Pascal’s Wager: A Misunderstood Argument

Among the many arguments for the existence of God, perhaps the most irksome for many atheists, other than the ontological argument, is Pascal’s Wager.  It is often expressed like this:  Either Christian theism is true, or it is not (atheism).  If Christianity is true, then the believer gains everything: God and eternal life.  On the other hand, the unbeliever loses all, because he is separated eternally from God.  If, however, Christianity is false, the believer loses nothing, for there is no afterlife, while the atheist gains nothing and is in the same boat. Thus, a wise man will choose to believe in Christianity over atheism.

This argument, expressed in this manner, has been subject to many criticisms from both atheists and theists alike.  First of all, critics accuse the argument of trying to force belief through intimidation or through appealing to selfish desires of simply avoiding punishment, which even Christians would deny as being true belief.  Furthermore, it seems to illegitimately restrict the options to just two worldviews, Christianity and atheism, when we know there is a plurality of religions and philosophies out there.  After all, it could very well be the case that they are both wrong and end up in Muslim Hell or something.  Third, the argument seems to encourage a sort of anti-intellectualism; rather than reasoning through evidence and argument, it just appeals to a sense of reward.  Thus, this argument seems like bunk and even many Christians avoid using it.

The problem with the above treatment, however, is that Pascal was not interested in producing immediate belief through this argument at all.  I think the fact that Pascal was a brilliant mathematician should hint to us that he wasn’t trying to skirt reasoned analysis.  What he was trying to do was weigh options (via evaluation of the evidence, even) and see which option gives the most expected value.  For those who gamble (I hope you don’t 😉 ) and for those in the business world, expected value is what you expect to gain from an investment or bet based on the percentages of actually “winning.”  For example, if you have a 60% chance of winning $1,000, the expected value of that would be $600, although your actual winnings are $1,000 if you were to win.  This allows investors to compare the likelihood of profit between different ventures, such that, say, a bet that has a 80% chance of winning $800 would be a better bet even though its winnings are lower, because .8(800)=$640, which is greater than $600.

Pascal’s Wager, then, is actually an early example of decision theory, and because the “expected value” of Christian theism is so much greater than atheism, a prudent and wise man would be inclined towards Christianity.  Does this mean he believes?  No; Pascal rejected the idea of forced belief.  What he did think such an argument should encourage is a lifestyle geared towards finding out the ultimate truth about God because much is at stake.  It should move someone to search for God rather than to be apathetic and indifferent, as many people tend to be about the existence of God.  Pascal understood that true belief is not mere intellectual assent but involves the will and heart, so he was not trying to scare anyone into believing in God.  He only sought to show that, if Christianity’s value is so much higher, it is worth the honest and intentional journey to find out if it is true.  This is a wise wager.  The charge that the argument is anti-intellectual or an example of intimidation are simply unfounded.

Admittedly, Pascal could have said more about why he thinks it is legitimate to limit the options to Christianity and atheism.  He is obviously very aware of other religions, including Islam, but he argues that only Christianity and atheism seem to have universal appeal.  However, even if we were to add in other religions or simply use general theism, the Wager argument would be a useful tool to wake up those people who seem to think that it does not matter whether or not God exists.  If God exists, I think it would be quite wise to investigate him, including the possibility that he has revealed himself in some manner.  A wise man would wager his life in such a way to seek the truth as opposed to other activities.

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