is patently false. Sure I can fake it. And this is essentially what Pascal asks people to do with his wager. Dishonestly act as if you believe to gain a set of rewards for little cost in a future life. Firstly does this sound like the kind of action that the god of Abraham would tolerate? Secondly, is such subterfuge commensurate with moral action? It seems to me the answer to both questions is no. Pascal, and those who continue to use this argument act as if the answer is yes.



At 10:05 AM , Blogger Diacanu said...

Brilliantly dissected.

You should bookmark this, and throw up a link every time Pascal's wager comes up on RD.net.


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