Saturday, June 26, 2010

Pascal's Wager: Rejected

Pascal's Wager. The notion of wagering on God's existence occurs at note 233 of Pascal's Pensées (literally, 'Thoughts').

And as one reader noted last year, the idea is that "It is better to believe in God and find out that he doesn't exist, than to not believe and find out he does." That is not a direct quote from Pascal, but it is the best summation of his famous Wager that I have heard, to date.

I'm not a fan of the Wager, personally, for a number of reasons, one of which is that citing the options of polar opposites (belief and unbelief) is not a reasonable premise for me to choose either of those polarities. I already know as much.

On top of that, however, I question the relevance of determining whether this-or-that thing is 'better' than another without having any real content to demonstrate such a claim. For example, simply stating that cheese is better than non-cheese tells me nothing about cheese that I should consider it 'better'. Similarly, telling me belief is better than unbelief tells me nothing about the content of 'belief' or 'unbelief' that I would consider one or the other 'better'.

As a conclusion to a well defined argument, the Wager can have its place. Still, Pascal's Wager is wholly dependent on having a rational, well-placed argument to render any meaning or purpose to wagering at all. And, incidentally, Pascal was not attempting an argument when he penned his famous wager, nor did he consider his Wager to be a sufficient premise to bring about salvific understanding. Pascal simply intended the Wager as an observation of the fact that people ultimately make choices; and the existence of God is just another choice about which someone can be right or wrong. Thus it is a wager, and not an apologetic.

Unfortunately, the Wager has been used as an apologetic in and of itself to coerce people into making a decision for or against Christ. Sadly, the few times I've seen this tactic used one of two results occur:
  1. The person feels anxious and afraid that they may choose wrong and suffer some terrible consequence -- hell, or some other uncertainty about death and after-death.
  2. The person becomes riled and considers Christians to be a batch of noisy idiots.
So, as a tool for evangelism, I've yet to see Pascal's Wager have a postitive net effect. It's simply too confrontational on a deeply instinctual level, and people feel deeply insulted to find themselves in the position where they have to gamble on eternity without any real understanding of why they're gambling. As a finishing pen-stroke for a well-honed apologetic, it can be used, but it does beg certain philosophical questions that weaken its seeming strength.


E said...
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E said...

There's a sense I which I can't just *decide* to believe something, right?

I didn't *decide* to believe in the computer I'm typing on. It's just totally obvious - I take it for granted.

And no matter how hard I might try, I simply cannot believe the computer is made of cheese and lined with a secret layer of diamonds.

Suppose someone told me that if I do start believing the computer *is* made of cheese, I'll be awarded a 25 million dollar prize.

That's pretty tempting, but, as far as I can tell, I could never win that prize. (Perhaps some "advanced interrogation techniques" might cause me to believe it, but short of that, what could?)

Remember, I'm not talking about *saying* I believe it, or *acting-just-as-if* I believe it. I'm talking about genuinely believing my computer is made of cheese.

If Pascal's Wager invites me to "believe in God" by a sheer act of the will, I say it doesn't make sense. I can't just decide to do it - that's not how belief works!

Still, there's evidence (as I recall) that this isn't what Pascal meant.

I seem to recall that, after agreeing that it's in our rational self-interest to believe in God, Pascal would have us do things like "take holy water" and "attend masses" (pretty much a direct quotes, if my memory serves me well) and read up on theology.

After doing these sorts of things, I might well find that it does seem to me that God *is* reconciling the world to himself in Christ (or something of the like).

I *can* choose to venture out on what seems true, and so in that sense I *can* choose to believe.

I suppose this is similar to the way I *can* choose whether or not to believe in specific news report about the G 20 meetings in Toronto.

I can't just decide to believe (out of the blue) that there'll be (let's say) 5000 extra police officers under the charge of Harry Smith. But I can decide to believe it if I'm presented with a news report about this that make it seem true to me.

So, I guess I take the wager to be aimed at people who lack any curiousity towards what the Church is on about. In some sense, so it goes, it's in your rational self-interest to check it out and to put yourself in a good position to see if belief "takes", so to speak.

I wonder how revisionist my reading is? Haven't read the actual text in years.