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Pascal’s Wager pt. 3 of 3
December 15, 2014 D.J. Clark

Pascal’s Wager pt. 3 of 3

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Closing out this series by considering three common objections to the Wager, along with some common responses to these common objections.

Objection 1: It’s not true that you gain absolutely nothing if you wager against God. If you wager on God, you lose out on all the earthly pleasures that you would have abstained from. And if you wager on God, and it turns out that he’s not there, then you also lose something in that you didn’t believe the truth. (Even Pascal notes this point.)

Response: Build these values in, and the expected utility is still much, much higher wagering for God. (Notice that we’re again making up numbers for our Decision Theory box, but again, this is just to represent that the good/bad of wagering for/against God is enormous compared to the good of earthly pleasures and the true belief that God isn’t really there. Especially if there is an “eternity” of good or bad to be had…)

pascalbox3

Objection II: Not everyone thinks that the probability of God existing is 0.5. Many people find it very unlikely that there is a God. This argument doesn’t work for them.

Response: No matter how low we bring the probability of God existing, unless we bring it very, very close to zero, the expected utility of wagering for God is still higher. And given how limited we human creatures are in terms of our own intellectual capacities and our knowledge of the universe, and given how mysterious a being we should expect a Creator God to be, it seems silly to assign a probability to God that is very, very close to zero. But perhaps there are folks who just find themselves believing that God is obviously impossible; perhaps because they find the very concept of God incoherent. Well, then there really is no response to this objection except to concede that, yes, this argument will be useless for them. But should that concession count against this argument? Of course not. An argument does not need to be compelling to every person in the universe in order to be a good argument. There are very, very few arguments out there that could meet such a standard, if there are any.

Below is a table in which we move the probability of God existing all the way down to 0.05 (5%). Notice that even with the probability this low, the expected utility is still greater. And this is with very, very conservative values assigned in the ‘God Exists’ column.

pascalbox4
Objection III: What does “wagering for God” even mean? If it means to “believe in God”, then there is a problem. For even if the argument is a good one, we know that the very action of wagering on God is impossible, because we know that it is impossible to just choose to believe something. We cannot believe things just because we want to or decide to. No matter how much money you offer me to believe it, I cannot get myself to believe that there is an invisible purple elephant in this room with me. This argument, then, rests on a decision that is not really a decision; it rests on a fantasy.

Response: Pascal agreed that belief cannot be chosen, at least not directly. Which is why he described the decision of “wagering for God” in terms other than “deciding the believe”. Pascal did think that belief in God was fundamental to receiving the large payoff if God existed, but that belief could only be chosen indirectly. He thought that a person could put him or herself into situations (e.g. church, participation in the sacraments) and social groups (other believers) that would help bring about the belief in God. Thus, they could choose to, at least gradually, receive belief.
But we might also respond by pointing to something other than belief as the essential ingredient in receiving the “divine payoff”. Presumably, when Jesus was calling for disciples, calling for people to follow him and “believe in” God, he had something in mind other than that mental state we in the 21st century call “belief”. In our present-day vernacular, it seems that Jesus was calling more for “acceptance” or “entrustment”, than “belief”. And accepting some way of life or entrusting oneself to some person and/or narrative are things that can be, at least in large part, chosen.

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