Saturday, January 10, 2009

Pascal's Wager

My younger brother, whose bicycling blog you can read here, has sent me an email drawing my attention to Pascal's Wager. I am familiar with this argument, and I went to write an email concerning my thoughts on it, and it turned into a blog post. Here goes.

Pascal's Wager, in short, analyzes four possibilities, which come about from flipping the switches on the on/off possibilities of a person believing in a god (presumeably the Christian one), and this god actually existing.

If you do not believe and you are right, you're fine.
If you do not believe and you are wrong, you're toast.
If you believe, you stand to lose nothing or gain everything. It doesn't matter if you're wrong, and if you're right, you've hit the jackpot.
Therefore it is better to believe.

The argument appears to have the following fatal flaws.
1) It supposes that it is possible to choose to believe something, as if belief were a matter of trifling convenience, like deciding what flavor of icing you'd like on your birthday cake.
2) Pascal's wager is an injunction to those who do not believe. He says, shouldn't you believe, just in case? In other words, even if you don't believe, pretend that you do. If the universe had an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, infallible, perfect Creator, don't you suppose such an entity would fail to be deceived by such a feeble attempt at intellectual charlatanism?
3) Pretending for a moment that the above insurmountable obstacles were somehow of no consequence, let's go along with this egregious intellectual and moral cowardice for a moment. Believe just in case. Believe what? Believe Christianity? What if Islam is true? Then you burn just the same. What if Bahai is true? What if Zoroaster got it right? And so forth. The wager does not actually recommend any particular faith, and it cannot. If the universe has a creator who desires worship, and organized religion is its multiple choice question for you: A) Islam, B) Christianity, C) Hinduism, D) Scientology, and so on, then every believer should expect damnation by sheer probability. (I plagiarized this point from Sam Harris, neuroscientist and polemic author of "The End of Faith" and "Letters to a Christian Nation".)
4) What if there is a creator, but he rewards rationality, and punishes belief without evidence (aka faith)? You had better be rational, just in case, for if you believe, you have gained everything, and if you are wrong, you have lost nothing. This inversion of the argument shows how ridiculous it truly is.

I wonder, since the argument is so silly, whether or not the brilliant mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal was actually joking, and perhaps suggesting why he was a secret atheist, when to admit such a thing would have been to be tortured to death by those meek and mild Christians with their Biblical teachings.


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