Pascal’s Wager

Pascal's Assumption: Metaphysical Ignorance

We’ve looked at a number of arguments that attempt to show the truth of belief in God. That is, we’ve looked at arguments that attempt to argue directly for the conclusion that God exists. A nice feature of such arguments is that if you accept their conclusion, you will have a reason to believe in God.

Pascal was skeptical that any such argument could be successful. He didn’t think one could give a good argument for the truth of religious belief. He assumes that there is no decisive evidence (there are no “epistemic reasons”) for or against God’s existence. For this reason, Pascal begins from a position of “metaphysical ignorance”.

But Pascal goes on from this assumption to argue that we still have strong pragmatic reasons to believe in God. That is, he attempts to show the practical utility of religious belief.

The Wager

Pascal's insight was to see the choice about whether to believe in God as a wager. He views the scenario as one where you are forced to make a certain choice between two options. You can either believe that God exists, or not. Since, as Pascal assumes, we are ignorant about the truth in this matter, we can only choose the best and safest bet. We have to weigh the possible consequences of each option, and choose accordingly. Pascal writes:
“You must wager. It is not optional. Which will you choose then? …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.” [Pascal's Pensees, section 233, translated by A.J. Krailsheimer]
There are two metaphysical possibities: Either God exists or he doesn’t. (Again, he's assuming complete ignorance about this question.) Similarly, I have two choices about what to believe. I can either believe that God exists or not. We can then represent Pascal's wager with the following "decision matrix":


To summarize:

(i) If I believe in God and he exists, then that’s infinitely good for me. (I get to go to heaven and have an infinitely good afterlife.)
(ii) If I believe in God and he doesn’t exist, then there’s no real loss. (As I glibly put the matter in class, I miss out on a bit of fun sinning, but I’ll get to go to some fun church pot-lucks, so it’s about an even bargain.)
(iii) If I don’t believe in God and he does exist, then that’s infinitely bad for me. (I end up in hell, suffering for all eternity.)
(iv) If I don’t believe in God and he doesn’t exist, then there’s no real loss. (Again glibly, I miss out on the pot-lucks, but I get to do the sinning, so again it probably comes out even.)
The point is that, given this range of possibilities:
Belief in God is clearly the best bet.
I won’t lose anything and I may gain infinitely happiness. Disbelief, on the other hand, is a fool’s wager. The best I can hope for is breaking even, and I may end up with infinite suffering.

Acquiring Belief in God

Pascal realizes that his argument will not convince anyone that God exists. (Pascal realizes that this argument won’t make believers out of atheists.)
Instead, he’s given reasons to think that it would be a “good bet” to acquire belief in God
Pascal offers a number of practical recommendations about how to acquire belief in God. Essentially, he recommends that one start attending church and hanging out with believers. Eventually belief in God will follow.

Objection

Pascal’s reasoning is very ingenious. By putting questions of truth to one side, he manages to avoid many normal ways of objecting to an argument. (Notice, for example, that the Problem of Evil wouldn’t worry him at all.)

However, there is a standard line of objection that has been raised against Pascal. Most agree with his reasoning given the way that he lays out the possibilities. But philosophers have questioned this lay-out. The standard objection is that:

In laying out the “decision matrix”, Pascal hasn’t really started from a position of metaphysical ignorance.

The Many Gods Objection

One way of pressing this objection is to point out the fact that there are a number of different religions out there. The choice of religious belief is not simply a choice between theism and atheism. We have to choose which religion to subscribe to. So, even if theism is the best bet, if I choose to be a Baptist and God turns out to be a Catholic, I might still end up out of luck.

The "Many Gods" objection can be pressed even further. If we are truly starting from a position of metaphysical ignorance, why should we assume that any of these religions has got it right? Perhaps God is a rather fickle character who actually punishes belief and rewards atheism. (As I put it in class, perhaps this God is like Blackburn who seems to think we should always proportion our belief to the evidence. Since this God hasn't provided us with sufficient evidence of his existence, he would actually want for us to not believe in him. He would thus reward atheists with an infinitely good afterlife, and punishes theists with an infinitely bad afterlife.)

Notice that this possibility would completely reverse the decision matrix. On this possibility, disbelief is the best bet.

The point is that if Pascal truly starts from a position of ignorance about what’s true and false about the heavenly realm, what reason does he have for dividing up the possibilities in the way that he does? And if he truly takes account of all the possibilities, there is no "safe bet". (Any way you choose to believe will leave you with a chance of infinite reward, but will also leave open the chance of infinite punishment.)