Pascals wager, first formulated by the philosopher Blaise Pascal is a pragmatic argument for belief in God. It emerged out of the realisation that the current arguments of the day in favor of belief, such as the cosmological and ontological arguments were not sufficient to convince everyone. The wager asserts even if we cannot prove god through reason one ought to wager on God existing and in favour of belief because you stand to gain everything (eternal bliss) and lose nothing.
Many critical analysis have revealed problems with the wager, perhaps most striking of all is the fact Pascal fails to take into consideration the possibility, no matter how remote, the existence of Gods alternative to his. This essay will examine the aforementioned objection, the many Gods objection, and the near fatal ramifications it has on Pascals wager.
Pascals wager is striking in its simplicity, direct and straight to the point. One is compelled to either wager for God or against God. It is essentially a 50/50 choice. However, the sheen of superficial simplicity soon disappears on closer analysis. Once the chips are down and we have made our wager for God, which conception of God are we to believe in? Pascals God or just an ill-defined ecumenical God, a being that is powerful on a godly scale and that is all; A god and religion without other well-defined properties, ethos or belief systems? The answer is quite clear when the context surrounding Pascals wager is examined; Pascal is arguing for belief in his God and the conceptions that entail that. Pascal recommends going to mass and using holy water (Pascal 1660 #223) as a method to believe in the God of his argument, thus, it is quite clear that he is trying to convince people of his particular conception of God. As Pascal states himself “How I hate these follies of not believing in the Eucharist, etc.! If the Gospel be true, if Jesus Christ be God, what difficulty is there?”(Pascal 1660 #224).
For Pascal these there are only two legitimate choices, atheism or belief in his God. Pascal creates a false dichotomy in his argument, considering only two choices when there are in-fact, many. In addition to this black and white reasoning, he dismisses many alternatives out of hand with very little argument to back them up. Pascal does not consider agnosticism since we are compelled to wager. Pascal seems almost certain of the fact that his religion is the correct one. Pascal is not at all fond of paganism and seems convinced that it has no chance of being true. He is somewhat kinder to monotheistic Abrahamic religions like Islam but later on goes to discount these as well, essentially accusing Muhammad of being a false prophet and an instigator of war (Lumbard 2009, Oakes 2011).
The pitfalls of this black and white thinking are readily apparent; it is not at all immediately obvious that any prudent person should dismiss every other conception of God besides Pascals. Pascal offers no such evidence or reasoning within his wager for dismissing every other religion and conception of God. This raises the question then, why did Pascal exclude other Gods from his wager? Perhaps he believed they had a zero probability of existing and were not worth considering but yet again, this is neither readily apparent nor proved. Pascal does not assign an explicit probability of his version of God being the correct choice in his wager, however, as long as the probability is larger than 0 there is still infinite reward for the believer. Extrapolating out from the same logic it seems prudent to assume that other Gods have at least a very small probability of existing and thus, these Gods too have an infinite utility/reward in some cases.
Humanity has had many conceptions of God, how are we to decide which one of these is the correct one to place our wager on? Many God’s have by in large passed, once hugely venerated by a sizeable portion of the world or area at the time have now slipped into obscurity – The ancient Greek Gods, The Norse Gods and numerous other less known deities. Some religions have waned; Zoroastrianism once boasted being the largest religion in the world, now it is slowly slipping into obscurity. How can we be sure the correct God to wager on is not one of the Gods humanity has simply forgotten? If this is discounted, we then look at modern times. There are 19 major modern religious groups split into over 270 smaller distinctly different sects. There are at least 34000 separate Christian groups in the world, hundreds, if not thousands of different deities in Hinduism, traditional animistic religions and indeed many other religions around the globe(Barrett et al 2001). That is just up to the present day though; perhaps the true God or true religion has yet to be made known to humanity, indeed many new religious movements emerge every year. Rastafarianism and Chedonism are noted modern examples of religions that emerged recently. It is not at all logical to infer the age of a religion is related to its truth-value, all religions were new religions at some point. If the true religion is yet to emerge, anyone who wagers is placing an incorrect wager, whilst they may or may not be punished for this act, it highlights the fact Pascals wager is not an appropriate method to determine which God we should believe in.
The sheer volume of Gods gone, present and yet to come inflict a serious wound on the wager but the ramifications are yet to be highlighted. The probability of choosing the true religion, if any, with Pascals wager is rather low, this is only if one is looking for truth. According to Pascals decision theory, we should act to maximise utility. Besides trying to establish which religion is true, serious repercussions must be considered. Most religions are mutually exclusive, they assert the only true belief is in that system and any other system is wrong to a degree. The theology of the major world religions promises punishment for anyone who chooses a religion with a dissenting view. Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam all promise temporary or eternal punishment for making the wrong choice. The punishment and distaste for other belief systems often stretches into the severe. In Islam the sin of Shirk(Polytheism) is the only sin the all loving God of this belief system chooses not to forgive, eternal punishment is the consequence for anyone who practices polytheism (Quran 4:8, 4:116).
Because of this mutual exclusivity, we are no longer only wagering between belief in a God and non-belief, we are now wagering between every kind of belief and conception of a God or Gods that are mutually exclusive as well. If wager incorrectly and choose an incorrect religion, it may also have an incorrect moral code associated with it. Religions with a differing moral code will hand out punishment for acting what is considered amorality. In this situation, it is extremely difficult to decide which conception of God and then what moral code we should follow to maximise utility solely using Pascals wager.
More problems are yet to come. We have only considered rather traditional conceptions of God who reward us for following and yet there may be other Gods who act in different ways. Oppy postulated the existence of a perverse God, who infinitely rewards only those who do not follow him and punishes all those that do(Oppy 1996). In a case like this, it would be best to actually wager against such a God if we wish to maximise our utility. Religions where God is postulated to exist and plays no further interaction in human affairs also pose a significant problem. Deism for example states God exists but does not take any further interest in human affairs. He does not punish or reward, there is no afterlife; perhaps he is even not watching. In this case, there is no utility for choosing this God no matter what the probability of existence. Buddhism is another counterexample, it is largely a atheistic religion but followers are still rewarded for living good lives, so the probability of a god in this case is 0 but the reward is still infinite.
Taking into consideration the above examples and all the other factors Pascal failed to consider we can divide the argument into several pieces. Not believing in God/A belief System, Believing in a God and Being rewarded, Not being reward, There is no God but there is a reward, ect. These destroy the mathematical advantage Pascal advocated.
The many Gods objection to Pascals wager is a near fatal blow. It is not always possible to choose the correct God using Pascals wager in the examples of Buddhism and the perverse God. Even if the true religion is among those that, do reward followers the probability of choosing it is rather low, if it even has or will emerge in our lifetimes. Considering the odds if one employs Pascals wager the likely outcome is choosing the wrong God and most likely receiving either more punishment or the same punishment as disbelieving. So, the disbeliever is dammed if he does and dammed if he does not wager. Considering taking up a new belief ought likely result in adopting a new moral code and perhaps significantly overhauling ones life, sometimes at the expense of pleasure in this world, the disbeliever to keep believing what he already does. The blow is decisive enough to make utilising Pascals wager a worse option to the current beliefs one holds.
B. Pascal, Pensees (1660) http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/pascal/pensees-a.html
Quran – 4:8 http://quran.com/4/48
Quran – 4:116 http://quran.com/4/116
Barrett DB, Kurian GT, Johnson TM. 2001. World christian encyclopedia. Oxford University Press Nairobi.
Lumbard JEB. 2009. Islam, fundamentalism, and the betrayal of tradition: essays by Western Muslim scholars. pp. 159-161. World Wisdom, Inc.
Oakes ET. 2011. Infinity Dwindled to Infancy: A Catholic and Evangelical Christology. pp. 253. Eerdmans Pub Co.
Oppy G. 1996. Pascal’s Wager is a possible bet (but not a very good one): Reply to Harmon Holcomb III. International journal for philosophy of religion 40: 101-16