Why Pascal’s Wager Doesn’t Work

Trust me, I'm French!

Blaise Pascal, 1623-1662.

Blaise Pascal was a man with a lot on his mind. He was a writer, a mathematician, a scientist, a philosopher – in short, a thinker. So it’s appropriate that his best-known work is titled Pensées (“Thoughts”).

And of the Pensées, his best-known thought is something called Pascal’s Wager. It’s among the most famous Christian arguments of all time.

Pascal’s Wager goes like this (and I’m paraphrasing):

God either exists, or He does not, and there’s no way we can reason out which one it is. But we’re forced to “wager” on the outcome anyway (i.e. we must choose to either be Christian, or not). If God exists, then believing in Him offers eternal reward, whereas disbelief leads to infinite punishment. If God does not exist, we have nothing to lose by believing in Him anyway, and nothing to gain by disbelief. Therefore, believing in God is the only rational choice.

This argument does make a kind of sense. By believing in God, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose. Why wouldn’t you?

But Pascal’s Wager fails, in my view, for at least three reasons.

1. It assumes that belief is a choice.

I’m agnostic – not because I just decided to be, but because a lifetime of thought and experience has convinced me that it makes sense. If I honestly believe this, how can I simply choose to put that aside and believe in God? Imagine someone offered you $100 to stop believing that 2 + 2 = 4. You might say you’ve stopped believing to get the money, but you can’t actually change your mind about the truth (as you see it) just to get something in return.

2. What kind of faith is that?

Even if belief were a choice, it’s a sad and sickly faith that rests only on the fear of punishment or the lust for reward. Suppose another religion comes along and makes you a better deal. (Heaven plus a Corvette?) Are you going to shop around like an investor, gambling your soul on whoever offers the comfiest afterlife? Something tells me this kind of “faith” doesn’t merit much reward anyway.

3. What kind of God is that?

Pascal’s Wager assumes that if God is real, He will punish nonbelievers with eternal damnation. But I came to my beliefs by honestly following the path of truth (as it appears to me). If God is indeed real, I can’t imagine He would fault me for that – or, if He did, that He would be worthy of my worship.

What do you think? Agree or disagree with Pascal? Agree or disagree with Buckley? Does the whole thing make your head hurt? Let me know in the comments!


14 responses to “Why Pascal’s Wager Doesn’t Work

  1. Well I think you may have missed a bit of the point. If Pascal’s wager were the only reason to believe then it would be a little shallow. He is just pointing out that you don’t have much to lose by belief. This argument, I think, is for people that can’t come to the decision based on feeling or theophany alone and might need a little push.
    You say that you don’t make a choice to believe, but I find in my personal life that I reevaluate my faith constantly. I question almost daily and have to re-decide to believe. But that’s just me.
    Also I have always believed that the, “punishment” aka hell is just having to live without the presence of the lord. By not following his commands then you make the decision to be without him. So the reward is to be with God. The thought is that an Eternity with the Creator is preferable to any amount of time without him. But that it is your choice to make. It is assumed that being fully reunited with God is a good thing.
    Pascal’s wager is nice because it almost allows you to preclude belief. Even if you don’t believe, if you think of the wager as just one more of the 7 million reasons to be a good person, then it can do you good.

    • I had to look up “theophany.” New word for me. Cool! 🙂

      RE: Missing the point: If Pascal’s Wager is just icing on the cake, I’m okay with it. You’ve read Pensees and I haven’t, so you know the context better than I do. But usually when other people quote the argument, they present it as an independent thing, so that’s how I took it.

      RE: Choice to believe: I also question and re-evaluate on a daily basis. By “not having a choice” I mean that I can’t just sit down and decide to believe, or not believe, like Pascal seems to think. My belief is a result of those questions and re-evaluations, not a conscious switch I can flip.

      RE: Punishment of Hell: If Hell is just separation from God, then I’d think someone like me – who is only trying to follow the truth the best he can – wouldn’t need to be separated from God in the afterlife. But Pascal appears to think that disbelief in the mortal world equals eternal punishment in the afterlife, and that’s the part that doesn’t make sense to me.

      Insightful as always Mr. Taco!

  2. Actually, this is one of issues that I have with the christian faith. All the religions say that if you don’t believe in their specific religion, then when you die you are going to a place of eternal punishment, but how can I even tell which one is real? And why should I need incentive to be good? If you are only being good so you can get a reward, are you even actually doing good, or are you simply working and expecting to get your wage like always? These are some of the issues that I’ve had with Christianity ever since I’ve really thought about it.

    • You ask some interesting questions. I’ll raise a few objections in return:

      1. Actually, a lot of religions don’t have anything about eternal punishment for disbelief. For example, see Shinto, and many flavors of Buddhism as well.

      2. I think Christians would argue that punishment/reward isn’t the *reason* to be Christian, it’s just a side effect of living/believing one way or another. Pascal’s Wager centers around punishment/reward as the reason, but it’s certainly not the only possible reason, or the best.

      3. You asked: “If you’re being good just to get a reward, are you really being good?” I’d argue that this distinction is very difficult to make, even outside of religion. After all, even if you don’t expect any reward per se, you still have the mental reward of feeling like you did something good. In that sense, all action is fundamentally selfish.

      Plenty to think about.

  3. The idea that Pascal’s wager costs you little/nothing is disingenuous.

    You could argue that some religions tithe, require time and resource of their members and can cause various individual and macro societal trauma.

    But even leaving that aside there is a philosophical cost.
    If you choose to believe (or the wager tips the balance) and that leads you to stop questioning and searching for truth.
    If, like Jimmy Taco, you re-evaluate your faith constantly you haven’t really taken the bet.

    It is the nature of Pascal’s Wager to try to settle the argument (by sidestepping the question) so that the thinker can just move on.

    It is no coincidence that Pascal ends up where he intuitively began.

    For a converse version:
    It doesn’t matter whether God exists… because if (s)he was any kind of God that I could subscribe to then they would want me to do and be the best that I can.
    If there isn’t a God… doing and being the best that I can is really all there is.
    Therefore for all practical purposes there is no useful or detectable function of God. Therefore you might as well say, without malice, that (s)he doesn’t exist.

    • Very interesting.

      RE: The cost of the wager: you’re right, there is definitely a cost to false belief. Deluding yourself always comes with a price tag.

      RE: Your converse version: I assume you’re saying that this version is as flawed as the original. If so, then point taken.

      • Well… as flawed and as valid.
        For anyone convinced by the original I would ask why not the alternate.

      • I think that you’re converse argument has good merit. I would propose, however, from a games theory point of view, that it is not identical. The original wager is that you pay a finite amount (however disingenuous that amount may seem to be) for an infinite reward. Whereas the converse you have proposed is qualified by, “then they would want me to do and be the best that I can.”
        I take your argument as such: If there is a God, then God wants me to be ‘good’. If there is no God, my ultimate goal is still to be ‘good’. By that result of that it doesn’t matter if god exists as my goal is independent. So we can say God doesn’t exists because it doesn’t matter either way.

        Correct me please If I have oversimplified.

        My thought is then that you are assuming that there is a universal system of ethics. Which if you don’t believe in God is almost certainly not true. So then you’re versions of ‘good’ or ‘be all you can be’ are entirely different. Which leads to the wager part. In this converse you are, kind of, wagering that God doesn’t exist for almost no payoff. If you are already living the way that is best, and you don’t believe, then you might lose everything for a gain of nothing.

        Anyways those are just my thoughts

  4. Pingback: And We’re Back – The Very Inspiring Blogger Award | Ben Trube

  5. Even as a Christian I have never liked the idea of Pascal’s Wager. I understand his idea: What is the point if there is no eternity in mind? Everyone you might be able to affect in life will ultimately end up dead as well, and them too. Is it valid to go on just to keep on going on? Is it valid for the human race to?

    But as been said, if that is the only reason you want to believe then it is a poor reason. I could understand it being a starting block, it gives people something to think about. Is it good enough to march on humanity till the heat death of the universe (even though by then – and a lot lot sooner – according to evolution mankind will be nothing like it is today)? Or can there be something more?

    I also understand the idea of Christian ‘punishment’ hard to understand. God does not punish for unbelief anymore than a highway patrolman might punish you for not believing in the law when he pulls you over. You’re getting a ticket for breaking the law, belief in the law or law enforcer does not matter.

    The problem is often we believe we are good enough for our good to outweigh the bad. But that is like saying we go the speed limit more often than we speed, we still deserve the ticket, and claiming that we often don’t deserve it does not take it off our records. Only through paying the fine can we be done with it.

    Of course that’s not the perfect metaphor, since in that scenario we could pay the fine and be done. In life we cannot. It would be as if we could never get off that freeway to earn money to pay the fine. We would need someone outside to do it for us.

    Anyways, that’s my two cents on Pascal’s Wager. It is a good thinking point, but not nearly good enough ‘belief point’ for me to throw it at someone in a conversation about belief. Maybe if we have been talking for an hour plus already.. maybe then. But it is not nearly enough to stand on its own.

  6. I’d like to point out an additional flaw in Pascal’s wager, and that is the up-front assumption that the only resource available to us in settling the question of the existence of God is reason. The result of this assumption is that the existence of God is beyond proof. Pascal then asks the reasoning man to swallow the additional assumptions that if God does exist, belief in him results in reward and lack of belief results in punishment. So we can’t prove the existence of God but we are suppose to accept the reward/punishment paradigm. I think Pascal was a believer, but see his wager as a weak attempt to justify his belief in reasonable terms.

    Now back to that first assumption. Is reason the only resource we have available to us to determine the existence of God? What if we could communicate with God? Would that not prove to us that he exists? I am reminded of a story in the book of Alma where an unbelieving king was taught of God by a missionary named Aaron. Something stirred within him and he desired to have the eternal life spoken of. So moved was he that he was willing to give up his kingdom to to experience that joy. Aaron instructed him to call upon God, which he did, saying, “O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day.” After offering this prayer the king fell to the ground and remained as dead until Aaron revived him, during which time he received visions and the sure knowledge of God.

    Now I can’t prove to you that there is a God, but I can tell you that I do know for myself that God exists. I can tell you that he loves you and wants you to know for yourself also. You have a resource available to you that is more powerful than reason for discovering truth. That resource is prayer. Sincere prayer; offered in humility. I assure you that if you make use of this resource, you can know of yourself of the reality of God. It will be a subjective knowledge. Something you won’t be able to transfer to others. But it is knowledge, nonetheless.

    Pascal’s wager calls for paying a small price (lifelong belief) in order to receive a large reward (eternal life). Yet that price seems too large to some. Here I propose an even smaller price, that of kneeling down and offering a sincere prayer. The reward is spiritual knowledge, the receipt of which changes the sign on the cost of lifelong belief. What do you have to lose?

  7. Pascal’s wager also assumes that the Christian God is the only god to worship, which is hardly the case. There are plenty of other gods with their own religions.

  8. Pascal’s wager is of course a setup. It so obviously misses the point, that I got to wonder about anyone seriously contemplating its merits. It offers completely false assumptions and thus arrives at completely wrong odds as well as completely wrong rewards. I can’t believe a man like Pascal actually thought that way. But than again, the 17th century being what it was… anyway, here is how I see the whole thing.

    First of all, one has to understand what believe in God is actually all about. It is of course about the reason for the very existence of the world we live in, all about our very own existence and why the world is and behaves the way it does. For all of that, there are infinitely many possibilities. Out of these the christian God and all that goes with it is just one. Thus the the odds for making the correct choice by believing in God and exhibiting all the behaviors that are required, are not 50/50 as presented by Pascal. Instead they are one over infinity.

    The second thing wrong with the wager is the issue of the reward. Pascal simply assumes believe and the associated behaviors only harbor an upside potential with no downside, apart from some slight inconveniences. On the other hand he assumes no upside for non-believe, but a considerable downside. This is hardly correct. A considerable portion of the above mentioned possibilities includes eternal damnation for the very believe in the christian God. In fact, an infinite number of them do. The downside is very real.

    Obviously the wager is not quite as straight forward as presented and the odds for any specific believe having a strong upside are much more unfavorable, to say the least. Apart from that, I think it completely focuses on the wrong things as you have already pointed out. The wager doesn’t offer any guidance to make a decision one way or the other. It may in fact just be about making a mathematical point and therefore might not have anything to do with faith at all.

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