Pascal’s Wager is the application by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) of decision theory to the belief in God. The Wager posits that it is a better “bet” to believe that God exists than to assert that God dies not exist, because the expected value of believing (which Pascal assessed as infinite) is always greater than the expected value of not believing. Indeed, in Pascal’s assessment, it is inexcusable not to investigate this issue:
“Before entering into the proofs of the Christian religion, I find it necessary to point out the sinfulness of those men who live in indifference to the search for truth in a matter which is so important to them, and which touches them so nearly.”
Pascal set out his argument in the Pensées, a posthumous collection of notes towards his unfinished treatise on Christian apologetics. However, various antecedents of his argument can be found in other philosophical texts such as the Buddhist Kalama Sutta, for example. Thus, Pascal’s Wager has some cross-cultural resonances though strong arguments have been advanced that raise questions about the selfish nature and motivation of the believer who accepts God solely on Pascal’s argument.
The Wager is described by Pascal in the Pensées this way:
“God either exists or He doesn’t. Based on the testimony, both general revelation (nature) and special revelation (Scriptures/Bible), it is safe to assume that God does in fact exist. It is abundantly fair to conceive, that there is at least 50 percent chance that the Christian Creator God does in fact exist. Therefore, since we stand to gain eternity, and thus infinity, the wise and safe choice is to live as though God does exist. If we are right, we gain everything, and lose nothing. If we are wrong, we lose nothing and gain nothing. Therefore, based on simple mathematics, only the fool would choose to live a Godless life. Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have nothing to lose. 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.”
In his Wager, Pascal attempts to provide an analytical process for a person to evaluate options regarding belief in God. This is often misinterpreted as simply believing in God or not. As Pascal sets it out, the options are two: live as if God exists, or live as if God does not exist. There is no third possibility.
Therefore, we are faced with the following possibilities:
- You live as though God exists.
- If God exists, you go to heaven: your gain is infinite.
- If God does not exist, you gain nothing and lose nothing.
- You live as though God does not exist.
- If God exists, you go to hell: your loss is infinite.
- If God does not exist, you gain nothing and lose nothing.
With these possibilities, and the principles of statistics, Pascal attempted to demonstrate that the only prudent course of action is to live as if God exists. It is a simple application of game theory (to which Pascal had made important contributions).
Pascal hoped that if the wager did not convince unbelievers to become Christians, then it would at least show them, especially the “happy agnostics,” the meaning, value, and probable necessity of considering the question of the existence of God.
In his other works, Pascal hoped to prove that the Christian faith (and not, for example, Judaism or Paganism, which Pascal himself mentions in his Pensées) is correct. The criticism below works for the most part only when the wager is removed from its original context and considered separately, as many thinkers have done before the original plan of Pascal’s apologia was discovered.
Pascal’s argument has been severely criticized by many thinkers, including Voltaire (1694-1778). The incompleteness of his argument is the origin of the term Pascal’s Flaw. Some of these criticisms are summarized below:
Assumes God rewards belief
Writers such as Richard Dawkins suggest that the wager does not account for the possibility that there is a God (or gods) who, rather than behaving as stated in certain parts of the Bible, instead rewards skepticism and punishes blind faith, or rewards honest reasoning and punishes feigned faith. Richard Carrier elucidates this point in the following way:
“Suppose there is a god who is watching us and choosing which souls of the deceased to bring to heaven, and this god really does want only the morally good to populate heaven. He will probably select from only those who made a significant and responsible effort to discover the truth. For all others are untrustworthy, being cognitively or morally inferior, or both. They will also be less likely ever to discover and commit to true beliefs about right and wrong. That is, if they have a significant and trustworthy concern for doing right and avoiding wrong, it follows necessarily that they must have a significant and trustworthy concern for knowing right and wrong. Since this knowledge requires knowledge about many fundamental facts of the universe (such as whether there is a god), it follows necessarily that such people must have a significant and trustworthy concern for always seeking out, testing, and confirming that their beliefs about such things are probably correct. Therefore, only such people can be sufficiently moral and trustworthy to deserve a place in heaven—unless god wishes to fill heaven with the morally lazy, irresponsible, or untrustworthy.”
Assumes Christianity is the only religion that makes such a claim
The wager assumes that Christianity is the only religion that claims that a person will be judged, condemned, and punished by God if that person does not believe. However, Christianity is not the only religion that makes such a claim. Other religions that also claim God will judge, condemn, and punish people who do not believe in him and their religion include Islam and some denominations of Hinduism. Moreover, the beliefs and claims of many separate religions have mutual exclusivity to each other. This means that they cannot both be true, or at least not both be the “one true religion.” Complicating matters further, the belief systems of monotheistic religions require exclusive belief in the god of that religion, so the Wager is invalid when applied to such religions. This is the basis of the argument from inconsistent revelations. Yet another problem is that Pascal’s Wager also encompasses any possible monotheistic religions rather than just current ones giving any possible monotheistic religion an equally tiny chance of being correct without extra evidence to back it up.
The Jewish faith expects a Gentile only to obey the Noahide Laws in order to receive reward in afterlife. In addition, some religions, including Buddhism, do not require a focus on a deity. A “many-gods” version of Pascal’s Wager is reported by the 10th century Persian chronicler Ibn Rustah to have been taken by a king in the Caucasus, who observed Muslim, Jewish, and Christian rites equally, declaring that “I have decided to hedge my bets.”
This argument modifies Pascal’s wager as follows:
- You believe in a god.
- If your god exists, you go to heaven: your gain is infinite.
- If you believe in the wrong god and the actual god is monotheistic, your loss may be infinite.
Does not constitute a true belief
Another common argument against the wager is that if a person is uncertain whether a particular religion is true and the god of that religion is real, but that person still “believes” in them because of the expectation of a reward and the fear of punishment, then that belief is not a true valid belief or a true faith in that religion and its god.
William James, in The Will to Believe, summarized this argument:
“Surely Pascal’s own personal belief in masses and holy water had far other springs; and this celebrated page of his is but an argument for others, a last desperate snatch at a weapon against the hardness of the unbelieving heart. We feel that a faith in masses and holy water adopted willfully after such a mechanical calculation would lack the inner soul of faith’s reality; and if we were ourselves in the place of the Deity, we should probably take particular pleasure in cutting off believers of this pattern from their infinite reward.”
In modern times, this criticism is often leveled against evangelistic Christianity, especially those who try to incite fear by portraying such events as the Rapture in popular media. Such a belief is sometimes called “afterlife insurance,” “Hell avoidance insurance,” or “Heaven insurance.”
Assumes one can choose belief
This criticism is similar to the last one. The wager says that if one is uncertain whether Christianity is true, then one should still believe in it just in case it is true. However, this argument is problematic because to believe something is to claim to know that it is true. Yet, if we can know that it is true, then it is unnecessary to resort to the wager, a precautionary principle, as a reason to decide why we should believe in it. Compare St. Augustine’s statement, “I understand in order to believe.”
However, some individuals such as Kierkegaard considered that a faith one has never doubted is of little value, and that doubt and faith are inseparable.
Another point related to this critique is that some Christians, such as Calvinists, believe that the human will is so affected by sin that God alone can bring about belief. However, they would still affirm that God can use rational arguments as one of his means to this end.
Pascal acknowledged that there would be some difficulty for an atheist intellectual persuaded by this argument, in putting it into effect. Belief may not come. However, in such a case, he said, one could begin by acting as if it had come, hear a mass, and take holy water. Belief might then follow.
There is also the argument that one could “game” the wager in a scenario where the deathbed conversion is possible, as is the case in some streams of Christianity. The person who converts on their deathbed could have failed to have been dutiful in fulfilling their doctrinal obligations, and still gain the happiness associated with the Christian concept of “heaven.” The danger here is well known to most Christians, as this is a common theme of sermons in a variety of denominations. The risk of taking this gamble only to die suddenly and unexpectedly or to experience the tribulation within one’s own lifetime is often portrayed as a risk too great to take. Some others consider that one cannot fool God, and that such deathbed conversions could very well be dishonest.
The wager assumes that God is possible, and hence there is a positive probability of God existing. However, it is not clear what is meant when “probability” or “chance” is said in the context of something possibly existing, but probability cannot be used as defined in mathematics to justify the wager as is, since God being possible does not mean that God’s existence has positive probability.
For instance, in a measure theory conception of probability, one can have infinitely and uncountably many possibilities, each of which has a probability of zero (or “one out of infinity”). This means that, choosing a random real number between 0 and 1, all numbers cannot have positive probability or the probabilities sum up to more than 1.
Assumes divine rewards and punishments are infinite
The wager assumes that Christianity does in fact claim that if one is not a Christian, then one will lose the benefits of Heaven and end up in Hell, and, secondly, if one is a Christian, then one will gain eternal life in Heaven.
However, that is not always the case. Some Christians, such as Calvinism & Arminianism, have argued that the utility of salvation cannot be infinite. Some Christian groups are either strict finitists or believe that an infinite utility could only be finitely enjoyed by finite humans.
Others believe that the divine punishment in the afterlife for unbelief is not always infinite either, even though the Bible makes that claim. They state that there is a finite existence to everything, opposing the doctrine of perpetuality.
Ignores benefits/losses while alive
Pascal here takes what may be called an “eternal perspective.” That is, his wager is not concerned with the lifetime of the person before death. At the very least, it assumes that belief and non-belief are of equal value before death. This ignores the time, money, and effort spent upon worship required to establish belief that could be redirected to other, more beneficial pursuits. Thus, a life spent on belief when there is no god results in a loss while a life spent on non-belief when there is no god results in a gain. For example, If there is no god, life ends at death. This means that the only gain possible is during life, and before death. If one lives as if there is a god when there is in actuality not a god, then one’s life before death (the only life one has) is wasted.
The Atheist’s Wager is an atheistic response to Pascal’s Wager. While Pascal suggested that it is better to take the chance of believing in a God that might not exist rather than to risk losing infinite happiness by disbelieving in a god that does, the Atheist’s Wager suggests that:
“You should live your life and try to make the world a better place for your being in it, whether or not you believe in God. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will be remembered fondly by those you left behind. If there is a benevolent God, he may judge you on your merits coupled with your commitments, and not just on whether or not you believed in him.”
A god may exist who will reward disbelief or punish belief. In the absence of clear knowledge of what if anything will benefit us hereafter it is better to concentrate on improving conditions here. The conditions we live in could be, or could not be, generated by us. However, we are still left to affect them any way we can. The Atheist here must then exclude any probability in a mathematical possibility of an external agent affecting their condition.
Given that the choice of wagering has an infinite return, then under a mixed strategy the return is also infinite. Flipping a coin and taking the wager based on the result would then have an infinite return, as would the chance that after rejecting the wager you end up taking it after all. The choice would then not be between zero reward (or negative infinite) and infinite reward, but rather between different infinite rewards.
Other Christian thinkers
The basic premise of the argument is reflected in a passage from C.S. Lewis: “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, is of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
Another appearance of this argument was in the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by the pastor Jonathan Edwards in 1741 in New England.
In the Evangelical Christian apologetics book Understanding Christian Theology, contributing author J. Carl Laney, Jr. states regarding Pascal’s Wager:
“Blaise Pascal … proposed that we “wager” on the possibility of God’s existence. If our gamble for God is right, we will win everything – happiness and eternal life. But nothing is lost if we turn out to be wrong. In other words it is better to live as if God exists and discover that He doesn’t, than to live as if He doesn’t exist and discover that He does!”
The decision-theoretic approach to Pascal’s Wager appears explicitly in the sixth Century B.C.E. Buddhist Kalama Sutta, in which the Buddha argues that regardless of whether the concepts of reincarnation and karma are valid, acting as if they are brings tangible rewards here and now. However, it is possible to see how this is not an exact application of Pascal’s wager, nor is it an argument to become Buddhist nor to follow Buddhist thought, but just to see the good in it.