…We’re continuing from the previous post (this is part 2 of 3) in which we introduced Decision Theory, a way to represent and utilize a type of commonsense reasoning we use everyday…
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) used this type of thinking to argue that we should choose God over atheism. (Actually, Pascal is one of the earliest inventors (or discoverers) of Decision Theory, period.) Before we look at what he has to say, it is important to note beforehand that his “argument” is different than the sorts of arguments most who have grazed the apologetics pastures are accustomed to. Most of the other arguments “for God” deal with the question of truth. Is it true that God exists? Is there in fact a God?Pascal’s argument is different. He is not arguing that God exists. Rather, he is arguing that it makes the most sense to “choose God”. Choosing God is the rational thing to do, whether we even know God exists or not. (More on what he means by “choosing God” later.)
Alright. So here’s the main quote from Pascal’s Pensees (which wasn’t a book or an essay or anything published; this was actually just a collection of scraps of paper which contained scribbles and scratches and notes) in which he outlines his argument:
“God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up… Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose… But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is… If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.
Let me try a very brief paraphrase:
Either God exists, or he doesn’t. But we must choose whether to live as though he exists or to live as though he doesn’t; there is no other choice. So which shall we choose? The evidence does not tell us whether God is or isn’t, so we must make a gamble. But we want to make a wise gamble; we want to put our bet on the option with the highest expected utility. And this option is clearly to bet on God. For if he exists and we’ve chosen him, then we gain an infinite amount of good. And if he doesn’t exist and we’ve chosen him, then we lose nothing. But we choose against him and he doesn’t exist, still we gain nothing; and if we choose against him and he does exist, we lose everything. So, much better to bet on God.
And here is an attempt at a less-brief paraphrase:
Either God exists, or he doesn’t. But we must choose whether to live as though he exists or to live as though he doesn’t; there is no other choice. So which shall we choose? Well, the evidence cannot tell us with confidence whether God is or he isn’t, so we cannot make our decision based on that. On what basis, then, shall we decide? On this basis: the basis of which one is more practical; that is, we should choose the decision from which we can expect the highest utility. Ok then, so what do we need to take into consideration in order to determine the highest expected utility [to borrow the language of Decision Theory]? Two things: (i) The probabilities of our two outcomes, and (ii) the goods or losses we can anticipate with each outcome. We’ve already said that the evidence cannot tell us whether God exists or not, so the likelihood of each outcome is 50/50 as far as I can tell. As for the goods and losses at stake, there are two: whether one believes what is true, and whether one achieves happiness (flourishing, well-being, etc.). But when we take these probabilities and these goods and losses and consider our two outcomes – God actually existing v. his not existing -, we can see that the obvious choice is to choose God. For if he exists and we’ve chosen him, then we gain an infinite amount of good — loads of truth and loads of happiness. And if he doesn’t exist and we’ve chosen him, then we lose nothing. But we choose against him and he doesn’t exist, still we gain nothing; and if we choose against him and he does exist, we lose everything. So, much better to bet on God.
Let’s distill all that down into a simple, formal argument:
1. The probability of God’s existence is 1/2.
2. Wagering for God brings great reward if God exists, and no loss if he doesn’t.
3. Wagering against God brings severe loss if God exists, and no gain if he doesn’t.
4. Therefore, wagering for God is the choice of maximum expected utility.
5. Decision Theory = choose the highest expected utility.
6. Therefore, wager for God.
Now let’s put this line of reasoning into a Decision Theory box. Notice that there is no easy way to “quantify” how much good and loss we would get with each outcome, no easy way to put a number to it. But with Decision Theory, we need numbers. So we will have to make some numbers up. Normally that would be a huge no-no, but it’s okay here as long as we recognize that these numbers aren’t meant to be accurate representations of the quantity of things like truth and happiness. They’re meant to demonstrate Pascal’s point of just how disproportionate are the expected utilities of these two choices.
(I have to make a confession. The way I have represented Pascal’s argument and this Decision Theory box is much more conservative than Pascal actually would have represented it — in fact, I have represented the argument infinitely more conservatively than would have Pascal. I can say that because Pascal believed that the “payoff” of betting on God and landing on him (i.e. His existing) was an infinite payoff. To represent it with the quantity of ‘1,000’ as we have wouldn’t do the payoff justice, thought Pascal; no finite number would. Likewise, the “loss” incurred if one bet against God and, unfortunately, still landed on him (i.e. He exists) would be an infinite loss. So I’ve diverged from Pascal’s actual Wager into a wager that is only Pascal’s in spirit. The reason for my divergence: A lot of people don’t buy the existence of actual infinites, and so I think the argument is more compelling to a wider range of people if we work with finites. My divergence, however, though it protects the Wager from certain objections, also opens it to new ones. We’ll be looking at objections in the next and final post in this series.)