Misunderstanding Pascal’s Wager

Richard Dawkins explains and refutes Pascal’s Wager as follows:

“The Great French Mathematician Blaise Pascal reckoned that however long the odds against God’s existence might be, there is an even larger asymmetry in the penalty for guessing wrong. You’d better believe in God, because if you’re right you stand to gain eternal bliss, and if you are wrong it won’t make any difference anyway. On the other hand, if you don’t believe in God and you turn out to be wrong you get eternal damnation, whereas if you are right it makes no difference. On the face of it, the decision is a no-brainer. Believe in God.

“There is something distinctly odd about the argument, however. Believing in God is not something I can decide to do as a matter of policy. At least, it is not something I can decide to do as an act of will… [I can do religious activities] but none of that can make me actually believe it if I don’t. Pascal’s Wager could only ever be an argument for feigning belief in God. And the God that you claim to believe in had better not be of the omniscient kind or he’d see through the deception.” (The God Delusion, pg 130)

Dawkins’ explanation of the Wager reflects the popular way that it is understood, but I believe this to be a misunderstanding. Certainly, the way in which Dawkins answers it would suggest that he either has not read Pascal’s own explanation of it, or that he gave Pascal as uncharitable a reading as possible.

Dawkins’ first criticism is that genuine belief cannot be drummed up from nowhere. Pretend belief is not belief at all. As his later quote from Bertrand Russell makes clear, belief needs to be reasonable, based on evidence.

With the straw-filled Pascal of Dawkins’ summary now reeling from this blow, the real Pascal wonders whether Dawkins noticed that the Wager was formulated with precisely with this problem in mind, and in fact poses a variation of this problem in his own discourse.

The problem that first occupies Pascal is that there’s a gulf of infinite size between us God. Pascal knows that if the infinite God exists, He is so unlike us that our reason cannot begin to help us to decide ‘what He is or if He is’:

“We know then the existence and nature of the finite, because we also are finite and have extension. We know the existence of the infinite, and are ignorant of its nature, because it has extension like us, but not limits like us. But we know neither the existence nor the nature of God, because He has neither extension nor limits.

But by faith we know His existence; in glory we shall know His nature. Now, I have already shown that we may well know the existence of a thing, without knowing its nature… 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 being so, who will dare to undertake the decision of the question? Not we, who have no affinity to Him. (all quotations from Pensées, #233)

So, although Dawkins claims that reason is the obstacle to believing in God, Pascal demonstrates that reason itself can’t help as a starting point. We are simply not equipped to have satisfactory comprehension of God if we are relying upon reason.

Pascal anticipates the voice of the sceptic. If reason is no help one way or another in deciding the existence of God, then is it wise to choose something that we cannot know or understand? Isn’t it better to avoid choosing? Or (in Dawkins terms, who raises much the same question as though it’s a criticism of Pascal), surely God would respect ‘courageous’ scepticism over Pascal’s ‘cowardly’ bet-hedging?

“‘God is, or He is not.’ But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.

“Do not then reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. ‘No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all.’ Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked.”

Pascal argues that since there are only two options on the table—either God exists or He does not—and since reason is not capable of defending either option, we have to make an unreasonable choice one way or another. It is something like choosing heads or tails. Whatever are the chances that an actual coin might come to rest on its edge, in this question there can be no third option. What you believe about God affects every part of your life, and you are already alive. There is no neutral observer. You are embarked.

If believing in God is a matter of making the wisest choice, then what are the factors that must influence your decision? This is the substance of Pascal’s Wager.

“Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is.”

Pascal regards our life to be a search for what is true and good. In choosing to believe in God, he recognises that there is a concern that we might be sacrificing either or both of these. So, will becoming a Christian destroy your reason and your happiness? Seeing as reason is in itself no help in answering the question of God’s existence, reason is not offended whether you choose one way or another. The big thing that we are concerned we will lose is our happiness. So, the wager sets out to establish whether greater happiness lies in believing in God or not.

The part of the argument that Dawkins and others confuse for its substance features here. Pascal’s argument is more or less this: Imagine that all you own is one coin. Someone says to you that if you flip it and call it right, you’ll get 100 million just like it. If you call it wrong, you may lose the coin. Under such circumstances, the risk-reward calculations would make it ridiculous not to bet. Now, if we consider that 100 million is an impossibly small number in comparison with infinity, it makes the bet all the more attractive:

“And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.”

Dawkins wrongly says that Pascal wasn’t claiming that his wager enjoyed anything but very long odds. If we are reasonable men, there is no doubt that staking the finite to gain the infinite is a bet infinitely worth taking.

This is where Dawkins and others stop their reading of Pascal and begin with their criticisms. However, he has not yet said anything very interesting. The idea that eternal life is worth any amount of temporary hardship is not new, and it is well captured in NT parables such as The Pearl of Great Price. Pascal is still engaged in an enquiry to discover what else stands in the way of seeking happiness and the good in service of God, and all he has shown so far is that there is a great prize at stake. But there are other concerns than rewards. For example, is belief a mere guess at God’s existence? Is there no other help in our decision? Or, as his imagined sceptic protests:

“‘I admit it. But, still, is there no means of seeing the faces of the cards?'”

Pascal’s answer is short, but important:

“Yes, Scripture and the rest, etc.”

Pascal presumably had more to say on the subject, as indicated by the ‘and the rest, etc.’. Yet he clearly believes that God has not left us merely to guess, but with a vast body of scriptures among other things, which allow us to know Him and His requirements of us far more intimately than guesswork. Though there may not be an airtight case, evidence does indeed exist. We have a means of ‘seeing the hand’, knowing how to bet.

Pascal’s next concern is remarkably similar to Dawkins’ supposed refutation of the wager. What about those who understand the wager, but can’t be forced to believe? What about those who would have to fake sincerity?

“‘Yes, but I have my hands tied and my mouth closed; I am forced to wager, and am not free. I am not released, and am so made that I cannot believe. What, then, would you have me do?'”

“True. But at least learn your inability to believe, since reason brings you to this, and yet you cannot believe. Endeavour then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.—’But this is what I am afraid of.’—And why? What have you to lose?

“But to show you that this leads you there, it is this which will lessen the passions, which are your stumbling-blocks.”

So, Pascal knows all about the impossibility of feigning true belief. He’s not advocating feigned belief as an end in itself, as we shall see. For now, he advocates some good, old-fashioned analysis. If you find that, despite the fact that a reasonable betting man would ordinarily have no hesitation in staking all on this kind of bet, you cannot do it, then analyse why that is. Learn your inability to believe. What is it exactly that causes you to hold so resolutely to the happiness and knowledge that you think you currently have?

It’s not reason that actually stands in the way (hence the existence of reasonable Christians). According to Pascal, it is ‘passions’ (that is, our desires and pleasures) that are too dear to us to be given up. The obstacle is an underlying fear that faith in God will destroy one’s current happiness. And a bird in hand is better than infinity in the bush.

The true heart of his wager, the actual call to action, is here. If reason is powerless to bridge the impasse, then learn from those who have decided that it’s worth staking all one’s possessions on this, and follow their behaviour for a trial period. Once you taste what this life is like for yourself, you will be caused to begin to believe that there is something to it.

Pascal freely acknowledges that this is acting at first. Dawkins didn’t need to point that out. But he goes on to conclude:

“The end of this discourse.—Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognise that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing…”

This is Pascal’s advice for those who fear that Christianity is a dismal, barren life, and not worth risking self-seeking pleasures. Keeping the Christian way of life, even insincerely, will reveal that those characteristics that seemed so unappetising are actually ‘gain in this life’, i.e. genuine happiness, and that those things that you previously thought to be the source of happiness are actually ‘poisonous pleasures’.

It is once you have truly discovered for yourself that living for God is truly wise and good, then you will know that the right decision is to wager this way, and that there is nothing whatsoever lost in turning your back on living for self. Insincerity is not compatible with the wager. It is the testing ground, but it is to be replaced with ‘something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing’, that is, with grace.

Dawkins would summarise the wager as ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’. Perhaps a more accurate summary would be, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” Taste and see that the Lord is good.

“If this discourse pleases you and seems impressive, know that it is made by a man who has knelt, both before and after it, in prayer to that Being, infinite and without parts, before whom he lays all he has, for you also to lay before Him all you have for your own good and for His glory, that so strength may be given to lowliness.”

[Pascal’s Pensées is available for free download at www.gutenberg.org]


3 thoughts on “Misunderstanding Pascal’s Wager

  1. Hephaestion says:

    Pascal would have us live as though God exists because we have everything to gain and nothing to lose. God? Which one? What if we’re brought up to believe the wrong religion? What about all the other belief systems that man has created over the æons of time? Isn’t it just the teeniest bit narrow minded to assume that if there is a god that it is the Christian variety?

    Everything to gain? Immortality no less! How can we be sure? Because the Bible says so. I see. Forgive me if I’m a teeny bit skeptical. What’s more likely, that religions evolved to sate our desires and assuage our fears, or that one of them is actually a fair representation of reality?

    Nothing to lose? You just have to worship a supernatural entity that never shows itself, and believe that all other religions are wrong, and that faith in lieu of evidence is a good thing, as well as believing that homosexuality is an abomination and that those who do not accept The Gift of Jesus Christ’s Grace will burn for an eternity in Hell (as the “real” Christians believe). Lovely.

    How can a person truly believe that they can cheat death? Come on, cheating death!? Doesn’t that strike you as just the least bit fanciful? Isn’t there some tiny corner of your brain that’s whirring away contemplating how likely this is? Or rather, how *unlikely* it is.

    In the main, and by default, we cling to those those things in which we were brought up to believe (to the vagaries of time and geography). How can we break free from these constraints? How can we exert what limited free will we have? With courage, with curiosity, perhaps.

    By studying the evidence (all around us) we now have a fair (and increasingly more accurate) model of the very big (cosmic) and the very small (quantum) and of life itself (evolution). This knowledge affords us the position of not believing in Zeus, Apollo, Thor, Odin and all the other deities. In fact this knowledge almost denies us the luxury of such a belief. We can also cast aside belief in the occult, voodoo and all superstitions. If we can explain the natural world without the need of gods, then why employ them in the explanation? What would Pascal have done with the knowledge that we now posses, I wonder.

    We know that the earth is almost certainly 4.57 billion years old. We know that the universe is almost certainly expanding and accelerating away in all directions (and has been for 13.7 billion years). We know that all life almost certainly shares a common ancestor. We are beginning to unravel the genetic underpinnings of life. We know how mountains are formed. We know about the long-term carbon cycle. Everyday, new and fascinating insights are being made about this amazing world in which we find ourselves, none of which require the services of a deity. Knowledge has turned Pascal’s Wager on its head.

    For those who fear that a naturalistic world view is a dismal, barren life, and not worth risking self-seeking pleasure:

    Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, honest, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, piety and self-righteousness; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognise that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing…?

    In accepting the fruits of our scientific endeavours we get to understand ourselves. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose by embracing a naturalistic world view. Knowledge is the light that guides us, that allows us to be better than we are, that arms us against a callously indifferent natural world (of natural selection, plate tectonics and so on). And if there is a god? Well, life after death would be another adventure. Unless it turns out to be a jealous and petty (and curiously human like) god that demands worship and tortures non-believers. But who would want to worship that kind of god?

    Perhaps even more importantly, we know what we do not know, the limits of our knowledge. Anyone who claims to actually know that there is a life after death is either lying, deluded or perhaps just credulous – they cannot KNOW, though they might believe they do. All we can truly, honestly say is that we do not know, but that the evidence indicates that there is no such thing. It is almost certain that we are after death what we were before life, a fate that befalls all living things on this planet. Our atoms are simply recycled.

    Open your mind to the wonders of the natural world, some beautiful, some horrifying. All you have to lose is your belief than you can cheat death.

    It’s taken all of us almost 4 billion years to get here, surviving mass extinctions, climate changes, meteor strikes, volcanic eruptions, predators, competitors, disease and plain old bad luck. The least we can do is marvel at our incredible journey and our good fortune to be around at a time when we are aware of how we got to be here.

  2. Dean Richards says:

    One of the biggest problems with Pascal’s wager is that the full costs are rarely taken into account. Even just the time costs taken in worshiping / praising / thanking/ blaming your God of choice, add up. Your “finite life” becomes just that bit more finite. But that aside, on a less personal level, there are further social costs. “God of the Gaps” answers become acceptable for scientific questions. Diseases don’t need to be cured as their very presence is “God’s Will and Judgment”. It becomes acceptable to inflict pain and suffering on a group or nation as they don’t believe with you. All of which are not particularly large leaps of logic if you take the standpoint that a/your God does exist. Suddenly, the expense of the wager outweighs the crap shoot for an egotistical possibility of living forever.

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