Sunday, March 27, 2011

Pascal's Wager

In my last discussion group I had someone come up to me at the end and announce that he was not an atheist. He then asked me if I had heard of Pascal's Wager.

My reply was that I had heard of the concept. I then went on to say that, “It is a finding of modern science that cognition is a function of the brain. When the brain dies cognition ends. There is no afterlife.”

This is my summary judgment of the scientific evidence to date. It does not logically prove anything beyond any possible doubt but the evidence does give me reason to say that the absence of an afterlife is scientifically proven. Perhaps we need a blog post on the nature of proof to expand on this distinction. For some reason those who wish to believe in the supernatural get away with asserting that logical certainty is the proof criterion to be used when analyzing the supernatural. For every other item of concern in our lives the proof criterion that we use is the balance of empirical evidence.

For those who have not heard of the term, Pascal's wager, let me give a thumbnail overview of what it means. The mathematician Blaise Pascal presumed that it was not possible to use reason to determine whether God existed or not. In the absence of such knowledge the presumption of the probabilities are assumed to be a fifty-fifty coin flip. He further assumed that belief in God had zero cost and that if God existed then a belief in him would result in an infinite life in Heaven and that the value of that afterlife would be infinite. The penalty for an erroneous disbelief in God is an eternity of misery in Hell, an infinite negative value. Obviously with such presumptions any rational person would bet on the existence of God by believing in him since there is no cost with a losing bet and an infinite reward with a winning bet. This is not a perfect recounting of what Pascal said but it does serve to frame the issues.

My exchange with this person brought a number of other thoughts to my mind. The first was what would God think, if he existed, about someone who had such a belief? He might think, “This person only believes in me because he looks a life as a series of gambles. He doesn't believe in me because my revelations produce anything that is good. His belief in me does not include any commitment to positive principles. The belief is solely made with expectation that eternal life will come from it.” My guess is that a jealous God would not be very impressed with this belief.

In actuallity belief in God entails an enormous cost. People spend time praying and going to church. They typically commit a fraction of their income to “God's work” and that amount can exceed the ten percent tithing mandated by the Bible. The surrender of critical thinking to assume something on “faith” is a cost that is for many of us simply beyond consideration.

Theodore M. Drange in an essay on lists other costs defined in the Bible for salvation. “One also needs to believe in God's son (Mark 16:16; John 3:18,36, 8:21-25, 14:6; Acts 4:10-12; I John 5:12), repent (Luke 13:3,5), be born again (John 3:3), be born of the water and of the Spirit (John 3:5), believe everything in the gospel (Mark 16:16), eat the flesh of Jesus and drink his blood (John 6:53), be like a child (Mark 10:15), and do good deeds, esp. for needy people (Matt. 25:41-46; Rom. 2:5-10; John 5:28-29; James 2:14-26).”

It is fair to say that many if not most Christians do not believe that a simple belief in God is adequate for salvation. There are other Christians such as the Universalists who think that everyone will go to Heaven regardless of belief.

I have asserted on many occasions that the symbol God has literally no explicit meaning. It is like the symbol X in an equation. One cannot know the value of X unless the rest of the equations is used to solve for a value of X. Likewise we can know nothing about the meaning of God unless we inquire concerning what is meant by the person using the term. There are literally thousands of different Christian denominations with different assumptions about the nature and properties of God. If God were real why would he/she be impressed by a belief that had no understanding of him/her. Beyond that there is an Islamic version of Pascal's wager. There is no reason to limit conceptions of God to ones that are Christian.

Even with the vanishing low probability of a supernatural personal God, there is also the possibility that such a God would look more favorably on critical thinking and use of reason to find beliefs and moral principles which make the world better for ourselves and others. Thus even if God were to exist the rewards and punishments might be reversed from those imagined by Blaise Pascal.


Hos said...

Did this person ever consider the possibility that HE may end up losing the wager but failing to accept Islam? The Koran promises eternal torture as punishment for the "heresy" that god of Abraham could have a son.

lucette said...

Wikipedia is a good source of information on Blaise Pascal and its wager.
For a general introduction to Blaise Pascal, a 17th century French philosopher and mathematician, see: Pascal
For the Pascal wager, see:'s wager
and for the text of the wager itself, see: (Of the necessity of the wager)
Blaise Pascal is one of the creators of the Theory of Probabilities, and his wager is just an application of the theory.

Don Wharton said...

Hey Hos, thanks for the laugh! With radically different conceptions of God how is one going to chose the one to believe in? Obviously there is no way to chose between one unjustified fantasy and any other one.

Don Wharton said...

Lucette, yes ostensibly Pascal intended this as an application of probability theory. However, it was an incredibly bad application of that theory. I think a better uderstanding of his writing is that he was an evangelical Christian who wanted to have another argument for belief.

lucette said...

Sorry, my reference for the text of the wager is not correct. You can read it at look for #233.

I tried to copy the text here but our messages are limited at 4,096 characters.

lucette said...

Don, Blaise Pascal is a genius who invented the theory of probabilities. I am sure he knew how to apply it. Pascal's wager is familiar to French speaking people, but I have never heard anybody say that a lack of understanding of probabilities was the problem with the wager. And it is not at all a proof of the existence of god. The wager says "forget about proofs, just bet on the existence of god because it is the smartest thing to do." It is pretty cynical.
Blaise Pascal was a Jansenist; it has nothing to do with the retarded evangelical christians that we know too well.

Don Wharton said...

@Lucette as my post pointed out his calculation is correct if you accept his assumptions.

However, the chance of God existing or not is not 50/50. The costs are not as he reports and the confidence that anyone might have in his projected outcomes should be extremely low. Thus all of those assumptions are wrong. Math is without value if it is used to compute from false premises. I am not saying is math is wrong. I am saying his premises are wrong.

lucette said...

Don, It is clear that you don't understand Pascal's wager and I suspect that you have not read Pascal's "Pensees 233". Let us agree to disagree. Life is short.

Don Wharton said...

Oh, Lucette!!!! You don't really think you are going to get away with a drive by snark and get away with it do you. Life is not so short that I can't throw some absurd nonsense back at you to see if you really want to defend them.

Quotes from Pensees 233 [my comments in braces]:

The justice of God must be vast like His compassion. Now justice to the outcast is less vast and ought less to offend our feelings than mercy towards the elect. [It's OK for God torture the “outcast” in Hell]

If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is. [This one gets me. They don't have a clue about God but they then go on to tell us about his properties.]

"God is, or He is not." But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here.

If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. [There is no life after death to gain and we lose much if we wager that “He is.”]

But by faith we know His existence; in glory we shall know His nature.

Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, [NOT] if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. It is all divided; where-ever the infinite is and there is not an infinity of chances of loss against that of gain, there is no time to hesitate, you must give all. And thus, when one is forced to play, he must renounce reason to preserve his life, rather than risk it for infinite gain, as likely to happen as the loss of nothingness. [Blithering nonsense! I really have to renounce reason?]

[There is much more to criticize in Pensees 233 than just these. The background assumptions he makes are just wrong.]

lucette said...

"Oh, Lucette!!!! You don't really think you are going to get away with a drive by snark and get away with it do you. Life is not so short that I can't throw some absurd nonsense back at you to see if you really want to defend them."

I am glad I insisted for the inclusion of a disclaimer in this blog. The views expressed here do not represent the views of the Washington Area Secular Humanists.

lucette said...

Here is the official disclaimer:

"Secular Perspective Posts and Comments are Viewpoints of Those Posting
The views shared on the Secular Perspectives blog are not endorsed by the Washington Area Secular Humanists or any officers of WASH. WASH provides this forum as a channel of communication for the secular community but takes no responsibility for the viewpoints expressed by bloggers or those who leave comments."