Lifes Worth Knowing

Heads or Tails?

In Jon, Religion on December 7, 2011 at 1:41 am

It should be embarrassingly apparent to anybody who has kept up with the beginnings of this blog that I have been struggling to post with any manner of consistency. I feared for a short time that my brain had atrophied to the point of no return, but in reality, I am just out of practice. It has been awhile since I have had to consistently produce academic or intellectual material fit for human consumption, and the process is taking much more time than I remember. So, as a bit of a soft toss for myself, my next few posts (force feeding aside) are going to venture into the arena in which I feel most comfortable, religion and neighboring philosophies.

From an early age, I understood that being a Christian required a lot of suspension of disbelief. I never quite bought into the Jonah in the whale thing, and despite the fantastic flannelgraph depictions I could never picture the parting of the Red Sea or Jesus’ famous stroll across the waves. One time in Sunday School we measured out the dimensions of Noah’s Ark in the parking lot, and I remember wondering how all of the animals in the world could fit inside. By that age, I had been to the zoo and even though there were only two of each species, the parking lot seemed suspiciously small. As the years passed and I learned more and thought more, eventually reason began to erode the base of what I was taught. I wanted to stay firmly in the center of my comfortable community, but I didn’t want to have to commit intellectual treason to do so.

As a result, I was drawn to titans of Christian philosophy and apologetics such as C.S. Lewis and Ravi Zacharias. With them, I could indulge my intellectual hunger without betraying the faith the defined my identity. It was perfect. I encountered Pascal’s Wager for the first time somewhere in high school. I don’t remember exactly when, so let’s just say it was sophomore year. It was presented as a tool to use in evangelism, that annoying tenet of Christianity responsible for the inordinate amount of guilt and pressure felt by anybody who isn’t pushy with their faith. Basically, I was supposed to talk to my friends about Jesus and then hit them with the “Where will you go when you die” question. Then I was to explain how good Heaven is and how bad Hell is, toss around a little Pascal, and finish with the cliffhanger “What if you’re wrong?” At the time, Pascal seemed invincible.

For those who are unfamiliar with the 17th century French philosopher (in addition to being a physicist, mathematician, and inventor) and his famous Wager, here it is. Simply put, if you aren’t sure whether to believe in God or not believe in God, choose to believe because you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

He begins his argument by dividing people into one of two categories, those who believe God exists and those who don’t. For argument’s sake, we will group those pesky agnostics with “they who shall not be named” (atheists). The impossible task of proving God’s existence actually matters very little to The Wager. Early on, Pascal says, “seeing too much to deny, and too little to be sure, I am in a state to be pitied.” He views rational attempts to prove God’s existence as fruitless, and so he makes a decision to move forward pragmatically. Accurately pointing out that a person will by default have to make a choice, Pascal, like all good philosophers, offers an analogy. In this case he refers to a coin. There are two sides, heads and tails. When flipped, one side must come up. In the same way, a person either believes God exists or they don’t. It must be one, and it cannot be both.

The question then becomes, “Which side should I choose?” According to The Wager, a risk – reward analysis clearly favors the existence of God. If you bet that God exists, you will gain eternal happiness if you are correct, and you will lose nothing if you are wrong. To bet that God does not exist offers the reverse outcome. If you are correct you gain nothing, and if you are wrong you will lose everything.

Pascal moves to strengthen his argument for choosing to believe in God by asserting that even if you choose to believe God exists, and you are wrong, you still benefit. In making this argument, Pascal is appealing to an assumed collective value system. He argues that one would gain humility, honesty, faithfulness, and generosity by choosing to believe God exists. He also wants you to agree that picking God and being wrong will not cost you anything, but it could very easily be argued that this is not true. Living a life with a belief in God when he does not exist would cause you to forfeit much independence and ultimate authority over your life. The argument breaks down if you value wealth over charity, if you consider humility a weakness, or place high priority on your own self-determination. What may be viewed as virtue to Pascal may be viewed as vice to another, and vice versa. Additionally, the assertion blindly assumes that these virtues are only found through a belief in God, and it also incorrectly implies that simply through the act of belief these virtues will be made manifest. There are many people who believe God exists and exhibit none of Pascal’s esteemed virtues, and there are many who do not believe in God but are morally virtuous.

To Pascal’s credit, he clarifies and expands the original argument and offers more mathematical reasoning.  If you flip a coin and have a friend guess what side will come up, they obviously have a fifty percent chance of success. Picking heads is just as good an option as picking tails. Now tell them that if they pick heads and are correct they will get a dollar, but if they pick tails and are correct they will get a hundred dollars. The choice, then, is simple. In The Wager, Pascal does not discuss this in terms of dollars and cents, but in terms of eternal life. Consider this life to be your one wager. If you bet that God does not exist and you are correct, your reward is that your one physical life can be lived to the fullest. However, if you bet that God does exist and you are correct, your reward is an infinite life lived to the fullest. The expected value of return is far greater for the one who chooses to bet that God does exist. It is this argument that is the heart of Pascal’s Wager.

Although it is possible to erode his argument by focusing criticism on the alleged gained virtue and questioning what would actually be gained and lost, the most serious weaknesses lie elsewhere. First, the entire premise of The Wager is built on the assumption of a single God who employs a reward and punishment system in His dealings with humanity. What if God does not care for reward or punishment? If God exists, but does not judge, then the fear of choosing incorrectly and losing everything is eliminated. In the same way, the infinite reward would then become available to all, regardless of belief.

Then there is the possibility that God does exist, does judge, and that heaven is only available to those who are deemed worthy, but entrance is not based upon belief; rather it is centered on some other criteria, perhaps moral behavior or successful use of your talents. This would eliminate the necessity of belief and undermine Pascal’s entire argument. If belief itself is not a predicate for reward, then correct belief is of greatly lessened value. Pascal’s Wager only maintains its relevance if God exists in the mode of the Judeo-Christian God.  Pascal must have a Heaven, a Hell, a God who judges, and souls who are judged by their belief in God. Once The Wager is removed from this realm, it becomes meaningless.

In the beginning of his discourse, Pascal asserts that you must either believe that God exists or believe that he does not exist. Yet, as mentioned earlier, he was in a place of complete indecision, “having seen too much to deny and too little to be sure.” The Wager offers a rational course of action for those mired in agnosticism, but in doing so undermines itself. Belief, or faith, essentially trusts something to be true without actual knowledge of the subject. It is, fundamentally, not a rational position. And so the Wager, like any attempt to justify faith using reason, suffers from an inescapable, nagging, intellectual dissonance.

Finally, the method of pragmatically choosing what to believe about God’s existence based on personal benefit seems to be at the very least dishonest. Belief would not appear to be something that can be arbitrarily selected. In the Judeo-Christian setting of Pascal’s argument, belief in God is considered to be something known in the heart and soul rather than chosen in the mind. The decision to believe in God is a fundamentally spiritual decision with many moral ramifications, and reducing it to a cost/benefit analysis is a few steps past misguided. It is hard to imagine standing before God and having to explain the calculating manner in which you arrived at the decision to bet on him. Maybe God himself is a gambler and would let you slide out of respect for a well played hand, but again, that doesn’t seem to be consistent with the God of the Bible; and the God of the Bible is clearly the only deity of interest to Pascal.

Within the limited realm of Judeo-Christian belief, Pascal’s Wager can be an effective argument for those who want to promote thought on the value of Christian belief and for the prudence of that belief. However, once it is removed from Biblical assumptions about God, it dissolves almost entirely.  It is surely provocative for some and was certainly ahead of its time in its discussion of probability and decision theory. However, the backdoor attempt to close the gap between doubt and certainty is too narrow and eerily disingenuous to be taken seriously.

  1. Here, here. I appreciate your dismantling of Pascal’s argument. It was always interesting to me to think that one could reason their way to a true faith. Disingenuous indeed. Not only would it be silly to bet with one’s faith in the way that Pascal argues, it rests completely on the postulate that the only two outcomes are the existence of God or the non-existence of God. Essentially the postulate that the coin will land only on either heads or tails. It completely disregards the possibility that the coin might land on its edge; or that the coin might not come down from the heavens toward which it was tossed. And why would our choices (or beliefs) be so narrowly defined as to offer us only these two outcomes. Perhaps we should roll a six-sided die, or a hundred-sided object which will teeter back and forth between many different possible outcomes all the while being swayed by our own thoughts and reactions to life events.

    The two-sided coin that Pascal has given us is far too narrow and limiting to be taken very seriously. There are many other possible outcomes (or truths) that reality will offer us. We need, now more than ever, to be willing to expafnd our willingness to think and believe beyond the boundaries that, in many cases, have so narrowly been offered to us by our predecessors.

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