pascals-wager

What is Pascal’s wager?

Pascal’s wager is named after Blaise Pascal, a seventeenth-century French mathematician, philosopher, and theologian. Pascal believed that since evidence could not settle the question of whether God existed, individuals should wager on it instead. Pascal’s wager is a philosophical argument positing that individuals should wager their lives on the existence (or non-existence) of God. 

Understanding Pascal’s wager

Pascal used elements of game theory to support the notion that a belief in Christianity was rational. In arguing the case for rationality, he equated it to a wager:

Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

This wager, Pascal believed, was based on two conditions:

  • People could choose to believe in God or choose not to believe in God, and 
  • God either exists or does not exist.

The four possible outcomes of Pascal’s wager

The two conditions mentioned above yield four possible outcomes:

  1. The person who believes in a Christian God that does exist will gain infinite (eternal) happiness in Heaven.
  2. The person who does not believe in a God that does exist will receive infinite (eternal) suffering in Hell.
  3. The person who believes in a God that does not exist will receive finite disadvantages associated with living a Christian life, and
  4. The person who does not believe in a God that does not exist receives finite pleasures from a life unencumbered by Christian morality.

Criticisms of Pascal’s wager

There have been many criticisms of Pascal’s wagers in the centuries since it was proposed. Those with the most merit are briefly explained below.

The many Gods objection

Some believe Pascal’s wager is too simplistic. Specifically, the focus on a Christian God may prevent someone from receiving the infinite rewards of a God from another religion.

By extension, would someone have to believe in multiple gods or indeed all Gods to realize infinite happiness?

If a Muslim were to apply Pascal’s wager to the existence of Allah as the sole God, then rationality would require them to believe in multiple incompatible hypotheses.

Failing to account for multiple Gods from different religions thus renders Pascal’s wager invalid.

The impossibility objection

Others believe that such a wager is impossible because individuals cannot form beliefs based on their potential benefits.

If someone offered you $100,000 to believe the sky was green, this or indeed any other amount of money would make you believe it was true.

To believe in a God simply for the payoff is the wrong motivation to believe in the first place.

Pascal’s argument and the four outcomes can be represented in a decision table, but this assumes that the same table applies to everyone.

This objection boils down to the different ways in which people perceive rewards. Consider, for example, a predetermined infinite reward for believers in God and finite utility for non-believers.

Which of the two is a more rewarding outcome is subjective, with the prospect of salvation more attractive to some than it is to others. 

Put another way, the hedonistic atheist is more concerned with the pursuit of life pleasure than the miserable puritan who sacrifices this pleasure for a payoff after death. In either case, the decision table of Pascal’s wager is rendered invalid. 

Key takeaways:

  • Pascal’s wager is a philosophical argument positing that individuals should wager their lives on the existence (or non-existence) of God. 
  • Pascal used elements of game theory to support his idea that a belief in Christianity was rational. In arguing the case for rationality, Pascal equated it to a wager. Individuals could choose to believe in a God (or not) and whether such a God existed.
  • There have been many criticisms of Pascal’s wagers since it was first proposed. Some believe it is overly simplistic and not rational, while other objections relate to the fact that people cannot form beliefs based on their potential benefits.

Read Next: Occam’s Razor

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