A Critique Of Pascal's Wager
Blaise Pascal is one of the most famous, mathematicians, philosophers and theologians in the Western Canon. Following a period of mystical experiences in 1654, Pascal dedicated himself to spiritual contemplation. In this period, he wrote his most famous work, Pensées. Within Pensées, Pascal proposed his most famous argument, which is now commonly known as Pascal’s Wager.
Pascal’s Wager is based on the Expected Value principle, a principle often used by economists. It argues that the value of a particular action is based on the payoff (either beneficial or harmful), the probability of that payoff materialising, and the cost of taking the action. It can be laid out as follows:
(Probability * Payoff) - Cost = Exepcted Utility
Pascal believed that following Christianity would maximise utility, and thus even nonbelievers should try to practice the Christian faith. His reasoning is as follows. If God were to exist, the payoff of believing in God and practising the Christian faith would infinite. Faith would entail unreserved pleasure in a future life for eternity. By contrast, failing to have faith and belief in God would entail an eternity of suffering in hell. Therefore, there would be infinite negative payoff if he were to exist and one did not believe in him. The cost of believing in God if he does not exist, by contrast, would be finite, as we can only experience finite losses within a finite lifetime. This creates a payoff matrix, which can be summarised by the following table:
The table above would lead Pascal, in turn, to suggest that any rational individual should believe in God and practice Christian doctrine in order to maximise their expected utility. The infinite positive payoff from believing in God if he were to exist outweighs the finite benefits of not believing in him in our current life.
Pascal’s wager immediately opens itself up to several criticisms. It presupposes that an individual can choose to believe something, which is far from certain. Pascal anticipated this criticism and suggested that an individual, through sufficient practice, could acclimatise to a certain religion. If they practised prayers, attended mass, sang hymns and otherwise acted as a Christian, they would eventually start to believe. While it is not clear that this is true in all cases, (consider how many people attend religious schools and participate in religious practices without believing) Pascal’s response likely has some credibility. The research of several modern psychologists, particularly Brian McLaughlin, suggests that we perhaps can actively deceive ourselves into believing something. Even if we cannot, we can still practice Christian doctrine, which could be enough to get us into a theoretical heaven. Thus, this line of criticism, whilst perhaps adding a degree of doubt about the implementation of Pascal’s argument, does not entirely eliminate it.
Perhaps a more impactful criticism of Pascal’s wager is that it falls victim to the ‘many-God problem’. While, in the age of Blaise Pascal, there would only realistically have been a single God in which somebody could reasonably believe, in a modern, secular society there are many. Pascal’s wager would seem to state that we should believe equally in the Christian God, the Jewish God, the Muslim God and many other Godgodss, and gives no clear method to differentiate among them.
Indeed, the limitations of Pascal’s wager, through the many-God problem, can be demonstrated quite forcefully through analogy. It is conceivable that I could hear from a friend one day that there exists be some sort of bizarre physical law that states that all atheists will go to heaven and everyone except an atheist would go to hell. While I perhaps might believe this law is unlikely, I would have no real way of proving that its probability is zero. If its probability were to not be zero, the expected value principle would claim that it is of infinite value to believe be an atheist, and causes infinite harm to not be one. This, using the same logic as Pascal’s wager, would give an entirely different and contrary outcome. This general example further flags a limitation with Pascal’s wager and the expected value principle by using reductio by counterargument.
It is worth noting that, for a non-believer, adherence to Christianity through Pascal’s wager involves a great deal of sacrifice. Firstly, it involves the devotion of an incredible amount of time to Christianity and Christian practice which entails a great opportunity cost. In the time spent adhering to the Christian faith, one could be doing something which they find fun, contributing positively to humanity, working at their career to earn an income, or pursuing a broad range of other actions. The time lost, which typically involves every Sunday morning, is immense. Secondly, depending on one’s denomination of Christianity, Pascal’s wager forbids many acts which might be pleasant or even basic to oneself (e.g. the Catholic Church forbids homosexual sex). This would be debilitating for many potential followers.
This would mean that Pascal’s wager would be actively harmful if the logic underpinning it were incorrect. I already flagged, through the many God problem, that the logic is in many cases flawed and can be used to prove many absurd propositions. It is furthermore true that the expected value principle itself often does not hold up practically. Consider the following circumstance: I can choose between two choices. One guarantees me the receipt of 1 million dollars, whilst the other gives me a 1 in one sextillion chance of eternal, infinite happiness. The expected value principle would quite clearly suggest that eternal, infinite happiness is more valuable. Even if the probability of receiving it is very low, the payoff which it gives makes it the right choice.
However, any reasonable person would probably take the million dollars. In this case, the expected value theory does not adequately translate into the practicalities of everyday life. The probability of receiving the payoff is so remote that the potential infinite payoff is negligible. In the case of Pascal’s wager, it is similarly reasonable to secure happiness in our current life rather than work towards some lottery payoff of future happiness.
This essay does not only argue that Pascal’s wager may be unbeneficial. Converting to Christianity simply because of Pascal’s wager, in the opinion of this essay, is immoral. Those who could be converted by Pascal’s wager would be non-Christians, as those who are Christians would already believe in God. These non-Christians would almost certainly have non-Christian moral duties and beliefs, which are generally rooted in domains other than self-interest. Pascal’s wager calls on us to displace these moral sensibilities and reasoning with Christian morality. This means that, rather than acting out of duty to what they believe is moral, in a general Kantian manner, Pascal’s wager actively encourages us to compromise morality in pursuit of self-interest. This represents an abandonment of our moral duty to always seek to be as moral as we can, even if it were to be beneficial for ourselves.
Thus, Pascal’s wager is of questionable benefit to us. Through the many-God problem and the impracticality of using the expected value principle under remote circumstances, we can determine that the apparent value from believing in God through Pascal's Wager is very questionable. It may very well be actively harmful considering the cost, most importantly in opportunity cost, which religious adherence entails. Even if it were to not be beneficial, however, Pascal’s wager should not be followed because it calls on us to disregard our feelings of moral duty. If everyone were to follow such self-interested logic, the world would likely be a worse place.