Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s Wager proposes that we ought to adopt Christian values and beliefs just in case Hell exists, because it is too large a risk not to. It basically asserts that even if no other reason can be found to believe, one should do it out of self-interest since facing eternal damnation in the afterlife is horrifying. This argument is fallacious for numerous reasons.

Firstly, the basis for disbelief (i.e. atheism) is in the likelihood of possibility. The Christian notion (along with others) of God is extremely unlikely, which might be why faith is so crucial to believers. For someone to choose assimilation to such a belief system on the basis of such an absurdly unlikely possibility is illogical. Proponents of Pascal’s Wager might argue that a lack of belief has no advantage, so why not take the chance, however unlikely. Unfortunately, engaging in such a belief system usually means spending a great deal of time attending a Church of sorts and adopting practices/ideologies that might lead to problematic outcomes, such as the ostracization of homosexuals.

Secondly, Pascal’s Wager does not account for belief systems that contradict each other. Some of the practices Christians are taught to engage in might be considered sin or “haram” in Islam, and vice versa. If one were to decide to take Pascal’s Wager, they are then left to decide between many equally unlikely concepts of “God”. Usually popularity is a somewhat worthwhile heuristic for evaluating the viability of a belief system, yet to choose the most popular of a multitude of systems that are equally lacking in feasibility is absurd.

Finally, if I were to come up with a fictional entity that demands certain practices of you, I highly doubt you would conform to those practices on the basis that the entity I’ve proposed might be “real”. I could come up with limitless belief systems that require you to act in contradictory ways with infinite rewards and punishments. What makes the claims of any one of these belief systems stronger than another? Popularity? A book? If the wager that Pascal offered up truly were heads or tails like he suggests, then his claim might be worth further examination. Unfortunately, if analogized to coin flips, the likelihood is better described by a coin landing on its side millions of flips in a row.

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6 thoughts on “Pascal’s Wager

    1. Great question. I think what you hint at might be an oversimplification. The infinite reward being offered is predicated on the belief itself. I could offer up limitless examples of things you have to do for an infinite reward. I could tell you that you have to give me all your money to avoid eternal damnation and attain eternal happiness. Even if you know I’m making this up on the spot, since the reward is infinite shouldn’t you be obliged to conform unless you have infinite justification to counter? I think this might be similar to gambler’s fallacy in a way. The unlikeliness (which in this case is extreme) of the original belief has to be evaluated before the subject of that belief is even taken into account. Like I said in the blog post, the popularity of beliefs about Heaven and Hell are not sufficient to lend plausibility to the belief system. And before the results of belief or disbelief can be established, the likelihood of the claims themselves must be evaluated. Would you agree?

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      1. I would agree that the likelihood of the claims should be considered, at least to try to determine whether or not there is a finite chance that they are true. I think the core question is whether or not infinite consequences (or the concept of infinity in general) can be said to exist in reality.

        The way I see it, if you grant even the smallest finite chance that infinite consequences exist in reality, you are then put in a position where you’d have to argue against the wager on the basis of some sort of contraindicative infinite consequences. On what grounds might you refuse to grant that finite chance? If you were to say that there are no known empirical instances of infinite consequences, that argument would be subject to the problem of induction. So I think you would then have to argue a priori that infinity is only an abstract concept and does not exist in re.

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      2. Oh I see what you mean. I guess I do have qualms about whether or not infinity is a viable concept. I’d probably argue it isn’t. But I think even if it is viable then there are, as you put it, “contraindicative infinite consequences”. Basically, I could suggest to you that there is infinite reward (eternal bliss) for you to NOT believe in God or to NOT become an adherent to a specific faith. I could also make thousands of such assertions. Each one could detail another article of your faith and offer infinite consequences (eternal suffering) for each one. I think you are as bound to those sets of consequences as you are to the other. It sort of balances the equation out by putting infinity on either side.

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      3. That’s about how I’d address notions involving infinite consequences too if operating under the assumption that they can exist. I think the idea that infinity “exists” introduces a paradox in a similar way to the idea that nothingness “exists”. And discussions about paradoxes and the study of logic can go on ad infinitum…

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      4. Yeah, I think discussing infinity in that light forces a discussion of the foundations of logic, and I’m not sure there’s anywhere to go if you don’t make at least a couple baseless assumptions in that domain.

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