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?
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.
"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.
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. "
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
Pascal's three arguments:
The first is the argument from superdominance, as philosophers
"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:
|The possibility that God exists is greater than zero.|
|If you assume that God exists, and he does, then you have gained
everything -- an eternity in Heaven. |
|If God does not exist, then you have lost nothing. The
Bible is in error. God, Heaven,
Hell etc. don't exist. |
|Therefore, the better bet is to assume that God does exist.|
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:
|The 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:
|Most North American adults, whether Christian,
etc., are absolutely and passionately certain that God exists.|
|Some Agnostics believe that the
possibility of there being a God is slim.|
|Some Atheists assert with 100%
confidence that God definitely does not exist. |
Fortunately, the rest of his argument is not based on this
|One has to decide whether God exists.|
|If 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.|
||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.|
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:
|The chance of God existing is not zero.|
|Even 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|
For such a simple concept, Pascal's Wager has one enormous number of
weaknesses and contradictions.
Some are listed separately.
Other web sites with essays on Pascal's Wager:
||Anon, "Pascal's Wager," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
||Keith Augustine, "Pascal's Wager," at: http://www.infidels.org/
||Adrian Barnett, "Atheist's wager," at: http://www.abarnett.demon.co.uk/
||Theodore M. Drange," "Pascal's Wager Refuted," at: http://www.infidels.org/
||Alan Hájek, "Pascal's Wager," Stanford
Encyclopedia of Philosophy," at: http://plato.stanford.edu/
||'Matthew' "Pascal's Wager (God is a safe bet)," The Secular Web, at: http://www.infidels.org/
||Massimo Pigliucci, "A refutation of Pascal’s wager and why skeptics
should be non-theists," Freethought Fire Fighters, at: http://www.freethoughtfirefighters.org/
||Paul Saka, "Pascal's Wager," The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,"
||Paul Tobin, "The rejection of Pascal's Wager," Skeptic's Guide to
Christianity, at: http://www.geocities.com/
- Massimo Pigliucci, "A refutation of Pacal's wager and why skeptics
should be non-theists," Massimo's Skeptic and Humanist Web, at:
- "Pascal's Wager," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, at:
- "Pascal's Wager (God is a safe bet)," The Internet Infidels, at:
- Blaise Pascal (A.J. Krailsheimer, Translator), "Pensees,"
Penguin USA, (1995).
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com's book store
- James Houston, translator, "Mind On First: A Faith for the Skeptical
and Indifferent", Bethany House, (1997)
reviews or order this book
- Peter Kreeft, "Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal's Pensees Edited,
Outlined and Explained," Ignatius Press, (1993).
reviews or order this book
- "Pascal's Wager," at:
http://www.infidels.org/library/ This contains a list of brief reviews of,
and hyperlinks to, essays on the Wager.
- Learn more about Pascal's life:
Copyright © 2001 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2001-OCT-26
Latest update: 2011-SEP-27
Author: B.A. Robinson