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Pascal's Wager

I recently came upon a poster in an email list, who recommended that we adopt Pascal's Wager. I can't quote the passage that moved me to write, due to the posting rules for the list in question, but the summary is that we must choose whether or not to believe in god. If we disbelieve and there is a god, we are held responsible for disbelieving; but if there is no god, we get no punishment or reward whatever we believed; so, the argument goes, it is better to wager that there is a god.

IMHO, Pascal's wager is a very, very poor argument. Consider: Suppose the real god is actually someone who hates the Christian/Moslem/Baha'i/you-name-it conception of god. He actually punishes with the most fearsome vengeance those who believe in that god, but doesn't care much if you don't believe in him.

If you think that is unlikely, here is a more likely version: God cares whether one assesses the evidence to the best of one's ability, and follows the path of intellectual honesty. He is highly offended by people who believe simply in the hope of getting a reward. Such a god will clearly punish those who choose belief from being convinced by Pascal's wager.

Or perhaps God rewards people for the good they do relative to the motivation they had for doing it - He rewards believers very little, because they expect payment (heaven) for doing good, but He rewards atheists a lot, because they did good without any expectation of payback.

If there is any argument that brings discredit upon religious believers, Pascal's wager is it. It isn't philosophy, it says nothing about the truth or otherwise of beliefs about god, it is purely a conniving for personal advantage in eternity.

Philosophically it has another key fault: belief isn't a choice. Belief is being convinced by the preponderance of evidence, or perhaps choosing what you find likely in cases where there is little or no evidence. But you don't choose to believe in the same way you choose to buy a new television. I agree there is self-delusion, and that can be brought about by deliberate choices in drumming certain evidence into one's mind over and over whilst carefully ignoring other evidence, so that eventually the only evidence that ever comes to mind is that which points in a certain direction, and then you 'honestly' believe that option because, hey, all the evidence points to it. Yes, I agree that kind of self-deluded belief isn't a choice. But surely no one could consider it a legitimate philosophical strategy for pursuing truth?

I can understand why atheists find the argument unconvincing, but more than that, I feel that everyone should find it unworthy. But we have a problem: we don't have perfect truth-seeking minds. In short, no one is a perfect philosopher. The process of self delusion I described above can be pursued entirely without our conscious minds ever noticing that we are doing it. The same deficiency is likely why, once people have been convinced by an ideology (a religious or political belief, for example) their thinking then strays ever further from its original connection with the facts of the world around us: zealots steadily go insane, in effect.

This is even more of a problem because it may well be that the materialist conception of the universe isn't right: there might indeed be a realm of mind and spirit that is either apart from, or underlies, the material universe. There might indeed be key insights that need to be kept in mind, much as believers keep an ideology in mind, but which should be remembered because they are true and therefore helpful. How do we tell these various cases apart?

I don't pretend to have the answer to this question. The framers of the U.S. Constitution kept it in mind and tried their best, not to make people perfect or to falsely convince themselves that people are already perfect, but instead to design a system that would work to an acceptable degree even though people are not perfect. Perhaps we need to find philosophical and religious equivalents of the U.S. Constitution?

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Re: Pascal's Wager

The idea that a God so large as to be the creator of the vastness of all that we know, not to mention all that we do not know, would punish any of his creation for attributes He/She endowed that creation with, shows how far we are from understanding God.

The fact that we attribute human understanding and characteristics to an intelligence and spiritual entity capable of creating a billion galaxies comprising a billion stars in each shows how much more there is for God to teach us in the infinity that we all have still to share with God. And if there is no God, then I am God and I can believe what I will...but my mind and my spirit argues against that possibility as do a billion galaxies of a billion stars each or the microscopic universe located on the point of a needle.

Have a wonderful eternity :)

Re: Pascal's Wager

Hi Jerry, Well put!

I've always thought it unlikely that God would be upset simply by people not believing in Him. As you say, he's just too large for that.

Re: Pascal's Wager

Pascal's Wager seems to attract true believers of all types. At is "The Most Terrifying Video You'll Ever See" - Pascal for Global Warmies. And it's just the first of a many-part series on the subject.

I agree that Pascal's Wager isn't philosophy; it's also not logic: it's sophistry. You've correctly identified the hidden fallacy that makes it so: false alternative (if I were to characterize my god of choice, he'd be agnostic...).

Re: Pascal's Wager

Hi Jack, I agree, that's a global warming Pascal's wager, so full of holes I could sail the Queen Mary through 'em.

Couldn't reply though, because comments were disabled on that video. And the guy says he has never heard any good answers to his argument. Wonder why???? And he calls himself wondering mind. What a plonker!


Re: Pascal's Wager

Mr. Ron House: I thoroughly enjoyed this essay.

I'm not trained in philosophy, so I'm no judge of what constitutes genuine philosophy.

However, I don't believe I've read any better thoughts on Pascal's Wager than your offering.

Thanks for the great write-up! These are fine concepts well executed. There were some elements of the piece (where you wondered if maybe atheists who do good might be doubly rewarded) that never occured to me before.

Re: Pascal's Wager

Well you only looked at part of the picture didn't you? If you look in the side bar of the original video you will see links to the second series which answers all questions raised by the first including that global warming strategy is not a case of Pascal's wager. I am sick to death of loud mouthed idiots like you, of little brain and narrow knowledge, slagging off much smarter people.

Re: Pascal's Wager

Thank you Nick Palmer for your exceptionally polite response.

However: Having read one incredibly cloth-headed piece of nonsense from this author, who doesn't even have the courage to turn comments on so he can get unfiltered opinions about the weakness of his argument, I don't believe it is up to me to search youtube for even more of the same rubbish. I was willing to post in the video comments a detailed analysis of the video's problems, which are big enough for blind Freddie to sail the Battlestar Galactica through, except that this gutless person turned comments off because, presumably, he couldn't stand the heat in the kitchen.

And you think we should waste more time looking for more pulp from this person? If you thought there is some other video there that answers the Pascal's wager point, why didn't you post a reference to it? Too lazy?

Here's the thing: if you think there is some good answer to this point in some other video by that person, then you post us here your summary in your own words of the key points in his argument. Please do. Don't expect us to go searching youtube just on your say so.

Have at it. I await your considered summary of the replies to the Pascal's wager question.