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Wanna bet?

May 17, 2010

Most of you are familiar with Pascal’s Wager even if you don’t know it by name. Blaise Pascal was a 17th century Mathematician and philosopher. He’s the guy who created Pascal’s Triangle which, if you don’t know, has to do with binomial coefficients along with tons of other very useful mathematical concepts which we still use. I know, riveting right?

Anyway, I’m not going to talk about his Math. I’m here to talk about his Wager.

Pascal’s Wager goes like this: You can either choose to believe or not believe and God either exists or does not exist. If you do not believe and God does not exist, you neither lose nor gain anything but if God does exist, you lose everything. However, if you believe and God does exist you gain everything and if God does not you neither lose nor gain anything. So, bet fully on belief since it’s the only possible outcome where you can come out ahead.

It’s based, in part, on the idea that there is no empirical evidence for God otherwise there would be no need for a wager or even belief. It would be like “believing” that the sun comes up in the east – sure, you can but, strictly speaking, you don’t need to. You can see that it does, measure it and quantify the phenomenon and even show it mathematically using some of Kepler and Newton’s laws of planetary motion. Belief never has to enter the picture. Since there is no evidence for a God that means there are an infinite number of possibilities and each one is just as likely as the next so why not bet on the one with, seemingly, the only possibility for reward?

On the surface this seems sound and tempting. But there are a few problems with it. I’ll go through the ones I can think of just off the top of my head.

1)      It’s not an argument for the existence of God. Only the belief in God

This is the one that gets me. The wager doesn’t do anything to prove or disprove the existence of God but offers as its sole basis for belief some kind of system of punishment and reward. I find this rather insulting that the only reason I would believe in something is if I was rewarded for doing it and punished for not. I’m not a dog and I have no master named Pavlov. That whole paradigm stopped working when I was 12 when I realized there are better reasons to do or not do anything than my own selfish desires.

2)      You might believe, but you might end up believing in the wrong God

It’s entirely possible that there is a God but hasn’t been discovered yet or has been but the faith itself was wiped out somehow or that it still exists but not many people are exposed to it. Pascal made the critical error of having an Abrahamic-centric view on Deities. He ignored all other possibilities and, when dealing with the infinite, you simply cannot afford to do that. In this instance, sure, you might have one case where you get rewarded but, since this is infinite, you have an infinite number of cases where you do not or even get punished.

3)      God may not care one way or another

Deists believe in a “clock maker” God. A God that set up all the laws of physics, let go and quietly retired never to be seen or heard from again. This God has no interest in human affairs, if He’s even aware of them, but it’s entirely possible that this is reality. In this case there is no case for reward or punishment. This is effectively as though there is no God though, so I suppose you could lump this in with that.

4)      God might reward based on works rather than faith

Pascal’s Wager is also based on the idea that God rewards Faith. What if He rewards works instead? If there is a personal God out there, one that interferes with the affairs on this lonely little backwater planet, it seems to me that he would care more about how we treat each other than what we believe in.

5)      There might be more than one God

There’s no evidence to suggest there isn’t more than one. True polytheistic religions are rarer now-a-days (Hindu’s, depending on the sect, are actually monotheistic) probably because the practice of monotheistic religion is just simpler and easier to grasp than all the rules and regulations for several Gods. But, that doesn’t mean they aren’t possible. In this case, there are multiple God and Goddesses to believe in, not simply one.

6)      God might punish everyone no matter what

Several belief systems say this. The Egyptians come to mind. In this case, belief doesn’t matter.

7)      God might reward everyone no matter what

Several belief systems say this as well. In this case, too, belief doesn’t matter. It’s similar to point 6 but the reward and punishment is switched.

8)      God might reward honest skepticism over blind faith

Why not? Say you die and you get to the pearly gates. Why wouldn’t God say “OK, you believed in me without question but this other guy used the brain I gave him. Sure, he came to the wrong conclusion but he was honest about it and gave it his best shot. He can come in. You? You get to sit out here and think for a few more millennia”. That makes sense to me. At least you’ll have some company. In this case, a God could exist but might reward disbelief (atheism or agnosticism) instead of faith. And wouldn’t God see through this? Believing just to get a reward rather than an honest belief?

9)      That there is no difference in a life lived believing in God than a life lived not believing

Pascal’s wager does not take into account your time on earth and how it can be affected by your beliefs. Surely there are other things to do on a Sunday (or Saturday if you’re Jewish or Friday if you’re Muslim or… whatever else). You won’t be wracked with guilt when the next time you see an attractive individual your mind immediately turns to what it’s biologically predisposed to turn to and you won’t feel as though you’re being watched all the time. It can be reasoned that, while on earth, you can live a more enriching life, free from the bonds of guilt and oppression, by rejecting the belief in a supernatural power and turning to secularism, empathy and altruism as a source of morality.

Phew! OK, that’s all I can think of. I’m sure there are others.

When you really sit down to think about it, Pascal’s Wager isn’t a wager at all. It’s a threat. It basically says “believe in God, or else”! And it doesn’t even go a good job at that because it requires far too many assumptions that simply have no basis.

In short, it’s riddled with holes, makes no sense even in its own context, it has an extremely ethnocentric view of the supernatural and fails to stand up to even the most basic of criticisms. This is why, as an argument for Theism, I threw Pascal’s Wager out.

Anyway, next up – irreducible complexity…

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