Pascal Was Wrong: Rethinking Pascal’s Wager

There are some individuals who believe that dropping a seemingly sophisticated sounding idea from a 17th-century French philosopher is sufficient to win a debate. For the purpose of this essay, let us call this ‘The Dead Frenchman Fallacy’. How about a specific example? Here’s one: when discussing the existence of God, I’ve encountered several people who mention Pascal’s Wager, and think the mere mention of Pascal’s name ends the debate.  Alas, these tricksters and disciples of Pascal have found an intelligent way to fool God, unless of course He’s omniscient.

First, let’s examine Pascal’s Wager for what it really is.  Blaise Pascal was a French philosopher, mathematician, physicist, and theologian. Pascal’s wager can be summarized as follows: Since the existence of God can not be proved (or disproved) through reason, but since there is much to be gained from wagering that God exists (and little to be gained from wagering that God doesn’t exist), a rational person should simply wager that God exists (and live accordingly).

At first sight, that sounds like prudent advice, right? Think again! This argument tacitly suggests that God would reward insincere gamblers as opposed to sincere truth-seeking skeptics.  I’m puzzled by this.  Do your actions really matter or just your beliefs or some combination of both?  Can you just recant on your deathbed and be saved for eternity?  If so, the last option would be seemingly most attractive to most people.  Why spend my Sundays in Church when I can just recant on my deathbed?  Personally, I find it hard to believe that God, if He exists, is indeed that fickle.  If there is a God, I hope He’d at least be fair enough to reward actions and punish those who are insincere tricksters playing thought games.

But what if God is omniscient? Couldn’t He see through the insincere gambler and punish him anyway? I can pretend to believe in something (and perhaps fool a God who is not omniscient), but I can’t magically make myself believe in something I don’t really believe in. Can you?  In other words, it would be awful cruel and schizophrenic of God to endow me with the ability to be skeptical and then expect me to act and *believe* otherwise.

For the sake of the argument, let’s suppose I play dumb and do indeed buy into Pascal’s argument. Will God reward me with an eternity in heaven for my mere intellectual chicanery? Will a kind and generous non-believer be denied an eternity in heaven simply because they didn’t understand Pascal’s Wager?  Moral being that I am, I’m afraid I don’t believe that God (again, if he exists) is this unfair.

So Pascal’s Wager is really only relevant if we are assuming that God is not omniscient.  However, many theologians believe God is indeed omniscient.  This point alone sheds light on a striking contradiction that should be considered when discussing Pascal’s Wager.

In one section of his book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins shares some interesting thoughts about Pascal’s Wager, including a short anecdote about Bertrand Russell.

Bertrand Russell was asked what he would say if he died and found himself confronted by God, demanding to know why Russell had not believed in him. ‘Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence,’ was Russell’s (I almost said immortal) reply. Mightn’t God respect Russell for his courageous sceptism (let alone the courageous pacifism that landed him in prison in the First World War) far more than he would respect Pascal for his cowardly bet-hedging? And, while we cannot know which way God would jump, we don’t need to know in order to refute Pascal’s Wager. We are talking about a bet, remember, and Pascal wasn’t proclaiming that his wager enjoyed anything but very long odds. Would you bet on God’s valuing dishonesty faked belief (or even honest belief) over honest scepticism?

So, let’s continue to assume that I’ve hypothetically bought into the logic of Pascal’s Wager. How should this same logic extend into other areas of my life?  Well, here’ an interesting hypothetical example.  Let’s suppose someone handed me a napkin with the following words written on it: “If you don’t hand over your savings account to me, you will spend an eternity in hell.”  Somewhat befuddled, I decide to think deeply about this predicament.  On the one hand, my gut intuition is that this person that handed me the napkin is full of shit.  On the other hand, they could be right.  In fact, I have no way to disprove their claim using my reason, much in the same way that I can’t disprove that a fickle God exists.  I can think it’s highly unlikely, sure, but I really can’t formally disprove it.  According to Pascal’s wisdom, I should cut this person a check and save myself from the slim possibility that I may be sentenced to eternal damnation for my failure to comply.

I’m willing to take the risk that God, if he exists, isn’t this cruel.  If you don’t agree and believe in Pascal’s logic, then please hand over your savings account to me or you will spend an eternity in hell (Of course, I’m joking for effect)

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