Reviewing Pascal’s Wager

Blaise Pascal“Why not believe in God? What have you got to lose?” So goes the common presentation of one of the more recognizable philosophical arguments for…in this case…believing in the god of Catholicism. This is commonly referred to as “Pascal’s Wager” and takes its name from the 17th century mathematician-physicist-philosopher  Blaise Pascal. Let’s set aside that this was specifically forwarded to support his Catholicism; this is commonly co-opted to support any theistic faith…but it fails under scrutiny.

In Pascal’s musings on the matter; he suggests that the risk/reward matrix made the decision to believe in God a simple one since it would be better to believe and be wrong than to NOT believe and be wrong. Given that the latter involved infinite suffering (lakes of fire and such), contrasted with infinite reward (whatever that is),  the math might look pretty straightforward. (Pascal was something of a pioneer in the use of the concept of “infinity”) Here is how the options and their consequences are typically presented:

Pascal’s Wager 

God exists + I believe = Infinite gain – finite loss
God exists + I DON’T believe = Infinite loss + finite gain
God doesn’t exist + I believe = finite loss
God doesn’t exist + I DON’T believe = finite gain

Despite Mr. Pascal’s towering intellect, his “wager” has been thoroughly refuted by pretty much everybody that has some understanding of debate theory, math, probability, and epistemology. Indeed; I am of a mind that his wager was so uncharacteristically badly formed that even Pascal himself wouldn’t have considered it a serious argument. While Pascal was definitely a Catholic [but then the Vatican’s execution by burning of Giordano Bruno and persecution of Copernicus and Galileo were fairly fresh memories], he gave…at best…dubious support to his argument when anticipating the challenge of the premise that a person could force oneself to believe by sheer force of will.

“Learn from those who were bound like you. . . . Follow the way by which they began: that is by doing everything as if they believed, by taking holy water, by having Masses said, etc. Naturally, even this will make you believe and will dull you.” – B. Pascal [emphasis mine]

Then, in later musings, acknowledging that religion isn’t all hope, joy and wonder:

“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” – B. Pascal – Pensées

Most of those refuting the wager focus on the mathematics, the false choices, and assumptions that it is built upon. The most readily exploited weakness attacked by philosophers is that it presupposes that the only two options are a) “No God” and b) “The judgmental Christian god of Abraham as defined in the Pascal’s Catholicism”. In reality, there are many variants of the Christian God, not to mention those of the other Abrahamic faiths, other gods both contemporary and historical and the watery deistic/spiritual renditions of some unknowable “higher power”. In many cases, doctrine says that picking the wrong version of a god is no better than not believing at all and results in the same lakes of fire.

Sift through Google Scholar on “Pascal’s Wager” and get a sense of how thoroughly dismembered the argument is.  Among those articles, though, there seems to be one important aspect that, in my opinion, doesn’t get enough attention…the “cost” of belief.

So if we consider Pascal’s suggestion that there is little cost to belief, we should recognize that he only looks at the “personal cost” and never considers the “external” or “societal” cost. We should consider, though, that many interpretations of even the Christian god makes a victim of various groups. Take for instance the low hanging fruit of religious entreaties against homosexuals. There may be little personal cost to believing that the homosexual is sinful or immoral, but there is a tremendous cost to the homosexual community. Consider how some religious doctrines hobble adherents such that they deny evidence on things like evolution and climate change. Look at the prohibitions against contraception most notably promulgated by the Catholic Church ( though shared by others). Consider the cost of such doctrine to the AIDS-ravaged African continent with children born needlessly into disease, starvation and life-long suffering. Such religious doctrine is directly responsible for the most wrenching and needless forms of suffering.

With this additional perspective, we now must consider several things. 1) The likelihood that a judgemental god even exists ( the vast majority of elite scientists think not) and 2) on the small chance there IS a god, that you have selected the correct one from the vast array.  In the end, you are making a choice where the odds of being correct (and getting the theorized reward) are vanishingly small, but the odds of inflicting/promoting actual, material suffering through doctrine are fairly high.

I, for one, opt to avoid causing suffering.

Theology is on a very short list of my most stimulating topics of conversation. My writing here is my small way of trying to get past, what seems to be, a sticking point with some who think Pascal’s Wager is their checkmate for their side of the discussion. …it ain’t.


About Mike Bruno

I live in Geneva, Illinois and enjoy discussing contentious topics (what's the point otherwise?). I am very involved in my community and historic preservation. I write here as a way to explore my own positions. I am a computer engineer that has been in the business since floppy disks had a capacity of 720 KILObytes...and were actually floppy. I am something of a science evangelist. If you like (or really dislike) what you read here, say so...and point your friends here. Thanks! The opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect any persons or organizations with which I might be affiliated.
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