Friday, June 27, 2008

Pascal's Wager

(Typically, in debate, I try to strike at my opponents' best arguments. It's more sporting, more productive, and gives the opponent a chance to show me why I'm wrong when I am. Here, I'm deviating from that, and picking off one of the weaker arguments.)

Pascal's wager: When one is making a wager, or a decision where the outcome is unknown, one should seek to maximize the expected value, that is, the average outcome. The probability that Christianity is true is greater than zero, and the benefit gained by believing if it happens to be true is infinite, thus the expected benefit from believing is infinite. Meanwhile, the effort necessary to be a Christian is finite. Therefore, as the price of the wager is finite and the expected benefit is infinite, to wager on believe would be wise.

(This is also the argument implicit in “but what if you're wrong and you die?”)

The first problem with this argument is that belief is not just a choice. If you offered me billions of dollars to believe Columbus discovered America in 1493, I wouldn't take it simply because I couldn't. I don't see any damage in the belief, and I don't know of a single reason to disbelieve, although I'm sure historians have their reasons. But right or wrong, I think I know the answer and an act of the will cannot change this.

Pascal himself recognized this problem, which is why Pascal offered this not as a reason to believe, but as a reason someone should seek to believe by taking Mass and associating themselves with Christians in the hope that they would come to believe. (This is a wager that I have already taken and it didn't work out so well...)

My answer is a counter wager: Suppose that God is a God who is intentionally hiding himself from us, and cares little about what we believe about his existence. Suppose he has given us reason and a basic sense of decency because they are to be our guide, and he just wants us to do the best we can with what little we know. What if God excludes from heaven those people who are claiming they know him, that he talks to them, that they are reading books that he wrote, and are seeking to convince others of this? What if God rewards people who admit they don't know if they will be rewarded, yet seek to live a good life anyway. While I am not exactly stating the tenants of my (lack of) belief, I am describing a God that makes more sense of the world I see than the version of God I see either in the Bible or taught by Christianity. Wagering on the Christian God takes more effort than wagering on this version of God, and some form of the latter seems more plausible to me. Therefore, the better wager is to seek a good life apart from God.


  1. Interesting on many levels. I won't bother with a debate here though, just an honest response.

    "What if God excludes from heaven those people who are claiming they know him.." reminds me of this statement by Jesus: "Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you.'"

    And this "What if God rewards people who admit they don't know if they will be rewarded, yet seek to live a good life anyway" reminds me of this- "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
    "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

    It's an interesting question that you raise. "Truly, you are a God who hides yourself" Isaiah says. There is a sense in which the God of the Bible does hide himself. I pondered doubt and belief in my most recent blog ( which may (or may not!) be of interest to you.

    I also wonder what we Christians have done to Jesus' message, especially after reading your first entry. Since when did being a Christian amount to cessationism/millenniallism/Calvinism etc?

    If the Bible is true, why are we always trying to tame the Lion of Judah, to box the God who doesn't live in temples made by man and crush those who dare to doubt?- all in the name of the one who wouldn't break a bruised reed or snuff out a smouldering wick.

  2. >Since when did being a Christian amount to cessationism/millenniallism/Calvinism etc?

    I think I sold my Christian upbringing short here - I was setting the context for the discussion more than introducing myself. "Faith without works is dead" is a concept that I was taught to both know and live.

    I could have written about being an AWANA leader '03-07, the peace and encouragement I felt through worship music, times I thought God was speaking to me. When I studied Calvinism as a freshman, I walked away with no intellectual conclusion, but I felt encouraged by the study because my approach had been "Lord, I want to know you." Topics such as these will make it up eventually.

    I listed theological issues because they are directly relevant to the first several posts, in that they describe what I see as the primary Christian alternatives to my skeptical arguments. Inerrancy/inspiration goes with "Matthew and the OT." Pre-millenniallism goes with "Jesus' False Prophecies." Presuppositional/evidential apologetics goes with "which resurrection account?" Calvinism will be relevant to planned posts on the Moral Argument for God and the Problem of Pain.

  3. Thanks for that! I've been reading up some more on some issues that you've raised- thanks for doing so; it's been really informative for me. I decided to broaden my reading material and was challenged by what you said about the Jews having the best rebuttals to Christians. So... having read your stuff and some of the Jewish material I thought it was only fair to get the Christian response- and, to be honest, it blew me away. The guy's name is Michael Brown- he's published a five-volume series entitled "Answering Jewish objections to Jesus". He is Jewish himself and became a Christian at 16 and has spent many years debating with Rabbis etc in person and online, many of whom (obviously) were trying to win him back to OT Judaism. Anyway, I'll respond again to your blogs, "Jesus' false prophecies" and the one about Matthew because he has some really good insights. I've been encouraged by them and hopefully they might clarify some of the objections you have raised! (If not, at least I've been challenged to dig a bit deeper)