Friday, April 29, 2011

Pascal's Biased Wager

Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal is credited for popularizing an argument for believing in God known as Pascal's Wager.  It's a logical argument, but I don't think it's a persuasive argument.

One form of the argument reads like this:

1. If God exists, then I have everything to gain by believing in him.
2. If God does not exist, then I have nothing to lose by believing in him.
3. Either God does exist or God does not exist.
4. Therefore, I have everything to gain or nothing to lose by believing in God.

When it's broken down into logic book-style, it looks like this:

1. If P, then Q. 
2. If R, then S.
3. Either P or R.
4. Therefore, Q or S.

The first three lines are premises. The last line is the conclusion.


One way to disagree with a logical argument such as Pascal's Wager is to object to at least one of the premises. For example, one could object to the first line, premise one. Or, one could object to the second line, premise two. One could not object to the third line of Pascal's Wager, premise three, because it is necessarily true.

Pascal's Wager is not persuasive because premise one is weak, and premise two is false.

Premise one is weak because "God" is ambiguous. Which God is it referring to? Zeus? Allah? Jesus?  All of them? Pascal's Wager is biased because the "God" he believes in is the God of Catholicism.  But, if one picks a specific God, then the premise needs evidence to support it.  For example, if one picks the God of Catholicism, then one needs to provide a lot of evidence in order to show that the premise is true about the God of Catholicism.  One would need a lot of evidence, rather than a little, because the claim of the premise is extraordinary. What evidence is there that I would gain everything by believing in the God of Catholicism?

Premise two is just false. If God does not exist, then one does have something to lose by believing in Him. What does one have to lose? Believing in truth! If one believes in a God that does not exist, then one has lost believing in the truth. This is a real and significant loss. Therefore, premise two is false.

That is why I think Pascal's Wager is a bad argument.


Ben said...

Well said. I have several issues with Pascal's Wager in addition to those mentioned above. It seems to me that God would be very unreasonable to punish people for their unbelief if that unbelief were a result of those people using their reason. Their is a quote, which is often credited to Thomas Jeferson, which I think sums it up very well:

"Question with boldness even the existence of a God, because if there be one, He must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear."

Geoff said...

Great quote, Ben.

It's seems that believing in God because of Pascal's Wager is like going "all in" during a game of poker, no matter what hand you've been dealt, because after the last round you can't keep any of your money anyway.

Seems to be a bit of reckless thinking.