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About God and Atheism

About Pascal's Wager: That it is safer to believe
in God even if there is no proof that one exists?

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Overview:

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a 17th century French mathematician and scientist who, sadly, died at the age of 39 in a vehicle accident. He is considered to be the father of modern probability theory. He created the first calculating machine, invented the syringe, developed the hydraulic press, and refined the barometer for measuring atmospheric pressure. 1 However, he is best known in philosophical and theological circles for Pascal's Wager: the suggestion that it is better to believe in the existence of God then to be an Atheist, for the simple reason that it is the bet that gives the better chance for a good outcome in the afterlife, if the latter is real.

Pascal wrote:

"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 ... you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. 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."

Humanist Massimo Pigliucci compares the Wager to the argument that promoters of lotteries use: if you decide to buy a ticket, you have a chance at great wealth; if you don't buy it, you are certain to win nothing. Since the ratio of money given out in prizes is equal to about one third of the money collected, then buying tickets are obviously not a wise investment. 1 However, Pascal's Wager and deciding whether to buy a lottery ticket are not that similar. If Pascal's interpretation of the Bible is correct, then God exists. If a person does not believe in him, their penalty may not be death (i.e. annihilation; non-existence; lack of the happiness of Heaven), but eternal, unrelenting torture in Hell.

Pascal had been unimpressed with the efforts of theologians over many centuries to prove the existence of God. He decided to present arguments why people should believe in God even if no solid proof is available. "

...In a single paragraph of his Pensées, Pascal apparently presents at least three such arguments, each of which might be called a 'wager' --- it is only the final of these that is traditionally referred to as 'Pascal's Wager." 2 Pensées was a book on Christian apologetics that Pascal had started to write. He left it as a series of notes. It was published posthumously in 1670. 3 The Pensées are still available today in various forms. 4,5,6

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Pascal's three arguments:

bullet

The first is the argument from superdominance, as philosophers call it. Pascal wrote: "God is, or He is not." But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here....Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least....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."
The implication is that:

bulletThe possibility that God exists is greater than zero.

bulletIf you assume that God exists, and he does, then you have gained everything -- an eternity in Heaven.

bulletIf God does not exist, then you have lost nothing. The Bible is in error. God, Heaven, Hell etc. don't exist.

bulletTherefore, the better bet is to assume that God does exist.

bullet

The argument from expectation: He wrote:

"Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, 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."

He seems to be stating:
bulletThe chance that God exists, and the chance that God does not exist are both one in two; i.e. the probability of God's existence is 0.5. This belief "apparently derives from the classical interpretation of probability, according to which all possibilities are given equal weight." 1 Many people will have difficulty accepting this belief:
bulletMost North American adults, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc., are absolutely and passionately certain that God exists.

bulletSome Agnostics believe that the possibility of there being a God is slim.

bulletSome Atheists assert with 100% confidence that God definitely does not exist.

Fortunately, the rest of his argument is not based on this assumption.

bulletOne has to decide whether God exists.

bulletIf what was at stake in the wager was one or two extra lifetimes of living, then one would still be wise to believe in God in the hope that he did exist, and that one would be rewarded.

bullet But what is at stake is not the equivalent of one, two or three extra lifetimes. It is an infinite interval of living. The reward is infinite. This makes the stakes even greater, and the denial of God's existence even less wise.

bullet

The argument from generalized expectations: This is considered the most important quote in Pascal's writing:

"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; wherever 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..."

This passage is somewhat obscure. However, he seems to imply that:
bulletThe chance of God existing is not zero.

bulletEven if the chance of God existing were vanishingly small, the reward in Heaven for believing in God is of infinite duration. Thus, a person would be stupid to believe that God does not exist, because they might possibly lose out on an infinitely large reward. 2

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For such a simple concept, Pascal's Wager has one enormous number of weaknesses and contradictions.
Some are listed separately.

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Other web sites with essays on Pascal's Wager:

bullet Anon, "Pascal's Wager," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/

bullet Keith Augustine, "Pascal's Wager," at: http://www.infidels.org/

bullet Adrian Barnett, "Atheist's wager," at: http://www.abarnett.demon.co.uk/

bullet Theodore M. Drange," "Pascal's Wager Refuted," at: http://www.infidels.org/

bullet Alan Hájek, "Pascal's Wager," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy," at: http://plato.stanford.edu/

bullet 'Matthew' "Pascal's Wager (God is a safe bet)," The Secular Web, at: http://www.infidels.org/

bullet Massimo Pigliucci, "A refutation of Pascal’s wager and why skeptics should be non-theists," Freethought Fire Fighters, at: http://www.freethoughtfirefighters.org/

bullet Paul Saka, "Pascal's Wager," The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy," at: http://www.iep.utm.edu/

bullet Paul Tobin, "The rejection of Pascal's Wager," Skeptic's Guide to Christianity, at: http://www.geocities.com/

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References:

  1. Massimo Pigliucci, "A refutation of Pacal's wager and why skeptics should be non-theists," Massimo's Skeptic and Humanist Web, at: http://fp.bio.utk.edu/skeptic/essays/
  2. "Pascal's Wager," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, at: http://www.comereason.org/cmp_rlgn/cmp011.htm
  3. "Pascal's Wager (God is a safe bet)," The Internet Infidels, at: http://www.infidels.org/news/atheism/
  4. Blaise Pascal (A.J. Krailsheimer, Translator), "Pensees," Penguin USA, (1995). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com's book store
  5.   James Houston, translator, "Mind On First: A Faith for the Skeptical and Indifferent", Bethany House, (1997) Read reviews or order this book
  6.   Peter Kreeft, "Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal's Pensees Edited, Outlined and Explained," Ignatius Press, (1993). Read reviews or order this book
  7. "Pascal's Wager," at: http://www.infidels.org/library/ This contains a list of brief reviews of, and hyperlinks to, essays on the Wager.
  8. Learn more about Pascal's life:
    bulletJoyce McPherson, "A Piece of the Mountain: The story of Blaise Pascal," Greenleaf press, (1997).  Read reviews or order this book
    bulletMarvin R. O'Connel, "Blaise Pascal: Reasons of the Heart," Eerdman's Publ., (1997).  Read reviews or order this book
    bulletBen & Bernard Rogers, "Pascal: The Great Philosophers," Routledge, (1999).  Read reviews or order this book

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Copyright © 2001 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-OCT-26
Latest update: 2011-SEP-27
Author: B.A. Robinson

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